Category Archives: Educational texts

John Lyon School



In 1876 The John Lyon School was founded. The school is to be found in Harrow, London. The school is named after a prominent local landowner from the 16th century. Lyon persuaded Queen Elizabeth I to grant a charter to a school in 1572. He then founded Harrow School. Harrow School was supposed to be for ordinary boys. However, it rapidly became a school for the very wealthy. In the late 19th century Harrow School decided that it had better set up a school for boys from an ordinary background. This is why the John Lyon School was established.

John Lyon is a fee paying school. It is all male. The school is located at the foot of Harrow on the Hill. There are several tube stations nearby.

The school is divided into houses. These exist for the purpose of internal competition. There are over 600 pupils at the school.

Boys can join the school at the age of 11. They enter the school in year 7. They can stay until year 13. People sit GCSEs and A levels.

The headmistress is Miss Haynes. The deputy heads are Mr Sims and Mr Pepperburn.

The school has a superb academic profile. All the major subjects are offered. There are exams to get into the school.

People play all sorts of sports at the school. Rugby, football, cricket and other sports are played. The school very much believes in the old adage – a healthy body for a healthy mind.

Several famous people have attended the school. They have become renowned journalists and financiers.

The school has a Latin motto which means ‘may the house of fortune stand.’

There is a school magazine called the Lyonian. A Lyonian means someone who attends JLS.



Answer in full sentences.

  1. When was the school founded?
  2. Who was John Lyon?
  3. What is the first school that John Lyon set up?
  4. Is John Lyon School divided into houses?
  5. Name three sports played at the school.
  6. What is the meaning of the school motto?
  7. Are there girls in this school?
  8. In what area of London is JLS located?
  9. Name the head?
  10. How many deputy heads are there?
  11. Roughly how many pupils are there in the school?
  12. What is the school magazine called?
  13. What is your opinion of JLS? Write five sentences or more.


new course lesson 10 . Lewis Carroll


LEWIS CARROLL. New course lesson 10

Alice in Wonderland is one of the best known children’s stories in the world. It was written by Lewis Carroll. Not many people know much about the author.

Lewis Carroll was born in the United Kingdom. His real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. His family was affluent and well-connected. He attended Rugby School. This is one of the most celebrated schools in the realm. In the early 19th century it was on the up and up because of its legendary headmaster Rev Thomas Arnold.

Lewis Carroll was exceptionally academically able. He had no trouble with Latin and Greek. However, his passion was mathematics. He went to Oxford University. There he covered himself in glory graduating with a first class degree. He was immediately offered a fellowship at Christ Church. Christ Church is the most magnificent college in Oxford. As a ‘fellow’ of the university he was teaching undergraduates. He was also producing research papers.

Photography was only invented in the 1840s by two French brothers named Daguerre. Cameras came to the UK shortly after this time. Cameras were extraordinarily expensive. Lewis Carroll was one of the first people in the country to own a camera. He was an enthusiastic photographer.

Most Oxford dons were priests in those days. A ‘don’ at Oxford or Cambridge is someone who teaches at a university. The word ‘don’ does not have this meaning outside Oxford or Cambridge. The two great English universities were affiliated to the Church of England. People of other Protestant denominations could attend these universities. Lewis Carroll decided to take holy orders – that means to become a priest. This involved some study of theology. He found that simple and passed the exam easily. Soon he was ordained a priest in the Church of England. He was entitled to wear clericals (special clothes for priests). He was also allowed to lead worship and to perform particular ceremonies such as marriages and funerals. Lewis Carroll was allowed to put the word ‘Reverend’ in front of his name. People called him ‘The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’. Reverend is a word that means ‘respected’. For short people write ‘Rev.’ before the name thus ‘Rev. Dodgson’.  But if you see ‘Rev’ it is pronounced ‘ the reverend’. Notice that the word ‘Reverend’ is used before the surname or the whole name. To say ‘The Reverend Charles’ would be wrong unless you say the surname too ‘ The Reverend Charles Dodgson’. Usually people simply used the surname as in ‘The Reverend Dodgson’.

Most Oxford dons were not permitted to marry. If they wished to marry they could do so with the blessing of their college but they must leave. Dons who married moved to be clergy in parishes controlled by their colleges. One of the exceptions to this was the head of house. Each Oxford college had a head of house. The head of house was the man in charge of the college. At Christ Church the head of house was the Dean. Dean Liddell was married and had children.

On Sunday 4 July 1861 Dean Liddell decided to take his family on a jolly boat trip down the Thames. Liddell asked his friend Lewis Carroll to come along. They set off from Folly Bridge in Oxford. They rowed at a sedate pace. This was leisure and not a race.

As they paddled along that afternoon Dean Liddell’s daughter Alice asked Lewis Carroll to tell her a story. Lewis Carroll made up a story on the spot.  The protagonist was named Alice after the child in the boat. It was so vivid and enthralling that Alice said that he should write down the story. When Lewis Carroll got home he did just that.

The story was reworked. Lewis Carroll added a character called the mad hatter based on an eccentric furniture dealer in Oxford.  Hatmakers used quicksilver (mercury) to treat felt. Felt is animal’s fur and skin. Quicksilver made the felt stiff and therefore suitable as a hate Continued exposure to mercury made people mentally ill. Insanity was an occupational disease of milliners.

Carroll then presented the manuscript to a publishing house. His story was printed and sold. It was an overnight sensation.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wanted to be taken seriously as a mathematician. He thought that if he published a children’s storybook under his real name it would undermine his reputation. Therefore he took the name Charles and turned it into ‘Carroll’ because it is related to the Latin for Charles. Lutwidge he turned into Lewis. He dropped ‘Dodgson’ for his pen name.  He reversed the order of his names. It should have been Carroll Lewis but he put them in the opposite order. Therefore he published the book under the name Lewis Carroll.

