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three pairs of lovers with space



A Demon Hovering is a detailed examination of changing attitudes towards Greek love as was widely practised in English public schools of the 19th century. It was  presented as Chapter Fourteen of British historian John Chandos’s exhaustively well-researched study,  Boys Together: English Public Schools 1800-1864 (London, 1984)).

All the footnotes except the eighth are by Chandos.


In the 1830s, and as late as 1860, when men used the words ‘vice’ and ‘immorality’, they were not taken to be alluding in particular to sexual vice and immorality.[1] Thomas Arnold was continually engrossed by questions of ‘Sin’ and ‘Morality’, but in all his recorded homilies there is only one reference, and that a brief and passing one, to sexual offences. The six deadly sins of school life Arnold cited as profligacy; lying, ‘the systematic practice of falsehood’; systematic cruelty, as the bullying and persecuting of the weak and vulnerable; disobedience, which comprehended all the rest — the spirit of active resistance to, and hatred of, authority; idleness; and finally, the bond - the spirit of combination and companionship - in evil.[2] In respect of ‘profligacy’ and ‘sensual wickedness’ his main concern was for drunkenness, which he regarded as a major problem at Rugby; and with drunkenness he conjoined ‘other things forbidden in the scriptures’.[3] Arnold’s distribution of emphasis was not due to delicacy, nor to unworldly ignorance of the nature and effects of lechery. He knew their character well enough from domestic mishaps. His elder brother, William Arnold, had married a prostitute and Thomas himself had an illegitimate half-brother.[4] While he would have condemned fornication, he saw before him moral and social problems more serious and more urgently in need of his redemptive zeal than sexual irregularities.

Dustjacket of Boys Together, depicting the Harrow Football Eleven ca. 1860

When Milnes Gaskell worked cunningly on his mother’s feelings by declaring, with a martyr’s resignation, that, at her behest, he was willing to ‘stand up against the torrents of vice which at every Public School, must more or less threaten all’,[5] the term comprehended every practice under moral censure from cruel sports to gambling. And when Miss Margaretta Brown learnt that her protégé, Tom Hoseason, had been seen retiring into the woods off the riverside in company with the ‘Hunt girls’ known to be ‘of loose character’, she was not pleased, but neither was she stricken with any sense of monstrous wickedness or disaster. She and other women of her time accepted the nature and appetites of young males as a fact of life, to be contained as far as possible by the discipline of moral training, but not in its manifestations occasion for shock or undue surprise. Miss Brown was incensed by periodic revelations of seduction of young boys by ‘nurses’ employed in boarding houses;[6] older boys did not conceal their hungry interest in pretty girls accessible in Windsor, and did not hesitate to report in letters home their attraction to a particular quarry.[7]

Up to the 1840s there was no attempt to conceal, or embarrassment evinced at, the illegitimate birth of a considerable number of Etonians. Even the parentage of boys born in wedlock was often in doubt. Creevey and Greville took it for granted that Melbourne’s father was not Lord Melbourne, but Lord Egremont, and the Countess of Oxford was so addicted to amorous variety that her children were known as the Harleian Miscellany.[8]

Such an environment encouraged certain censurable qualities, but humbug was not one of them. There was no pretence that boys did not sometimes find initiation in sexual experience with young whores, who came from as far away as Coventry to solicit at Rugby School, and with local girls of light virtue. When an officious assistant master at Shrewsbury declared that ‘immorality with women was very common in the School’, Butler did not deny that ‘it existed and would exist’ at least among a few older boys, and that all a master could do was to keep it under and check it to the best of his ability. Butler told his trustees that the church was a place where assignations were made by signal between local manufacturing girls and his senior boys. More worrying to headmasters and parents than ‘an unnecessary facility for fornication’[9] was the contingency of a romantic attachment developing between a boy and an attractive and presentable but unsuitable girl, and a boy might be precipitously removed from school on the advice of the headmaster to protect him from an act of folly. The fortune of one of the major clerical dynasties of the age was laid when Charles Sumner obliged Lady Conyngham, the king’s mistress, by himself marrying the Swiss girl with whom his pupil, Lady Conyngham’s eldest son, had become infatuated, thus saving him from a fate worse than vice.

The inauguration of Wellington College, 1859

The extraordinary change in moral postures, affecting almost all levels of society, which became conspicuous as the middle of the century approached, and gathered impetus thereafter, may be seen in an incident at Wellington College in 1871. During the holidays, three foundationers had seduced or, more likely, been seduced by, a fourteen-year-old servant maid employed in the house of one of them. The incident was only discovered because one of the boys was unlucky enough to contract a venereal infection. The headmaster, E. W. Benson, decided that all three must leave the school. He could not expel them formally without reference to the governors, but he could and did arrange for their removal privately with the agreement of the boys’ parents. The mothers, widows, acquiesced under Benson’s pressure, but one of them, on consideration, repented her decision, and appealed to the governors. The governors, headed by the second Duke of Wellington[10] (who did not approve of expelling boys for ‘immorality’) judged that the boys had been somewhat harshly treated and summoned the headmaster to inform him that they had decided that the two uninfected boys should be received back by the school ‘as an act of grace by the headmaster’.

This was a confrontation of the old world and the new. The headmaster was wrathful and appalled by heinous wickedness and evil: the aristocratic governors were amused and indulgent to a boyish escapade; when Benson pointed out the purity of the school to a governor, John Walter, the latter ‘scoffed at him and indulged in distasteful reminiscences of his Eton days’.[11] Benson had to obey or resign but he knew that the bias of modern society inclined in his favour. He asked for time to consider, and wrote to the headmasters of the great public schools, putting the case without mentioning the decision taken. The answers were unanimous that the boys must go.

Edward White Benson (later Archbishop of Canterbury) as headmaster of Wellington

At his next interview with the governors Benson presented the letters and stated that if the board insisted on the boys’ returning to Wellington, he would ask that it be done on the governors’ authority and not on the headmaster’s. By now the governors saw that further publicity might damage the reputation of the school and decided not to reverse the headmaster’s policy. They clearly were worried about the predicament of the widowed mothers and probably did something to help them. ‘The governors had acted like a pack of cynical, hoary old sinners,’ said the Rev. C. W. Penny, whose voice, in this case, may be taken to be the unofficial voice of the headmaster, ‘who looked on youthful immorality . . . as a sort of juvenile complaint like measles’. Neither Penny nor Benson had understood. The governors had not looked on the boys’ conduct as a distemper, but as a natural stage in male maturation. ‘It is a cheap charity,’ said Benson, ‘for them to reinstate the boys on the Foundation because they are poor, without regard to the evil.’[12]

The incident is revealing. In the interval dividing the early and mid-century, a feverish anxiety, especially in the middle classes, to prevent or abridge sexual experience in the young grew to the dimensions of a collective neurosis. Pusey, expatiating on ‘that sin’ which ‘fifty years ago . . . was unknown at most of our Public Schools’, declared that ‘now, alas, it is the besetting sin of our boys; it is sapping the constitutions and injuring in many, the fineness of intellect’.“ By the mid-sixties, and increasingly after, when a speaker used the words ‘vice’ and ‘immorality’ without making a contextual distinction or association, he meant, and his auditors understood him to mean, apertaining to sexual misconduct.[13] ‘I have not charged him with immorality in the ordinary sense of the word,’[14] Hornby was reported to have said over his dismissal from Eton of Oscar Browning.[15]

Schoolmasters, educationalists, and self-appointed moralists agonized in hesitation between the alternative dangers of keeping silent and risking the peril of undiscovered abominations growing in secret, or saying too much and planting thoughts and temptations which were not there before. Even a qualification which made meaning explicit could be painfully embarrassing. ‘Immorality, used in a special sense, which I need not define,’ said J. M. Wilson, later headmaster of Clifton College, addressing the Education Society, ‘has of late been increasing among the upper classes of England."[16] But George Moberly considered that by 1848 the ‘inner life’ at Winchester had improved from the condition he remembered as a boy in the second decade of the century, when it had been ‘outrageously impure’ and ‘profoundly secret’.[17] What reasons Pusey and Wilson had to believe that there had been an increase in ‘immorality in a special sense’ since the earlier part of the century, we shall never know for certain, for neither of them tells us. Wilson continues, ‘This is not the place to give details of evidence.’ A few minutes later he baulks at another fence. ‘I shall pass over this very important point without going into detail.’

James Maurice Wilson, as headmaster of Clifton College

Wilson was not, as those quotations taken alone might suggest, a cowardly or timid man. On the contrary he was unusually bold and daring in public utterance for a man of his age. But he was subject to an almost intolerable repugnance in contemplation of physical sexual desires, and he found it virtually impossible to speak to a boy individually on the subject in a friendly, comfortable way. He had to steel himself to make aggressive, but barely intelligible, reference to the subject in sermons from the school chapel pulpit to his juvenile charges. This embarrassment, which he shared with many of his contemporaries, he managed to interpret as a sign of superior moral merit. For, it was ‘so utterly repulsive to our nature’ to give ‘this teaching’ on sexual life to boys and girls, ‘that men and women of high character and refinement could not and would not do it’. Indeed, what sort of man would he be who would face a class on such a subject? Wilson cited the case of a doctor who, having advised other parents to instruct their sons in the nature of male sexuality before sending them to public schools, found himself ‘absolutely unable to begin’.[18] A chorus of corroboration followed these depositions. Frances Lord bore witness that she had never met one grown-up person who had thought about sex without the effort costing ‘distress amounting in some cases to such paralysed feeling that made thought useless’. ‘E.L.’ affirmed that he knew ‘more than one father’ who thoroughly appreciated the need to give a warning, yet ‘nothing could bring him to give it’.[19] E.L. was Edward Lyttelton, and one father he had in mind was his own, George, Lord Lyttelton, whose career we have followed since boyhood at Eton.

Silence, therefore, was to this school of thought, or school of feeling, the ideal course, if it worked. Ignorance, ‘total ignorance’ of sex ‘should always be the rule’,[20] according to the chief medical apostle of anti-sex, Henry Acton, and he held up Rousseau’s ‘hideous frankness’ as a dreadful warning of what happens when a man ‘pries into his mental and moral character with despicable morbid minuteness’. ‘Freedom of conversation’, Wilson insisted, was an ‘incalculable moral evil’ and he exhorted parents to give devout thanks for the ‘priceless boon’ of ‘school games’ as a subject of conversation. Those who thought that games occupied a disproportionate share of boys’ minds should be thankful for it; and he added with crushing finality the question, ‘What do French boys talk about?’ Wilson wished that girls could share more of the advantage of a little more of such talk of games. ‘Lawn tennis is doing something for them, perhaps,’ he added without conviction. In any case, he —  the new mentors as a whole - did not wish girls in the vicinity of boys’ lives. The ideal way would be ‘flight from temptations’ for ‘there is no other way of dealing with them’.[21]

The perfect course was for the boy to remain entirely innocent and inexperienced of all that pertained to sexual passion until he met his wife-to-be, when, by some mysterious, but natural and wholesome process, all, or rather as much as was necessary for his good, would be revealed, and, if he were fortunate in his choice, this need not be very much; for Dr Acton and others bore the glad tidings that ‘love of home, children and domestic duties’ were ‘the only passions that the best of wives and mothers were capable of feeling’.[22]

But did silence perform its office? Did the proscription of the forbidden subject truly exorcise its fearful allure? The very utterances of headmasters like Benson and Wilson and Cotton demonstrated that it did not. They might, and they did, make it increasingly more difficult than it had been in the freer old days for boys at school to have access to girls. But this separation, instead of putting anxieties at rest, only raised other, different, but no less dreadful, apparitions. Secured from the company of females, what might not boys be incited by the devil to do, alone, or to each other? In the quandary whether to speak or keep silent, when either commission or omission might be the occasion of mischief, the overheated conscience of the new breed of pedagogue-moralist devised a form of self-protective compromise. He did speak, in language stern, earnest, and incomprehensible to all but those boys who already knew more than he wished them to know.

