The view from the boys

March 13, 2010

Singleton’s and Sewell’s utopian vision for a new school may have been shared by enthusiastic parents, but it should also be remembered that many of the boys had already experienced the hardships, privations and brutalities of life in contemporary boarding schools. Consequently they may have been less optimistic or more pragmatic in their expectations. The incident of the unequal butter portions, with its Oliver Twist inspired response, and the ensuing riot put Radley’s earliest boys firmly in the context of their contemporaries, possibly believing themselves about to undergo similar rigours.

Both Reynolds and Elliott major may have been justified in feeling a sense of grievance that Singleton imposed expectations upon them without giving them the reward of status, privilege and seniority which a system of Head Boy and Prefects would have created. Shortly before his own death, Reynolds commented on these incidents when he discovered Singleton’s diary in the College Archives. His refutation of them was written as though in the white heat of righteous anger, despite the passage of many years. He wrote that he read the diary with “pain and indignation”, and that he had been treated with shameful injustice by a Warden who, filled with “self-complacent egotism” never listened to a boy’s defence of his conduct, instead brushing aside all excuses “petulantly and impatiently”. He also commented on Singleton’s inaccurate descriptions of boys he did not like: for example, the “vulgar and ill-countenanced” Hill brothers, one of whom, while admittedly ugly, was, in Reynolds’ opinion, a “bright, good-tempered, active, energetic fellow, well-liked in the school”, while of the other “the worst that could be said against him was that he was very deaf”. Reynolds was anxious to make clear that he had no delegated duty as a Prefect; he was simply a “little bigger and a little older than any of the others”. Yet there were very many instances when he and Elliott exerted their influence “to check evil, and to maintain a sound and healthy moral tone in the school”, of which Singleton “knew much less than he fancied”.

Reynolds’ judgement of Singleton’s character was scathing, and he believed that Singleton’s mishandling of the boys and overreaction to simple incidents could be blamed on the latter’s own lack of experience of being either a schoolboy or a typical undergraduate himself:

The fact I believe to be that Mr Singleton’s training and disposition had not fitted him to be head of an English public school. He was an Irishman; he had never been at a public school and I am not sure that he had ever been at school at all; and during his stay at Trinity College, Dublin, he had kept himself practically aloof from the society and amusements of the place … I do not say that he was ever intentionally unjust in his treatment of his boys; but he was overbearing, rash, impulsive, impatient of opposition, and when he had once formed an opinion he was simply incapable of owning himself or thinking himself in the wrong.

Singleton inaugurated a system of eight prefects in 1851.

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