Alice in Wonderland was groundbreaking. It did not conform to the conventions of a fantasy novel. It was not a fairytale with witches, goblins, wizards, enchantment, miracles and so forth. It was zany and memorable. The novel contained some characters whose names have now entered common parlance such as the Mad Hatter. The expression ‘off with their heads’ is well known now.

The book was read avidly in the United States. The US was in the throes of its civil war. This book distracted people from their travails.

Queen Victoria asked Lewis Carroll to come to meet her. The don duly traveled to Buckingham Palace. Her Gracious Majesty expressed her delight at this sublime book. She requested a copy of his next publication. The following year Lewis Carroll published a book on higher mathematics and sent it to the Queen. She was perplexed by the book. It was beyond her. She had not realized that Lewis Carroll was first and foremost a mathematician.

Lewis Carroll preferred photographing people to things.  He never married or had children. Rev Dodgson (to give him is real name) conducted worship until the last months of his life. He lived out his days in Oxford. He died there and is buried in the city. After he died his family destroyed most of his albums.

Alice grew up married and had children.


  1. In which country was Lewis Carroll born?
  2. What was his real name?
  3. What school did he go to?
  4. What was his favourite subject?
  5. Which university did he go to?
  6. Was he clever?
  7. What is an Oxford don?
  8. Did Lewis Carroll marry?
  9. Who was Dean Liddell?
  10. What was the name of Liddell’s daughter?
  11. On which day did the Liddell’s take Lewis Carroll on their boat?
  12. How did the name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson turn into Lewis Carroll?
  13. Which bridge did they set off from on their boat?
  14.  On which date did Lewis Carroll tell a story to Alice?
  15. Why is the main character in Alice in Wonderland named Alice?
  16. Who was the mad hatter based on?
  17. Was Lewis Carroll’s book popular?
  18. Did Queen Victoria read the book?
  19. Why did people in the US need cheering up in the 1860s?
  20. What happened to Alice Liddell?







New course lesson 5. Dr Samuel Johnson


Dr JOHNSON New course 5.

Samuel Johnson was born in the small city of Lichfield. Lichfield lies in the country of Staffordshire. Staffordshire is a county in the Midlands of England. When Samuel Johnson was born the United Kingdom had been formed not many years earlier.

The Johnson family was an Anglican family. That meant that they were members of the Church of England. This accorded them many advantages since the Church of England was the church by law established. Samuel attended King Edward School in Lichfield. It was named after Edward VI. Edward VI was a boy king in the 16th century who founded many schools.

Johnson’s father was a bookseller. Samuel was to follow in his father’s footsteps. The boy did exceedingly well at school. He was a voracious reader.  Samuel was fixated with learning about certain subjects. He was utterly obsessed with history, literature and divinity. The boy amassed a staggering vocabulary. However, he was ungainly. Despite being well built and well above average height he was a laggard at sports. His hand eye co-ordination and gross motor skills were very poor. To look at him you would instantly perceive that he must be either a genius or a simpleton. He could not be anything in between.  As he was a substandard athlete he did not fit in well with his own generation. As a child he sought out the company of adults. He was by all accounts a most peculiar character. Samuel made small involuntary movements. His gait was strange and his manner of sitting was distinctly odd. He spoke in a florid and formal fashion. The boy was relentlessly logical even when this was deeply unpopular. His stilted and highly articulate speech made him a target for derision and mockery from less bookish types.

An attack of smallpox almost killed Samuel Johnson. It left his face pockmarked and it blinded him in one eye. Smallpox was a disease that claimed tens of millions of lives. It was only wiped out in the 1970s.

Samuel Johnson attended Oxford University. There undergraduates studied classics – Latin and Ancient Greek. Through these languages they read history, philosophy and other subjects. Samuel spent only one year there before leaving. Therefore he did not graduate. That was not unusual for an undergraduate at the time. Very few people attended secondary school. To have finished it at all was a distinction. Some people did not even attend primary school in those distant days.

Having gone down from Oxford Samuel Johnson went to London. There he worked as a teacher for a while. Back then a male teacher was called a ‘schoolmaster’. Later Samuel Johnson set up a book shop. He also founded a printing press. He prospered in trade. This made him able to afford hearty dinners. He had a ferocious appetite and his girth expanded precipitously. This was to cause him some health complaints in the evening of life.

Johnson was well known for his waspish aphorisms. He was a journalist – not reporting the news but commenting on society. His witticisms had people in stitches. As well as journalism he made money from translating English into Latin.

Samuel Johnson was a regular worshipper in his local church. His religiosity was no affectation. He was a sincerely spiritual man. He also wrestled with questions of morality. He came to regard slavery as an unutterable wickedness. This was a deeply unpopular opinion in 18th century London. London was a city that had profited much from human bondage.

The Tory Party was the party that commanded Samuel Johnson’s allegiance. No one was a member of the party as such. Nor did he ever seek public office. He was broadminded and accepted people of contrary views could be decent. He was also willing to change his view of things. He was not rigid or blinkered.

The Jacobite Rebellion took place in 1745. Johnson later acknowledged that he felt a certain sympathy for the objective of the Jacobites. To wit, placing James III on the Throne. After the comprehensive defeat of the Jacobites Samuel Johnson came to accept the Hanoverian dynasty.

By the mid 18th century Samuel Johnson was a well known London character. Samuel would discourse for hours. He may have suffered from Tourette’s syndrome.  Budding writers and journalists congregated at his shop. They hung on his every word. His conversational patter was enthralling. His razor sharp intellect was marveled at by literary London. He was able to distill issues very quickly. His crystalline prose expostulated his opinions splendidly. He is best known for publishing one of the earliest English dictionaries.

In the 1770s there was much kerfuffle in America. In those days Britons were wont to allude to America as ‘the Colonies’. Dr Johnson did not agree with the claim of some in America to be exempt from tax unless they were represented in the legislature that taxed them. He penned a pamphlet ‘Taxation no tyranny’. Johnson felt nothing but withering contempt for the pretensions of the American Revolutionaries. He quipped ‘why do we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes’?