Caricature of Thomas Hughes by Adriano Cecioni in Vanity Fair, 1872

The neurosis was contagious. When Thomas Hughes published Tom Brown’s Schooldays in 1857, it glowed with an animated portrayal of sides of life in a public school which had never before been presented for public appraisal. On the subject of sexual life, there was not the faintest hint or disclosure.[23] The kind of Dickensian suppression used in Oliver Twist to disguise the real nocturnal activities of Nancy was used in Tom Brown’s Schooldays to conceal some of the real activities of Flashman and his like at Rugby. But the author well knew of their existence and, thirty years later, when the emotional pressure had risen, we find him publishing anonymously a pamphlet addressed to boys on the subject of depravity. He begins as if he had not changed his attitude by saying that “immodesty is not in calling a spade a spade, but in alluding to a spade at all without necessity”. But alas, the necessity has arisen. He gives notice of concern with a subject which is “of the gravest import” but which “I can scarcely do more than hint at in the most general manner”. He resorts to Latin (scelus Onanis) to warn his boy readers that “the most fatal results” can follow in after years from a practice which he does not otherwise name. “I could tell of souls hopelessly besmirched and befouled by this deadly habit. More I dare not say; this much I dare not suppress.”[24] This was genteel restrained stuff. Others went much further with greater heat, without achieving more light pr a clearer message.

The strain upon the uneasy moralists was considerably relieved by the gratifying revelation that the proper and appropriate persons to instruct boys in elementary facts of human sexuality were not men, but women. While no decent man could be expected to communicate the dreadful details to a boy, the case of a mother, it seemed, was different. In the first instance, a “good”, a “virtuous” woman, it was well known, was unmoved and untempted by sexual desires[25] and “there was no influence to compare with that which the mother possessed in so remarkable a degree”. Suddenly it became “false delicacy” and “cruel mercy” for a mother to keep silent. Mothers became the conduits through which were discharged much vehement expostulation from troubled men who baulked at themselves addressing boys. Mothers were instructed how to terrify boys into ‘virtue’ with warnings of lethal danger and to tell them that those who indulged in ‘wrong acts’ became weak and sickly and unfit for playing games, that they often ‘die young or become idiotic’, that ‘forty years ago a boy who indulged in this sin suddenly went mad and has been in a mad asylum ever since’.[26]

Some of the fantasies which burgeoned from the medical ‘science fiction’ school of Henry Acton in l857, and were presented as tested ‘facts’, were even wilder and more lurid.[27] One quotation from a favoured ‘grand guignol’ style of cautionary tale, to be given or read aloud to a boy under suspicion, will represent the genre:

Title page of The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, the main work of William (not "Henry") Acton, "the chief medical apostle of anti-sex"

The fool, the little, inexperienced easily led, flabby brained boy listened. He listened and fell. He allowed the tempter to show him what he meant, to induct him into the knowledge of evil, to work out the devil’s end. . . . So the signs began to appear by degrees, the thin lips, the pale cheeks, the haggard features, the irritable temper, the dank and cold hand, and much sleeplessness. Change of air was tried, but the disease had too long a sway; other signs of exhaustion developed themselves, the weak knee and ankle, the bloodshot eye and crimson lower eyelid, and a hard, short cough. And still the victim continued to wreck himself to pieces, the friction now required being so long as to cause the throes of pleasure to be shocks, working terrible havoc on the nervous system. He died suddenly at eighteen, the coroner and twelve men saying it was due to heart disease. But we know better. . . . He left behind certain notes and letters from which the above facts are taken; and perhaps it was as well that he was taken away so soon for, had he lived, who can say what would have been the limit to the disease? . . .

Worse was to come in a scene of vampiric Transylvanian dissolution:

. . . Vital exhaustion, convulsive spasms, epilepsy and a paralysis - blighting, withering, blasting though they be - fade into mere insignificance beside that other doom - muscular atrophy: in which the victim dies molecule by molecule, inch by inch, till he becomes livid, then the process which in other men takes place in the grave sets in, accompanied by childish babbling, and succeeded by manic ravings, while the frame is racked with pain and the imagination tortured with horrid dreams.

After such energetic application of the stick comes, at the end, a sudden carrot of comfort:

But if the vicious habit be left off in time Nature soon puts all to rights again.

With older boys and young men the tone became even more frantic. The Rev. Richard Armstrong exhorted a young captive audience to treat any manifestation of libido in themselves as a woodman treated infection caused by a bite from a poisonous snake. ‘No dalliance, no waiting.’ He seized his axe and ‘with one blow severed his finger. . . .’?[28] It seems that what he had in mind was ‘plenty of cold water, plenty of brisk exercise’, not surgical mutilation, but the advice could have been misunderstood.

Such immoderate and fanatical effusions occasioned a man like Edward Lyttelton, who was a gentleman and no fanatic, embarrassment and uneasiness, for he knew that when boys once discovered that a fraud had been practised on them they would reject, not merely the fraud, but much else tainted by it. He was prudent enough to confess ruefully, at a later date, ‘athletes at Public Schools are never above the average standard of virtue, but often below it’,[29] for he knew that boys would be likely to find that out for themselves.

A distinctive feature of the new zeal, because it set the pattern also for changed relationships at school, was that the parent (mother) was urged to keep her male children under close surveillance for signs of illicit sexuality from an early infancy. ‘In a state of health, no sexual impression should ever affect a child’s mind or body’,[30] Acton told all who would give him attention; ‘Early voluptuous ideas . . .’, said another public counsellor, ‘transmitted from parents’ who have been ‘the victims of unbridled lust, may give rise to a dreadful set of circumstances’. If little boys were seen ‘to have a predilection for girls and (to use a Hunterian term) toying with them, they should be watched’.

Sketch of a Boy by Frederic Leighton, ca. 1850

‘Watch’, was, indeed, the watchword of the new order. It was alien to the spirit long venerated in the public schools, but now, in the name of moral purification, it began to be used to invade that social independence of boys which was the sacred centre of the old public-school tradition. The changes in the public schools came very slowly, were strongly resisted and little manifest up to the end of our period.

But they were moving towards the stage when Wilson would call with righteous urgency for ‘incessant watchfulness’, a concept as odious to the old style of master and boy as the notion of‘immorality’ — ‘in a special sense which I need not define’ was to Wilson. ‘We ought to watch for the slightest inclination’ of immorality, ‘a look, a smile, a gesture’ and help the boy at the right moment; the ‘help’ he had in mind being that ‘any offence would be followed by a whipping’[31]

Whether the new régime did, in fact, reduce what Wilson meant by ‘immorality’ is uncertain. Lyttelton, looking back on his own experience, was doubtful. ‘I admit many boys improve, but some only appear to do so. They learn wariness and decorum more easily than virtue.’ Even improvement might be a secret, and as undetectable as recession. There were no open data to work from, only heavily censored memories and subjective impressions and conjectures which could vary so widely that Sir W. Jenner estimated that eighty per cent of boys were implicated, a university physician put the proportion at sixty to seventy per cent and a school physician said that in his experience ‘immorality’ was ‘very rare’; he ‘had hardly known any’. An American admirer of the public schools received a very positive impression from his inquiries. ‘Throughout the Public Schools a vice is prevalent which is so shocking that it is never mentioned except among those most familiar with the life which the boys lead. And although the Masters have tried and keep trying to suppress it by every means in their power, there is as yet no real public sentiment against it.’[32] This independent view is corroborated by an increasing frustration of zealous schoolmasters in the second half of the century, who complained that, in the words of a typical deponent, the practices were ‘in very many cases so completely hidden from the Masters that, what ever they may suspect they can get no proof and that until ‘public opinion among schoolboys’ is conquered, ‘schoolmasters will fight (as they mostly do splendidly) at a serious disadvantage’.[33]

Stephen (later 2nd Baron Holland), the eldest Etonian son of Lady Caroline Fox, by William Hoare

It did not seem to have occurred to any of the best-intentioned moderns of moral reform that their prescription for a cure of supposed vice might, without achieving its intended effect, do injury to existing virtues. The drying up of the springs of spontaneity and openness was a high price to pay for good intentions of dubious efficacy. In 1758 Lady Caroline Fox had no objection to each of her sons Stephen and Charles sharing a bed with her sister’s, Lady Kildare’s sons, so long as they were agreeable — it was, after all, the general custom[34] — and when Lord Offaly and Charles were separated it was merely because they were restless and kicked the bedclothes off.[35] Before the middle of the following century the suggestion that two boys share a bed would have been unacceptable at Eton,[36] and would have been treated as scandalous at some other schools where new brooms had been introduced. Tolerance of the ancient habits was not due to naivety or ignorance. ‘Something very unpleasant has happened at Dupuis. . . .’ Miss Brown entered in her journal on 9 May 1826. ‘Lord Lindsay (Lord Balcarre’s son) and Deveraux are the boys concerned. . . .’[37] Such contingencies were accepted and dealt with as one of the many, but by no means one of the graver, hazards of school life, and the boys were presumed to be, on the whole, as competent to regulate this element of their social lives as any other. In practice the vigour of their execution sometimes needed restraining. Francis Cust, at Eton, wrote to his elder brother that when a man came down and tried to pick up boys ‘to take a walk with him’ in the playing fields, a party of boys seized him and would have thrown him into Barnes Pool, if Dr Keate, having been apprised of the proceedings, had not hastened to the scene and rescued him for delivery to the constable and presentation to the justices of Iver.[38]

This pragmatic treatment of sexual transactions appeared shockingly casual and careless to later moralists, but it did keep the subject in a temperate and practical zone of consideration and prevented a natural element in the human condition from being inflated into a morbid obsession, with masters described as living ‘over the crater of a volcano’,[39] and boys melodramatically exhorted from the pulpit to venerate the spirit of the great departed Pastor,’[40] who, when he had spoken of the dreadful menace, ‘his brow gathered blackness and his eyes fire, as he looked into the air, as though he could almost tear from it him whom he called “the hovering Demon of Impurity” ’.[41]

Masculine affection in an illustration from the 1869 edition of Tom Brown's Schooldays

That principle of agonized ‘incessant watchfulness’ not only eroded the character of independence and freedom which was the peculiar heritage of the public schools, but it generated a prurient preoccupation with the very subject it was intended to subdue. Instead of banishing ‘impurity’, ‘watchfulness’ infected innocent, and perhaps valuable, relations with suspicion. The time was coming in the seventies and eighties when a man would need to think very carefully whether he might not be seriously misunderstood, before he said, as a dying friend said to Henry Hart, ‘Now that I shall never see you again I do not mind telling you that I loved you; loved you as you deserved, as one seldom loves more than once, with my whole heart.’[42] By then, even at Eton, where old liberties died hard, affection between boy and boy, and indeed between man and boy also, was inhibited and disfigured by apprehension not less uneasy for being unjustified of the ‘hovering Demon’, and an older boy could not show an interest, however innocent or generous, in a younger, without its being remarked on, and a tendentious construction being put on it.[43]

But in the fifties and sixties the spirit of continuity and resistance to the character of the new order was still robust and effective at the old schools. At Harrow a much-loved housemaster used to make his rounds at night wearing hobnailed boots. At Eton a tutor on tour of his house might have, on going into a room where boys looked suspiciously studious, his own private opinion of what had been going on, but it would have been contrary to etiquette for him to express it. The utmost he might do was to make some ironical remark to show that he was not so simple as those he visited should like to think.[44] A tutor, a decade or so later, whose sense of propriety had been so far subverted by the new zeal to pry, or worse, to suggest that a senior boy might act as a spy, was sharply called to order. The captain of a house, writing home to his sister, Susan, alludes to such an approach made by his housemaster.

