19th Century

The Public School Ethos and Late Victorian Children’s Literature


Robert Clive

In 1888, The Life of General Gordon was written so that ‘the young can learn the beautiful lessons of obedience and humility, of loyalty to God and devotion to others’ (Hope, 1888, p.361). The writers of biographical and fictional works in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries sought to instil these values into young people’s minds. These were the values of what is known as the public school ethos. This post shall examine the ways in which the values of the public school ethos were imparted to readers within such literature.

From the eighteenth until the mid-nineteenth century, it could arguably be said that empire did not occupy a prominent position within British society. Control of overseas territories was largely indirect and operated through the agency of trading companies like the East India Company. This method of indirect rule changed, however, with the advent of the era of ‘new’ imperialism which lasted between 1884 and 1914. During this time European powers took direct political control of virtually the whole of Africa (Pakenham, 1991, xxiii). Men with an imperial ethos were needed to run this empire. The public school system subsequently began to develop ‘distinctly militaristic features’ in order to produce the people such men (Searle, 2004, pp.36-37). Nor was this purely a manpower issue. Britain’s poor performance in the Boer War (1899-1902) highlighted what seemed to the establishment to be a case of ‘national deficiency’. One apparent example of this was the fact that approximately one third of British volunteers were turned away from enlisting for being too unhealthy (Searle, 2004, p.302). Additionally, the growing rivalry from other emerging great powers such as USA made the British establishment anxious that they would lose their preeminent international standing. The public school ethos, then, which stressed the values of sportsmanship, manliness and devotion to duty, sought to prepare boys for a life of imperial service (Searle, 2004, p.65). The end result of this ethos was intended to be:

a Christian gentleman…who played by the rules, and whose highest aim was to serve others (James, 1994, p.207).

The attribute of sportsmanship can be found represented in the novel With Clive in India (1884) written by G. A. Henty. The schoolboy hero was central to all of his novels (Thompson, 2005, p.207). He was an ardent imperialist and his works usually celebrated the deeds and great men that had won the empire. The novel  follows the life of a young boy named Charlie Marryatt living in the eighteenth century. He is forced to seek employment in the British East India Company after his father dies. His athletic ability is evident from the outset of the story. He was ‘slight in build…in all sports requiring activity and endurance he was always conspicuous’ (Henty, 1884, p.465). Athleticism was promoted from an early age beginning in the late-nineteenth century. It was seen as developing, not just physique and character, but an esprit de corps, discipline and fair play (Mangan & Hickey, 2002, p.84). Athleticism promoted endurance in the colonies, being seen as equipping young men with the stamina needed to work in what were often inhospitable climates. Charlie’s ability in the novel to undertake his duties in difficult terrain leads to him being selected for a mission requiring the surmounting of dangerous rivers, mountains and passes for its completion (Henty, 1884, p.570). In fact, his physical qualities are first noticed by one of the Company governors when he selflessly jumps overboard from a ship and swims to the rescue of a comrade (Henty, 1884, p.571). Thus athletic ability was imparted to young readers in Henty’s work by its representation as a quality that was likely to help a boy advance himself in the world.

Southey's Life of Nelson

Southey’s Life of Nelson (1813)

However, sportsmanship as an imperial value often meant that war was treated as a game. Charlie finds himself promoted to command a small company of men. His company are out in the field and see a French force approaching. Charlie proceeds to rally his men as though he were speaking to them playing fields; ‘Now lads’, he exclaims: ‘You ought to be grateful to the French…[for] giving you the opportunity of thrashing them,’ at which point his men begin to laugh (Henty, 1884, pp.550-551). An example of how warfare was treated as a game can be seen at the public school which Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout movement, attended. The war memorials in Charterhouse College list the names of the dead from various colonial conflicts who ‘played up, played up, and played the game’ (Ferguson, 2003, p.262). Such a view of war was perhaps only possible in an era which, since 1815, was devoid of the experience of total war (Thompson, 2005, p.207). Thus while sportsmanship was presented as a valuable attribute in running the empire, it masked some of the more unpleasant experiences of conflict.