When the American Declaration of Independence was issued the British Government did not officially respond to it. Dr Johnson was secretly paid by the government to write a riposte. This was then published.

Dr Johnson married but had no children. In old age he suffered gout and numerous other ailments. He was known for his liberality to his friends even when his own financial situation was not good.

Oxford University awarded Samuel Johnson a doctorate in humane letters. This was an honorary doctorate. There were no substantive doctorates in the anglosphere in those days. Because of his honorary doctorate he is always known as Dr Johnson.

Dr Johnson loathed travel. Travel was slow and dangerous in those days. He despised sailors as louts and drunkards. He spent almost his whole adult life in London. He but rarely returned to his birthplace. His ailments rendered travel even more uncomfortable on bockety roads in his old age. Towards the end of his days he suffered from several maladies such as gout.

After Johnson died a book about him was published by James Boswell. It was entitled The Life of Johnson.

Many of his quotations survive. One of these is ‘When a man is tired of London he is tired of life.’


  1. In which city was Johnson born?
  2.  What was his Christian name?
  3.  What was his father’s occupation?
  4. What religious denomination did the Johnson family belong to?
  5. Which university did he attend?
  6.  How long did he spend at Oxford?
  7. What did he study at Oxford?
  8.  Did he graduate?
  9.  What was his first job?
  10.  What business did he set up?
  11. Describe his appearance?
  12.  What was his manner of speaking?
  13. Was he religious?
  14. Was he generous?
  15.  What did he think of the Jacobites?
  16.  What did he make of slavery?
  17. What did he think about the American Revolution?
  18.  What is his most famous book?
  19. Which other languages did he know?
  20. Was he married?
  21. What is the best known biography of him?
  22.  Who wrote it?
  23. What disease did Johnson suffer as a child?
  24.  Was he sporty?
  25. What did he say about Americans calling for liberty?
  26. What did he say about people who are tired of London?
  27.  In which city did he spend most of his life?
  28.  What was his political party?
  29. Is he still alive?
  30.  What was his nationality?
  31.  Which is his most famous book?
  32. What do you think of him? Five sentences.



James Boswell. New course. lesson 4.


JAMES BOSWELL . New course lesson 4.

Boswell was born in Edinburgh, United Kingdom in 1740. Boswell’s father was highly successful advocate (lawyer). James Boswell had several siblings. He grew up in a house only yards from Edinburgh Castle. The family were members of the Church of Scotland. This was the established church. The Boswell family was not especially actuated by religion.

When he was a little boy the Jacobite Rebellion occurred. It was 1745. His family was for the Hanoverians. So they were against the Jacobite Rebellion. The family kept their heads down and were not bothered by the Jacobites.

James was noted for his exceptional intellectual acuity. His aptitude was such that he was able to enter Edinburgh University at an unusually early age. There he excelled in classics. He was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates. This meant he was able to practice law. Despite his academic aptitude he proved to be a mediocre legal practitioner.

Boswell was of average height. He had sallow skin and jet black hair. He was fairly good looking.

Despite being a legal eagle Boswell is better known as a litterateur. He was a prodigious writer.

The Tory Party was the party that Boswell identified with. However, he was not much moved by party politics.

Moving to London Boswell fell in with a new crowd. At a tavern near Covent Garden he met Dr Samuel Johnson. It was to be one of the most celebrated literary partnerships in history. Dr Johnson was working on his dictionary. It was one of the first English dictionaries. He and Boswell formed an instant rapport. Johnson was a bookseller and publisher. Boswell was a bibliophile just like the older man. Samuel Johnson’s book shop was a place where book worms liked to drop in for a natter as well as to browse Johnson’s prodigious library.

Johnson was a totally eccentric character. He seemed to be afflicted with severe case of Asperger’s syndrome before the condition was recognized. Johnson was very odd in his mannerisms and movements. He behaved in a ritualistic manner. He married a woman much older than himself. Samuel Johnson and his goodwife had no children. When the female expired he never took to wife again nor evinced the least interest in womenfolk.  The man spoke in a stilted and formal style. But it came naturally to him. His conversation was extraordinarily orotund, verbose and mirthful.  James Boswell served as Dr Johnson’s amanuensis. Boswell took pains to take down Johnson’s bon mots. Dr Johnson was prejudiced against the Scots. But nevertheless he took to Boswell and Boswell took to Johnson.

James Boswell traveled around the British Isles. He wrote reflections on his journeys. His writings make for a fascinating insight into Great Britain and Ireland in the 18th century.

In 1776 the American Revolution broke out. Boswell and Johnson shared a contempt and detestation for the forces of the revolution. They composed a rebuttal to the American Declaration of Independence.

One of the political hot potatoes in the 1780s was slavery. Should it be outlawed? Boswell was at the first meeting of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. At first he endorsed the goal of setting slaves at liberty. After a brief while he reversed his position completely. He penned a scathing condemnation of the hypocrisy and cant of the anti-slavery caucus.

As a young man James Boswell married. He had six children with his wife. He had a further two children with two other women.

A few years after Dr Johnson died Boswell published a biography of him entitled ‘The Life of Johnson’. It was 1791. In the years since his decease many more manuscripts have been found. People have come to appreciate him more.

In 1794 Boswell died. He was only 54 years old.


  1. In which year was Boswell born?
  2.  What was his Christian name?
  3. What did his father do?
  4.  Did he have siblings?
  5.  Which church did he belong to?
  6.  Which castle did they live by?
  7.  What happened in 1745?
  8. Was Boswell smart?
  9.  Did he attend university?
  10.  What was his profession?
  11. Was he a brilliant lawyer?
  12. What party was he?
  13.  Did he approve of the American Revolution?
  14. What did he look like?
  15.  Who was his friend in London?
  16.  What was Dr Johnson like?
  17. What did Boswell do for Johnson?
  18. What did Boswell decide about slavery?
  19. Did he marry?
  20.  Did he have children?
  21. What was his book on Johnson called?
  22.  When was it published?
  23.  When did Boswell die?
  24. How old was he?
  25.  What do you think of him?


