Degradation, Ugliness and Tears

Mary Beard

  • A History of Harrow School by Christopher Tyerman
    Oxford, 599 pp, £30.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 19 822796 5

At Christmas 1859, one of the 19th century’s most celebrated headmasters suddenly, and for no obvious reason, resigned his job. The Rev. Charles Vaughan had taken charge at Harrow in 1845, when the school was close to collapse. There were just 69 boys on the roll (many of whom were seriously in debt to the local loan shark); even by Victorian standards the boys’ lodgings were a health hazard, with not even a bathtub between them, still less a bathroom; the headmaster’s house had burned down the year before, thanks to a fault in the new heating system ingeniously, but incompetently, improvised by the maths master. In less than fifteen years, Vaughan – who had been a favourite pupil of Thomas Arnold at Rugby – transformed the school, spiritually, sanitarily and commercially. He raised money for a fashionable chapel by George Gilbert Scott as well as new boarding houses, decently appointed and, from the mid-1850s, complete with water closets. He promoted an Arnoldian style of religious and moral education, centred on his own weekly sermon. And most important of all, for ultimately it was pupils’ fees that underwrote the costs of the revolution, he attracted Harrow’s old customers back: at one point during his reign there were 488 boys in the school. The success made Vaughan himself wealthy. A large proportion of what the boys paid went directly to the Head. By the late 1850s, his gross takings (before paying his assistant staff) were somewhere between £10,000 and £12,000 – making him, as Christopher Tyerman calculates, ‘the equivalent of a modern millionaire’.

In 1859 he might have expected to move on to the mastership of an Oxbridge college (the fellows of Trinity, Cambridge are said to have been already trembling at the uncomfortable prospect of this new broom) or a fashionable bishopric. People thought of him as a future Archbishop of Canterbury. Instead, he resigned from Harrow with almost no warning at all, and in 1860 took a decidedly unglamorous living as vicar of Doncaster. The highest he was to reach in the Church was Dean of Llandaff. The secret of his puzzling resignation probably lies in a story told in the memoirs of John Addington Symonds, a pupil at Harrow at that time, which were not published till the 1960s. There, a simple tale of blackmail is revealed. For all Vaughan’s intense sermonising on the evils of homosexuality (in one purple passage he referred to a pederast as ‘a murderer in the worst of ways; a murderer of the soul’), he had been having an affair, largely conducted in the Head Master’s office, with one of the Upper Sixth. Symonds later informed his father, and Symonds père threatened Vaughan with exposure unless he resigned.

In his History of Harrow School, Tyerman is carefully unsensational about this scandal. He points to inconsistencies in the account offered by Symonds’s memoirs and to their underlying agenda: not a documentary narrative but ‘an extended propagandist essay on the nature of homosexual orientation and Symonds’s heroic passage to enlightenment’. Nonetheless, he has unearthed some corroborating evidence – including a steamy letter to another young favourite, apparently written while Vaughan was invigilating a school exam – and concludes that the story is broadly true. But this characteristic piece of English hypocrisy is only one element in Tyerman’s demythologising of the school’s ‘greatest Head Master’ (many other ranting homophobes have been found in bed with young boys). He scratches the surface of Vaughan’s extraordinary transformation of the school, his brilliant promotion of Harrow and himself, to hint at an alternative and far less favourable view. Vaughan did no more – and probably less – to reform the curriculum than his disastrous predecessor, Christopher Wordsworth, who had at least introduced maths into the teaching programme. His modish enthusiasm for Arnold’s disciplinarian principles masked a brutish commitment to flogging (he insisted on a new birch each time and liked to leave the birch buds painfully embedded in the wounds) and did little to change the behaviour of the boys: Vaughan’s Harrow appears to have been no less dominated by bullying, drinking and fighting than the notorious school of forty years earlier. The cleverest boys, not to mention the masters, saw through him as a shallow, ignorant, literal-minded man, who (as Tyerman puts it) ‘compensated for his small mind with expansive care for his pupils’.

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