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23 January 2010

The British School Story Tradition


The school story genre developed in England. It is a commonly held misconception that the first school story written was Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays in 1857.1 Yet the first school story was Sarah Fielding’s The Governess in 1749. Some sixty school stories preceded Tom Brown’s Schooldays (Kirkpatrick, The Encyclopaedia of Boys’ School Stories 1). Tom Brown’s Schooldays, however, was significant for a number of reasons. The early school stories had typically been set in small private day or village schools. Hughes set Tom Brown’s Schooldays at Rugby, a public school. Due to its portrayal of Arnold, the famous Headmaster of Rugby, Tom Brown’s Schooldays "consolidated the foundations of the public school story" and "popularised the genre as a whole" (Kirkpatrick, Encyclopaedia 2). Tom Brown’s Schooldays can be seen as the birth of the public school story, which espoused public school values and ethics.

The development of public schools is worth examining, because many school stories were set in public schools and share their characteristics and atmosphere. Secondary schools like Rugby had been established in England in the Middle Ages, with Winchester founded in 1382, Eton (1440), St. Paul’s (1509), Shrewsbury (1557), Westminster (1560), Harrow (1567) and Rugby (1567). The schools were endowed schools in that they were established with endowments in order to provide education for a number of pupils at no charge. These schools, later known as public schools, provided education for the upper-classes. Middle-class families sent their sons to endowed grammar schools like Uppingham (1584) and Manchester Grammar (1515). In addition, private individuals operated schools. At the beginning of the 19th century many of these schools were in decline. Endowed schools were in financial difficulties, and were forced to enrol more paying pupils due to the decline in value of their endowments. Public concerns about ‘moral decay’ at the schools were influenced by lax discipline, poor educational standards and brutality and bullying. Schoolboys often revolted, as late as 1832 a rebellion occurred at Eton.

A series of important developments and reforms occurred in the 19th century which changed the nature of private education, and are still influential today. The first reforms were made by the Headmasters of the schools. Dr Thomas Arnold became Headmaster of Rugby in 1828 and remained so until his death in 1842. Arnold was not the only Headmaster to implement reforms but became the most famous, symbolising the public school transformation, although other later Headmasters played a significant role in public school reform. J de S. Honey describes it as the legend of Arnold (2), in part promoted by the success of Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

Arnold’s transformation of Rugby can be summarised into several key points: Arnold placed an emphasis on Christian values; the Headmaster enjoyed independence from the school governors; assistant masters played an increasing role in the school; the corporate identity of the school was promoted; unsuitable pupils were removed, and Arnold developed and transformed the prefect system, placing emphasis on the older pupils’ active role in the discipline of the school (Newsome in Honey 7). In addition Arnold ended the practice of dame’s houses, instead creating houses under the supervision of masters, and personally assumed the duties of chaplain to the boys (Honey 11). Arnold intended moral change to address the ‘moral decay’, which he achieved by increasing closer control over the boys’ daily lives (Crotty 42).

Arnold’s influence was spread through former pupils who became teachers and Headmasters at other schools and implemented his reforms (Honey 26). From 1840 to 1870 there was a high growth in the number of new schools established (Bamford 270). The middle classes increasingly required schools to educate their sons for future roles in the clergy, army, and civil service. New schools such as Marlborough (1843) and Cheltenham (1841) offered both a classics and civil service oriented education. Later schools such as Brighton (1845), Clifton (1862), Haileybury (1862), Rossall (1844), Taunton (1847), Epsom (1855) and Malvern (1865) followed this style of education (Bamford 20-27). The development of the railway network allowed new boarding schools to be established that could attract pupils from a wider geographical area (Honey 33).

The most important part of public school education established in this period - school games - was not implemented by Arnold but by later Headmasters. Arnold had emphasised godliness (moral strength), which evolved under later Headmasters into ‘muscular Christianity’. Initially school games had been established at Harrow to improve school discipline, but later in the 1850s, Headmasters of new schools, such as Nathanial Woodward at Lancing in 1857 and Edward Thring at Uppingham in 1853, adopted school games to emulate and identify their schools with the great public schools (Crotty 42). ‘Incidental’ sport developed into highly organised competitive games, in part due to the increasing preference of schools from the 1850s to appoint lay Headmasters who embraced the ‘games ethic’ and athleticism instead of clergymen. The idea of ‘playing the game’ developed as an alternative to godliness (Bamford 80-83). By the 1880s games were compulsory at all of the major schools (Crotty 43) and reached their zenith in the 1910s and 1920s (Bamford 83).