Robert Louis Stevenson. New course lesson 2



One of the United Kingdom’s most popular storytellers is Robert Louis Stevenson. For the sake of brevity he shall be alluded to as Stevenson. He was a fabulous raconteur in person and even more vivid on the page.

Stevenson was born in the United Kingdom. He grew up in Edinburgh. His father and grandfather were distinguished civil engineers. There is a famous bridge in Edinburgh which was built under the superintendence of Stevenson’s grandfather. That man also built most of the lighthouses in Scotland.

Materially Stevenson wanted for nothing that a child could reasonably want. However, he was a sickly child. His fragile health meant that he but rarely attended school. When he did go to school he went to Edinburgh Academy which is one of Edinburgh’s most prestigious places of education. But his work was desultory.  He was a bookish sort. He liked to play in the garden and composed a poem on the glee of using a swing. Apart from that his nose was seldom out of a book.  Therefore he amassed a huge lexis. He was forever experimenting with phraseology. As a teenager he was allowed to travel around France on his own. He bought a donkey to ride and penned a travelogue ‘Travels on a Donkey’. 

When Stevenson grew to manhood he enrolled at Edinburgh University. He flirted with radical nostra. As he grew older he became a Tory. That is to say a supporter of the Conservative Party. He did not dislike socialists and considered a youthful dalliance with socialism to be a healthy thing. He was known for going around in a velvet coat as an undergraduate. He acquired the soubriquet velvet coat.  After graduation he spent some time in London. He was known as Robert Stevenson but decided he wished to be known by his full name. Thereafter he went by Robert Louis Stevenson. He was a lean and good looking man with dark blond hair. He cultivated a moustache which lent him a devil may care appearance.


Stevenson was a firm Unionist. The Union was at its zenith as was the British Empire. He was fascinated with the sea and travel. Pirate stories were very fashionable at the time. He chose to turn his hand to spinning a sailor’s yarn. He knew a mighty but disabled man named Mr Henley. This inspired R L Stevenson to pen a story about such a man. Stevenson invented the character Long John Silver. Long John Silver is a pirate with only one leg. He appears in the ever popular novel ‘Treasure Island’. Stevenson set it over 100 years earlier. Some of the locations mentioned are real. The Admiral Benbow Inn takes its name from a real 18th century admiral.  In Treasure Island a teenage boy has to look out for ‘a seafaring man with one leg’. Squire Trelawny is a character who helps the boy. The locale where the treasure is buried is secret. Treasure Island became a classic of the pirate genre. There have been many iterations of Treasure Island as a film.

Kidnapped is one of the Stevenson’s best known novellas of his oeuvre. This story is set in the 18th century. The action takes place on three continents: Europe, America and Asia. It has been made into a film.

One of Stevenson’s popular novellas is entitled The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It is based on a true story from 18th century Edinburgh. Deacon William Brodie was a respectable man who prospered in his trade. Brodie was elected to the city council. However, in the dead of night he would go out in disguise and rob people. He had made copies of the keys of many houses through his work as a locksmith. This enabled him to steal valuables from the houses of many people. Eventually William Brodie was arrested and convicted for his crimes. He paid the ultimate penalty. Stevenson’s story is about a doctor who is a pillar of the community. Dr Jekyll is industrious, honest and morally upstanding. Even though he is the toast of the town Dr Jekyll has another side to his personality. By night be dons a disguise and is transformed into a completely different character. I will not spoil the ending for you. Stevenson’s mind was teeming with thought and he wrote the tale frenetically.

Stevenson married an American. This American woman was a widow and already had children. However, the couple were not blessed with children of their own. His wife was his literary partner. She read and critiqued early drafts of his work.  He moved to an island in the Pacific. The people there could not count so he had to do it for them.

He ended his days in the Pacific Ocean. There he lies buried. His epitaph is taken from one of his poems ‘Home is the sailor home from the sea/ And the hunter home from the hill.’


  1. In which city was Stevenson born?
  2. What profession did his father pursue?
  3. Why did Stevenson not go to school much?
  4. Which school did he attend?
  5.  Why did he miss a lot of school?
  6. Which sort of buildings did he grandfather put up?
  7.  Is Edinburgh in Britain?
  8. What animal did he use to travel around France?
  9.  What book did he write about it?
  10. Did he ever read?
  11. Which university did he attend?
  12. What was his political inclination in his youth?
  13. What political party did he tend to as he grew older?
  14. Did he like to travel?
  15. What did he look like?
  16. Which character did he create based on Mr Henley?
  17.  Describe Long John Silver?
  18.  What novel did Stevenson write which is of the pirate genre?
  19. Has Treasure Island been made into a film?
  20. Where does the action take place in Kidnapped?
  21. Which real person inspired The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?
  22. What was Dr Jekyll like?
  23.  What coat did Stevenson like to wear as an undergraduate?
  24. What nationality was his wife?
  25.  Did he sire children?
  26.  Where did he die?
  27.  What does his epitaph say?
  28. Is Stevenson still alive?
  29.  What was his middle name?
  30. What is your opinion of him? Five sentences.


Felicity lesson 17 Eton’s later history




In the late 19th century Eton was perhaps at the peak of its political dominance. But even in the mid 20th century three Prime Ministers in a row attended the school: Eden, Macmillan and Douglas-Home.

Eton welcomed some very high profile visitors. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany visited Eton just before the First World War. He inspected the CCF. One boy fired a blank from his rifle to startle the emperor’s horse. The boy was soundly thrashed for it at the time. When the First World War began the boy was feted for exposing the cowardice of the enemy supremo.