He actually had the impudence to say he thought I ought to make a periodic visit to the Lower Boys’ rooms to see that they were not committing any transgression. So I just up and told him straight out that I was as keen for the reputation of the House as he was himself, and was quite with him in doing anything to keep it up in reason, but if he wanted anyone to go sneaking about like a detective on the system of always expecting to find something wrong, he must get someone else to do it.[45]

Except in specialist publications where the subject was raised in abstract and sterilized terms, sexual life of boys in public schools, although it increasingly preoccupied adults concerned with the education of youth, was seldom alluded to openly in print. Even sophisticated writers like Brinsley Richards and Bracebridge Hemyng avoided reference to what they well knew existed,[46] although the latter was capable of writing, in another context, of adult sexual relations and prostitution.[47] They knew that in a society where childhood was sentimentalized in art, while child prostitution flourished as a favourite stimulant for the jaded, the subject of juvenile sexuality was too dangerous for exposure to be tolerable. An editor either would not publish particulars or, if he did, would risk calumny and possible prosecution.

Our Mess at m'Dame's by G.R. Winter: fagging at Eton, 1850

But the very forces which inhibited genuine inquiry promoted the cultivation of scandal. As early as 1840 social sensitivity was keen enough for potential blackmailers to spread rumours of ‘immorality’ at Eton, with the object of extorting hush money from the headmaster.[48] While the surface of ‘respectable’ life became more rigidly decorous - and vulnerable — the hidden world, ostensibly recognized by those who paid for and used it, became darker and more depraved. In the underground products of pornography, more joylessly brutal than anything preceding them, it was possible to say anything; but there, because it was pornography, it would not be the truth that was sought or found, but the provision of bizarre invention to gratify the secret appetites of men of public probity and principle. Thus, a book like The Adventures of a Schoolboy: or the Freaks of Youthful Passion (1866) will tell the historian little, or nothing, of actual life which is valid. The private conversations between men in which we know, from allusions in private diaries, that the realities were discussed in detail have passed away, in the main, unrecorded. Such records as were kept were liable to suffer the fate of Lord Byron’s and Sir Richard Burton’s papers at the hand of a conscientious friend or widow.

Occasionally, however, someone who could say much to the point from personal experience made an unwelcome and. embarrassing interruption of the ordinarily harmonious voluntaries and responses offered up by the Purity Alliance and other self-appointed proctors. The correspondence which followed the publication of J. M. Wilson’s lecture on ‘Immorality in Public Schools’ in 1883 proved more than one reader could allow to pass unchallenged. Refuting the primary hypotheses and the conclusion of the moral agitators which had hitherto been treated as sacrosanct, he shrewdly requested the editor to publish his letter, unless ‘only similar views to those already expressed are to be admitted’, since he entirely differed from Mr. Wilson and others who had written on the subject.

Calling himself ‘Olim Etonensis’, this correspondent supported his opinions with memories of his own school life, which internal evidence suggests had been c. 1855. He argued that no schoolmaster — and most of the previous correspondents were schoolmasters — knew much about the subject of immorality in his school because he was the last person who would be informed; and a schoolmaster was often as easily misled by evidence as by lack of evidence. Discovery did not in itself imply prevalence, and lack of discovery was no guarantee of immunity. He remembered that in his own schooldays sexual relations were most active when masters were congratulating themselves on the moral purity of tone in the school; and that at another time agitation and harassment were at their most intensive when there was least cause for them. As for the suggestion of enlisting the aid of ‘leading boys’ as ‘confidential friends’ of the masters’, who were to be, in fact, informers, the suggestion was ‘absolute rubbish’. If such a boy never told the master what really went on, the ‘confidential system’ was useless; if he did tell he must deny it to his schoolfellows, or what was almost worse, act as though he did not tell, and live a lie until he was discovered and rejected with loathing and contempt as a traitor and spy.

Staircase to the Upper School, Eton

However, ‘Olim Etonensis’ had good news for the distressed moralists. The results of the ‘evil’ they feared had been ‘ludicrously misrepresented’. He had in his mind’s eye a long list of those of his school contemporaries who were most addicted to this as opposed to other ‘vices’ such as drinking, bad language, stealing, bullying, idleness. What would he expect, from Mr Wilson’s view, to find had happened to those boys as men? He would have to point to mental and physical wrecks, men who had ‘dragged hitherto a miserable existence, preys to consumption and atrophy and insanity, or else outcasts from all good society’. But instead he had to report that these very same boys were today happy and successful men, cabinet ministers, army officers, country gentlemen, clergymen and active members of the other professions, and that they were nearly all of them, ‘fathers of thriving families’. There was nothing, in his opinion, in the moral conditions of schools that called for extraordinary measures. Indeed a particular friend of his, a man eminent in public life, a peer, the lord lieutenant of one of the shires, and the father of a public schoolboy, said that he dated his ‘self respect and attention to his appearance’ from the time when he was ‘taken up’ by an older boy at school. He therefore invited the previous correspondents to take comfort from the news that ‘happily an evil so difficult to cure is not so disastrous in its results’ as they had been misled into fearing. His advice to schoolmasters was ‘Let well alone.’[49]

Predictably, the letter gave great offence to those who had been raising the alarm. Not only was ‘Olim Etonensis’ attacked personally (or as personally as a sobriquet permitted) and warned that there was ‘a God in Heaven’ (by someone calling himself ‘An Oxford First Class Man’), but the editor was censured for having put the whole controversy on ‘a lower footing’ by publishing a letter which treated ‘a painful and terrible subject’ with ‘easy flippancy’ which was ‘enough to make all right thinking men, as well as angels, weep’. The writer most hostile to ‘Olim Etonensis’, nevertheless agreed with him that the best policy was to let well alone, because, he confessed, ‘for my part I should as soon think of explaining such things to my own daughters’. The way to deal with the fault was ‘instant expulsion’.

 ‘Olim Etonensis’s’ reference to the benign effects of an older boy ‘taking up’ a younger was tantalizingly brief; for that had been the most controversial, the rnost justified and the most criticized, element of the traditional system. Highly emotional friendship between an older and a younger boy, though, of course, without a hint of physical attraction, was presented by Thomas Hughes in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, as a noble and commendable association, favoured and encouraged by Dr Arnold,[50] who himself had had, and spoken openly of, an intense and emotional intimacy with another boy at Winchester.[51] At the time when ‘Olim Etonensis’ was at school, Frederick Farrar, an assistant master at Harrow, was writing on the subject of temptation and sin at a public school in Eric, or Little by Little (1858). Farrar did not object to emotional friendships for he himself was as tremulous and prodigal in emotion as a nervous, romantic spinster:

At last Eric broke the silence. ‘Russell, let me always call you Edwin, and you call me Eric.’ ‘Very gladly, Eric. Your company has made me so happy.’ And the two boys squeezed each other’s hands, and looked into each other’s faces, and silently promised that they would be loving friends forever.

But the ‘taking up’ of a younger by an older boy was a different matter, which Farrar, like Hughes, regarded with worried disapproval:

Frontispiece of Eric, or Little by Little

‘Your cousin Upton had “taken up” Williams,’ said Montague to Russell one afternoon as he saw the two strolling together on the beach with Eric’s arm in Upton’s.

‘Yes, I am sorry for it.’

‘So am I. We shan’t see so much of him now.’ ‘You mean you don’t like the “taking up” system?’

‘No, Montague; I used once to have fine theories about it. I used to fancy that a big fellow would do no end of good to one lower in the School and that the two would stand to each other in the relation of knight to squire. You know what the young knights were taught, Monty — to keep their bodies under subjection. To love God and speak the truth always. But when a boy takes up a little one, you know pretty well that those are not the kind of lessons he teaches.’

Farrar’s little prigs, for ever trembling and blushing, and clutching each other convulsively, preach indefatigably to each other, except when, in a crisis, their author interrupts to harangue them personally like an anxious coach on the touchline:

‘Now Eric, now or never! Life and death, ruin and salvation, corruption and purity, are perhaps in the balance together, and the scale of your destiny may hang on a single word of yours. Speak out, boy! Tell those fellows that unseemly words wound your conscience; tell them that they are ruinous, sinful, damnable; speak out and save yourself and the rest. Virtue is strong and beautiful, Eric, and vice is downcast in her awful presence.’

The carnal consequences of the indulgence into which Eric is tempted are described in sepulchral rhetoric:

Many and many a young English man has perished there, the jewel of his mother’s heart — brave and beautiful and strong lies buried there. Very pale their shadows rise before us, the shadows of our young brothers who have sinned and suffered. . . . May every schoolboy who reads this page be warned by the waving of their wasted hands, from that burning marle of passion, where they found nothing but shame and ruin, polluted affections and an early grave.[52]

Whatever life was like at school, it was not like that, past, present or future. Farrar was a freak and a joke in his own time at Harrow; teasing him was so rewarding that a great deal of skill and management went into the sport. It was carried far beyond mere classroom fooling. Harrovians set up an intelligence circuit with Marlborough and fed their correspondents with mischievous accounts of the torment to which Farrar was reputedly subject at Harrow. The Marlburians played their role in the game by writing solicitously to inquire of the victim how he was surviving the cruel persecution. Farrar’s response to the bait exceeded the conspirators’ most sanguine expectations. He wrote off at boiling point of indignation to his friend Beesley at Marlborough:

Revd. Frederic William Farrar (1831-1903), schoolmaster & author

My dear Beesley, I am perpetually annoyed by letters from the boys at M[arlborough] speaking as if I have been subject to personal violence by the boys here, and today I have been informed that I had been tied by a great coat and pelted with cinders. I can’t tell you the ineffable disgust which these preposterous rumours give me, and as they are as grotesquely and groundlessly and absolutely false and as diametrically the reverse of anything possible as they can be, I do wish once and for all that they could be authoratively corrected. Whence such absurdly and gratuitously nonsensical tittle tattle can have originated I cannot even dream unless some Harrovians have been humbugging one of the M[arlborough] fellows. The idea! I wonder whether you all think me made of straw. Likely that I should be roughly handled [by] every one and all of whom instantly obey my slightest order and who are in a complete state of subjection. . . .[53]

The effects of these humiliating experiences upon Farrar are seen in his attempts to depict in fiction the character of sinister and mischievous juveniles. He is here describing the kind of boy at Harrow whom he dreaded, while yet unable himself entirely to resist the spell of the bad boys’ allure:

I am sorry to write of this boy. Young in years, he was singularly old in vice. A more brazen, a more impudent, a. more hardened little scapegrace — in school-boy language ‘a cooler hand’_ — it would have been impossible to find. He had early gained the nickname of Raven from his artful looks. His manner was a mixture of calm audacity and consummate self conceit. Though you knew him to be a thorough scamp, the young imp would stare you in the face with the effrontery of a man about town. He was active, sharp and nice looking, and there was nothing which he was either afraid or ashamed to do. He had not a particle of that modesty which in every good boy is as natural as it is graceful; he could tell a lie without the slightest hesitation or the faintest blush; nay, while he was telling it, though he knew it was a lie, he would not abash for an instant the cold glances of his wicked, dark eyes. Yet this boy . . . was only thirteen years old. And for all these reasons Wilton was the idol of all the big bad boys in the school . . . for the boy had in him the fascination of a serpent.[54]

But his is a view from the outside; for Farrar was never inside a public school as a boy, and what is offered as a likeness is largely the fruit of his fancy.

What then did go on in the schools, which so agitated the moral sensibilities of the Victorians? The broad answer is that, as in the outside world, there was no uniformity in depth, only a spurious superficial uniformity. There was innocence and there was depravity, and all the intervening gradations of distinction. Hallam was loved at Eton almost to the point of adoration by his intimates, but, although there has been speculation to the contrary, I should be very surprised if there had been any element of conscious sensuality in the relationships. At the same time in the same school another circle of boys was engaged in practices similar to those in the male brothel in Cleveland Street of subsequent notoriety. Romantic, sacrificial friendships and rabid sensual lusts all went on in the same community together. It was possible for a boy to go through school without having an inkling of what was going on under his nose. Stanley said that when he read Tom Brown’s Schooldays he discovered a world the existence of which he had not even suspected when he was at Rugby. If that is true, then more had been happening at Rugby, in his time — and very close to him — than he dreamed of, even after reading Tom Brown’s Schooldays. He was destined as an adult to learn something of that hidden world in dramatic and shocking circumstances. It was a world virtually impenetrable to an adult save by betrayal from within. Boys were prohibited by one stern code from revealing what they knew: men were deterred by another from uncovering what they remembered. Occasionally a serious accident occurred and, after a muffled explosion, a list of casualties was posted.

