Monday, November 12, 2018

Early Education of up-and-coming Gentlemen

by Maria Grace
"In all well-regulated states, the two principal points in view in the education of youth, ought to be, first, to make them good men, good members of the universal society of mankind; and in the next place to frame their minds in such a manner, as to make them most useful to that society to which they more immediately belong; and to shape their talents, in such a way, as will render them most serviceable to the support of that government, under which they were born, and on the strength and vigour of which, the well-being of every individual, in some measure depends." (Sheridan, 1756)
Although sentiments for the education of youth (read here, male youth; female education would not be considered worthwhile yet for quite some time), no one really argued for state-provided education for middle and upper-class children before 1850. (Brown, 2011) That was left entirely in the hands of the parents. Although considerable effort and activity went into educating these children, it was hardly standardized. How a young boy was educated depended entirely on the preferences and means of his family.

Early education

On the whole, early education in the home was preferred. Mothers and governesses would provide a boy’s first education, often teaching him the basics of reading and writing. Usually by the age of seven, he would graduate from being taught by women to being educated by men. There were no standards of how this worked though. The specific details varied by family and by social class.

A male tutor might be brought into the home to teach the child, preparing him for the next step in his education. This could continue for just a few years until the boy was deemed ready for a boarding school, or it could continue until he was ready for university study, depending on the educational philosophy of the family, usually the father. (Selwyn 2010)

Alternatively, a boy might be sent to a local scholar, often a clergyman, for lessons as a day student. Many clergymen also took such students on as boarders, running small schools to supplement their income teaching anywhere for half a dozen to two dozen students.

Preparatory Schools

These smaller schools which routinely took boys in the 7 to 13-year-old age range were often referred to as preparatory schools, preparing boys for the larger public schools that often preceded entry into the universities.

These schools were usually held in the schoolmaster’s home. Jane Austen’s father, Rev. George Austen conducted such a school out of the vicarage in Steventon beginning in 1793. His living as a vicar was £230 a year. He charged £35 per term for each of his student boarders. It is easy to see how taking even just a few students could substantially augment his family’s income. The work though did not fall on him alone. His wife cooked, cleaned, sewed, and mother-henned the boys in her care, much like a surrogate mother. (Sanborrn, 2016)

In larger schools where the teaching staff consisted of ordained clergymen, teachers could make as much as £200-400 a year, giving them a comfortable middle-class income. (Davidoff 2002) Headmasters in such schools, especially if scholars themselves, might enjoy a position of respect and distinction in local society. (Selwyn 2010)

By modern standards, preparatory school curriculum was very limited. It consisted mainly of Latin and Greek classical texts (both prose and verse), modern and ancient history, some mathematics, and the use of globes to locate nations. French and Italian might be taught as extras (for additional fees), along with handwriting, dancing, drawing and a smattering of scientific subjects. (Le Faye, 2002) No curriculum standards existed, so what might actually be taught varied widely and there was no guarantee that a particular teacher was actually well versed in the subjects he taught.

Teachers in these preparatory schools were most often clergymen or failed ordinals. There were far more men ordained than there were livings to provide for them. In 1805, it was estimated that up to 45% of those ordained never found a church living and were forced to work as (usually highly underpaid) curates for men who had a living or to try their hand at teaching or take up another occupation entirely outside the church (Southam, 2005). After their education in these preparatory schools, boys might then progress to a public school.

Public Schools

Public schools were public in the sense that boys were taught in groups outside of their private homes, not in the sense that these institutions were funded by public funds. A number of public schools existed, but the landed elite, in particular, chose to send their sons to a select number of these schools: Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Westminster, Rugby, Charterhouse and Shrewsbury. (Adkins, 2013) The exact timing and duration of a boy’s stay at school varied greatly. Some were sent as young as age seven and stayed until age eighteen. More commonly boys started public schools around age thirteen and stayed about five years.

Though Regency era education was very different from modern education, two factors, in particular, seem to distinguish it most from modern schooling: the curriculum taught and the lifestyle of the students.

What was Taught

In his 1693 treatise, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, John Locke recommended that instruction in foreign languages (beginning with a living language like French) should start as soon as a boy could speak English. Locke considered Latin and Greek to be absolutely essential to a gentleman’s education, enabling him to read classical literature. In addition, he endorsed the study of geography, astronomy, anatomy, chronology, history, mathematics and geometry. (Morris, 2015).

Based on Locke’s foundations, students were expected to know some Latin upon arrival to public school. “The first two years of their education was entirely a study of Latin–memorizing, reciting, reading, and answering set questions in that language, so pronunciation too.… Thus they learned to be confident public speakers, first in Latin, then in classical Greek and finally in English.” (Bennetts 2010) These studies also developed an understanding of the moral and philosophical issues brought up by classical thinkers and a literary appreciation of poetry and prose. Dancing, fencing, and other sports also featured in some curriculums.