Two important investigations into secondary education occurred in the 1860s. The 1864 Report of the 1861 Clarendon Commission examined the nine public schools: Westminster, Eton, Shrewsbury, Winchester, Charterhouse, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, St Pauls; and Mechants Taylors. The term ‘public school’ developed from the Commission (Bamford x-xii). The Taunton Commission, which was established in 1864 and reported in 1868, examined a wider number of schools, distinguishing between private, proprietary and endowed schools. The report praised the reforms the schools had undertaken. Following this report, many schools, including old grammar schools, reorganized themselves and there was moderate growth in new schools being established. The new and old schools called themselves public schools, and a typical public school was Anglican, boarding and exclusive, having prefects and games. This was the educational legacy which influenced the development of school stories.

Following the initial success of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, three main types of school stories began to emerge: penny dreadful type school stories which were full of melodramatic plots; evangelical school stories which were often written by women; and moral school stories in the style of Tom Brown’s Schooldays which utilised the setting of the typical aspects of a public school life, such as sport, fagging and prefects (Kirkpatrick, Encyclopaedia 3). The first author to combine elements from the three main types was Talbot Baines Reed with his successful school stories in the 1880s (Kirkpatrick, Encyclopaedia 3). Reed’s success came initially from writing serialised school stories for the popular Boys’ Own Paper weekly which were later published in a book format. Reed had not attended a boarding school himself, being educated at day schools, yet he realistically portrayed boarding school life, writing the classic school story The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s (1887). Reed’s significance was not only in affecting the style of school stories. Through his popular serials in the Boys’ Own Paper he attracted a wider audience to the genre (Kirkpatrick, Encyclopaedia 272-75).


1 An example is Quigley’s 1982 study, The Heirs of Tom Brown, which implies this in the title.

Girls' School Stories

The first girls’ school stories were set in small schools, and were evangelical or didactic in style. They were part of the moral or family story and did not constitute a genre in their own right (Sims & Clare 379). The early stories were written in a time when the genre did not substantially exist; rather they were family or moral stories using schools as a setting or background. These early school stories, from the 1850s to c. 1900, had a number of common characteristics: they were moral and religious in tone, set in small schools, and had little emphasis on games, although plots involving madcaps being falsely accused were popular (Sims ‘Introduction’ in Sims & Clare 3-5).

During this period, important educational developments occurred which resulted in the girls’ school story emerging, with novels from the 1880s actually being called ‘school stories’ (Sims & Clare 3). The development of girls’ schools occurred somewhat differently to boys’ schools with few girls’ schools being established before the 19th century. In contrast to boys’ schools which were mostly public trusts, a large number of girls’ schools were private venture schools which later evolved into trust schools (Avery 5). The 1868 Taunton Commission also examined girls’ schools, and while it criticised the smaller private venture schools it praised educators Frances Buss and Dorothea Beale and their respective schools: the North London Collegiate School (1850) and Cheltenham Ladies’ College (1853). The two schools were quite different. North London Collegiate School was a day school, whilst Cheltenham Ladies’ College was the first girls’ proprietary school formed by a company. The Taunton Commission recommended that schools like the North London Collegiate School be established in cities throughout England, and in June of 1873 the National Union for the Education of Girls created the Girls’ Public Day School Company and began to establish girls’ high schools in major cities. These schools had an academic curriculum and were non-denominational. By 1900 there were 32 GPDCS schools with 7000 pupils (Avery 76).

In addition to day or high schools, public boarding schools were created. Cheltenham Ladies’ College had been one, and was an influential school. Dorothea Beale was Headmistress for 48 years from 1858 to 1906 and pupils became Headmistresses of more than 40 English and foreign schools (Avery 93). St Leonard’s was a public school founded in 1863 in St Andrews, Scotland, and was significant because of its early use of a form of prefects, allowing schoolgirls an active role in maintaining the discipline of the school. Roedean, founded in 1885 by three sisters from the Lawrence family, was the first girls’ school to model itself on boys’ public schools. The school was divided into houses, prefects were implemented and compulsory games introduced, all features of British public schools. Many schools later copied Roedean’s example, so that after the 1900s girls’ schools increasingly resembled boys’ schools and embraced public school values.