The dormitory, Westminster School, ca. 1840

1859 was the year of the purge at Westminster, when five notabilities among the senior boys and athletes were condemned to banishment. Execution was quiet and discreet, but there was no disguise attempted in the entry in the Town Boy Ledger, which was intended only for the eyes of the writer’s peers and his successors. ‘Senior boys were surprised by being called out of bed late at night and summoned singly before Scott and Marshall and questioned as to immorality in the school in general and in College in particular.’ Investigation went on until 3 a.m., the boys being isolated and allowed no communication with each other before interrogation. The sequel was that five senior boys were sent away. They were the following: Henry James Frederic Pratt, future sub—deputy opium agent (in Bareilly); James Thomas O’Brien, second son of the Bishop of Ossery, Ferns and Leighlin: commissioned ensign in the 43rd Foot; promoted major; the circumstances of his departure from Westminster did not prevent a memorial brass being erected to him in the school lobby; Charles William Spencer Stanhope, Vicar of Crowton, Cheshire; Charles Robert Henderson; Worcester College, Oxford: died Port Perry, Ontario, Canada, 2 September 1866; George Upperton, ensign 3rd Foot; died 1875. Five others were rusticated and eleven lesser offenders ‘were operated on in the library’.[55] The zeal of the inquisition and the scale of the sentences were signs of the times. Ten years earlier there would have been no such solemn and strenuous audit of transient paederasty. But in the new climate of moral intensity, masters felt obliged, in the rare event of a confession, to use the intelligence obtained to make a cautionary example of great delinquents. It should not be disregarded that the increased anxiety about suspected moral ‘impurity’ of boys corresponded with the increased sequestration of boys from the company of the other sex. Not long before, it had been perfectly understood that an adult woman might take a romantic interest in an adolescent boy, and the beautiful Eton Dame, Florella Angello, had written to a friend in verse on her sense of loss at the imminent departure of two of her favourites:

I’m left quite alone
For Coleridge[56] and Evans[57] my favourites are gone
Such elegant figures such charming young men
I never shall look on their like again,
However of late my examining eye
Has fixed upon one their loss to supply
And that one is Townsend[58] such douceur such grace
So slender a waist and so smiling a face
His figure delights me he must be my beau
In short I will have him to breakfast just so.[59]

Harrow School in 1858

Shortly before the Westminster purge there had been a lesser disturbance at Harrow. The accused were treated leniently; nobody was expelled, from which it might have been supposed that the culpability had been trivial or doubtful. But out of sight a more serious drama was in preparation. While ‘Olim Etonensis’ was still at school, a contemporary of his at Harrow, who must have known Farrar as assistant master, was taking observation for that stark portrayal, which was lacking, of the ‘hidden world’ alluded to by baffled headmasters. However strict the code of silence of a secret sodality, it is never entirely free from the hazard of admitting a natural betrayer, that is, a betrayer who follows his course, not in submission to a contrary allegiance, nor entirely from motives of ambition, but in obedience to a deep-rooted instinct to betray.

Such a natural betrayer was the boy, John Addington Symonds, who arrived at Harrow in the spring of 1854, at the age of fourteen. The son of a prosperous medical practitioner, John was an intelligent, observant, unhappy, introspective child, on his own admission ‘neurotic’. His mother, he suspected, with a constitution inadequate to the strain of childbirth, had ‘transmitted neurotic temperament to certain of her children’. He was also what today is called ‘homosexual’, a person not only physically attracted by members of his own sex, but incapable of maturing intimacy with a member of the opposite sex in the role of mate. The category of homosexual was not recognized in Symonds’s youth; he himself helped to promote the concept, if not the term, in the field of psychopathological diagnosis. Previously, love between men had of course been recognized and celebrated with approval in literature and art. The occurrence of sexual lust between males was treated not as an abnormal alternative to heterosexual relations, but as a supplement to normal sexual intercourse, indulged in by profligate sensualists in quest of increased variety.[60] A sodomite was identified by his‘ acts, not by the nature which caused them. The boy Symonds was thus to find himself a mystery to himself; for he feared and was repelled in its physical reality by what excited and disturbed his imagination, and he did not at school perform the forbidden acts, which others did out of sheer animal exuberance, but his mind dwelt on them with a mixture of revulsion and fascination. Like many other little boys before him, Symonds arrived at his public school in a state of bleak loneliness. ‘I felt,’ he said, ‘as though my heart would break, as I crunched up the ground beneath the boughs of budding trees.’ He nerved himself for the long ordeal that lay ahead by recalling the formula he had heard adults use to account for his fate: ‘I have to be made a man of.’

Symonds was not a boy with qualities likely to endear him to other boys. Timid, shy and unsociable, he was physically feeble, deficient in vigour both of body and mind, incapable, he felt, of asserting himself; he was also subject to boils, styes and colds. These unattractive blemishes would not have raised insuperable barriers if he had played any game well, or merely possessed the redemptive grace of a little charm. But he shrank from all games as if constitutionally disabled. He could not throw a ball or a stone like other boys, and, to his especial chagrin, he could not learn to whistle like them; and at the centre of his timidity was not an imprisoned generosity, but a brooding arrogance which required time ‘to stand aloof to preserve the inner self inviolate, to await its evolution’. Conceiving himself, when he was merely disregarded, ‘perpetually snubbed, or crushed, or mortified’, he felt his ‘inner self harden after a dumb kind of fashion’ and he kept repeating, ‘Wait, wait. I will, I will.’ What he was to wait for and what he was to become he did not ask. But an impulse to revenge through an act of destruction in the exercise of power was gathering, and it was a force all the more dangerous for being unconscious.

Hog Lane by George Cruikshank: Harrovians loot the premises of a disfavoured tradesman, 1826

In school work — and that of course meant classics — John Addington Symonds did well, and he enjoyed the benefit of study under the best classic ever to have been the school’s headmaster. Charles Vaughan had ruled Harrow ever since in 1844, ‘a smooth faced boy’, he was advised by Turton[61] when the headmastership of Harrow fell vacant not to waste himself on the school. Harrow had suffered more and recovered less than any other public school from the depredations of the rebellion era. Some of the older buildings only survived because James Richardson had dissuaded the insurgents from burning them down (at Byron’s instigation) ‘since they would be destroying their own fathers’ ’ names carved on the wood panelling.[62] In 1844 there were only sixty-nine boys left in the school, and these were in a state of such indiscipline and insubordination that Vaughan, on being chosen as headmaster, was advised by the Vicar of Harrow, who was also a school governor, to expel the lot, and have back only such as he chose, on his own terms.[63] The favourite sport of Harrovians was then throwing stones at living targets, and practice had made their aim accurate. Not a dog could live on Harrow Hill. Tradesmen feared to bring their carts near the school lest their ponies were maimed or blinded.[64] Within two years order reigned under a Rugbeian monitorial system; the number of boys had risen to 200 and continued to rise, until in Symonds’s time it reached 469, while the reputation of Harrow soared from its lowest level to unprecedented heights.

We first met Dr Vaughan as a schoolboy at Rugby under Arnold. ‘Monstrous cute’ was how ‘Muscleman’ Oswell had described him in a letter to his mother,[65] which was Rugbeian slang for ‘very clever’. From being ‘monstrous cute’ and sitting on the right hand of Dr Arnold in his sixth-form convocation, Vaughan went on to become one of the two scholastic celebrities produced by Rugby in Arnold’s time, the other being his closest friend and future brother-in-law, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, ‘Two of the most remarkable men of our time’, said the historian, George Rawlinson.[66] Vaughan went to Cambridge and Trinity and was first Classic of the university, collecting also the Porson Prize and the Chancellor’s medal. He was elected Fellow of Trinity College and in 1841 became incumbent of St Martin’s, Leicester. In 1842 at the age of twenty-six and looking less, he was considered by the school governors (by one vote) too young to succeed his former master, Thomas Arnold, as headmaster of Rugby. Two years later he was offered and accepted the post of headmaster of Harrow.

Charles Vaughan as headmaster of Harrow, by George Richmond, ca. 1850

Old Harrovians and parents of Harrovians were keenly aware of the debt they and the school owed Dr Vaughan. Even the Earl of Galloway, at his most indignant over his son Randolph’s treatment by the monitor Platt, went out of his way to pay tribute to ‘the fostering care of so gifted a Master and so excellent a man as Dr Vaughan, whose character and admirable qualities have raised Harrow so high in general satisfaction’.[67] The most exacting of a headmaster’s critics, the assistant masters, prized the privilege of serving under his leadership. Of his strength of will, ‘perfect self possession’ in ‘calm repose of power’ and purpose, there was never any doubt. ‘We all knew,’ said Montagu Butler, first assistant master and destined to be Vaughan’s successor, ‘we had at our head a strong ruler who was not to be trifled with.’ The ‘impenetrable meekness’ hiding ‘an iron will and determined resolution’[68] and a softness of voice and manner, at first almost startling, never left any illusion with boys and masters alike as to his penetrating insight or resolute strength.[69] There was something mysterious, almost inhuman it seemed to some, about Vaughan, which lay in the co-existence of his ‘inelastic softness of voice’ and ‘unrufleable suavity of expression’ together with severe and sometimes ruthless performance. It was told of Vaughan that he indicated the termination of a particularly severe flogging by saying to the recipient in dulcet tones, ‘Thank you, my dear boy, I won’t trouble you any more today.’[70] Vaughan himself said he found it an advantage that ‘the more angry I am with a boy, the calmer I am in appearance’. ‘In truth,’ said an Old Harrovian, ‘there was no art to find the construction of Vaughan’s mind either in his face or his voice. There was an element of inscrutability in him.’[71]

Another element in the paradox was what Sir George Trevelyan called Vaughan’s ‘abundant drollery, carefully suppressed in uncongenial company’. Under his official air of solemnity was an exquisite sense of the ridiculous and his soft-voiced irony could sear. Montagu Butler, speaking ‘from clear personal recollection’ put it with tactful understatement: ‘his bright wit and sense of the ludicrous were not always untinged with sarcasm’.[72] To a self-important mother who said that before she entered her son for the school she must ask the headmaster whether he was particular about the social antecedents of the boys accepted, he is said to have replied, ‘Dear Madam, as long as your son behaves himself and his fees are paid no questions will be asked about his social antecedents.’

Vaughan was an exact scholar who wrote English with the same limpid economy with which he wrote Greek, but he was not in the least what today would be called an ‘intellectual’, in the meaning of someone who traffics in modish concepts of political or social philosophies. Matthew Arnold, who was very much an ‘intellectual’, said that Vaughan — they had, of course, known one another since boyhood -- was ‘brutally ignorant’,[73] which meant, at the least, that Vaughan did not read the books which Arnold read or, more damning still, those which he wrote. It may also have meant that Arnold had been in collision with one of those strokes of what G. W. E. Russell called the ‘remorseless sarcasm and mordant wit’ which Vaughan concealed ‘under the blandest of manners’, never returning from a visit to the Athenaeum of which he was a member, without ‘leaving behind him some pungent sentence which travelled from mouth to mouth and spared neither age nor sex nor friendship nor affinity’.[74]

Montagu Butler was devoted to Vaughan both as Harrovian boy and later as assistant master; but when Butler came to succeed Vaughan as headmaster, Henry Sidgwick remarked of the appointment that he ‘only wants experience to carry Vaughan’s system of disinterested and unremittingly careful management thoroughly well; and he will add this important advantage that nobody will ever fancy him insincere’.[75] In such occasional, fleeting allusions a faint but tenacious suggestion of uncongenial mystery persisted, the more baffling for being indefinable, for there was nothing evasive in Vaughan’s public personality.