During the First World War some Belgian boys were temporarily admitted to the school. The school was deeply affected by the war suffering hundreds of deaths of old boys.

After the war Eton established some scholarships for the orphans of war dead. Eton College also forged links with a town in France that happened to be named Eton. Eton College built a school in that town. Everyone in the school was required to join the CCF during the war.
After the First World War Emperor Hirohito of Japan visited the school.

Up until the 1920s the King’s Scholarship was only in Latin and Greek. Thereafter it included all subjects.

It is to Eton’s great chagrin that Winston Churchill did not go to Eton. He attended Eton’s main rival Harrow. Sir Winston Churchill’s father Lord Randolph Churchill had been at Eton and loathed it which is why he had Winston go to Harrow. Winston detested Harrow and had his son go to Eton. The Churchills have been to Eton in every generation since.

In the Second World War a comedy was made by Hollywood entitled ‘A Yank at Eton.’ In this Mickey Rooney plays an American boy who has enrolled at Eton. The message is that although the British and Americans have some minor cultural differences deep down the two nations are very similar and can be dearest friends. The opening credits feature the Eton Boating Song sung at a very fast tempo.
In the 1940s the Vice-Provost was Sir Henry Marten. Sir Henry started tutoring a girl who lived just across the river. She was Princess Elizabeth – who is now the queen. As Elizabeth II came to the Vice-Provost’s Lodgings for her tutorials she is almost an Old Etonian.

As travel became easier matches against other schools became more frequent. Rugby and football were played more. The field game, Eton Fives and the wall game were played less.

Until the 1960s Eton was not difficult to get into. It required good connections rather than intelligence. Nor was Eton especially expensive. It cost the modern equivalent of GBP 10 000 a year – rather less than schools which did not have such a good reputation. The great majority of Etonians were the sons of old boys of the school.

In the 1960s a new headmaster changed this. Anthony Chenevix-Trench became the head master. The first part of his surname is pronounced ”SHEN – e – wick”. Chenevix-Trench had served in the British Army in the Second World War. He had been captured by the Japanese and forced to be a slave on the Burma Railway. He witnessed horrors there with many fellow Prisoners of War dying of malnutrition, disease, insanitation, overwork, lack of medicine and savage beatings. Chenevix-Trench attempted to preserve his sanity by translating A E Housman’s series of poems ‘‘A Shropshire Lad” into Latin rhyming couplets. Chenevix-Trench was successful in construing the poesy into beautiful Latin but less successful in maintaining his mental health.

The former head master Robert Birley remained on as Provost. That is the live-in chairman of the board of governors. This was supposed to provide stability but perhaps it divided loyalties. Some beaks refused to forgive Chenevix-Trench for being neither an Etonian nor having been a master at the school. They looked to Birley as the king over the water.

It was the 60s and change was in the air. Should Chenevix-Trench change or resist change? Either policy would cause friction. Chenevix-Trench was in most respects a reformer. He was adamant that school uniform must be abolished. This provoked the wrath of conservative minded beaks. He backed down on that one.

Housemasters had a very wide degree of autonomy. They controlled admissions to all houses besides college. ChenevixTrench felt that it was wrong that rules were so divergent in different houses. He wished to allow housemasters a modicum of independence but insisted that overall the school was united. Moreover, he aimed to centralise admissions and raise standards in Common Entrance. Housemasters guarded their independence jealously. They disliked losing their ability to accept and reject boys. Some old boys guffawed at Common Entrance standards being raised considerably. Their sons were no longer almost guaranteed a place at the school. The OEs harrumphed. Mr Chenevix-Trench wanted to make the school a place for go getters. There were always high fliers at Eton but until his time there were also a lot of dolts. He said he would not longer let idlers in nor allow any who had slipped through the net to remain.

In those days not everyone began in the Michaelmas of F Block. Some boys started the school in E Block or even D Block. Not everyone started at the age of 13 as they virtually all do now. Some started at 12, some at 14 or 15. Some started in the Lent Half and some in the Summer Half. The head master regularised things. With a very few exceptions everyone now starts in September at the age of 13. Back then there was an A Block. Those wishing to apply to Oxford or Cambridge had to stay on an extra year at school. This was later reduced to one term and finally abolished altogether.

Mr Chenevix-Trench was a bizarre mixture of severity and laxity. Sometimes he would cane boys for trifling offences. Yet he was very slack about appearance and did not object to boys with long hair or who wore boots with their uniform so long as the boots were black. He did not expel boys for first time possession of drugs. If a boy ran away from school Chenevix-Trench would take pity on him and ask him what the matter was. There was no punishment. Some beaks demanded that running away from school be punished with a severe beating if not expulsion.

In an era when corporal punishment was widely used he had a reputation for being worryingly enthusiastic about caning boys. Chenevix-Trench raised the admission standards. A boy was no longer virtually guaranteed a place just because his father has attended the school. There were howls of protest from Old Etonians but Chenevix Trench pressed ahead with the reforms. He also raised the fees and used the money to greatly improve the facilities. Mr Chenevix-Trench was a physically unprepossessing figure. He was very short and was often mistaken for a butler. It is a minor miracle that he landed the job at all. The trauma he had experienced as a prisoner of the Japanese Army had turned him into a dypsomaniac. After only six years the Fellows pressurised him into leaving. It was one of the briefest ever terms served by a head master. He went on to run Fettes College in Edinburgh. One of his pupils there was a certain Tony Blair!

In 1967 the first black boy started at Eton. His name was Dilibie Onyeama – the son of a Nigerian judge at the International Court in the Hague. He later recorded his unhappy experiences in a memoir entitled ”Nigger at Eton.” Onyeama was often verbally abused but never suffered any violence. Onyeama became an outspoken critic of imperialism and its after effects.