A wide variety of private schools also existed: home schools, suburban schools, finishing schools, etc. These schools catered for the middle classes as they were a cheaper alternative to the expensive boarding schools. The curriculum was not academically based; in many schools emphasis was placed on music, arts, etc, and the schools were often run by members of a family. Between the wars these schools flourished but they declined after the Second World War, as state secondary education developed (Avery 3).

The first school story set in a high school was Mrs Henry Clarke’s The Ravensworth Scholarship (1894), and L. T. Meade wrote an early public school story in 1895 with Girls New and Old (Sims ‘Introduction’ in Sims & Clare 7). Increasingly school stories were being set at large high schools and public boarding schools and included Headmistresses, University educated Teachers, Prefects, Houses and Head Girls. An important development in school stories was the use of games, which became linked to ideas of loyalty and honour. Sims argues that school became an institution with values, and this resulted in a decline of the moral and religious messages which had appeared in earlier school stories, with religion being replaced by honour (‘Introduction’ in Sims & Clare 9). Girls’ school stories have often been criticised as being imitations of boys’ school stories, copying the importance of games and school honour in stories. More accurately, they merely reflect the fact that girls’ schools developed later than boys’ schools which resulted in games appearing later in girls’ schools (Sims ‘Introduction’ in Sims & Clare 3, 9).
Impact of World War I

Superficially the First World War affected the publishing industry in terms of book production. In 1913, 23 boys’ and 13 girls’ school stories were published.2 With the outbreak of war this dropped to 8 boys’ and 9 girls’ school stories. Typically less than ten school stories for each gender were published per year during the war years, as displayed in Table 1.

Table 1: School Stories published during the First World War period

The end of the war marked the end of the dominance of the boys’ school story. Prior to the war more boys’ school stories were published per year than girls’ school stories, but this changed almost immediately after the war with a higher number of girls’ school stories published each year which lasted until the 1970s. Purely in quantity, the interwar period is the era of the girls’ school story.

One reason for the decline in boys’ school stories could be the impact the war had on boys’ public schools, the public school ethos and athleticism. War had been viewed as a great adventure, a chance for men not much older than schoolboys to ‘play the game’ in life on the battlefield. The soldiers expected a quick war and were not prepared for the massive casualties due to trench warfare tactics; the "ideals formulated in the schools and on the parade grounds were destroyed in the mud and the trenches" (Crotty 230). The public school ideology of athleticism was challenged. Some schools reacted by winding down the emphasis on games. Male authors struggled to comprehend the horrors of war and the implications this had on the public schools and the ethos of ‘playing the game’. Some authors sent their heroes to war where a few died, paying the ‘ultimate sacrifice’: Ernest Raymond’s Tell England is one example, another is Alec Waugh’s The Loom of Youth, an adult school story written after he was expelled from Sherbourne School and was serving in the First World War. Perhaps the girls’ school story was able to recover more quickly after the end of the war because women played a different role in the war compared to men, and girls’ school ideology was not challenged in the same way as boys’.


2 Note on publishing statistics: Numbers include only new school stories published, not reprints, etc. and have been compiled and calculated from the author bibliographies recorded in the Encyclopaedia of School Stories which to date are the most accurate and complete listings of school stories published.

The Interwar Years

The interwar years mark the ‘golden age’ for both girls’ and boys’ school stories. Boys’ school stories peaked in 1929 with 35 published, consolidating their earlier growth whereby the school story tradition had been established and was continued. Popular weeklies of this period were the Magnet, and the Gem which published Billy Bunter stories by Frank Richards. For girls, the girls’ school story peaked in the mid 1920s, reaching 62 school stories published in 1926. 43% of all new girls’ books published in 1924 were school stories (Sims ‘Introduction’ in Sims & Clare 10). The great authors of the era, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Dorita Fairlie Bruce, Elsie J. Oxenham, and a cast of other authors produced formidable numbers of school stories. The Chalet School series by Brent-Dyer ran to 59 stories, while the Abbey series by Oxenham ran to 38 stories. Many authors created careers as full-time writers. For Sims the 1930s marked the formularisation of the girls’ school story, with little innovation in structure, plot or characterisation, in part due to an exhaustion of possible school scenarios (‘Introduction’ in Sims & Clare 12).