Being headmaster of Harrow and in holy orders, Dr Vaughan necessarily preached from the pulpit of the school chapel. He once continued to preach with gentle, unbroken composure while a boy in the congregation was in the noisy throes of an epileptic fit. His sermons, sometimes terse, never prolix, often elegant, always well organized and coherent (which could not be said of all his fraternity’s emanations), were models of homilies for boys. He even managed to preach with dignity on ‘The Excitement of Sensuality’. John Addington Symonds must have been one of those who heard this address, when it was first delivered from the pulpit at Harrow, beginning, ‘It is a great thing, my brethren, early in life to fight it out with the body; to settle the question once and for all, whether the body or the mind and soul shall be master.’[76]

Symonds may even have pondered the words when he returned to his house (Rendall’s) where ‘the body’ was, at that time, notably masterful, as he tells us in his manuscript autobiography:[77]

Every boy of good looks had a female name and was recognized either as a public prostitute or as some bigger fellow’s bitch. Bitch was the word in common usage to indicate a boy who yielded his person to another. The talk in the studies and dormitories was incredibly obscene. One could not avoid seeing acts of onanism, mutual masturbation and the sport of naked boys in bed together. There was no refinement, no sentiment, no passion, nothing but animal lust in these occurences. They filled me with disgust and loathing.[78]

Love Amongst the Schoolboys by Simeon Solomon, 1868

They also filled him with a curious feeling of fascination, even for the acts and players whom he most protested to loathe. The times and occasions he professed to detest attracted him ‘in fancy’ and always found him contiguous and hovering. Two of the chief lechers in what appeared to be a particularly bad house were called Currey[79] and Clayton.[80] The latter he could dismiss as a ‘brutal clown’, ‘stupid, perverse and clumsy’, but Currey, ‘a clever Irish lad’, troubled him, for although he was ‘dirty in his dress and person, filthy in his talk, shamelessly priapic in his conduct’, he was also a better scholar than Symonds himself, and, as Symonds discovered to his bewilderment, there were ‘really fine intellectual and emotional qualities beneath the satyric exterior’.

Another in the same set, Barker, ‘was like a good-natured bugimands ape, gibbering on his perch and playing ostentatiously with a prodigiously developed phallus’. A minion in the same house who at one time or another served all three of ‘the Beasts as they were playfully called’, was a boy called Cookson[81] whom Symonds describes as ‘a red faced strumpet with flabby cheeks and female mouth — the notissima fossa of our House’. Cookson’s fate may illustrate the ways in which the warlike sodomites used terror to defend their secrets. Symonds did not know what Cookson had done to incur the displeasure of his erstwhile protectors but, whatever it may have been, he saw its effects in the kind of displays which were omitted from Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Symonds says, ‘I have seen nothing more repulsive in my life — except at the Alhambra Theatre when I saw a jealous man tear the earrings out of the ruptured lobes of a prostitute’s ears and all the men in the saloon rose raging against him for his brutality — than the inhuman manner in which the poor creature Cookson came afterwards to be treated by his former lovers [stallions is crossed out].’ After he had been rolled on the floor, indecently exposed and violated in front of spectators, Currey, Clayton and Barker took to ‘trampling’ on Cookson whenever they encountered him in the passages and in the court through which they entered the house from the road; ‘they squirted saliva and what they called “goby” upon their bitch, cuffed and kicked him at their mercy, shied shoes at him and drove him with curses whimpering to his den’.[82]

Meanwhile Symonds conducted his own love life on an entirely different and ethereal plane, as he supposed. He formed infatuations for remote and unattainable figures, such as the ‘big and powerful’ boy named Huyshe,[83] whose hymn book he stole from his seat in chapel; but he never spoke to him. The one who caused him to shudder and quake with a mixture of longing and dread was Henry Dering,[84] whom he likened to a ‘handsome Greek brigand’[85] with a ‘body powerful and muscular, lissome as a tiger’. Symonds confessed, ‘The fierce and cruel lust of this magnificent animal excited my imagination.’ Dering was in The Grove, but he used to come into Rendall’s ‘after a plump, fair-haired boy called Ainslie,[86] whom we dubbed Bum Bathsheba because of his opulent posterior parts’.[87]

The energy and number of Dering’s activities got him into trouble. It was one of his adventures which occasioned the brief disturbance on the confident surface of Harrow, to which reference has been made. ‘Dering,’ reports Symonds, ‘sent a note in school to a handsome lad, O’Brien,’[88] who went by the name of Leila. It informed him that he had a good bed ready and asked him to come there in the interval between 3rd and 4th School, that is from 4-5 p.m.’ The note fell into the hands of the form master who gave it to Vaughan. The entire school was summoned to the Speech Room. The headmaster, without the other masters in attendance, read the letter aloud, strongly condemned the use of female names for boys,[89] and pronounced sentence. Dering was to be flogged; O’Brien had lines set him, how many Symonds did not remember. Another of those present also remembered the scene vividly, and published an account many years later, omitting, of course, the names and details which Symonds recorded in his unpublished autobiography:

The Speech Room, Harrow School

There must be those who can recall the summons of the whole School to the Speech-room (in the Old School building) where the boys sat on raised tiers of seats, filling every corner and the Masters with the Headmaster in the middle sat on a platform. Dr Vaughan entered the room last of all, and as he reached his central chair the door was closed. But there were occasions when special offences may have been committed and the closing of the door and the Headmaster’s sitting down, with a murmer [sic] which was quite awful in its calmness and solemnity of address which created the profoundest impression, are things to be remembered.

One particular occasion can be recalled, when he alone, without the Masters, met the School in this way, and had the great assemblage of boys, it is not too much to say, in the hollow of his hand. The stillness was phenomenal, and the impression produced by the words, addressed to the School in general and to the culprit in particular, cannot be exaggerated. Dr Vaughan had a way of pushing back his chair when the business was concluded, which seemed to say better than words that all was over.[90]

Symonds was left puzzled by the lenity or, as he put it, ‘inadequate form’[91] of the punishment. Several years later, when he was a monitor, he was consorting with another boy called Alfred Pretor,[92] a Lyon Scholar and as good a classic as Symonds himself. Pretor was quite different from Symonds in temperament: volatile, extrovert, and much more active socially. Symonds accounted him an inferior being to himself, resented such successes as he might obtain, and viewed him with a mixture of envy and contempt.[93] Yet evidently they had something in common without either of them understanding clearly what it was. What they had in common was a feminine cast of male homosexuality, with barbed tensions of rivalry which might exist between female adolescents of marked vanity.

In January 1858, when Symonds was approaching the end of his time at Harrow and looking forward to translation to Balliol College, Pretor wrote to him in high excitement to boast of a new lover to whom he had given himself. It was a letter, given the moral climate of the times, of stupendous folly and indiscretion, for it identified his new lover by name as their own headmaster, Dr Vaughan. Symonds’s first impulse was to disbelieve, but he was unable to resist the evidence of a series of ‘passionate letters’ from Vaughan to Pretor, which his schoolfriend showed him, at the same time binding him to secrecy. Once he was convinced of the truth of Pretor’s boast, Symonds’s feelings were violent and confused. He told himself he was ‘disgusted’ to find such vice in a man ‘holding the highest position of responsibility, consecrated by the Church, entrusted with the welfare of 600[94] youths’, etc. How far these were postures of convenience would appear later. The real spring of emotion was jealousy. Symonds felt insulted by Vaughan’s ‘taste’ in having preferred Pretor to himself. He discovered that he had never liked Vaughan; now he began ‘positively to dislike him’, although his own inclination, which he could not ignore, prevented him from ‘utterly condemning Vaughan’ and, mixed with his righteous indignation and resentment, was a ‘dumb, persistent sympathy’.

Brooding on the headmaster’s ‘clandestine pleasure’ produced, he says, an ‘indescribable fermentation’ in his brain. He began to suspect that Dr Vaughan, when they were reading Greek iambics together in his study, was making tentative physical advances to him and he considered whether to confront Vaughan with his information and ask him what the whole thing meant. In fact he did and said nothing for the time being, but he enjoyed ‘a terrible new sense of power’, and he meditated in solitude a future course of action. A scheme of betrayal was already being plotted.

Symonds as an undergraduate

Symonds waited until he had left Harrow and was an undergraduate at Balliol. To be acceptable, any move to ruin Vaughan had to shift responsibility for the deed from himself on to someone who could be relied on to exert moral force majeure; Symonds could then appear to himself and, he hoped, to others as a reluctant informer, a mere dutiful medium of evidence rather than an exulting prosecutor. The first step was to confide his knowledge to an older man, a member of the university in a position of authority who could be expected to take a severe and censorious view of the events. He chose John Conington who had been elected in 1854 to the newly founded Chair of Latin Language and Literature. As he had foreseen, Conington (a repressed homosexual)[95] was scandalized by the account and insisted that Symonds had a duty to ‘Harrow, English Society and the Established Church’ to disclose what he knew to his father, which ‘annihilated all considerations of confidence between boys in state pupolaggi’. This was just the pressure Symonds was waiting for and he responded in sympathetic compliance. ‘My blood boiled; my nerves stiffened when I thought what mischief life at Harrow was doing daily to young lads under the authority of a hypocrite.’ Once Conington was told, ‘the matter could not stop there’. It had ‘virtually passed out of my hands’, Symonds was able to tell himself as, with a reluctant air, he carried the incriminating evidence to his father.

‘I played the part of a candid and irrefragable witness,’ he wrote, then crossed that out and substituted, ‘The evidence was plain and irrefragable’. Not so plain, however, that he did not have to lay aside the mask of passivity. ‘It took a little time to convince my father . . .’; so he went through the business of exposure, ‘painfully but steadily’. Then he stood back and examined the protagonist in the opera: himself. ‘Wait, wait!’ he had exclaimed, when the little world of Harrow had treated him with insufficient respect. Now they would all learn what they had waited for. ‘It was a singular position for a youth of eighteen,’ he reflected. ‘I had become the accuser of my old Headmaster, a man for whom I felt no love, and who had shown me no [special inserted as an afterthought] kindness, but who was after all the contemporary ruler of the petty State of Harrow: my accusations rested solely upon the private testimony of an intimate friend whose confidences I violated by communicating the letter to a third party.’ To complicate his feelings there was this deep feeling of uneasy sympathy — in fact sympathetic guilt — for Vaughan which, instead of acting as a deterrent, ‘determined me to tell the bitter truth’. But the bitter truth was the truth of himself as much as of the man whom he plotted to destroy.

Once his father was convinced, Symonds knew the matter was truly out of his hands, or rather, that his hands were no further required to consummate the plot he had set in motion. Dr Symonds did what was expected of him. He wrote to Dr Vaughan intimating that he had proof of his correspondence with Alfred Pretor, but promised not to make a public exposure provided he resigned the headmastership of Harrow immediately and sought no further advancement in the Church. Otherwise ‘the facts [story deleted] would have to be divulged [published in The Times deleted]’.[96]

Clifton Hill House, where the Vaughans came to see Symonds's father

On receipt of the letter Dr Vaughan travelled from Harrow to Clifton and called on Dr Symonds; he inspected Pretor’s letter, accepted the terms. Then and afterwards he seems to have behaved with impersonal, almost inhuman, composure over the sudden blight of a flowering career. We do not know what was in his mind on the journey to Clifton, but there is a passage in his celebrated sermon on ‘Excitement’ which that sardonic irony of his may have recalled.

There is the excitement of sensuality in all its forms; an excitement so strong, and for the moment so pleasurable that he who has once yielded to it soon forms the habit of such indulgence, and he who has once formed the habit, always persists in it till his sin is his ruin.[97]

Mrs Vaughan, Stanley’s sister, followed her husband to Clifton and implored Dr Symonds on her knees to withhold execution of the sentence. She had been aware of this ‘weakness’ of her husband’s, but it had not interfered with his usefulness in the direction of the school at Harrow. Dr Symonds ‘suffered at the sight but could not accede. . .’.

