Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

A Nursey of Millionaires

by Henry S. Salt

ETON College is an institution which is usually regarded by advanced thinkers with a feeling akin to despair. “Non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa,” is the thought that is uppermost in their minds, as they see the provoking stability and prosperity enjoyed by this remarkable relic of mediæval times, to which, in spite of the acknowledged deficiencies in the Eton system of education, our modern aristocrats and plutocrats vie in sending their sons. Yet the study of Eton ought surely to be interesting and instructive to all advocates of social reform, if only for the reason that it furnishes them with an admirable example of the evil results of inordinate wealth. Just as a philosophical writer, engaged in studying the question of Liberty from every point of view, might not unprofitably undertake a journey to St. Peters­burg, in order to observe the working of the precisely opposite system to that which he advocates, so the social reformer may derive an unfailing text for his sermons by the contemplation of the chief of English public schools. Eton, the nursery of our future landlords and capitalists, offers a multum-in-parvo of informa­tion on the subject of social inequality and freedom of contract; for it shows us not only the benefits that result from a richly endowed institution, and a school composed of the sons of the wealthiest men in the country, but also a model system of free trade in boys, and internecine competition among the masters engaged in tuition.

It is sometimes urged, in defence of the Eton system, that the social advantages of the school outbalance educational defects. Boys are sent to Eton, it is said, to learn how to live rather than to acquire book-learning. I fear that this consolatory suggestion, which is often fondly entertained by patriotic Etonians, has little foundation in fact, for though Eton boys have of course the oppor­tunity common to all other schoolboys, and not peculiar to Etonians, of making school friendships which are often valuable in after-life, they have certainly no special reason to congratulate themselves, as far as Eton itself is concerned, on the social conditions of its inmates, it will perhaps be found convenient to consider the social status of Eton under three heads—viz. (1) the endowed Col­lege; (2) the position of the boys; (3) the position of the masters.

(1) In the first place, we find at Eton one of the most richly endowed colleges in England, thanks to the munificent provision of the Royal Founder, Henry VI., whose praiseworthy intention was to establish “a seat of learning for poor scholars,” though Eton has unfortunately become precisely the opposite of this. One peculiarity of Eton is what may be called its dual control, for the College government is still distinct from the School, though both are now under the supervision of the governing body. There are accordingly two funds; of which the College fund is supplied by the revenues derived from land, tithes, and house-rent, while the School fund is dependent on the payments made by the parents of the boys. Eton thus possesses an immense pecuniary advantage over ordinary schools, which arc compelled to pay all expenses out of the regular school charges; whereas at Eton, the building expensed and such-like outlays, are defrayed by the College, and the School fund is only called upon to pay masters’ salaries and direct educational charges. In other words, the nation, or a por­tion of the nation, contributes annually a large sum towards the maintenance of a wealthy institution which is already amply supplied by the heavy charges levied on the parents of the boys. What good is done with all these College revenues? What can this “endowed College,” or in plain words, charity school, show for all the money it annually draws? The question may readily be asked but it is not so easy to answer it. The maintenance and education of the seventy King’s Scholars, which is the chief function performed by the College of Eton, can hardly be held to be a very valuable service to the country in general, for the pious intention of the founder is now quite disregarded, and the King’s Scholars are for the most part sons of well-to-do parents, who could easily afford to pay for their childrens’ education from their private resources. But the most flagrant waste in the application of these funds, is the payment of a Provost and Fellows for doing nothing at all. The Provost receives £2,000 a year, without the obligation of any duties worthy of the name, while the Fellows each get some £800 a year, together with a residence in College, and a valuable country living into the bargain. The absurdity of this arrange­ment has been so far recognised, that no more Fellows are now to he appointed; but the Provostship has been allowed to remain intact, though it is obvious that the nominal duties of the Provost could be far better discharged by the Head-Master. On the whole, it is impossible to examine this endowed institution with one’s eyes open, without coming to the conclusion that a vast deal of the nation’s money is annually squandered in supporting a very costly and very useless establishment.

(2) Secondly let us consider a still more important subject, the social influences surrounding the boys educated at Eton. Nowhere are the baneful effects of inordinate wealth more conspicuously seen than in this nursery of youthful millionaires. The boys themselves, under favourable conditions, would offer good material to the teacher, being in a large majority of cases naturally good-tempered and well-meaning enough, but they are ruined by the very profusion of the gifts which fortune has lavished on them. How can boys become other­wise than extravagant, selfish, and unintellectual, when they are unfortunate enough to possess the means of indulging every luxurious whim that enters their minds? It is no exaggeration to say that an Eton boy often spends in the course of a school-time as much money as would support a poor family for the same period; and this too in mere additional luxuries, quite irrespective of the regular school expenses. Unnecessary bills at the tailor’s and haberdasher’s; unnecessary purchases for the adornment of his person or his room; unnecessary feeding at the pastry-cook’s or confectioner’s; all these soon form lasting habits of selfish indulgence, for which no amount of graceful self-possession and ease of demeanour can possibly compensate. It is impossible to blame individual parents for their son’s extravagance; indeed, many of them are fully aware of the temptations the boys incur by this superabundance of wealth, but at Rome one must do as Rome does, and the force of custom is too strong to admit of individual improvement. It is only one more proof, if proof were needed, that the unequal distribution of wealth is fatal to the true welfare of the rich, as well as a crushing injustice to the poor.