This exhaustion led to authors beginning to look to other genres such as crime, adventure, detective, career, satire, and romance to merge with the school story. Trease argues that Arthur Ransome’s success with his ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series influenced writers from the 1930s to abandon school stories for holidays stories, with school story writers increasingly broadening the classic school story plot by adding mysteries, spies, twins, royals, and so on (Trease in Hope-Simpson 11-12). Girls’ authors too began to dip into other genres for inspiration, introducing ballet, ponies, spies and criminals into their school stories from the 1940s (Sims ‘Introduction’ in Sims & Clare 13). By the end of the interwar period for both boys’ and girls’ school stories writers had introduced mystery, adventure, detective, and spy elements, though a number of authors still produced more ‘classic’ public school story plots and scenarios.

Impact of World War II

As with the First World War, the Second World War witnessed a reduction in book publishing. With the Government requiring resources for the war effort, paper was rationed and publishers had to issue books in accordance with war economy standards. War-time publications are a stark contrast to the large thick ornate pre-war volumes. War-time books were thin, with thin greyish paper, black and white illustrations and cheap dust jackets. In terms of the impact of the war on the content of school stories, some conclusions may be drawn. School stories featured whole schools being evacuated, sometimes having to merge with another school, and plots based on espionage and European war refugees were introduced. The figures in Table 2 below show the reduction caused by the war, from 20 boys’ and 39 girls’ school stories published in 1938, to 4 boys and 6 girls’ school stories in 1942.

Table 2: School Stories published during the Second World War period

George Orwell, in a 1939 essay, commented on the formularisation, nostalgia and romance of contemporary British school stories:
The year is 1910 - or 1940, but it is all the same. You are at Greyfriars, a
rosy-cheeked boy of fourteen in posh tailor-made clothes, sitting down to tea in
your study on the Remove passage after an exciting game of football which was
won by an odd goal in the last half-minute. There is a cosy fire in the study,
and outside the wind is whistling. The ivy clusters thickly round the old grey
stones... Lord Mauleverer has just got another fiver and we are all settling
down to a tremendous tea of sausages, sardines, crumpets, potted meat, jam and
doughnuts. After tea we shall sit round the study fire having a good laugh at
Billy Bunter and discussing the team for next week’s match against Rookwood.
Everything is safe, solid and unquestionable. Everything will be the same for
ever and ever.
(Orwell 76-77)

Post-War 1950s revival and 1960s decline
 After the war ended publishers began to resume normal publishing. Girls’ school stories peaked in the post-war period in 1949 with 53, and boys’ in 1946 with 18. Again, as during the interwar period, girls’ school stories out-numbered boys’ in new stories being published. The reasons for the higher numbers of girls’ school stories published over boys’ stories have not been fully investigated by scholars. Substantial statistical research would be required in order to ascertain whether boys’ school stories declined at the expense of other genres such as adventure stories. The impact the war had on public school ideology following the First World War may have been catastrophic. Another issue may be the author’s preferences for writing other genres. In comparison, girls’ school stories may have been far more popular than other girls’ genres, or fewer girls’ genres may have existed. There are not many girls’ stories equivalent to Henty’s adventures stories or the Biggles series for example.

During the 1950s, the highly popular Jennings series were published and Billy Bunter, who had originally appeared in Magnet short stories, appeared in numerous full length-novels, marking a revival in boys’ school stories (Kirkpatrick, Encyclopaedia 5). Despite this there was a considerably smaller number published compared to the interwar period, resulting in a decline which really marked the end of the genre. Sims argues that by 1957 publishers were refusing to publish school stories, citing girls’ authors Patricia Caldwell and Constance M White recording that they had school stories rejected by their publishers (Chambers and Hutchinson respectively) after 1957 (‘Introduction’ in Sims & Clare 13). However there was a growth in evangelist school stories through Christian publishing houses from the 1950s (Sims ‘Introduction’ in Sims & Clare 15).

In terms of what was responsible for this decline, a combination of a number of possibilities has been suggested, including a rise in criticism of the genre, a decline in its quality, changes in reading preferences towards mystery and adventure stories, and decisions taken by libraries not to purchase school stories in preference for ‘quality’ children’s literature and as they purchased the bulk of novels this could have influenced publishers (Sims ‘Introduction’ in Sims & Clare 13-14). There may have been a decline in children’s publishing in general, due to a drop in popularity of reading as a pastime with the introduction of television.


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