Muscular Christianity and the English Boarding School System

I am a member or supporter of a number of organisations in Australia and Britain. One of them, in the United Kingdom, is Boarding Concern, founded in 2002. It arose out of Nick Duffell’s work with Boarding School Survivors, which he started in 1990.2 Boarding Concern publicises the adverse effects boarding schools can have on children. Through its web-site and newsletters it provides information to parents and to former boarders; it publishes research findings, runs conferences, deals with the media, and gives links to psychotherapists with specialist knowledge about the effects of boarding
school on later life.

However, most of the opinions I give here are my own, rather than Boarding Concern’s.

Conventional English boarding schools seem to have several origins. From the early mediaeval period boys of influential families were often sent away to be educated by literate priests or at monasteries, and many monasteries established schools, a few of which survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Other schools were established by royalty, guilds or wealthy merchants, sometimes for gifted children of poor families. In the eighteenth century a number of grammar schools attracted students from wealthy families who did not live nearby.

I spent just over ten years in English boarding schools, from April 1952 to July 1962; and I loathed almost every day of it.

One of the worst moments of my life was the first Sunday at boarding school, probably two days after my arrival and about two months after my eighth birthday.

I was at Christ Church Cathedral School, housed in a red-brick building in a side-street in Oxford, next to Campion Hall, the Jesuit training college. The school had been founded (1546) by Henry VIII for
choristers at Christ Church Cathedral, but it later took non-choristers, like me, and day boys as well.

It was a private preparatory school: it catered for boys aged eight to thirteen and prepared them for the Common Entrance examination or scholarship examinations for what the British call public schools. Public schools in England are not state schools: they are private secondary schools where the word “public” signifies that they will take children of parents all over the country and overseas; they are not restricted to a limited geographical area.

I did not need to be at a boarding school. My parents lived in rural north Oxfordshire and my father worked in Cowley, the industrial suburb of Oxford, about half an hour by car from the family home. Sending me away was my father’s idea, almost certainly because he did not want me at home for most of the year. But then boarding schools are more about child rearing, class identity and indoctrination than about education. As my mother remarked on two or three occasions, “This will make you or break you!” — which gave me the insight to resolve never to be “made” in my parents’ image, whatever the cost. I vowed that no children of mine, if I had any, would be sent to schools like this.

Some years later I discovered that my mother, when a girl, had been sent to board briefly at a small Catholic convent school in rural Oxfordshire. She had been unhappy there, and had asked her parents, neither of whom were Catholics, to remove her, which, being kind and reasonable people, they did.

With the exception of a few progressive private schools, the ideology that pervaded conventional boarding schools was muscular Christianity, an austere or spartan system that combined cold dormitories, poor food, lots of sport, especially team games, plenty of religious services and indoctrination, hierarchical discipline and a rather exaggerated masculinity or manliness. Thomas Arnold, described as “the appalling Dr Arnold” by John Le Carré4, introduced sport and senior boys acting as praepostors, or prefects, at Rugby School in the 1830s. The system was copied by existing private schools and by the many new ones founded in the nineteenth century. Muscular Christianity also became popular in books, for example, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1856) by Thomas Hughes, and Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke (1850).

English public schools aimed at turning boys into Christian gentlemen and trained them for entry to Oxford and Cambridge universities, the civil service, the army and particularly as administrators of the growing British Empire. This explains why the system was exported, with varying results, to Scotland, Australia, Canada, South Africa and elsewhere. The schools sub­jected boys to a process that I would sum up in a little-used word, induration: to become or make callous, hard or unfeeling: “Stiff upper lip, chaps!” and “Play up and play the game!”

Boarding school “products” are usually represented in fiction nowadays as high academic or professional achievers who are emotionally constipated or repressed.3 Those of you who have watched the television series Death in Paradise will recall Detective Inspector Richard Poole (played by Ben Miller); and the series Doc Martin had two such people: Dr Martin Ellingham (Martin Clunes) and his former girlfriend Dr Edith Montgomery (Lia Williams). The 1968 film If . . . , by contrast, paints a grim picture of public school life and concludes with a very black, far-fetched and bloody ending.5

I was desperately unhappy about being sent to boarding school, but my pleas and complaints went unheeded. I started biting my nails and put on a lot of weight, so I was taken to a paediatrician who put me on a diet, though he failed to realise that the problem was mainly emotional: comfort eating. The school’s headmaster, a snobbish and austere clergyman, gave me the nickname “Bunter”, from the character Billy Bunter in books by Frank Richards, one of several noms de plume of the writer Charles Hamilton (b. 1876) who glorified the boarding school system. I was watching television at my maternal grandparents’ home one afternoon in 1961 when the news announced that Hamilton had died. I cheered loudly!