In subsequent negotiations with Symonds, Vaughan was represented by his brother-in-law, Dean Stanley, and another friend, Hugh Pearson, afterwards Canon of Windsor. Whether Stanley had known or suspected previously, he certainly was privy to Vaughan’s secret from then on.

Vaughan announced his decision to retire from Harrow to an unprepared and astonished public. ‘It was with feelings akin to consternation,’ said a contemporary, ‘in both Town and School that the news came that he intended to resign.’[98] He managed the sudden alteration with perfect self-possession and seeming ease, with ‘consummate skill’ remarked Symonds, torn between resentment and admiration. All efforts to persuade him to reverse his decision were met with a gentle but inflexible constancy. ‘Fifteen years of headmastership,’ he said at a banquet in his honour, ‘was as much as a man’s strength could stand, and quite enough for the welfare of the School he governed.’ Of course there had to be a farewell sermon in the school chapel. It was entitled ‘Yet Once More’.

Yet once more. The expression implies it is here said, an approaching change. Whenever we speak of doing a thing once more, of visiting a place once more, of seeing a person once more, we imply that there is about to be, after that one act, after that one visit, a cessation, a removal, a separation, the thought of which is already casting its shadow over it and us.[99]

Noli Episcopari, a caricature of Dr. Vaughan in Vanity Fair, 24 August 1872

To the outside world, the ‘shadows’ in the story were a mysterious paradox. No sooner had Vaughan left Harrow than the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, offered him a bishopric, the see of Worcester. He declined it. His friends appealed to him not to refuse further preferment and honours as there was no limit to his prospects in the Church. He was thought of as having qualities of strength needed by a primate capable of representing the interests of the Church against men like Gladstone and Westbury.[100] Palmerston offered him a second see, that of Rochester. This time he seemed about to accept, then, at the last moment, he refused that bishopric also. In the interval he had received a warning shot across his bows in the form of a telegram from Dr Symonds. Thereafter he firmly put from him all consideration of the high offices which from time to time the prime minister continued to press on him, and he resisted with patience and tact the continued appeals of his baffled friends not to waste himself in retirement to a comfortable but obscure incumbency at Doncaster. ‘I value your kind words about the Bishopric,’ he wrote on 1 November 1862 in answer to a remonstrance from W. C. Lake and others. ‘It grieves me to vex my friends by seeming waywardness in such matters; they must do their best to believe that I would not act thus except from a strong sense of its being right for me.’

Two years later, when Palmerston tried to tempt him yet once more, this time with the bishopric of Ely, he had once more to meet the disappointment of his friends. ‘Do not think I act from whim or caprice in the course which I have taken and to which I feel I must adhere.’[101]

The apparently unworldly example given by a man of Vaughan’s attainments and status had an effect unforeseen by the Symonds, father and son. Vaughan became, in the eyes of the world, a noble exemplar of Christian humility and disinterestedness in a Church of preferment-hungry prelates, ‘the one living instance of nolo episcopari, who refused bishoprics one after another to hold upon his quiet way’.[102] The more he turned away honours the more he was sanctified. ‘The motives of his disinterestedness,’ said Trevelyan, ‘were not of this world’,[103] and other reports of his admirers suggest that in adversity he lost none of his satirical sense, even when the joke was against himself. Of his refusals to accept any of the succession of bishoprics offered him, a reverential witness remarked ‘Various reasons have been ascribed for this, but probably the best of all is to be found in the reply he made when asked why he had refused to be a Bishop. “I was afraid,” he said, “of ambition.”[104]

Canon R. R. Williams, knowing nothing of the drama which led to Vaughan’s renunciation, shows an almost uncanny sensitivity in divining the quality of the experience, through a choice of biblical quotation. ‘The men laid hold upon his hand, the Lord being merciful to him and said, “Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain, escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed.” ’[105] The influence he exercised without any official standing was great. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Herschell, said that when Dr Vaughan recommended a candidate for preferment to his notice, he considered that recommendation ‘equivalent to a Royal Command’. It became a cult for men training for the ministry to resort to Doncaster to sit at the feet of the illustrious Dr Vaughan. His kindness and generosity to the young men, ‘the pick and flower of the Church of England’[106] who came to study under him were proverbial. One of his most faithful disciples, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Edward Benson), remarked, ‘For a man to gather round him a set of pupils, year after year, not coming to him because of any official position that he had, or because of the membership of any corporation, College or Society — that I believe to stand absolutely alone, at all events in modern history.’[107]

The Vaughan Library, Harrow

It was decided to commemorate Vaughan’s services to Harrow by building a Vaughan Library, and the foundation stone was laid in 1861 by Lord Palmerston, who said ‘that it was fitting they should commemorate the School’s greatest Headmaster with a building in which the love of learning could be gratified’.[108] A full-length portrait of Vaughan by George Richmond was hung in the library and it hangs there today, described, when it was new and fashionable, as ‘one of the most impressive portraits of modern times’, conveying an expression of ‘goodness’ and ‘simple holiness’ which was most striking.[109]

From his observation post at Oxford, Symonds peered incredulously at the scene of public acclaim. The betrayal of Vaughan and of his own friend Pretor had been, he felt, ‘a severe strain on my nervous and moral strength’, and the contrast between the fidelity of his report of events, and his self-deception concerning his own motives was such that he was unprepared and bewildered to find himself treated as a pariah by Pretor and those former Harrovian friends who knew what he had done. While he plotted the undoing of Vaughan ‘painfully and steadily’, he was able to apply at the same time an entirely different set of standards to himself, searching avidly for knowledge of the history and justification of the practices which he denounced in another. From the grapevine of Oxonian crypto-paederasty he learned that one source of authoritative information and sympathetic counsel was William Johnson. After reading with fascination Ionicus, he wrote to Johnson expressing ‘the state of my own feelings and asking for advice’. The answer was, he says, ‘a big epistle upon paederastia in modern times, defending it and laying down the principle that affection between persons of the same sex is no less natural than the ordinary passionate relations’.[110] Under ]ohnson’s ‘frank exposition’ lay, Symonds felt, ‘a wistful yearning’, and the state of ‘disappointment and enforced abstention’.

It was the next phase of partial self—knowledge for Symonds. From Oxford onwards he pursued the subject of paederasty in theory and in practice; for the resistance he had felt at Harrow proved to be the fruit, not of virtue and modesty, but of vanity and coyness. Before long he was cultivating Percival, the headmaster of Clifton College (situated near his home) and fishing for invitations to address the sixth form in order to facilitate his designs to seduce a chorister called Willie Dyer.[111] The incongruity of his own private life and his recent moral rhetoric in justification of betraying a friend’s confidence does not seem to have touched his sensibilities until his father, who had become aware of his son’s propensity, but took an indulgent view of it, counselled caution.[112]

In the course of his subsequent career as a writer, Symonds resided much in Mediterranian countries, especially Italy, for ‘reasons of health’, and the pleasure he took in the company of young Italians of humble station never seemed to pale. His tastes were no secret from contemporary English men of letters. They were not a subject which would be alluded to openly in print, but Victorians knew how to put the knife in quietly. Richard Garnett observed, ‘Notwithstanding his habitual association with men of the highest culture, no trait in his character was more marked than his readiness to fraternize with peasants and artisans.’[113]

Cartoon of "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce in Vanity Fair, 1869

The interior glimpse our perverse spy has given us was of Harrow. But the scene might equally well have been of Eton or Winchester, or any of the other public schools; we know enough in general terms to know that; we also have cause to believe that what Symonds recorded was merely part of a whole, of which at least another, and probably greater, part was innocent of the practices which he described. How many comparable dramas were acted out of sight it is impossible to guess; for, without a chronicler to reveal and with a sedulous fraternity of censors to conceal, much must have been kept hidden and buried in darkness without leaving a trace. We do not even know whether the sudden and mysterious departure from Eton of William Johnson was due to the discovery of an illicit act, or merely to the expansion of a hyper-prudery in the latter part of the century. It could have been the latter, for conduct which would not have attracted critical notice in the forties had become, by the seventies, sinister indiscretion. In the case of Vaughan there were those who had their suspicions that all was not as it appeared. One was the ubiquitous ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, he whose hands had clawed the air in search of the ‘hovering Demon of Impurity’.[114] After Vaughan had retired from Harrow and refused preferment, Wilberforce sought out Hugh Pearson as the one man who was sure to know what there was to be known, and tried to extort information with threats. ‘I am certain that Vaughan had some good reason for leaving Harrow and refusing two mitres. An ugly story must be behind. You had better make a friend of me. If I discover the truth I shall be an enemy.’ Pearson refused to be drawn. Some time later Wilberforce returned in triumph to say that he had learned ‘the whole secret’ from a lady next to whom he was placed at a dinner party. ‘And what have you done?’ said Pearson. ‘Oh, I have told the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister.’[115] The intelligence made little difference to the prime minister, who continued to try to persuade Vaughan to accept high office, and it seems likely that effective pressure was put on Wilberforce to curb his tongue, for despite that one dinner-table indiscretion, the ‘whole secret’ was so well kept that even friends of Vaughan’s like his successor at Harrow, Montagu Butler, and W. C. Lake, seem, by the continuance of their lavish public expression of admiration and affection for him, to have remained ignorant of the true cause of his enigmatic renunciation.

After the death of Dr Symonds in 1871, Vaughan felt able to accept the.honourable but inconspicuous appointments of Dean of Llandaff and Master of the Temple. For the rest of his life he was seldom seen in a public capacity. Occasionally he consented to serve on a commission of inquiry when his qualifications were of special value. On the death of A. P. Stanley, he preached the funeral sermon in Westminster Abbey, at the express request of Stanley himself, ‘because he has known me longest’. The boys of Westminster School were in attendance. ‘My dear Mater,’ one of them wrote home, ‘my black trousers will be some use after all as I will be going to the Dean’s funeral.’[116] Dr Farrar, who had preached in the morning, ‘broke down’ in mid-sermon ‘but Dr Vaughan did not at all’ and preached ‘a very nice sermon’ taking as his text ‘blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God’, the last text which Dr Stanley had preached on. If there was anyone in the congregation who knew the story that lay behind Vaughan’s arrested career, the last compliment he paid his dead brother-in-law and school friend would have had an oblique confessional import. ‘I,’ said Vaughan, ‘who for half a century have been his companion, his confidant, his friend, at last his brother, can say of him as I lay him in his grave tomorrow, never, never, never, did I know him other than pure.’[117]

 What made this man of prudence and discretion in, it seems, all known matters but the one that led to his undoing, write self-incriminating letters to a vain and meretricious youth? The only answer may be, after all, that some even of the wisest of men commit acts of ruinous folly under the influence of erotic desire. The verdict of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who knew and admired Vaughan, was, ‘no living man has laid the Church of England under a greater obligation’.[118] A more personal tribute came from Canon R. R. Williams, who had never known Vaughan personally, but said of his sermons, ‘after a hundred years they make me want to pray’.[119]

Charles Vaughan, by Walter William Ouless, 1895

When, in 1894, it was Vaughan’s turn to approach death, he welcomed ‘the decay of the humiliating body’, yet hoped it was ‘not wrong to love the world as I leave it’.[120] Some of the words he spoke from the pulpit before Symonds’s damning discovery — perhaps when he was involved with Pretor or some other boy — are startling in their relevance and candour. In a sermon on ‘Loneliness’ he considers the loneliness of repentance and loneliness of remorse, ‘which is repentance without God, without Christ and therefore without hope’. The end has a personal quality almost of private confession. ‘If repentance is loneliness, remorse is desolation. Repentance makes us lonely towards man, remorse makes us desolate towards God . . . from such loneliness may God in his mercy save us through his son, Jesus Christ.’

As he lay dying, messages of gratitude for his kindness to them came from Old Harrovians. From his bed he replied, ‘Tell them I wasn’t half kind enough to them.’[121] At his express injunction all his letters were destroyed and no biography of him was written.