The extravagance of Eton boys is recognised and deplored by many Etonians, and it was as a counterpoise to this growing evil that the “Eton Mission” in Hackney Wick was established some years ago. The object of those who promoted this charitable institution was doubtless beyond all praise, but it must neverthe­less be pointed out that such charity, though it may benefit a few individuals, can do no lasting good either to the upper classes or the lower, to those who give, or those who take, it cannot permanently benefit the poor; for it does not attempt to ascertain and remove the root of the evil. It cannot really benefit the rich; for to give a trifle out of much superfluous wealth is no very valuable moral training, especially for boys who regard all such subscrip­tions as a necessary tax, to be extracted, if possible, from the parental purse. How different might it be, if Eton boys were invited to consider the true source of their parents’ wealth; if the proposition were set nakedly before them. What is the meaning of “having—say—ten thousand a year?” If they were once led to ponder the question why they and their parents are clothed, fed, and supported, without being compelled to work for their own living, it might be an invaluable moral lesson, and one that would make them less disposed to indulge thenceforth in any needless luxuries and extravagance. But this is a subject which must be carefully concealed from Eton boys; and accordingly they grow up with an undisturbed conscience, and a serene conviction that it is a fine thing to live sumptuously on the labour of others.

(3) This brings me to the third division our subject. It being obvious enough, if not to Eton boys, at any rate to the readers of To-Day, that the lavish wealth which supports this aristocratic school is the fruit of the toil of thousands of poor men in fields and factories, whose children are starved in body and mind in order that their employers’ sons may be educated regardless of cost; we may at least expect a striking result from this favoured institution. As the parents of Eton boys are able, through the power they possess over the labour of their poorer fellow-countrymen, to pay enormous sums for their children’s education, and as the College of Eton is largely endowed with revenues drawn from the same source, we may reasonably look to this quarter for a masterpiece of educational success. Other and cheaper schools, which have to contend with the difficulty of insufficient funds, manage to give their boys a more or less satisfactory training; but at Eton we shall surely find the ne plus ultra of sound scholarship and intel­lectual acquirements. Strange to say, the result is the very con­trary of our anticipations. Nowhere is there a more shallow, flimsy, and unsatisfactory education than that given in Henry VI’s Royal Institution; the poorest grammar-school would be ashamed to turn out boys so ill-educated as nine-tenths of our Etonians. And the main cause of this is not far to seek; it is the competition among the masters themselves that ruins the efficiency of the teaching at Eton, and prevents any real progress. Most unhappily for the school, the system of payment is based on an indirect and competitive method of remuneration, which allows some individuals to become extremely rich, while others, for no apparent reason, are left in comparative poverty. This internecine competition, this system of “devil take the hindmost” in the matter of getting pupils, is the more deplorable at Eton, because the very large payments made by the parents of the boys would, if fairly apportioned, enable all the masters, indeed a much larger staff than that at present appointed, to draw proper salaries. Exclusive of all charges for board and maintenance (which are very high), each boy pays an entrance fee of ten guineas, and an annual sum of £24 into the school fund. Taking the average number of boys as 900, and the average entry of new boys as 300 in the year, we find the school fund in possession of between £24,000 and £25,000 for annual payment of Masters and educa­tional expenses. But, besides this, each boy has to pay £21 per annum to a private classical tutor, and thus a sum of nearly £19,000 is spent wholly on indirect tuition, and is scrambled for by a competitive process from which all non-classical masters are rigidly excluded. What wonder if the School fund is impoverished by this immense absorption of money into private channels? The result of this special endowment of the classical masters is of course the creation of a “vested interest” as a privileged class, which insists on the retainment of the old classical curriculum, in all its utter absurdity and waste of time, for fear that the introduc­tion of modern studies should necessitate a reform of the financial system, and thus lead to the abolition of the tutorial fee. More­over, as the school fund is thus impoverished by the interception of nearly half the money paid by the parents of the boys, it is impossible to engage as many masters as the large size of the school really demands, and, accordingly, the “divisions” often contain as many as forty boys, and never less than thirty, thus seriously impairing the efficiency of the teaching. In fact, nearly all the defects in the Eton system of education, and their name is legion, are directly clue to the anomalous method of payment, and the ceaseless competition among the classical masters to secure the largest number of private pupils. Reforms which have long been urgently needed are constantly postponed, in order that the existing state of affairs may not be interfered with; and the utility of the schoolwork is thus ruthlessly sacrificed to private interests.