In the 1960s the Labour Government flirted with the notion of closing down public schools. They believed that the existence of public schools was pernicious and inegalitarian. Eton made contingency plans to relocate in the event of Labour forbidding independent education. Eton scouted two possible sites. One was in France and one was in the Republic of Ireland. Both would be close enough to the United Kingdom and both would offer sufficient scope for all the facilities that Eton required. In the end this plan did not need to be executed.
From the 1970s an increasing number of British Indians and Hong Kong Chinese attended the school. Eton briefly flirted with the idea of going mixed which was en vogue at the time. Master’s daughters were allowed to attend the school for the last two years of their schooling. Among 250 people in a year group there might be 5 girls. As you can imagine these ladies were very, very popular indeed! The trouble was if a girl even spoke to a boy a rumour would go around that she was in a relationship with him. Many boys’ schools in financial difficulties went mixed. Eton eventually set its face against that and remains resolutely all boys. There are some social events with girls schools such as St George’s Ascot and Wycombe Abbey.

  1. Name a prime minister who went to Eton?
  2. Do any Indians go there?
  3. How many boys are in a year group?
  4. Who was the first black boy?
  5. Who translated A Shropshire Lad?
  6. What is common entrance?
  7. What was Sir Henry Marten?
  8. Did Winston Churchill go to Eton?
  9. Did the Kaiser visit Eton?
  10. What is your opinion of the school?

Felicity lesson 16 . Eton’s early history


Eton is easily the world’s most famous school. How did Eton achieve this astonishing status and why is it held in such awe? Eton has produced 20 of Britain’s 48 Prime Ministers; Kings of Nepal and Thailand; several Olympic gold medalists; countless bankers; many writers; a bevvy of composers; scores of generals and a handful of film stars.
Amongst the British upper class people used to say ”everyone went to Eton. Except for those who went to Harrow of course.” Eton was THE school for the social elite. But this stellar image is an exaggeration of the reality. Eton is not as socially or financially exclusive as you might imagine. Furthermore, many aristocrats and billionaires attend schools that are much less renowned.
I do not come from an aristocratic family. I am bourgeois. A couple of generations ago we were working class. I am not English either – I am an Irishman. Yet I went to Eton in the 1990s.
Eton is has an aesthetic beauty to its architecture. It is surrounded by hundreds of hectares of beautiful grounds with just the right mix of manicured gardens and wilderness. It is beside the River Thames which is a river that has carried British History more than any other. Eton is 25 km from central London. Eton is almost in the shadow of Windsor Castle. This castle is the British Royal Family’s favourite – so much so that they take their name from it.
Eton was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI. The king named the school ”The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton beside Windsor.” No one calls it by its lengthy official name. The school was endowed with fragments of wood that were believed to come from the True Cross. The school was allowed to grant indulgences (guaranteed entry to heaven) on the Feast of the Assumption). The school’s coat of arms show the white lily of the Virgin Mary, a gold lion passant of England and a gold fleur-de-lys of France on a midnight blue field. This is because Henry VI was King of France as well as England. He was the last king of England to rule France in fact as well as in title. Henry VI was 18 years old when he set up the school. He was exceptionally devout even for a deeply religious age. Education was almost incidental to the school’s foundation. Henry VI founded the school as a prayer factory. The boys were to pray in Latin for the souls of Henry VI’s parents forever. In fact this custom ceased in the 1970s.
Originally there were 70 poor scholars at the school. The school was run by a Head Master. Note that this is two words at Eton. At every other school it is a compound word – headmaster. This is just one of numberless Etonian quirks. The scholars are known as KSs or King’s Scholars. They even add the letters KS behind their names as in Pummell KS. The KSs lived in a boarding house called College. Gradually boys from wealth families came to attend the school and pay fees to do so. Those who paid fees lived in the town or ”oppidum” in Latin. They became known as Oppidans – derived from ”oppidum.” Over time the Oppidans became far more numerous than the King’s Scholars. Now the school contains 70 KSs and about 1 200 Oppidans.

Henry VI was religious to the point of insanity. Some people say his devoutness has been overplayed by his partisans. His Gracious Majesty was afflicted with what psychiatrists now diagnose as bipolar disorder. When the king was too depressed to get out of bed for days or so raving made that his courtiers thought it better not to let him out of his apartment in the palace an explanation was needed. Ambassadors and other dignitaries were told the king is at prayer. It was a means of trying to hide his mental illness.

Henry VI was overthrown, restored and then overthrown again. This was all part of the Wars of the Roses between two factions of the English Royal House: Lancastrians and Yorkists. Henry VI was a Lancastrian and their symbol was the red rose. Yorkists were his foes and their emblem was a white rose. The king and his son, Edmund of Westminster, were taken prisoner. His Majesty and his child were stabbed to death in the Tower of London on 21 May 1471. Every 21st of May, the anniversary of his death, a ceremony takes place in the chapel to commemorate the founder’s murder. In memory of Henry VI a rose is laid – a red rose of Lancaster. Roses are laid in Eton College Chapel and also at the Tower of London where His Majesty was ”most foully done to death.” The Provost of Eton also lays lily flowers. The lily is one of the emblems of Eton as it alludes to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The lily white signifies her purity.

Boys usually came to Eton aged 9 and left aged 14. One boy came to Eton at the age of 6! Some ‘boys’ stayed on until the age of 20.
The Oppidans lived in houses run by middle aged or elderly women. These women had to be widows or spinsters. They were known as ‘dames’. The dames could not be too young or else the boys might take a shine to them! These women could not be married because otherwise they would not be totally dedicated to looking after the boys in their house.

Henry VI also founded King’s College, Cambridge. Initially KSs from Eton went on to King’s College, Cambridge. Nowadays very few boys from Eton go on to that particular College in Cambridge. Many go to other Colleges in Cambridge or Oxford.

