Only Children At Boarding School: Agony and Ecstasy

Given that I’ve been reading the autobiographies of people worthy of note on ODNB, it’s unsurprising that quite a few of them went to boarding school.  Despite growing up on Enid Blyton, I never really fancied the idea, put off by thoughts such as ‘but if you’re being picked on, you can’t get away!’ and ‘ugh, sharing a room and never being alone ever!’  With these ideas, I’m similar to some late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century only children, but not others.

As I already mentioned a few blogs ago, actress Julia Neilson really enjoyed her time at boarding school in Germany - ‘I thoroughly enjoyed my years at Wiesbaden, and it was one of the happiest times of my life’ - and made it sound idyllic, with gentle chores, picnics, walks in orchards, and excursions to farms and the marketplace.[1]  Suffragette Margaret Haig (Viscountess Rhondda) not only willingly went to boarding school, but of her own volition, having persuaded her reluctant father that doing so would not ‘make her silly’ as he feared.  She wanted to go because ‘I had discovered that the St. Leonards girls were allowed to go out for walks by themselves without attendant mistresses.  This spelt freedom and it was for freedom that I thirsted.’[2]  Boarding school, in this instance, provided a respite from the restrictions of the family.

Historian Sir Charles Oman spent a happy year at Malvern Wells when he was eleven, ‘to learn the art of roughing it with other boys, and to accustom me to regulation school diet’, where he was not bullied, ‘found some congenial companions’, recalled a particularly boisterous pillow-fight and mischievously drained a pond with a friend.[3]  However, he fared badly at Winchester College, having started late due to illness, and therefore finding friendships already established without him, and suffered at the hands of exceptionally cruel prefects.  The only boy he knew in a worse position than his own was one who had not been to school previously and consequently knew nothing of the ‘fagging’ system whereby elder boys enslaved younger.[4]  Politician Sir George Leveson Gower found himself similarly unused to some of the social aspects of school when he went to Cheam at the age of ten:

‘I cannot pretend that I liked it, but neither was I actually unhappy, except perhaps during the first term, when possibly the fact of being an only child and thus having had fewer playmates than most small boys tended to magnify the roughness and discomforts which fell to the lot of a new boy.’[5]

However, he described himself as ‘happy’ at Eton.[6]

Hastings Russell, Duke of Bedford, said of Eton and the two day-schools he had attended previously:

‘All three I detested cordially and at all I was extremely miserable, partly by reason of the unwelcome attentions of bullies; partly because I was no good at school games and disliked them; and partly because all my hobbies and interests were connected with home and were “non-transferable”.’[7]

Although the bullying died down after his first term, he was nonetheless highly critical of the fagging and vicious atmosphere and the school, and claimed that its alumni were successful in spite of, rather than because of it.  He recalled attempting to delay his return after the holidays by drinking stagnant water and trying to break his ankle.[8]

Other authors solved the problems of boarding school more successfully.  Aviator and broadcaster Cecil Lewis reported that he was happy at Oundle, but ‘‘In the rough and tumble of study ragging, I was let alone because of sudden violent outbursts of temper which intimidated anyone who ventured to attack me’.  From this, we can see how ‘normal’ it was to be given a hard time at boarding school - the ‘rough and tumble’ was part of life for everyone, but it might be inferred that only children, being unused to it, were less tolerant of it.[9]

We have already seen in a previous blog that artist W. Graham Robertson recalled some amusing incidents at Eton, but overall he did not like it, and had the following to say of it:

‘I suppose the fact was that I could never be happy where I could never be alone.  I had been much by myself in my childhood and a certain amount of privacy had become a necessity to me: at school I used to keep awake at night in order to indulge in the luxury of solitude.
I found the cool cloisters and dark, oak-beamed corridors of College most attractive, and used to fag myself there with bogus notes from no one to nobody so as to sit for awhile in the grey quiet atmosphere.’[10]

So while some only children revelled in the activities, youthful company and freedom from parents that boarding school brought them, many found the ragging, fagging and lack of solitude a shock to the system.  While some became accustomed to this over time, others were miserable throughout their boarding-school careers.

[1] Julia Neilson, This For Rememberance, (London, 1940), pp. 22-3.
[2] Margaret Haig, Viscountess Rhondda, This Was My World, (London, 1933), p. 11.
[3] Sir Charles Oman, Memories of Victorian Oxford, (London, 1941), pp. 2203.
[4] Ibid., p. 32, p. 34.
[5] Sir George Leveson Gower, Years of Content, 1858-1886, (London, 1940), p. 27.
[6] Ibid., p. 41.
[7] Hastings, Duke of Bedford, The Years of Transition, (London, 1949), pp. 60-62.
[8] Ibid., pp. 65-6; p. 62; pp. 67-8.
[9] Cecil Lewis, Never Look Back, (London, 1974), p. 23.
[10] W. Graham Robertson, Time Was, (London, 1931) p. 63.

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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK