February 8th, 1848 (Tuesday)
February 8, 2010
Yesterday evening the younger Elliott got up during tea-time, and coolly went to the bell and rang it. On my inquiring the meaning of this extraordinary movement, he as coolly replied that “the boys wanted more butter.” We were perfectly astounded at this impudence, and I told him never to dare to do such a thing again without leave, and when Thomas came to answer it I said in an unmistakeable voice that “nothing was wanted.” It is quite clear that the little boy would not have ventured on such a thing without either solicitation or encouragement, so I summoned Reynolds and the elder Elliott into the Bursary this morning, and told them my thoughts and suspicions on the matter pretty plainly. It appeared that some of the boys had whole prints left for them, and others only half prints. The latter, considering this to be a grievance, consulted at table about the remedy, and hit upon what appeared to be a sovereign one; and, to say the truth, its boldness deserved better success than attended it, and therefore I gave them both first a good rowing, and then a good lecture. I commented on the impolicy as well as audacity of the act which they had evidently sanctioned, and told them that if they did not exhibit an example of obedience in their own persons, and also exercise influence over the younger boys for good, the College authorities would find it immensely difficult, if not impossible, to make St Peter’s what they designed it to be. They both seemed sorry.1
After Chapel I spoke to Mrs Burky about disobeying my positive orders respecting the butter, orders resolved on after consulting with her as to the course to be pursued, and meeting with her full approval, which I always try to secure on dietary questions. She made a wrong excuse about an ‘impression’, – but I told her such impressions were very embarrassing, and that the last thing in the world I should ever do would be, to make such a difference between one boy and another. She got angry, and I quitted the room, when I got outside of the House Richard gave me the agreeable intelligence, – that the young gentlemen (as he supposed) had smashed the windows of the granary, and entered it through them, and then thrown all the things, that they could get out, about the ground.
I immediately returned into the house, and having previously found out from Reynolds that the boys were the culprits, went into the School, where being seated on the great chair, the Sub-Warden on the right, Howard and Monk on the left, I made my first speech. Commented on the petty wantonness of this outrage on the property of a neighbour, denouncing it as utterly unbecoming Christian gentlemen, – in fact, – as a piece of mere blackguardism. Told them that the College was resolved to discover the authors, – warned them to tell the truth; and then questioned each separately as to the part he had taken in the scandalous proceeding. The result of the inquiry was, – that every individual was more or less guilty, excepting little Henry Sewell. Gave Reynolds and Elliott ‘major’ a round rebuke for sanctioning and abetting such bold and vulgar mischief. Reynolds, like a great goose, said that he had not joined in the act; – to which I replied that the man who was voluntarily present at a murder, without using any effort to prevent the deed, was, in the eye of the law, no less guilty than the principal, and, if discovered, would be hanged along with him. Reynolds did not hazard further remark. After a good deal said, with a view to show them all the grossness of their behaviour, and how different a place the College of St Peter was from what some of them imagined, – announced that the whole school should be punished, – reserving time for considering in what manner it should be done.2
Gibbings, having a spare day, drove over to see us. He mentioned something very alarming about —.
1: This incident must be a direct re-enactment by the boys of the scene in Oliver Twist, in which Oliver, as the youngest boy in the workhouse, was designated by the older boys to ask the Beadle for more gruel. Oliver Twist was published in parts in 1837-8 and so would have been familiar to all the boys in the school. A report published in 1837 stated that “the inmates of a workhouse or gaol are better fed and lodged than the scholars of Eton”. Urban myths circulate easily between schoolboys and this incident and the ensuing riot which Singleton next relates, puts Radley’s earliest boys firmly in the context of their contemporaries, possibly believing themselves about to undergo the same rigours. It should also be remembered that many of them had already experienced life in boarding school and that, although their parents may have subscribed to Singleton and Sewell’s utopian vision of a revolutionary approach to schooling, their sons may have been less optimistic or more pragmatic in their expectations.
2: This riot by the earliest boys of Radley should be seen in the context of other contemporary uncontrolled behaviour among schoolboys, in some of which masters had feared for their lives. In 1808 there were violent disturbances at Harrow where senior boys paraded with banners declaring “Liberty and rebellion” in protest against curtailing their rights to flog their juniors. In 1828, riots at Winchester College were quelled by soldiers with bayonets, whilst at Shrewsbury the Headmaster had to lock himself in his study and request armed protection from the mayor of the town – after these disturbances had subsided parents were requested not to allow their sons to return to the school in possession of loaded firearms. In 1851 a riot broke out at Marlborough College in which the lodge of an unpopular porter was attacked with bricks, windows and desks were smashed, and fireworks set off. There was a similar incident with fireworks and a bonfire, which included kicking fireballs around, at Winchester in the same year.