The training of boys on the playing fields of public schools was supposed to produce ‘manly’ men. Biographies of military heroes were ideal for presenting a picture of the idealised Christian gentleman. H. M. Stanley, for example, was distinguished for being ‘a brave man as well [as] by his courage as by his gentleness’ (Hope, 1902, p.1). These heroes were represented as being at the forefront of empire, spreading civilisation and Christianity to the ‘darker’ regions of the earth. Focused upon within this paper is the representation of General Gordon (1833-1885) as the true Christian gentleman. He was appointed by the British government to manage a retreat from the Sudan in the face of the Mahdi rebellion. Instead, he disobeyed orders and decided to hold on to the city of Khartoum, resolved to ‘smash up the Mahdi’ (Ferguson, 2003, p.268). He was besieged for almost a year, until the Mahdi broke into the city and he was cut to pieces and killed. Eulogised in such works as The Life of General Gordon (1888), he was seen as embodying both ‘morality and military spirit’ (MacDonald, 1994, p.83). Gordon personified the Anglo-Saxon ideal of the ‘gallant Englishman…a brave hero [who] had…died a martyr’s death’ (Hope, 1888, pp.357-358). This connection of manliness with service to the empire confirms the view of Thompson (2005, p.97) that ‘manliness and empire confirmed one another, enhanced one another’. Thus the masculine ideal was imparted to young readers as being constituted with a life of service to the empire, and readers were given examples of it in the pages of biographies such as those of Gordon.


Life of General Gordon (1888)

Furthermore, Anglo-Saxon masculinity was often presented alongside its binary opposite. Gordon was said to be ‘loyal’ and ‘true’ (Hope, 1888, p.358). By contrast, his foreign enemies were presented as treacherous and deceitful. Faragh Pasha, one of Gordon’s supposed allies, was said to have betrayed him and opened the gates of Khartoum to the forces of the Mahdi. He was nothing but ‘a traitor, whose name will be forever covered with infamy’ (Hope, 1888, p.356). Another man, ‘Abou Saood’, was said to be ‘altogether untrustworthy’ (Hope, 1888, p.175). This depiction of native peoples as treacherous and cunning blends with what Said identified as the ‘orientalist’ discourse that was current in contemporary British society. Oriental people were stereotyped as ‘gullible, “devoid of energy and initiative”, much given to “fulsome flattery”, intrigue, cunning…they are “lethargic and suspicious”, and in everything oppose the clarity, directness and nobility of the Anglo-Saxon race’ (Said, 1978, p.39). Such a stress, then, was placed upon developing ideal Anglo-Saxon masculinity in the public school system because it was thought that ‘prestige of race’ alone upheld British rule (James, 1997, p.307). As well as constituting a life of service to the empire, masculinity, therefore, was presented in biographical works as being the direct opposite of the racial attributes of ‘inferior’ subject peoples.

Additionally, the Anglo-Saxon man faithfully performed his duty to the empire. Emphasis upon duty has been a staple of many military biographies. Even in the early-nineteenth century Southey’s The Life of Nelson (1813), saw Nelson famously telling his men prior to the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) that ‘England expects that every man will do his duty (original emphasis)’ with Nelson in his autobiography urging readers to ‘Go Thou and Do Likewise’ (Southey, 1813: 1888, pp.11 & p.365). Of course, in Nelson’s era, duty and patriotism had a parochial focus, being intertwined with the nation, often specifically England (Colley, 1992, pp.284-285). Yet during the era of ‘new’ imperialism it was duty to both the empire and the nation which was emphasised within biographies and juvenile literature. For example, young Charlie Marryatt in With Clive in India is counselled by his uncle before setting off to India to ‘be steady, and do your duty to your employer’ (Henty, 1884, p.478). The ‘employer’ in this case being the East India Company, hence duty to his employer is duty to the empire. As well representing characters that carried out their service to the empire unflinchingly, there was another method by which Henty in his works tried to fire a zeal for the empire among his young readers. This was to ask them indirect thought-provoking questions. After some years serving in India, young Charlie returns to England with an Indian servant. The servant sees the amount English people and asks Charlie;

Why, when there were so many men, [had] England sent so few soldiers to fight for her in India; and for once, Charlie was unable to give a satisfactory reply…‘It does seem strange’ he said…‘that when such mighty interests were at stake, a body of even ten thousand troops could not have been raised and sent out’ (Henty, 1884, p.770).

The ‘mighty interests’ at stake in the novel was the existence of the East India Company, hence of the empire itself. At a time when Britain faced international rivalry for supremacy, Henty was exhorting younger readers to sign up to serve the empire, and to ensure that it lasted.