Boarders at my preparatory school were allowed parental or home visits every third Sunday, but their parents were not allowed to collect them until after the morning service in Christ Church Cathedral; and they had to be back in time for evensong at the Cathedral at 6 p.m. For many years afterwards a wave of misery would break over me when I heard the tune of the hymn “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended”.6

I think a case may perhaps be made for allowing emotionally secure teenagers to go to boarding schools, but only if they want to and if they may leave after a trial period. I am firmly of the opinion that sending children of eight or younger, either against their wishes or after giving them a load of rose-tinted propaganda, to boarding schools is a form of emotional abuse and cruelty.

I soon discovered that I lacked ability for strenuous exercise and was non-competitive, so I disliked activities like football (soccer), cricket and athletics; and after considering Catholicism, instead of Anglicanism, for about a year and a half I became a staunch atheist. I liked most academic subjects, except mathematics, and although no science was taught at the school I picked up a fair knowledge of elementary biology from reading.

I left Christ Church Cathedral School in 1957, but was then sentenced to another five years’ boarding at Denstone College, on top of a windy hill in Staffordshire. It was one of a number of schools founded by Canon Nathaniel Woodard (1811-91) for “the Christian education of the sons of the middle classes”.

St Chad’s College, as it was first called, opened in 1873, and when I was there the mind-set and atmosphere of 1870s muscular Christianity pervaded the place like a sour, musty smell. There were chapel services at least once and sometimes twice a day, and almost all were compulsory. Sport was also compulsory. Two after­noons were devoted to parades of the Combined Cadet Force, compulsory as well; and the only free afternoon was Sunday, when the boys were supposed to take a walk. With a few short gaps, life was timetabled and regimented from the moment you got up until you went to bed.

Denstone struck me as a miniature fascist community: lots of heavy-handed hierarchical authority, an emphasis on middle-class symbolism like jackets and ties, a superficial veneer of respectability; and just
below the surface an ethos that I would summarise as: Think and act like we do or we’ll ostracise you or worse.

Discipline at the school was maintained not so much by the masters as by house prefects and school prefects. It was sometimes rigid, sometimes arbitrary, and occasionally downright unfair. I recall one obnoxious senior prefect announce that the use of the word “unfair” in his hearing would be a punishable offence! The prefects could dole out the task of writing lines to boys who infringed minor rules. If a boy accumulated more than a certain number of lines during a given period, he could, in addition, be caned by the prefects. For serious offences, beatings were administered by the housemasters or the headmaster.

Strangely enough, I was never beaten at Denstone College; those who were tended to be both academic strugglers and also emotionally immature or disturbed.

A few weeks after the start of either my first or second term the housemaster called the younger boys together, just before bedtime, and among his announcements told us that another new boy was about to join us. He explained, in a dry and brief fashion, that this boy had had a lot of problems at home, and asked us to go easy on him, though no molly­coddling was suggested either.

The new boy arrived a few days later. I remember him as fairly tall and big, and rather quiet but amiable. If he had any problems, he did not parade them in my presence.

About six weeks after this boy started at the school, he was summoned by the prefects one evening, after lights out for the younger boys, to the large washroom at one end of the dormitory. Here he was caned by one or more of the prefects, presumably for the offence of accumulating too many lines during a prescribed time.

I did not see the beating, but I was lying in bed and I heard it very clearly. The sound of it haunts me to this day. From that time onwards, I detested Denstone with an enduring vengeance, and despised any system of pretended education and discipline that could promote and perpetrate such barbarity. I have loathed and shunned corporal punishment ever since.

One of the authoritarian traditions at Denstone was the fagging system, a form of petty slave labour whereby young boys were assigned as fags to work for a particular prefect. Their jobs could include making beds, cleaning shoes, making toast for the prefects, and washing up and cleaning in the prefects’ room. Fags were supposed to be rewarded for their services every so often by a treat, such as baked beans on toast, outside normal meal times.

