Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Three Cheers for William Webb Ellis

I got rather interested a little while ago  in public schools in England and their effects. While reading The Knox Brothers, Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of her father and his brothers, I've come across another variation on the theme:

'In 1896 ... Eddie, ["Evoe" Knox, editor of Punch from 1932 to 1948], won his scholarship to Rugby. Thomas French [his grandfather] had been there in the days of Arnold, although he had been quite unmoved by the great Doctor, whose teaching was "not the Gospel as he had been accustomed to receive it." The headmaster was now Mr HA James, known as The Bodger. In comparison with Eton it was a rougher, more countrified, more eccentric, more rigidly classical, less elegant and sentimental establishment. There were the usual bewildering regulations, much more binding than the official rules; only certain boys, the "swells", could wear white straw hats, all first-year boys must answer to a call of "fag" and run to see what the "swell" required, it was a crime to walk with your hands in your pockets until your fourth year, one hand was allowed in the third year, and so forth, proscriptions being multiplied, as in all primitive societies. The younger boys got up at five forty-five and took turns in the cold baths. Eddie, who was in School House, could consider himself lucky to get a "den" at the end of his first year, overlooking the seventeen acres of the famous Close.

Divinity was taught by The Bodger himself, a short, squarish man with a luxuriant beard, concealing the absence of a tie. "Dr James walked up and down," as Eddie remembered him; "if it was the Upper Bench, round and round, because it was a turret room. He walked like a Red Indian, placing one foot in front of the other. He kept a small, private notebook, in which he put favourable remarks about a boy, but a quotation from the Lays of Ancient Rome would gain at least five marks a go." This was fortunate for the Knoxes, reared since nursery days on the Lays. The finest scholar on the staff, however, was Robert Whitelaw, Rupert Brooke's godfather, who taught classics to the Twenty, the form below the Upper VIth. He is described as looking like a bird of prey, and was unable to correct examinations without listening to the music of a barrel organ, which he hired to play underneath his window ...

Undoubtedly Rugby could claim to "harden". The boys worked an eleven-hour day with two hours for prep ... prefects punished by making a wrongdoer run past an open door three times while they aimed a kick at him. Ribs got broken that way. At breakfast, rolls flew through the air and butter was flicked onto the ceiling, to fall, when the icy atmosphere had thawed out, onto the masters' heads. There was a strong faction in favour of the Boers during the South African war, and strikes against the horrible food; to counter them, Dr James was obliged to eat a plateful, in furious indignation, in front of the whole school, but then furious indignation was his usual attitude. All the notices he put up ended with the words, THIS MUST STOP. 

... Eddie liked Rugby well enough and accepted its routine, though he particularly enjoyed the moments when it was interrupted. One midday a boy threw a squash ball which exactly struck the hands of the great clock that set the time for the whole school, and stopped it. Masters and boys, drawing their watches out of their pockets as they hurried across the yard, to compare the false with the true, were thrown into utter confusion. It turned out that the boy, who confessed at once, had been practising the shot for two years. The Bodger called this "un-English". Eddie did not agree. The patient, self-contained, self-imposed pursuit of an entirely personal solution seemed to him most characteristically English.'


  1. It was my impression that Landor was expelled from Rugby for "mutiny", but the volume I have here says "insubordination."

    1. The Internet isn't as good as it should be (who do I complain to?) - William Webb Ellis is renowned not only for rugby but also for making a strong sermon about the Crimean War - but what he actually said nowhere can I find. It would be interesting, especially just now.