I’m not sure if Tom Brown’s Schooldays is much read now. It’s still in print, and I see it in bookshops, but suspect it’s borne along more by the momentum of its own classic status than by any great appetite on the part of readers – at least of child readers. Either way, most people are at least aware of it as the cornerstone of a genre that certainly does remain popular – the school story. (For anyone who thinks the school story’s day died with Angela Brazil, Antonia Forest, Frank Richards and Elinor Brent-Dyer, I invite you to acquaint yourself with the work of J. K. Rowling.) Many of us probably remember too that there is an autobiographical element to the book, Thomas Hughes having attended Dr Arnold’s Rugby just as Tom Brown himself did. Indeed, the first edition was published as being by “an old boy”.
I’ve found my interest in Tom Brown’s Schooldays piqued in recent weeks, as I’ve been reading a rather similar, but in this case wholly autobiographical, text. My great-grandfather, Thomas Butler, first went to the school of Christ’s Hospital as a seven-year-old boy in 1853. (The picture of him above, in the school's Bluecoat uniform, was probably taken a couple of years later.) He stayed until he was fifteen, first at the school for younger boys in Hertford, and afterwards in London. Almost seven decades on, as a retired clergyman, he was asked to record his memories of the place, and this he duly did, in a hefty manuscript. The manuscript was donated to the school in the 1950s, but in return they made a typed copy, running to some 94 pages, and that is the version now on the desk before me, on loan from a kind aunt.
Thomas was not a great stylist, but he had an excellent memory and a strong desire to tell the truth, which are more valuable qualities to anyone wanting to know what life at Christ’s Hospital was really like a 150 years ago. As far as discipline was concerned, it seems to have conformed to every lurid Victorian stereotype. Here, for example, is seven-year-old Thomas on his first day at school, arriving with some other boys at Hertford station:
The journey seemed long. We were met by Mr Ludlow, the Steward of the Hertford School, who spoke as roughly to us as if he had known us for years. From Hertford Station we were marched into the Hall of the Foundation. Several of the lads, to whom discipline was new, were at once caned by Mr Hannum, the head Writing Master, who now entered, to superintend. I was in a terrible funk for I had never seen caning before, and I feared that this ogre would fly upon me. It greatly surprised me that he should wear the same kind of clothes as those worn by my father and family friends, silk hat and frock coat, and it occurred to me that possibly these garments might have a civilizing influence over him and at last conquer his savage nature.
Thomas was soon to learn better:
Dinner was followed by after-meal duty [prayers], and then we were dismissed or occasionally detained to witness a brushing in public. That is a flogging with a birch-rod on the bare back of some sinful boy. The culprit was hung on the back of a beadle, and another beadle furrowed the flesh with the rod. ... During a brushing if the one who was chastised groaned from excessive pain, the boys who witnessed involuntarily cried "shame". The beadle in pity gave less vigorous strokes. Then Mr Ludlow called to him, "Do your duty, Sir," and if the beadle became loath, took the rod out of the beadle's hand and administered the strokes himself.
Mr Hawkins, by way of punishment, gave a great many titches, that is, canings on the seat of the trousers pulled tight over the form [bench]. Occasionally he gave a brushing (birching). Selecting one of the lads, he would cross-examine him upon some trifle in such a manner that the scholar would, through nervousness, unwittingly contradict himself and apparently tell a lie. Then the guilty one was strapped to a form, and brushed for several minutes, Mr Hawkins, throughout the performance, loudly bewailing his hard lot in having so painful a duty to perform.
That’s just a taster. Talking of which, there was also the food...
As to the quality of the bread, unhappily its flavour was not like that of the "luxent" (enjoyable) bread sold in the shops outside. Some of the breads contained cockroaches, and the search for them was not always successful. When not so, one's two middle upper teeth felt something slippery resisting their pressure. This was the thin but strong coat of a cockroach, and the teeth were set on edge. Once, only once, in my experience, a boy found a mouse in his bread. He took it to Mr Ludlow, thinking this the proper thing to do. Mr Ludlow, however, was waxy, and expressing no sorrow on account of the shocking death of late Mr Mouse, nor any pity for the poor hungry child before him, said testily, "I didn't make the bread, what do you come to me for?"
Mr Ludlow, during dinner, walked about the Hall, and if any Nurse or boy wished to speak to him, now was the opportunity. A lad, for example, complained to him that the meat was high. Mr Ludlow tasted it, spat it out of his mouth, and said it was very good.
The poor lads were always hungry. Some would beg for orange peel and even pick it up from the sandy Ward floor, make it clean, and devour it. ... Cold and hunger, caused by want of nourishing food, gave us various complaints. All the tips of my fingers festered, and were full of yellow pus, and a thumbnail came off; my eyelids stuck together in my sleep and when I opened my eyes several lashes came out.
But along with all this there were pleasures, such as the joy of being ill:
The boys were very happy in the Sick Ward, and would have liked to live there always. There was delicious wholesome food, kind nurses, a warm comfortable room, a long table at which I read Dickens' "Pickwick Papers" and some good evangelical tracts. I liked the tracts, and thought that "Pickwick Papers" was a charmingly amusing book. The title page was missing, and I wondered who wrote it.
And much that was frankly bizarre:
Dr Stone once gave me a sudden sharp pain, but I had no doubt that he did so for my own good, and I was interested in his treatment. According to the instruction of my nurse, I lay on my back on the counterpane of my bed with my body bare and near the foot of the bed. I compared myself to a little balloon. Dr Stone, as he passed, gave the front of my body a sudden vigorous smack, and without any pause, continued to walk on to the door of the Ward, and went out.
Mr Keymer occasionally preached a funeral sermon. That was when a boy died. It was called "a jolly sermon" for it pleased the children to hear him speak kind words of the departed. I never heard the word "jolly" used at Christ's Hospital except on this occasion.
Sometimes you must go questing to the Hesperides for the apple of inspiration: sometimes it falls into your lap. It may even, on occasion, be lent by an aunt. What’s to be done with Tom Butler’s Schooldays? I’ve been transcribing some of the highlights from the memoir, which can be read here; and further extracts will follow in the days to come. But I’d love to do something more with the world young Thomas has revealed, the children who inhabited it, and particularly the strange array of teachers, as odd and irascible a bunch as ever stalked the corridors of Greyfriars or Hogwarts.