The Education of Upper Class Young Men

By Austin Jensen (appearing as Charles Bingley in BYU’s Pride and Prejudice)

As England was and continues to be a class-conscious society, education was built on social lines, and even the public schools were divided into castes, with certain schools not only determining which set you belonged to, but also which college you would attend at Oxford or Cambridge. In wealthy families, boys might be educated at home by a live-in tutor until they were old enough to attend an elite school, or they might be sent to live with a scholarly man to be educated in his home before going on to Oxford or Cambridge, but most commonly the sons of the wealthy attended a public boarding school. [1]

 “Public” schools were founded through generous donations for the male children of the towns of Eton and Harrow, and they were originally open to all. The concept of the “grammar” school came from the fact that Latin and Greek grammar was the basis of the program. Eventually, these public schools began to operate as private schools for the children of rich patrons.

These “public” schools were a social experiment in an era when education was patchwork at best.  No national school system existed at the beginning of the 19th Century. The rich hired a governess to teach their female children and a tutor to educate their sons until the boys could go off to Eton, Harrow, Oxford, and Cambridge.   Children of the poor were sent off to work the fields, or if fortunate, to an apprenticeship. [2]

Schools like Eton College and Harrow School were all-boy boarding schools. When the boys entered, they were 13 years old, and they spend five years before they graduated when they became 18 years old.

A late 18th century school for boys.

A late 18th century school for boys.

The original curriculum concentrated on prayers, Latin and devotion, and “as late as 1530 no Greek was taught”. . Studies of the Classics, Latin, and Greek were standard, as were languages such as French and Italian. Later the emphasis was on classical studies, dominated by Latin and Ancient History, and, for boys with sufficient ability, Classical Greek. The typical school day began at seven in the morning, and bedtime was around nine or ten. Constant attendance at prayers were required, and there were four services on Sunday.

Uniforms were a visible symbol as a way of establishing their social status. More than is generally recognized today, children from affluent families in the 18th, 19th, and even early 20th Centuries were likely to have very extensive wardrobes. A school boy even in the late 18th Century could own a dozen shirts, almost as many cravats, half a dozen waist coats and tightly fitted breeches, hats, gloves, stockings, hankerchiefs, and heeled shoes. Their wardrobes became much more complicated in the 19th Century, especially as sports became more organized and specialized sport equipment became required.[3]

For breaches of discipline, a boy would be flogged. Eton, specifically, used to be renowned for its use of corporal punishment, generally known as “beating”. Friday was set aside as “flogging day”. Until 1964, offending boys could be summoned to the Head Master or the Lower Master, as appropriate, to receive a birching on the bare posterior, in a semi-public ceremony held in the Library, where there was a special wooden birching block over which the offender was held. [4] However, the main idea of discipline in an English public school was that much of it should be dealt by the boys themselves. At Winchester it was ordained that eighteen of the older boys, called prefects, would “oversee their fellows, and from time to time certify the masters of their behavior and progress in study.” The duty of a prefect was to deliver a “tunding,” that is, beating a disobedient student across the back of his waistcoat with a ground-ash the size of one’s finger. According to an old Prefect of Hall, the art of tunding was to catch the edge of the shoulder blade with the rod, and strike in the same spot every time. In this way it was possible to cut the back of the offending boy’s waistcoat into strips.

All the public schools had their own customs and slang. At Winchester, a “strawberry mess” was a meal of strawberries and ice cream; a “horse-box” was a desk; and “washing stools” were the prefects’ tables, which were placed in commanding positions. A boy would ask of his cohort, “Is Smith a thick, or only a thoking jig?” which would translate as “Is Smith a blockhead or is he a clever boy who likes to loaf?” Each house would record the slang and customs in a book, in which all “notions“, ancient and modern, were recorded.

A boy’s first duty, upon entering the school, was to pass an examination before his superiors on the contents of the book, whereupon he would be accepted, quite easily into the fold of the school–save if he were a complete rotter. In a way, the public school served as conditioning for the adult life of these boys, and was definitely the source of their love for pomp and tradition, and their unflagging devotion to “queen and country.”

Abraham Garland Randall, by American painter James Frothingham, typifies the educated young men of the upper classes.

Abraham Garland Randall, by American painter James Frothingham, typifies the educated young men of the upper classes.

There were university opportunities for gentlemen, though it’s a misnomer that collegiate studies were only available to the wealthy or members of the aristocracy. There were scholarly opportunities for young men of intellect, especially if they could prove worthy of a scholarship. The primary universities for an English gentleman were at Cambridge and Oxford, of which men would first attend at just sixteen or seventeen years of age. And though the educational opportunities at these institutions were virtually limitless, these jaunts at the university were seen as more of a prospect to advance socially than to focus solely on academia.

If a gentleman had neither the inclination nor opportunity to attend the university, he might begin his career in the military. Here the opportunities to expand his knowledge of languages would have been likely (through travel and some ongoing study), though the danger to one’s longevity in this type of career was quite obvious.[5]

 The role of the public school played a large part in the creation of the ruling caste. Though English law regarded education as a right, irrespective of poverty, the access and leisure time required to commit to education has frequently been only in reach of those from the upper classes. The product of these public schools were leaders not only by birth, but by the careful and deliberate grooming of the headmasters. Their status as elite schools for gentlemen solidified after the Industrial Revolution, from which grew the plutocracy, and the emergence of the British Empire, which allowed the sons of younger sons of aristocrats the opportunity to earn a living whilst serving and protecting their nation–which in turn strengthened the ruling elites.[6]


  1. Julie Klassen, . N.p., n. d. 23 Jan 2014.      <;.
  2. Bolen, Cheryl. “The Education of Young Men      and Women in Rengency.” The Regency Reader, 2006. Web. 23 Jan. 2014.      <;.
  3. HBC-SU, . N.p.. Web. 25 Jan 2014.      <;.
  4. B. J. W. Hill, A Portrait of Eton, 1958, and      Tim Card, Eton Renewed: A History of Eton College from 1860 to the Present      Day, 1994
  5. Cambron, Kristy.      “Perlez-vous Francais?.” Regency Reflections. N.p., 12 Sep 2012.      Web. 25 Jan. 2014. <;.
  6. Holland, Evangeline. “Everyday Life in a      Boys’ Public School.” Edwardian Promenade. N.p., 25 Jan      2010. Web. 25 Jan. 2014.      <;.
This entry was posted in Men In Regency England, Social Customs of Regency England and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Education of Upper Class Young Men

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s