[1] In 1860-61, Harriet Martineau declared that ‘a large proportion of the public’ as well as herself had been ‘amazed and shocked’ at recent disclosures ‘of the sensual cast of mind of the boys in a great Public School’. The ‘disclosures’ had been made in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and the ‘sensuality’ revealed, which would make their parents ‘dread to expose their sons prematurely to the grosser order of temptations’ was the schoolboys’ delight in food, their daily thinking with sinful ‘eagerness and passion of sausages, kidneys, a treat of beef and mustard for supper or good eating of one sort or another’. Harriet Martineau, Health, Husbandry and Handicraft (1861) p. 20.

[2] Thomas Arnold, Sermons (1878), vol. 5, p. 66.

[3] ibid., vol. 5, p. 66.

[4] Norman Wymer, Dr. Arnold of Rugby (1953) pp. 12, 19.

[5] 13 May 1824; ETA, no. 60, 18 September 1935, p. 153.

[6] Eton College Library: The Journal of Miss Margaretta Brown, vol. 32, 5 July 1822; vol. 20, 29 October 1815.

[7] ‘Everard Letters’, 22 June 1834; ETA, no. 120, 25 November 1967, p. 314.

[8] Harley being her surname. The Harleian Miscellany was a publication of diverse material from the library of an earlier Earl of Oxford.

[9] BLAM 34586, Letters Price to Butler, 21 and 27 June 1827; ‘Discarded and Duplicate Letters’, vol. , letter [October 1827].

[10] He who had painted Keate’s door red; see above, p. 200.

[11] Rev. C. W. Penny, MS. Journal, quoted in David Newsome, A History of Wellington College 1859-1959 (1959), p. 168.

[12] J. Hope Simpson, Rugby Since Arnold (1967) p. 168.

[13] This contraction of meaning in popular usage has persisted. In 1913 Dr David, the headmaster of Rugby, was censured by a senior member of the staff (Bradby) for lack of severity to ‘moral’ offences. Vehement, but inexplicit, Bradby wrote, ‘We should recognise the significance of symptoms, the deadly peril of the disease to the community. . . .’ Simpson, op. cit., p. 168.

[14] ‘The Recent Troubles at Eton’, The New Englander, vol. 35, 1876, p. 318.

[15] Oscar Browning had incurred the headmaster’s animosity by indiscretion and disobedience. Good-natured, but irritatingly arrogant and incurably troublesome, he was in personality what today would be called ‘camp’. He kept a house at Eton and was conspicuously preoccupied with the moral welfare of his charges, in such a manner that many observers became uneasy about the nature of his influence. Hornby, by stating so openly that he was not dismissing Browning for immorality, made it, and meant to make it, clear that moral issues were in his mind.

[16] J. M. Wilson, Journal of Education, p. 253.

[17] C. A. E. Moberly, Dulce Domum, George Moberly, his Family and Friends, by his Daughter, 1911, p. 89.

[18] Wilson, op. cit., p. 124.

[19] Journal of Education, 1 January, 1882, p. 16.

[20] Henry Acton, The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs in Childhood, Youth, Adult Age and Advanced Life, Considered in their Physiological, Social and Moral Relations, 1857, p. 14

[21] Wilson, op. cit., pp. 254, 255.

[22] Acton, op. cit., p. 31.

[23] This statement must be qualified. There was a hint of paederasty in his attack on the practice of “taking up”, in which he described a younger boy who had become the favourite of his elders: “one of the rniserable little pretty white handed curly-haired boys, petted and pampered by some of the big fellows, who wrote their verses for them, taught them to drink and use bad language, and did all they could to spoil them for everything in this world and the next”. In the 1871 edition, evidently as a result of protests that the “taking up” practice could be innocent and beneficial, Hughes added a footnote, part apology, part justification, which ends, “I can”t strike out the passage; many boys will know what I mean.” [Thomas Hughes], Tom Brown’s Schooldays, by an Old Boy (1857, 1871 edn), p. 257.

[24] [Thomas Hughes], Notes for Boys, by an Old Boy, 1890, pp. 264-5.

[25] Edward Lyttelton did not go as far as to assert that decent women did not take pleasure in the physical relations of sexuality, but he spread the good news that “animal desire is stronger in the male than in the female, at least in England”. Edward Pusey seems to have been less sanguine; Honey tells us that Mr A. R. K. Watkinson, of Pembroke College, Cambridge, has evidence that, under Pusey’s influence, girls discovered practising (or, more likely, I conjecture, suspected of) masturbation, were referred to a London surgeon who performed (c. 1850, presumably without anaethestic) clitoridectomy as a remedy. Acton, op. cit., p. 31; Edward Lyttelton, Training the Young in the Laws of Sex, 1900, p. 10; J. R. de S. Honey, Tom Brown’s Universe: the Development of the Victorian Public School, 1977, p. 170n.

[26] Acton, op. cit., p. 14; Edward Thring, Sermons Preached at Uppingham School, vol. 2, 1858, p. 15.

[27] . . . Vital exhaustion, convulsive spasms, epilepsy and a paralysis — blighting, withering, blasting though they be — fade into mere insignificance beside that other doom - muscular atrophy: in which the victim dies molecule by molecule, inch by inch, till he becomes livid, then the ‘Indulgence is "fatal. . . . The pale complexion, the emaciated form, the slouching gait, the clammy palm the glassy eye and averted gaze indicate the lunatic victim to this vice.’ Acton was swallowed neat by some headmasters and regurgitated in school sermons. ‘The wretched victim either sinks down to a lower level and lives on, or often finds an early grave, killed by his own foul passions.’ Thring, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 15.

[28] Richard Armstrong, Our Duty in the Matter of Social Purity, 1889, p. 8.

[29] Edward Lyttelton, The Causes and Prevention of Immorality in Schools, Social Purity Alliance, 1887, p. 17

[30] Acton, op. cit., p. 14.

[31] Journal of Education (supplement), 1 November 1883, p. 255.

[32] John Corbin, Schoolboy Life in England, An American View, New York, 1898, pp. 208-9.

[33] Rev. G. G. T. Heywood, ‘Boys at Public Schools’, in Unwritten Laws, ed. E. H. Pitcairn, 1899, p. 296.

[34] Up to at least the end of the eighteenth century a single bed was an extra charge on the parents. Some boys enjoyed company, others preferred privacy. W. Grant wrote to his mother from Rugby on 8 November 1793, requesting her to pay for a study and a ‘single bed’, if not a single room, at a cost of ‘six guineas’ a year. In a satire on schools and schoolmasters, the master is counselled, ‘The more you put in the bed the better also; it will endear them to each other and prevent their playing wicked tricks.’ Temple Reading Room. For reference to bed-sharing at Westminster into the nineteenth century, see Markham, p. 39; Directions to Academy Keepers, 1770, p.9.

[35] Correspondence of Emily, Duchess of Leinster 1731-1814, ed. Brian Fitzgerald, vol. 1, Dublin, 1949, p. 172, 28 July 1758.

[36] [H. J. Crickitt Blake], Reminiscences of Eton, by an Etonian, Chichester, 1831, p. 125.

[37] The Journal of Miss Margaretta Brown, 1802-55, ms. in Eton College Library, vol. 40, 9 May 1826.

[38] Etoniana, no. 34, 31 July 1923, p. 536.

[39] Fraser’s Magazine, April 1861, p. 436.

[40] Samuel Wilberforce, 1805-73; Bishop of Oxford and Winchester; third son of William Wilberforce; acquired the sobriquet ‘Soapy Sam’ from a speech of Lord Westbury’s in the House of Lords on l5 July 1864, in which the bishop’s synodical judgement of Essays and Reviews was described as ‘a well lubricated set of words, a sentence so oily and sebaceous that no one can grasp it’.

[41] E. W. Benson, ‘The Treasure of Treasures’ in Boy Life, Its Trials, Its Strength, Its Fullness, Sundays at Wellington College 1859-1873, 1874, p. 365.

[42] G. G. Coulton, A Victorian Schoolmaster: Henry Hart of Sedbergh, 1923, p. 30.

[43] H. E. Wortham, Victorian Eton and Cambridge, 1956 edn, p. 100.

[44] James Brinsley Richards, Seven Years at Eton 1857-64, 1883, p. 33.

[45] [G. H. Nugent-Bankes], Letters of an Eton Boy, 1910, pp. 179-80.

[46] Except when they wrote anonymously, as I suspect Richards did as ‘Olim Etonensis’ in the Journal of Education; see below, p. 297.

[47] Bracebridge Hemyng was a collaborator of Henry Mayhew’s, and contributed ‘Prostitution in London’ to Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (extra volume).

[48] The Journal of Miss Margaretta Brown, 1802-55, ms. in Eton College Library, vol. 67, 12 March 1840.

[49] Journal of Education, no. 152, pp. 85-6.

[50] [Thomas Hughes], Tom Brown’s Schooldays, by an Old Boy (1857, 1871 edn), pp. 328-9.

[51] The boy’s name was Liscomb.  T. Arnold, Letters to Mrs. Delafield, 20 September, 21 November 1809, WCA [not explained].

[52] F. W. Farrar, Eric, or Little by Little (1858), pp. 49, 84, 85, 94, 102.

[53] Reginald Farrar, The Life of Frederick William Farrar (New York, 1904), p. 128.

[54] F. W. Farrar, St. Winifred’s, or the World of School (1862), p. 370.

[55] Town Boy Ledger, 1859, entry 557, Westminster School Archives.

[56] Probably Coleridge maj., Henry Nelson; Kings, 1817; barrister. Known for his Introduction to Greek Classic Poets.

[57] Evans maj. KS; Kings, 1817. Later prepared boys for Eton at Stoke Poges, near Slough.

[58] Townsend KS, Lord George Osborne; brother of the marquess. Became a clergyman; fellow of Kings.

[59] 22 November 1818; Notes and Queries, 18 June 1920.

[60] A. C. Benson alludes to a high-minded acquaintance of his who ‘formed a very devoted friendship with a younger’ and ‘a singularly attractive boy’, but one who, beneath his charm, had ‘an unworthy and brutal nature, utterly corrupt at bottom’. Finally the truth is revealed to the elder, but innocent, of the two and, says Benson, ‘I can hardly picture to myself the agony, disgust and rage [his words and feelings about sensuality of any kind were strangely keen and bitter], loyalty fighting with a sense of revulsion, pity struggling with honour when he discovered that his friend was not only yielding, but deliberately impure.’ In correspondence between the two youths before the sinister discovery, ‘Arthur’s letters were,’ says Benson, ‘so passionate in expression, that for fear of causing uneasiness, not to speak of suspicion, I will not quote them’. ([Arthur C. Benson], Memoirs of Arthur Hamilton, by Christopher Carr (New York, 1886), pp. 24. 23). A severe distinction was made, and professed practicable, between passionate platonic love — virtuous —  and sensual attraction — sinful.

[61] Thomas Turton, Dean of Peterborough; subsequently Bishop of Ely, 1845-64.

[62] Howson, ‘Dr. George Butler’ in E. H. Howson and G. T. Warner (eds.), Harrow School (1898), p. 67.

[63] F. D. How, Six Great Schoolmasters (1904), pp. 140, 143, 144.

[64] R. R. Williams, The Educational Work of C. J. Vaughan, First Vaughan Memorial Lecture, 18 May 1953, p. 4; Charles S. Roundell, ‘Dr. Christopher Wordsworth – Harrow in the Forties’ in E. H. Howson and G. T. Waner, op. cit., p. 100.

[65] G. W. E. Oswell, William Cotton Oswell, Hunter and Explorer, 2 Vols. (1900), vol. 1, p. 49.

[66] W. C. Lake, Memorials, ed. Katherine Lake (1901), p. vi.

[67] Earl of Galloway, Observations on the Abuse and Reform of the Monitorial System of Harrow, with Letters and Remarks of the Earl of Galloway (1854), p. 51.

[68] Lionel A. Tollemache, Old and Odd Memories (1908), pp. 120-21.

[69] Sir Charles Dalrymple, ‘Dr. Vaughan’, in E. H. Howson and G. T. Waner, op. cit., p. 106.