There were only two teachers at first. The Head Master taught the older boys in a building called Upper School. The Lower Master taught the younger boys in Lower School. Classes were very big. There were easily over 100 boys in each class! Lessons were very unimaginative. Latin and Greek were read aloud and boys had to simultaneously translate. Construing these languages helped the boys develop a deeper appreciation for the finer points of their own language. Through Latin and Ancient Greek they learnt history and philosophy. In time more and more masters were added to the staff. Classes were made smaller and more subjects were added.

Lower School is a classroom that still exists. It is the oldest classroom in the world that is still used for its original purpose.
There were initially two terms in the school year. One ran from the start of August to mid December. The other ran from mid January to the end of May. June and July were holidays. Therefore the two terms were the two halves of the year. There were no half terms. There are now three terms but nevertheless a term is still called a ‘half’. It is one of many examples of delightful Etonian anachronistic illogic. Perhaps Eton is so fantastic that is packs one and a half years of learning into each year!

There was a curious tradition of August ramming. A ram was kept in Weston’s Yard. The ram was released in August and all the boys would chase it and beat it to death with their clubs.

Eton College was a Roman Catholic school because the state religion was Roman Catholicism at the time. In the 1530s England set up the Church of England. Eton therefore became a Church of England school. Henry VIII thought that Eton was a monastery and he considered dissolving it. Eton was a monastery inasmuch as there were a few monks. He was dissuaded from closing Eton because Eton was mainly a school and the monks were merely incidental. The monks were laicized but the school was permitted to continue. It was Eton’s first narrow escape!

The wood from the supposed True Cross was destroyed as an example of ‘Romish Superstition’. Images of the Blessed Virgin and other saints in the College Chapel were painted over in the 1540s. There was even an attempt to burn the Eton Choir Book. This sort of music and its hymns to saints and veneration of the Virgin were seen as mariolatry and almost polytheism by dour Protestants. Luckily, the men taking it away to be burnt accidentally dropped it as they rode away. The book feel out of a saddle bag as the men rode across a stream. A man saw it fall and decided not to mention it to the other. This man later returned to the stream to retrieve the book. It was only a little damaged by the water. The priceless handwritten tome was recovered and hidden for decades until it was safe to bring out.

The curriculum at Eton was very narrow in the early days. Boys learnt Latin, Ancient Greek and sometimes Hebrew so they could read the Bible in the original language. They sometimes learnt foreign languages such as French and Italian. They learnt a little History and Geography. They did almost no Maths or Science. Only in the late 19th century did Maths become a major part of the timetable. This was because the Head Master at the time had a brother who was a mathematician. The brother persuaded the Head Master to lay greater emphasis on the subject. Notice at Eton the words ‘Head Master’ are two separate words. In every other school it is one word ‘headmaster’.
People sometimes learned a few musical instruments. There was a choir. They boys had a lot of free time to play sports. The Oppidans lived well. They all had their own rooms. The dames set boarding fees. Some houses were more opulent than others. The quality of the food also varied depending on how expensive the house was.

Edward IV, who overthrew Henry VI, considered closing the school. He was dissuaded by his mistress Jane Shore. There is a society for the women of the Eton community called the Jane Shore Society. The name honours her as the saviour of the school. The Jane Shore Society is for women who work at the school or are married to those who work there.

The King’s Scholars lived in woeful conditions. One 18th century chronicler recorded, ”the inmates or a prison or a workhouse do not suffer the privations of the scholars of Eton College.” The boys were locked in at night. Thank goodness there was never a fire! They had no adult supervision at all. They lived in one very large dormitory called Long Chamber. It was said to be the scene of horrific bullying. On one occasion the boys managed to steal a sow and smuggle her into Long Chamber in the daytime. The aim was to slaughter the pig eat her at night. Before they could take a knife to the beast she gave birth to a litter of piglets. The boys consumed her farrow before later eating the swine herself.

By the 18th century Eton had established itself as the premier school for the British upper class. Henry VI had donated a lot of land to the school. The school rented this land out and used the extra income for more buildings and so on. The aristocrats who attended the school often made munificent donations to the school. Some past pupils went into banking or became highly successful lawyers and more than a few of them gave generously to their old school. Eton produced so many politicians partly because the upper orders dominated politics but also because there were so many debating societies. In the 18th century the United Kingdom was experiencing a craze for debating.
Boys became well versed in political matters and also grew accustomed to speaking in public. Boys had plenty of time to spend on their hobbies because lessons and homework were not time-consuming or demanding. Eton was almost like two schools. The King’s Scholars who were middle class or working class boys selected for their phenomenal intellects. These King’s Scholars were radically different from the Oppidans who were drawn from the most privileged classes. A few Oppidans were bright and hard-working but most were not. Oppidans did not need to worry about passing exams since they came from wealthy families and their futures were assured.

In the 18th century boys would process from the school to St Catherine’s Hill in Slough which was several miles distant. This ceremony was called ad Montem – that is Latin for ‘To the mountain’. Many people came to watch them. The crowds became huge in the 1840s due to the advent of the railway. The school ceased to do montems.

In the 18th century some Americans started to attend the school. Among them were Thomas Lynch and Thomas Nelson. Both of them signed the Declaration of Independence.

Boys started to row on the River Thames. The Thames was much wider and wilder back then because there were few locks or dams. The river was liable to flood. There were many water rats that carried diseases. Many boys could not swim. Because of all these factors rowing was dangerous. Rowing was forbidden but many boys did it. They hid their boats or hired boats from local people. Only in the 19th century was rowing allowed and regulated.

King George III reigned 1760-1820. He was a great fan of the school. He gave gold coins to schoolboys. He spent much of his time just across the river from Eton in Windsor Castle. When he died in 1820 the school went into mourning. Eton tailsuits are black. People say this is in mourning for George III. That is not so since a painting several years after George III’s death depicts boys in coats of many different hues. Nonetheless the uniform is black.

