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Having conciliated the masters, Arnold’s next objective was to get the praepositors on his side; so in September 1828 he held his first ‘council’ for sixth-formers, allowing them the freedom of speech enjoyed by the masters. Then, recalling what had been effective at Laleham, once a week he invited four of them to dinner and, in a relaxed atmosphere, permitted any type of subject to be discussed. Responding to this unusual treatment, by 1830 the senior boys were not only giving whole-hearted support but their feeling for him was one of respect mingled with affection.

To break the barrier of awe (in some cases fear) which separated him from the remainder of the boys Arnold informed them his help would be available to solve any of their problems. To give a boy private access to his study, he had a new entrance made, and to indicate when he was there a flag was hoisted on the tower. The tenderness he felt for the boys was, unfortunately, hidden behind a severe expression, but once in his presence a boy soon became hypnotised by his personality and amazed at a photographic memory that catalogued each boy’s character.

In the hope of extending his influence for good, when Anstey resigned his chaplaincy Arnold decided to take his place, at first refusing the salary increase of sixty guineas, and when the Trustees, knowing his worth, insisted he take it, the money was used to establish a library. In the pulpit he usually restricted the length of his sermons to twenty minutes, during which his audience sat enthralled.

In his war against vice he insisted that the Trustees supply separate beds at no extra cost. In Dr Wooll’s time six to a bed was not unknown, parents having to pay four guineas extra for a single or two guineas for a double bed. To prevent surprise attacks, he ruled that all, including himself and masters, should knock before entering a study. Provided the sixth-formers did not abuse a privilege solely theirs, he approved of fagging. An unauthorised boy twice caught giving orders to a junior was expelled. Fights between equally matched combatants had to be fought in the Close. To pacify irate farmers who complained of poaching and trespassing, cottages where boys hid dogs and guns were put out of bounds, and when a pack of poor quality hounds kept for hare-hunting continued to behave unlawfully the sport was banned and the animals destroyed. When drinking intoxicants (apart from beer at mealtimes) was made an offence, Arnold met with sixth-form opposition, and improvement was slow until ended by the expulsion of a praepositor.

Reluctant to flog, Arnold preferred to give impositions, and it was said he could, by words alone, reduce a young giant to tears. He did, however, allow praepositors to cane offenders – six strokes being the average punishment, against which the recipient could appeal; but if the appellant lied the punishment was doubled.

At one time his unprecedented eagerness to rid the school of offenders worried the Trustees, angered parents, and engendered Press criticism. Undeterred, Arnold refused to keep disruptive elements or boys who, although not badly behaved, were thought to be unsuitable – the latter, to save them from humiliation, being requested not to return after a holiday. Arnold averred it was a master’s duty owed to the school to clear it of unpromising subjects. Superannuation, not expulsion, was his method. Having tripled the number of pupils to three hundred, he was not overruled.

While primarily concerned with purging vice, Arnold did not neglect his educational reforms. At the top public schools at the time, apart from a few other subjects regarded as unimportant extras, only Greek and Latin were taught. At Rugby French and mathematics as extras had been taught by inferior part-time masters to the few whose parents were willing to pay for them. Arnold brought both into the curriculum, to be taught by his regular assistants. He insisted also on lessons in Scripture, geography, and history being given in depth. Many boys of eighteen, he found, were extremely ignorant concerning foreign lands.

As occurred in his previous schools, work began early with prayers and a lesson before an eight o’clock breakfast. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays work continued until eleven and then from two-fifteen until five. On Tuesdays and Thursdays lessons stopped at one, on Saturdays at eleven. This gave an approximate total of twenty hours a week, sixteen of which were devoted to the Classics, two to French, and two to mathematics. In 1835 a Frenchman was engaged, and the German language included; Arnold being the first headmaster to establish a Modern Language section.

To keep himself informed regarding the progress made, he regularly took classes throughout the school in the presence of a form-master, and also held end-of-term oral examinations at (Wymer states) the incredible rate of ten boys an hour. By introducing written reports, he created another precedent. Wise enough to know not every boy had the right temperament for examinations, provided laziness was not a factor, he did not forthwith condemn those who failed. All prizes were paid for out of his own pocket. When the school did exceptionally well, half-holidays were awarded. When teaching he warned boys not to be satisfied with textbook information, but to get a comprehensive knowledge of a subject by reading widely. For Latin and Greek translations he expected good idiomatic English rather than the usual literal, and often nonsensical, ones. Aware his German pronunciation was poor, with characteristic humility he preferred to let sixth-formers read for him.

In keeping with other people blest with almost inexhaustible energy, Thomas Arnold did not always realise he was driving so hard that weaker students would break under the strain, and it was not unknown for them to enter the sick-room suffering from fatigue.

Although justifiably proud of his achievements, in 1834 his published opinion was that at Rugby the average intellectual power was low – a statement which seemed to contradict his reference in a short poem to ‘a well-stored treasure house’.

Written by a friend of the family, Dean Stanley’s disclosures were very discreet, but his book does include information re Arnold’s influence in religious matters, his definition of Christianity, his efforts to reconcile Science and Theology, and his insight into God’s judgment. Also in it are interesting letters from eminent men to himself and to Arnold, and from Arnold to distinguished correspondents.

To be continued.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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