G. A. Henty, With Clive in India

G. A. Henty, With Clive in India

Thompson (2005, p.103) asks, ‘how far, then, did children’s literature “instil…the qualities of courage, justice, and fair play that had made and would keep Britain great?”’. There are theories by imperial historians which could be adapted to answer such a question. Porter says that an understanding of people’s attitude to empire must be considered in relation to their social class (Porter, 2004, p.311). The most receptive audience for such literature does appear to have been upper-middle class public schoolboys (Thompson, 2005, p.102). Additionally, Thompson states further that the working-classes read such fiction primarily for entertainment and a sense of adventure, since they rarely ventured far from their homes (Ibid). Yet in the opinion of the writer of this essay, such a view of working class indifference to this imperial ethos is hard to maintain. If young working-class boys were reading this literature in c.1900-1905 they were probably among the ones which enthusiastically enlisted for service to King and country in 1914. Indeed many people from all classes, both men and women, were taken in by ‘khaki fever’ in the early months of World War One (Searle, 2004, p.782). Perhaps the answer to Thompson’s question, then, is that the reception of these messages between different social groups was uneven. Consequently, if the reception of the messages between classes was complex, then so too was its reception within classes (Thompson, 2005, p.102).

However, what can be said with perhaps more certainty is that these public school values of masculinity did not retain their currency for very long. In the aftermath of World War One, many of the ideals of the Victorian age came in for reassessment. After all, a ‘stiff-upper lip’ mentality could hardly be maintained in the face of mass bodily dismemberment and mental scarring. If the Victorian ideal of manliness was relevant in 1914, then by 1918 one recent dissertation has concluded that in the space of four years, the concept of what constituted manliness changed irrevocably (Cairns, 2012, p.29). Nor by 1918 was the reputation of the Victorian hero still sacred. Strachey, in his work Eminent Victorians (1918), described Gordon in the following way;

Alien to the subtleties of civilised statesmanship…unamenable to official control… [and] incapable of the skilful management of delicate situations (Strachey, 1918:2002, p.255).

This is a far cry from Hope’s description of him as ‘a gallant and skilful leader…to be trusted with the great interests at stake in Shanghai’ (Hope, 1888, p.80). Thus despite the repeated idealisation of such men and their public school qualities in biographies and fiction, these ideas began to lose their relevance in a post-1918 England.

Strachey's Eminent Victorians

Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918)

In conclusion, the late-Victorian and Edwardian public school ethos of sportsmanship, manliness, and duty were imparted to young readers through fictional works and military biographies. These values were personified in the representations of both current and historical heroes of empire. Imperial heroes and schoolboy characters embodied the ethos. It was, as far as historians have been able to gather, the boys of the upper and middle-classes who provided the most receptive audience for this type of literature. The working-classes attitude towards it, however, is much less easier to determine. Finally, despite the fact that there were many similar works to those of Henty and Hope, these ideas began to decline in relevance after World War One.

Primary Sources
Henty, G. A. (1884) ‘With Clive in India’. British Empire Adventure Stories (2005). London: Carlton Books.
Hope, E. (1888). The Life of General Gordon. Edinburgh: W P Nimmo.
Hope, E. (1902). Stanley and Africa. London: Walter Scott Press
Southey, R. (1813: 1888). The Life of Nelson. London: George Bell & Sons
Strachey, L. (1918:2002). Eminent Victorians. London: Continuum Books

Secondary Sources
Colley, L. (1992). Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837. Yale University Press
Ferguson, N. (1993). Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Penguin.
James, L. (1994). The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. London: Abacus.
James, L. (1997). Raj: The Making of British India. London: Abacus.
MacDonald, R. (1994). The Language of Empire: Myths and Metaphors of Popular Imperialism, 1880-1918. Manchester: MUP
Mangan, J. A. & Hickey, C. (2002). ‘Missing Middle-Class Dimensions: Elementary Schools, Imperialism and Athleticism’. European Sports History Review 4 pp.73-90
Pakenham, T. (1991). The Scramble for Africa. London: Abacus
Porter, B. (2004). The Absent-Minded Imperialists. Oxford: OUP
Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. London: Penguin
Searle, G. R. (2004). A New England? England 1886-1918. Oxford: OUP
Thompson, A. (2005). The Empire Strikes Back? London: Pearson

Unpublished Dissertations
Cairns, T. (2012) ‘Tommy has the jerks mum, but don’t worry I’m ok’ Personal reflections of combat, emotions and dismemberment during the Great War, 1914-1918. [Unpublished Dissertation: BA Hons]. Leeds Metropolitan University

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