Boys were liable for service as fags if they were in the third and fourth forms of the school, and for no more than two years if they repeated a year in these forms. I was more fortunate. Because I had won an
exhibition, or minor scholarship, and was considered academically promising, I started in the fourth form, during a year when there was a large intake of third-formers. So I was eligible for fagging service for only a year, and, because of the third-former influx, I in fact had to fag for about two terms.

The boys at Denstone College were arranged in a series of houses. These were administrative units rather than buildings. Each house except a new one had a long dormitory holding as many as 42 boys, and a common room for the junior members. There were several house prefects, and one or two school prefects one of whom was head of house. Each house had a housemaster, who had his own study and bedroom.

Sport was one of the things that made life at Denstone a misery for me. The summer term was not too bad: there was cricket and, occasionally, athletics. In the winter and spring terms I was at first made to play rugby, a game for which I had neither skill nor liking. Consequently, I was selected for fewer and fewer games; but this meant that, instead, I had to go for cross-country runs, along a prescribed course. I found running for any appreciable distance painful and unpleasant, and having to do it in the dank Staffordshire countryside was frustrating and depressing.

About once a month, on a Saturday, there would be an inter-school rugby match at Denstone. On these occasions I did not have to play rugby or go for a cross-country run: I had to watch the match! This meant standing for an hour and a half, with my feet getting colder and colder, in a crowd of other boys, while a spectacle went on in front of us that I loathed.

The school had a large and imposing chapel. On weekday mornings there would be prayers, lasting about twenty minutes; and on Sundays there were mattins or communion in the morning and evensong in the late afternoon. The Sunday services each lasted an hour. During Lent, there was an additional compulsory service in the evening: compline, I think. Fortunately it was short. Although I had to attend the services, I refused to sing. “You can force a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.” And, of course, I refused to be confirmed in the Anglican Church. I bitterly resented the hundreds of hours I wasted because of sport and chapel at Denstone, for I could have put all this time to good account, walking or reading.7

Yet the people who promoted private schools had the gall to prattle about excellence in education! The frustration and waste say very little for the type of mind that ran institutions like this or sent children to them!

Eventually a couple of boys were naïve enough to ask for voluntary chapel services. They got them — in addition to the compulsory ones.

On another occasion the junior chaplain gave a series of sermons on “fringe” Christian denominations. One was on the Mormons (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), and another, I am fairly sure, was on Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science. A little while later he was asked if a speaker from these religions could come to Denstone to put the denomination’s case. The assistant chaplain, of course, refused the suggestion.

There was a debating society at Denstone College, believe it or not. But it was not allowed to debate religious matters!

During what I think was my last term I found I could partially escape the boredom of chapel services by raising my head and listening to the chirpings of sparrows nesting high above in holes in the outside of the walls. I greatly appreciated the birds but, alas, others did not. One afternoon as I walked past the chapel I found a workman who had just cleared out all the nests from the walls of the building. A wheelbarrow was piled to overflowing with débris and dead fledglings. I was disgusted and angered by this needless barbarity.

I was not the only misfit at Denstone. 35 years before me a boy named Denis Charles Pratt (1908-99) arrived there. He stayed four years, left in 1926 to study journalism and later art, and was forgotten for half a century. But in 1975 he suddenly rocketed to fame under his new name of Quentin Crisp, “the Naked Civil Servant” and raconteur on all things camp and effeminate. I am afraid Canon Nathaniel Woodward was not available for comment.

I have mentioned the fagging system. Well, once I was no longer required to be a fag, I made it my business to say that I disapproved of compulsory chapel, compulsory sport, corporal punishment and the fagging system. The other boys were not greatly fussed about my views on Christianity and the cane, but threatening the ancient, hallowed privileges of the prefects was quite unpardonable. I was told that prefects could not do all their duties without fags to wait on them. And I did not make myself unpopular with just the senior boys: I was banned from joining the Junior Scientific Society.

Later I was about the only boy in the Sixth Form not to be a house or school prefect; and I knew very well why. Then, early one morning, I had a visit from a house prefect who wanted a private word with me, and I suspected the reason.