What was notably absent from both public school and university educations were courses on anything the modern mind would consider practical. Since these establishments catered to gentlemen who were not destined to actually work for their living, courses like bookkeeping or land management that might equip them for jobs (oh the horror!) were relegated to schools that catered to the sons of men in trade. (Selwyn 2010)

Life in public school

Students at public schools either boarded at the school itself or in town at boarding houses known as ‘Dame’s Houses’ usually overseen by a ‘Dame’ or landlady. In the early 1800s, about thirteen such houses were associated with Eton. Although school life was very regimented, with school days running from six in the morning until eight in the evening, there was actually very little direct supervision over the boys. They were often left to fend for themselves. Once they entered public school, most boys spent the majority of their year at school, with only a few weeks of holidays spent back home during the year.

With a strong economic incentive to admit as many students as possible, public schools were often so crowded that even beds were shared by two or more boys at the same time. The same incentives also influenced the quantity and quality of food made available to the students. Those with pocket money frequently supplemented their rations at local shops. (Brander, 1973)

Under such conditions, it was no surprise that public school culture was wild. Almost no limits were placed to the amount the boys could drink, gamble, fight and indulge any sexual bent with maidservants, local prostitutes, and girls living in town. Even the institution of prefects (older boys in charge of younger ones) did little to curb the out of control behavior. “ … Most schools suffered occasional rebellions, or mutinies, resulting in mass expulsions or floggings. In 1797, Dr. Ingles, headmaster of Rugby, had his door blown open by gunpowder. The boys at Harrow were even more ambitious, setting up a roadblock and blowing up one of the governor's carriage.” (Brander, 1973)

Bullying and Brutality

Not only was dissolute, licentious behavior the norm, bullying and brutality were expected. Corporal punishment consisting of flogging with a birch, or caning with a rod until blood was drawn from the bare buttocks, was regarded as the normal and accepted punishment for transgressions. Such punishments were frequently delivered in public, adding additional humiliation to the experience.

Not only was brutality dished out from the masters to the students, older boys were put in charge of younger ones and permitted to order them about and punish them with beatings just as the schoolmasters did. Depending on the sorts of friends a boy did or did not make and how he got on with others, especially older students, a boy’s public school years could be very testing indeed.

Why was it tolerated?

If public schools could be so bad, why did not parents intervene? Why would a father who had suffered through such school days send his son into a place that brutalized him?

In short, such an environment was regarded as essential for inculcating the toughness and fortitude men needed to perform their social roles. “Educators and parents subscribed to the principle that one was fit to command only after one had learned to obey. And those young boys of the gentry and nobility were there to learn their place and destiny in England's highly structured society.” (Laudermilk, 1989)

So, even if a boy had been able to appeal to parents for help, he would have been unlikely to receive either assistance or sympathy. At a very tender age, he was literally on his own, to survive the experience in whatever way he could. Is it any wonder that the friends a boy made during his time in public school were often strong allies for a lifetime?


Adkins, Roy, and Lesley Adkins. Jane Austen's England. Viking, 2013.

Austen, Jane, and David M. Shapard. The Annotated Persuasion. New York: Anchor Books, 2010.

Bennetts, M.M. A gentleman’s education. M.M. Bennets. July 20, 2010. Accessed October 5, 2016.

Brander, Michael. The Georgian Gentleman. Glasgow: University Press, 1973.

Brown, Richard. Educating the middle-classes 1800-1870. Looking at History. Accessed October 29, 2016.>

Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Day, Malcom. Voices from the World of Jane Austen. David and Charles, 2006.

Evans, Bronwen. Eton College During the Regency Era. Collette Cameron. May, 9, 2015. Accessed October 3, 2016.

Glover, Anne. Regency Culture and Society: Harrow. Regency Reader. November, 15, 2013. Accessed October 10, 2016.

Laudermilk, Sharon H., and Teresa L. Hamlin. The Regency Companion. New York: Garland, 1989.

LeFaye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. New York: Abrams, 2002.

Locke, John. Some Thoughts concerning Education. London, 1693.

Morris, Diane H. “I Am Illiterate by Regency Standards.” Moorgate Books. Thursday, October 8, 2015. Accessed May 22, 2017.

Sanborn, Vic. "19th Century Learning Academies and Boarding Schools: An Eyewitness Account" Jane Austen’s World. August 1, 20012. Accessed October 28, 2016.

Selwyn, David. Jane Austen and children. London: Continuum, 2010.

Sheridan, Thomas. British Education. London: R. and J. Dodeley, 1756.

Southam, Brian . “Professions,” in Jane Austen in Context edited by Janet Todd, p 366-376. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Sullivan, Margaret C., and Kathryn Rathke. The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills from Regency England. Philadelphia, PA: Quirk Books, 2007.


Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. Maria Grace makes it sound like corporal punishment belongs to the dark ages. My father was caned at Eastbourne (an expensive public school) in the 1920's. My cousin was caned at his secondary school in the 1950's. In many cultures it is still part of the 'toughening up' process so men can handle themselves in times of war. At least, that was the theory. I think we now know that it doesn't work any better than capital punishment, but there are many societies today who try to control the young through brute force.


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