The servitors

May 9, 2009

The servitors were part of the original foundation of Radley College in 1847. William Sewell’s original plan was that every 10th boy to enter the school would be educated for free, as a form of tithe. In addition, he established a group of servitors, modelled on the idea of servitors at Oxford University and sizars at Cambridge University. These were boys who received a ‘sound religious education’ in exchange for domestic duties about the school, such as serving at tables, and most particularly, acting as choristers in chapel. Daily choral services were a vital part of the Radley scheme. At Oxford and Cambridge such students could progress through the entire curriculum to the highest positions: in the eighteenth century at least one Master of a Cambridge college began as a sizar. At Radley, the servitors were originally intended to start as choristers, and to proceed through the Classical curriculum until they qualified as Fellows teaching at the school. However, there is no record that any ever reached that goal. When William Sewell held the post of Warden he encouraged them to go on to New College, Oxford, as undergraduates or probably still as servitors, fulfilling much the same domestic functions in exchange for an education at the university. The link with New College continued until the 1900s.

The first named servitor was Henry Searle. He shared the first night under Radley’s roof alone with the first Warden, Robert Singleton: ‘I fastened the door with due precaution, and then made the little boy sit down opposite me while I helped him to his tea. I could not think of leaving the little fellow to the solitude of a distant kitchen. Afterwards, I dispatched him to bed with a charge to say his prayers… one may say, alone in a huge house.’ (Singleton’s Diary, May 22nd 1847). Henry Searle was soon joined by two or three others, aged between 15 and 16. They were under the direct supervision of the Butler and the Housekeeper, Mrs Burky. They wore a distinctive uniform of ‘a loose coat with standing collar, extending nearly to the knees, confined by a leather strap, of a coarse, dark-grey cloth.’ There is no indication how they were selected, but it probably depended on their singing voices. A similar scheme existed at Stackallan.

How the boys viewed them is not clear. They are always referred to as a separate group by Singleton, and he seldom notes interaction between the servitors and the school boys. On one occasion, at least, there is evidence of bullying: on 11th March, 1848, Sewell sent Walter Baker on an errand, when he failed to return promptly, Sewell sought him, and found him in the School Room where Elliott ma. and other students were “detaining Walter, and pulling and dragging him about, while Reynolds was standing near and looking on.” Sewell was seriously annoyed and referred the older boys involved to Singleton’s punishment. Singleton spoke to Samuel Reynolds, the senior boy in the school: “I proceeded to ask him what he would do, when brought as he soon would be, into a dreary world, and beset with its temptations, – if he dare not at school … raise his voice for truth, and set his face against evil? He then told me that some time ago he had censured this very thing – improper intercourse with the servitors…”

Singleton continued in his care for the servitors and mentions them frequently in his diary. They appear far less often in the records after he left in 1851, although they continued to carry out their domestic duties until at least the 1920s. In the 1860s there were fourteen servitors, five for High Table in Hall, and one each for the boys tables. In 1891 the ‘Tin Tunnel’ which had linked the School to the Mansion was replaced by the Cloisters (now Covered Passage). The remains of the ‘Tin Tunnel’ were smuggled away, to be re-erected behind the Old Gym as a Servitors Club. Also in 1891, a young servitor called Gore was drowned in the bathing place at Sandford. There is also mention of the servitors team taking part in races on sports days and holidays.

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