“We’ve been talking over the possibility,” he informed me, “of making you a monitor.” Monitors were probationary or junior prefects, peculiar to the new house I had been transferred to in 1958.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes, but on one condition.”

I tried hard not to show a triumphant smile. “Oh, what?”

“That you agree to having fags!”

I knew I had won! The fool had broken one of the authoritarian’s vital tactical rules: Never negotiate with bloody-minded dissidents unless they have offered to surrender.

“You mean that, if I agree to have fags when I’m a prefect, I can be made a monitor?”

“Yes, that’s right!”.

“Well,” I replied, “Can I have a think about it?”

“Yeah, okay,” he said; and we parted.

I knew exactly what to do.

I went to see our house­master. I told him of the deal that had been put to me, and then said I was not prepared to be made a monitor or a prefect — ever — if a fag or fags went with the position.

My second housemaster once described me to my face as “a self-centred individualist”; but he and I both knew that in this case he was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t. When he arrived at the school, he had posed as a reformer. If he met my conditions, he would further fan the flames of disdain in the minds of the prefects, who regarded him as half-way to the Kremlin. If he placated the prefects, the insufferable Sinnott would go around blabbing, and the housemaster’s reforming image would be ruined!

He chose the lesser of two evils. I was made a monitor and, the following term, a house prefect. And I was able to do the duties perfectly well, of course, without being waited on by a fag.

I left Denstone on 29 July 1962. As I was driven out for the last time I swore lifelong enmity towards indoctrination and bullying masquerading as education, the Church of England, church privilege and Christian triumphalism.

Two terms after I left Denstone, the headmaster abolished the fagging system. Much later the school decided to take girls as well as boys, and day students as well as boarders. Today there is — shock! horror! — an art department with its own building and even a bar for students over 18. I do not know when corporal punishment was done away with, but in any case it was banned in British state schools and state-aided schools in 1987 and in all private schools in England and Wales in 1999.

I will conclude by mentioning that I was a great admirer of the British character actor, Robert Morley (1908-92), who once said this: “Show me a man who has enjoyed his school days and I’ll show you a bully and a bore.”8


I would like to thank Nick Duffell (Centre for Gender Psychology; Boarding School Survivors) for kindly checking Note 3 below, and Margaret Laughton (Boarding Concern) for information and a supply of brochures.

I am (once again) grateful to Dr Sabine Apel and Halina Strnad for reading through and commenting on early drafts of this talk.


1 The personal aspects of this talk rely heavily on an account I wrote in 1995 (A Measure of Sliding Sand; typescript) about my life from 1944 to 1969.

2; Nick Duffell is the author of The Making of Them: The British attitude to children and the boarding school system (ed. Rob Bland; London: Lone Arrow Press, 2000; available from

3 Boarding schools disrupt healthy emotional bonds with and dependence on parents or carers, and extol premature independence. Later problems may include difficulties relating to partners and children; obsessive or workaholic behaviour, including inability to relax and always feeling “on the run”; an overbearing or bullying manner or feeling a failure; feeling lonely; occasionally sleep or psychosexual disorders. Nick Duffell has grouped responses to boarding school into three broad categories: the compliers (often in denial), the rebels (“engaging but infuriating”) and the casualties (low self-esteem and achievement).

4 “If the Church of England is the Tory Party at Prayer, the Public School system may be called the Tory Party in the nursery. Here are set out the traumas, deformations and truncations of character that explain the British Establishment from the appalling Dr Arnold to the Thatcher Matronocracy. The British are known to be mad. But in the maiming of their privileged young they are criminally insane.” — Le Carré, review of The Making of Them.

5 The script writer, David Sherwin, drew on his experiences at Tonbridge School, Kent.

6 Tune by Clement Scholefield for words by John Ellerton.

7 I was one of the school librarians, as the library was one of my places of solace. It had some very interesting magazines and books, including a copy of School for Barbarians (1938) by Erica Mann, about
education in Nazi Germany.

8 He had been sent to Wellington College, Berkshire. In later years Robert Morley refused all requests to go back there because “the only reason for me visiting Wellington would be to burn it down". He was also Melbourne’s first (1967) King of Moomba (March community festival).

Script of an address given to the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church on 14 July 2013, Nigel Sinnott