Looking out

C.H. Sisson

  • The Public School Revolution: Britain’s Independent Schools, 1964-1979 by John Rae
    Faber, 188 pp, £6.50, September 1981, ISBN 0 571 11789 9

When, in 1682, the Reverend Mr Busby, headmaster of Westminster School, expelled or suspended John Dryden’s son, the poet wrote him an excellent letter. Busby had already been at Westminster for more than forty years: he was that terrifying thing, a Great Headmaster. Moreover, Dryden had himself been among his pupils and knew well enough what tricks the old autocrat could get up to. Busby had sent a message by the boy, that he ‘desired to see’ the father. Dryden hastened to assure him that his son ‘did the message’, but he did not obey the summons. His letter begins, indeed, by assuring Dr Busby that he would have come, if he could have found in himself ‘a fitting temper’, meaning, no doubt, that he was in no mood to talk to the headmaster as became an old pupil. His fury and his caution in addressing the great man jostle side by side throughout the letter. He admits or pretends that he found ‘something of kindness’ in the message, for Busby sent the boy away, so he said, in order that he ‘might not have occasion to correct him’ – a necessity more obvious, no doubt, to Busby than to the poet. He gives reasons why the boy’s alleged crime was perhaps ‘not so great’ as Busby seemed to think. Then he tells the headmaster that his first impulse was to send for the boy’s things from the college, without a moment’s delay. That he did not do so was partly out of respect for Dr Busby and partly – and this clearly is the point of the sentence – out of ‘tenderness of doeing anything offensive to my Lord Bishop of Rochester, as cheife Governour of the College’. A threat that the matter might not rest with the headmaster and that the chairman of the governors might hear of it. Dryden is concerned that his son’s chance of election to a university place will have been lost by the upset, and stoutly suggests the boy might as well go to Cambridge at once, ‘of his own election’. The letter concludes with the hope that Dryden will be ‘satisfyed with a favourable answer’ from Dr Busby’s ‘goodnesse and moderation’, so that he may continue his ‘obliged humble servant’, as, of course, every father with a boy at the school would wish to be.

A different world? Not at all, as regards the complex of essential relations between pupils, masters and parents. Manners have softened, and a 20th-century headmaster who conducted himself towards the boys as Dr Busby did would probably be sent to prison for a noticeable time, as would, certainly, one who met an insurrection in the way Dr Smith – another headmaster of Westminster – did, at the end of the 18th century. He felled the ring-leader with a club. Dr John Rae, the author of this book and the present incumbent of the post held by Busby and Smith, assuredly has no thought of reviving past brutalities, though he admits, understandably enough, to thinking that some boys involved in contemporary troubles deserved to be hit on the head. As well think of bringing in the cavalry to ride down rioters in Toxteth or Brixton. Dr Rae is the thoroughly modern exponent of a gentleness which is probably no more highly thought of, by those who are exposed to it, than was the violence of earlier times. In a passage illustrating what he considers ‘the most effective formula’ for dealing with trouble in chapel – apparently the scene of various ‘protests’ in the Sixties – he gives what must be a sketch of his own methods:

At the end of the service, the headmaster asked the visitors and the staff to leave. Alone with the school, he told them that he recognised that some of them had grievances, but that a mass protest in the presence of visitors was not the way to go about things. He avoided peevishness and sarcasm, the two qualities that would immediately alienate a schoolboy audience. He made no promises or threats. By removing the staff and speaking to the boys he had in one simple gesture abolished the oppressive sense of hierarchy. They were his boys and he was their headmaster.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in