So far, I have spoken only of the payments for educational work; but if we turn to the hoarding-houses, we find just the same indecent scramble going on, and here, too, on a large scale, for the mathematical and science masters have now established their right to take a house, though they cannot take “pupils.” In a collegiate establishment such as Eton, where a sort of brotherhood is supposed to exist among the masters, one would have thought that the entrance of new boys into the various houses would be arranged on some fair and equitable principle, by which each master would have his just share, no more and no less. Free trade in boys, and freedom of contract for masters, have, however, brought about a totally different result. Some houses are full to overflowing, thus enabling the lucky masters who hold them to lay by very large sums of money every year; while others are so empty as to reduce their unfortunate owners almost to beggary; and this inequality is generally owing to mere luck or prejudice, and not to any difference of ability in the masters themselves.

Thus it comes about that in this wealthiest of all public schools there is less unanimity of aim among the masters than in any other place of education. Vested rights, conflicting interests, and inequalities of payment, wreck every hope of any real and sub­stantial progress. A few men make large fortunes, but the majority are discontented and restless; few love the work for the work’s sake, and indeed not without good reason, for of all work done in this world, this is probably the most useless and wasteful. No modern improvements can be introduced, no considerations of the value of time can be entertained for a moment; the old classical system, in all its utter folly, must he rigidly upheld, in order that privileged classical tutors may continue to draw as large salaries as their predecessors.

These, it seems to me, are the chief faults in the social system of Eton College, and terrible faults they are. The worst of the outlook is that there is at present little prospect of any real reform. When the Provostship was vacant last summer, strong hopes were expressed that our “Liberal” Premier would break through the traditional custom of promoting the Headmaster of the time being, and would appoint to the Provostship some really eminent man, who would make his presence felt in the place, and not regard his office as a mere sinecure. These hopes were dis­appointed; for the appointment was made on the old lines; and the Head Mastership, thus rendered vacant, was subsequently awarded by the Governing Body to one of the most conservative of the assistant masters. All this shows how useless it is to hope for any real reform of our public schools. Royal Commissions may be appointed, and Blue-books may be issued; but things continue to go on in the old corrupt style, and will so continue, as far as one can judge, to the end of the chapter. And, indeed, what reform can there be of the two first evils of which I have spoken, the unnecessary endowments of the College, and the shameful extravagance of the boys, as long as the whole social condition of the country remains as it now is? Eton in these respects is merely an England in miniature, and offers, as I said at the beginning of this article, a multum-in-parvo of information as an instance of social injustice. The third evil—viz., the pecuniary competition among the masters themselves, might of course be remedied by a sensible and strong-minded Head-master, determined to put the school-teaching on a satisfactory basis, but it must he confessed that the appointment of such a reformer seems at the present time indefinitely remote.

I remember well the occasion when the gloomy thought was first suggested to my mind that reform at Eton is an impossibility, and indeed a contradiction in terms. I was travelling in a fast train on the Great Western line, the only other occupant of the carriage being a middle-aged gentleman, with a disappointed but resigned-looking countenance, who was earnestly engaged in studying a German book by the help of a translation. When we passed within sight of Windsor and Eton, and were attracted by the “distant view” which the poet Gray has immortalised, my fellow-traveller confided to me that he too had been educated at Eton; “and,” he added, pointing to the German book he was reading, “I have ever since been struggling to make up for time then wasted.” On my expressing a hope that modern subjects might soon be introduced more successfully into the Eton curriculum, he replied that he did not see the least prospect of any real reform, and that he believed Eton must eventually “perish irredeemably.”

This was a discouraging prediction to one who was at that time enthusiastic on the subject of  “Floreat Etona.” I sincerely hope that my fellow-traveller’s prognostication may prove to have been mistaken; but I am free to admit that an enlarged study of the subject during ten year’s mastership at Eton has led me to a somewhat similar conclusion. For when an institution is main­tained, not by its own intrinsic worth and real utility, but by the wealth, fashion, and prejudice of those who patronise it; when it depends for support, not on its merits in the present, but on its prestige and renown in the past; then the end of the institution, however long it may be delayed, is usually a disastrous one. For the collapse will come at last; though it must be confessed there are some ruins which seem to be gifted with an inexplicable stability. It is of such as these that Browning writes in “Childe Roland”—

 “ ‘Tis the last Judgment’s fire must cure this place,
Calcine its clods, and set its prisoners free.’

Published: To-day, June 1885