[70] [Francis Martin Norman], At School and at Sea; or, Life and Character at Harrow, in the Royal Navy, and at the Trenches before Sebastopol, by Martello Tower (1899), p. 118.

[71] Lionel A. Tollemache, op. cit., pp. 106.

[72] Dalrymple, op. cit.

[73] ‘Old Harrow Days’, The Nineteenth Century and After, no. 647, vol. 109, p. 95.

[74] [G. W. E. Russell], Collections and Recollections, by one who has kept a Diary (1898), p. 221.

[75] Edward Graham, The Harrow Life of Montagu Butler, with an Introductory Chapter by the Rt. Hon. Sir George Trevelyan Bart (1920), p. 130.

[76] Charles J. Vaughan, Memorials of Harrow Sundays (1859), p. 187.

[77] Phyllis Grosskurth first drew attention to the contents of the school section of J. A. Symonds’ autobiography in her biography of him, John Addington Symonds (1964). She was inhibited from transcribing any part for reproduction and might only make short notes for reference under the terms of the controls then operant. What follows is the first reproduction, to my knowledge, of any part of the autobiography since the restrictions were raised in 1977.

[78] John Addington Symonds, Autobiography, unpublished MS., London Library, p. 139.

[79] William Edmund Currey, Rendall’s, Easter-Midsummer, 1854; son of F. E. Currey, Esq., Lismore, Ireland; monitor, I857; Lyon Scholar, I859; Scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge; 4th Classic, ‘BA, 1863; fellow, 1865. HM Inspector of Schools. Died 1908.

[80] Richard Clayton, Rendall’s, January-Easter 1853; son of Rev. R. Clayton, Newcastle-on-Tyne; Cricket XI, 1858; Football XI, 1855-56; left, 1858. Joined 68th Light Infantry, served New Zealand War, l864-66 (medal), retired captain, 1871. Banker in Newcastle-on-Tyne.

[81] Norman Charles Cookson, Rendall’s, Easter-Midsurnmer, 1855; son of J. W. Cookson, Esq., of Benwell Tower, Newcastle-on-Tyne; left, 1858; Coalowner, lead manufacturer, etc., of Oakwood, Wylam-on-Tyne. Well known as orchid grower. Died 1909.

[82] Symonds, op. cit., p. 140.

[83] Francis John Huyshe, son of General A. Huyshe CB, of Denfield, Exeter; left, 1866; Brasenose College, Oxford; BA, 1864; MA, 1867; Vicar of Wimborne Minster, Dorset, 1881. Honorary canon of Salisbury. Died 1905.

[84] Henry Nevil Dering, The Grove, September-Christmas 1852; son of Sir E. C. Dering OH, 8th Baronet; winner of Rackets Championship; left, 1855; entered Diplomatic Service, 1859; 2nd Secretary, 1870; Secretary Legation, 1882; Agent and Consul General at Sofia 1892-94; Minister at Rio de Janeiro, 1900. CB, 1896; KCMG, 1901; JP of Kent. Died 1906.

[85] Time tames even a Byronic ‘Greek brigand’. Lt Col. Sir Rupert Dering, the 12th baronet, told me that all he could remember about his kinsman was ‘a rather dull diary that he kept while in attendance at the Congress of Berlin’.

[86] Aymer Ainslie, Rendall’s, ]anuary-Easter, 1854; son of Rev. Dr. G. Ainslie, Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge; winner of Rackets Championship; left 1859; Pembroke College, Cambridge; University Rackets Player; J.P. for Lancashire. Died 1901.

[87] Symonds, op. cit., p. 141.

[88] Edward Arthur O’Brien, son of E. E. O’Brien, Esq., Dublin. Left 1857. ‘Financial business USA’ 1865-82. Subsequently newspaper manager in London.

[89] There was nothing necessarily sinister in the use of female names to describe pretty or elegant younger boys. It was a jocular and playful practice, and long established. Vaughan knew this very well. His own brother-in-law and closest friend at school, A. P. Stanley, had been called Nancy at Rugby. (Rowland E. Prothero and G. Bradley, The Life and Correspondence of Arthur Penrhyn Stanley D.D., 2 vols., (1893) vol. 1, p. 41). ‘At Harrow boys with a very fair complexion usually received a feminine name, e.g. Polly, Suckey, Fanny, Dolly. . .’ (H. J. Torre, Recollections of Schooldays at Harrow, p. 9, quoted in J. R. de S. Honey, Tom Brown’s Universe: the Development of the Victorian Public School (1977),p. 380n.)

[90] Dalrymple, op. cit., p. 110.

[91] Symonds, op. cit., p. 144.

[92] Alfred Pretor; monitor, 1857; Lyon Scholar, 1858; left 1859; Scholar of Trinity College; Cambridge; BA, 1863; MA, 1868; Fellow of St Catharine’s College, 1871. Classical lecturer and author of Ronald and I. Edited classical texts. Died 1908.

[93] Pretor, says Symonds, was ‘vain, light headed and corrupt without intellectual or moral foundation’, but he was ‘superficially bright and attractive’, so Symonds ‘got into the way of passing time with him’. (Symonds, op. cit., p. 136)

[94] Symonds exaggerates the number a little. In 1858 there were less than 500 boys at Harrow.

[95] ‘A repressed and unconscious paederast,’ Phyllis Grosskurth calls Conington. Unconscious or otherwise he seems to have effectively repressed the forbidden forces; ‘Scrupulously correct in his own conduct,’ says Miss Grosskurth, ‘he was sympathetic towards the infatuations of younger men as long as any physical element was suppressed.’ But he made Symonds a present of a copy of William ]ohnson’s Ionica (written for Charles Wood, later Lord Halifax), and Symonds wrote to his sister, Charlotte, ‘I had all the enigmatic facts expounded. . . .’ (Phyllis Grosskurth, John Addington Symonds (1964) p. 48).

[96] Symonds, op. cit., pp. 147-88.

[97] Vaughan, op. cit., p. 186.

[98] How, op. cit., p. 173.

[99] Vaughan, op. cit., p. 477.

[100] Sir George Trevelyan in Graham, op. cit., p. xix.

[101] Lake, op. cit., pp. 204, 206.

[102] How, op. cit., p. 179.

[103] Trevelyan, op. cit.

[104] Herman Merivale, Bar, Stage and Platform (1902), p. 179.

[105] R. R. Williams, op. cit., p. 12.

[106] Trevelyan, op. cit., p. xix.

[107] How, op. cit., p. 177.

[108] R. R. Williams, op. cit., p. 5.

[109] How, op. cit., pp. 138-9.

[110] Symonds, op. cit., pp. 171, 178, 188.  This letter may be a clue to the nature of the mysterious ‘indiscretion’ which later led to Johnson’s sudden retirement from Eton in 1872.

[111] ibid., pp. 171, 383, 410.

[112] Symonds says, ‘the arguments he used were conclusive. Considering the very delicate position l stood with regard to Vaughan, the possibility of Vaughan’s story become public, and the doubtful nature of my own emotions, prudence pointed to a gradual diminution or cooling off of the friendship.’ Suspicion would be sharpened by the social discrepancy of the friends. ‘. . . my father made me see that under existing conditions of English manners . . . friendship between me (a young man gently born, bred at Harrow, advancing to the highest academical honours at Balliol) and Willie (a Bristol chorister, the son of a Dissenting Tailor) would injure not my prosperity only but his reputation’. (ibid., pp. 188-9).

[113] Richard Garnett, ‘J. A. Symonds’, Dictionary of National Biography.

[114] See notes 40-41 above.

[115] Symonds, op. cit., p. 184.

[116] The Letters of Michael Yglesias, 1881 1882, Westminster School Archives, 3 July 1881.

[117] Charles J. Vaughan, Funeral Sermon on Arthur Penrhyn Stanley preached in Westminster Abbey July 24, 1881 (1881), p. 13.

[118] Dalrymple, op. cit., p. 119.

[119] R. R. Williams, op. cit., p. 5.

[120] Lake, op. cit., p. 323.

[121] How, op.cit., p. 174.



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Eric Schlesinger,   17 November 2020

Intriguing. John Chandos - full name John Lithgow Chandos McConnell - was at Eton, had an intriguing and somewhat secretive war, became a film actor and wrote a few books. This chapter is a longer version of Chapter 14 in "Boys Together". This book is a very well-researched exposure of the frequently appalling violence and brutality of school life in the major public schools in England. The continual war between masters and pupils with the latter absolutely determined to rule their roost is totally amazing and shocking. Pupils inflicted far more harm on their own than even tyrannical headmasters. Maiming, permananent injury and death awaited many pupils from about 8-9 years old. All in the name of "character". Remarkably, some thrived.

The system of barbarity wasn’t broken down (slowly) after about 1840, Chandos says that echoes survive into the 20th century. Indeed upperclass arrogance, distance, contempt and and bland confidence continue to this day. As a former public schoolboy (minor public school), I experienced these echoes in the 1950s/1960s.

Chandos remarks that the original manuscript was cut by over a third - to 355 pages (because of cost). It would be really interesting to know if the parts removed (perhaps 150 pages) survive. This is a remarkable and myth-dispelling tour de force of a book. Powerful and still highly relevant. A complete book would be highly welcome. Are there any descendants, or book editors about who can uncover the missing sections?

 * * *

Anon. 43,   04 June 2021

Perhaps the greatest ‘demon’ hovering over boys and adolescents at public schools in the 18th and early 19th centuries was the ever present and grim prospect of the birch and the flogging block and the incessant floggings that were inflicted for every trivial transgression. Chandos covers this topic in a chapter entitled ‘The Unspared Rod’ of his book ‘Boys Together’.

Public school floggings were a vile, obscene and degrading form of corporal punishment which had sadistic and homo-erotic sexual overtones. The punishment involved the public exposure of the bare buttocks, anus and posterior genitalia of half-naked boys and adolescents as they knelt and bent over the twin-stepped ‘flogging block’ to be birched on their bare buttocks/anal area. The floggings caused brutal and barbaric physiological trauma. After 1 or 2 dozen strokes (a typical average flogging) the whole of the victim’s buttocks and upper thighs, including the exposed coccygeal, anal and perineal sphere would be a raw and bloodied mass of flayed and lacerated flesh. The state of a boy or adolescent’s bottom after the severest punishment, which could be 5 or 6 dozen strokes, is almost too revolting to contemplate save to say that those same bodily regions would be literally reduced to a ‘pulp’ of mangled and mutilated flesh with multiple fragments of broken birch embedded in the bloody, gory mess. 

Historical medical papers, notably of the renowned 18th century physician J H Meibomius, recorded that such brutal floggings caused erections to occur in both pre and post pubescent boys. In adolescent boys such flogging induced erections were frequently also accompanied by emissions of pre-ejaculate fluid, and occasionally semen. These phenomena had nothing to do with sexual arousal but were purely physiological bodily responses to the ‘collateral’ effects of flogging, which included a large rush of blood and vasodilation in the pelvic floor combined with irritation and inflammation of the pudendal nerve branches which innervate the skin of the buttocks, anal region and perineum. The brutal stimulation of these areas, which are neurologically linked to the genitals, resulted in erections and sexual fluid emissions being artificially and violently induced during floggings.

Floggings were in reality a covert form of sadistic sexual abuse, tantamount to violent anal rape, albeit done under the pretext of necessary corporal punishment to maintain order and discipline and control testosterone fuelled delinquency among adolescent boys. The irony is that the flogging system completely failed in its intended purpose, and actually made boys even more delinquent. They became so inured, hardened and habituated to floggings that they no longer cared about or feared the punishment. The birch thus lost any deterrent or reformative effect it might have had and became utterly counter-productive and futile. In an 1833 edition ‘The Man’, a progressive Regency periodical advocating rationalism and human rights, the practice of flogging at such schools as Eton is described as being ‘the most powerful among the causes of the delinquencies it is employed to abate’ and the method of its infliction as ‘among the most odious and shameful barbarities that the wisdom of our ancestors has bequeathed to us’.