George III’s birthday was 4th June. Eton’s main festive day is the Fourth of June. This event is almost never celebrated on the actual 4th of June. It is usually the Wednesday before. This is like an open day or an exhibition. There are displays of art and sports. There are informal concerts. People picnic on the lawns. The highlight is the Procession of Boats. Boys in 19th century sailors’ uniforms row along the river in old fashioned heavy rowing boats. They stand up and hold their oars upright. They wear straw boater hats decked in flowers. They shake their flowers out onto the river in salute.

In the reign of George III an Irish boy named Arthur Wellesely attended Eton. This boy was to become known to the world as the Duke of Wellington. The Duke of Wellington won his fame for his victory at the Battle of Waterloo and becoming Prime Minister. The duke supposedly said, ”the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” This apocryphal quotation is probably bogus since the duke only attended Eton for a year. He despised the school so much that he moved to another school – in France!

Boys were not allowed to leave the school grounds. They did so more and more. The school unofficially adopted a policy of turning Nelson’s eye to this. If a boy was in the nearby town of Windsor and he saw a master the boy would turn his face to the wall and the master would pretend not to see him. Then the school decided this was ridiculous. There was a total volte face. Boys were allowed to go to town on certain days. If a boy saw a beak he was to take of his hat to him. The beak would do likewise. Boys wore top hats back then. This doffing a topper with a flourish degenerated into less and less energetic removal of hats down to tipping the hat. Top hats have long since been abolished. Boys still raise their index finger to the height of their right eyebrow to tip an imaginary hat.

Eton in the late 18th and early 19th century was a shockingly disorderly place. Attendance at lessons was more or less voluntary. There was no legal minimum age for drinking. The Thames water was too foul to drink. Boys drank small beer even at breakfast. This was beer with a very low alcohol content because brewing water cleansed it. One house is called the Hopgarden since hops for beer were grown there. Boys frequented taverns and often got themselves into a crapulous state. One barmaid had to take a lawsuit out against a boy who had sired a child by her.

An inspirational head master in the early 19th century was Dr John Keate. He was an Old Etonian himself. Dr Keate at pains to modernise the school and improved discipline. To this end he was an inveterate beater of boys’ behinds. Notice that this Dr John Keate is not the poet John Keats whose lifetime overlapped with the head master of a very similar name.

Eton was a fairly rough place in the 19th century. Sports did not have many rules. Boys invented their own manly sports such as the Wall Game and the Field Game. The Wall Game is a scrum beside a wall for an hour. The Field Games is a curious mixture of rugby and football. Boys fought duels – mercifully it was with their fists and not swords or pistols. But in one such duel two brothers fought each other and one of them Francis Ashley ended up killing his younger sibling Wood Ashley.

Bullying was widespread. Older boys would oblige younger boys to carry out menial tasks for them. The school decided this could not be extirpated so ought to be regulated. A system called fagging was created. A fag was a younger boy who was a servant. As the pupils were mostly upper class it made them empathise with the working class. They would then know what it is like to perform chores. They would learn to receive orders as well as give them.
In the late 19th century sports codified by other bodies started to be played at Eton. Among these is football. Because the Football Association drew up the rules the 1st XI at Eton is called the Association.
By that time Harrow School and Winchester College were regarded as Eton’s main rivals. Eton, Harrow and Winchester played cricket against each other at Lord’s: the main cricket stadium at the time. It was a three day event and a red letter day in the social calendar. One year the Wykehamists (boys from Winchester) behaved so atrociously that Winchester was no longer allowed to play at Lords. Well over 100 years later the ban still stands! The Wykehamists sniffily named their main cricket pitch ‘Lords’. The Eton-Winchester match is the most important day in Winchester’s summer term.
The Eton-Harrow match still takes place at Lords. However, it is not the ‘must be seen’ event it once was. Both sides are desperate not too lose and adopt a very cautious strategy. This usually results in a draw.
In the 1860s Napoleon III was ruling France. People feared he might try to invade the United Kingdom. The school founded the Officer Training Corps. This provided army training to boys. This is now called the CCF – Combined Cadet Force. It is CCF because it combines the army and the air force. There was a naval section but not since the 1980s.
A high majority of the boys came from London or southern England. in the early days. Soon the upper class from the whole of Great Britain looked to Eton as the most desirable school. So many Scottish noble families had their sons at Eton that in the 19th century the Prime Minister Gladstone decided to found a school in Scotland to be Eton;s equaivaent. It is called Glenalmond and it was established to prevent Scotland losing so many of its sons to Eton. This effort met with only limited success. The British Flag was planted on every continent. Colonial governors of the largest colonies were usually Old Etonians. Eton’s glory was soon known throughout the British Empire. In the 1880s the first Indian boys attended the school – they were all sons of Maharajahs.
In the late 19th century Maths and Science became a larger part of the curriculum. This was in no small measure because one head master had a brother who was a mathematician. The mathematical brother convinced the head master that Maths ought to assume a much larger role in the boys’ schooling. Eton remained a Church of England school but Roman Catholics were readmitted for the first time in 320 years. Jewish boys were then also allowed into the school.
In the late 19th century it was decided that dames should no longer run houses on their own. It was difficult for an elderly woman to control 50 boys especially as some of these boys were aged 18. Therefore in the 1890s Eton started to buy houses from dames and build more houses. A man, called a housemaster, was placed in charge of each house. The dame was still there as a matron. But she was ancillary to the housemaster. The idle dame was the widow of an army officer. She could have children but they needed to be grown up and therefore not in need of much motherly care. The dame was to provide the feminine touch to the house.

  1. In what year was Eton founded?
  2. What is a dame at Eton?
  3. Is Eton a boarding school?
  4. Which country is Eton in?
  5. What is an Oppidan?
  6. What does KS stand for?
  7. Are there girls at Eton?
  8. What religion is Eton?
  9. Which kings went to Eton?
  10. What castle is the school near?