Tom Brown’s Schooldays

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Tom Brown’s Schooldays

by Thomas Hughes


A novel set in Rugby, England, sometime between 1827 and 1842; published in 1857.


An English country boy comes of age in a historic Public School.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

During his youth, Thomas Hughes, a descendant of a prestigious family, was shuffled here and there in search of a suitable education institution. He finally settled at the English Public School in Rugby, where a transformation of education was taking place. Young Thomas matured under the watchful guidance of Thomas Arnold, a man known as the Doctor. Long regarded as an educational reformer and the savior of the historic Christian public school, Arnold helped Hughes and myriad other students to mature during his lifelong quest to produce good, moral, and Christian Englishmen. The experiences of a student in one of the public schools later became the subject of Hughes’s novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The English public school system

In their present forms, English and American public schools differ. In the United States, public schools provide free education for the masses and are responsible for the general education of the country’s children. In England, this kind of school is called a board school. Today’s English public schools bear a closer resemblance to the college preparatory schools in the United States. They admit both males and females, and are designed to mold the males into proper Englishmen. Some public schools are directly related to the colleges at Cambridge and Oxford, preparing students for those institutions.

The earliest public schools were created to educate students along strictly religious lines. William of Wykeham, who in 1387 founded England’s first public school at Winchester, was a member of the clergy more interested in establishing an institution that was subject to the church than in creating a school with a broad educational basis. The first schools maintained a strong allegiance to their original benefactors, the church and the king. At this point, intellectual development was not the main focus. Rather, the schools promoted an acceptance and understanding of established powers.

The public school at Rugby, however, began on a different educational foundation. In 1567 Lawrence Sheriffe, a merchant in London, donated a sum of money to found a school in Rugby, his native home. The school had no specific religious principle to promote; instead, its main purpose was to provide a free education for children living in that part of the country. Sheriffe also insisted that it would be headed by “an honeste, discreete, and learned man” (Reddall, p. 198). Armed with these two ideals, the school survived a turbulent history of mismanagement and reformation before developing into one of England’s great public schools.

In a similar manner, each public school acquired an individual identity over the years. Their philosophies generally reflected the founder’s ideals and the personality of the headmaster (principal). Many public schools aimed to provide a superior education for the poorer members of society, a costly goal to maintain. The government provided no funding, so the institutions were forced to turn to money from private endowments. As wealthier families became important financial supporters of schools, the institutions began to cater to the children of these families and to attach a higher priority to educating the rich. Many poorer children, though, could not even afford the transportation costs to the relatively isolated schools. Over time, the havens for poor scholars became playgrounds for the rich.

Public schools in the 1700s and 1800s

Some general characteristics can be attributed to the public school around the time of Tom Brown’s Schooldays:

  1. It was a class school, catering to a well-to-do clientele.
  2. It was expensive.
  3. It educated boys between the ages of about eight and twenty years old.
  4. It was predominantly a boarding school.
  5. It was independent of the government, yet was not privately owned or operated for a profit.

A great distinction existed between the students and the teachers (known as schoolmasters), and this chasm widened even more as time passed. Students were at the public schools not to think, but to learn—to accept the teachings of the church and accept the will of the king.

Should the students prove difficult or unwilling, schoolmasters could apply other “teaching” methods beyond simple verbal instruction or lessons by rote. “Learning of a sort was more often beaten into a boy by blows than willingly acquired and a perpetual feud seems to have been in existence between the boys and the masters,” remarked one historian (Warner, p. 9). It was accepted practice for students to be flogged, sometimes publicly, and not only by the teachers but also by the headmaster.

The historical events of the late 1700s and early 1800s also played a part in changing the English educational system. The political and social revolutions in America and France inspired calls for reformation in the schools. Institutions that had existed unchanged for centuries now faced a questioning student body. Many students embraced the spirit of liberty that they felt was embodied in the revolutions, and some were inspired to hoist the new tricolored flag of France over their schoolyards. Witnessing the changes occurring in other countries, students demanded development in education.

Thomas Arnold and Rugby School

Given these conditions, Thomas Arnold of Rugby made several important innovations that had a significant impact on English education. It was once said that “if Mr. Arnold were elected to the Headmastership of Rugby, he would change the face of education all through the public schools of England” (Warner, p. 25). This prophecy took seed in 1828, when he was named to the position. Through his passionate efforts over the next fourteen years, he reformed Rugby and influenced the entire public school system, setting up an education that reflected Christian standards.

Arnold took steps to forge a better relationship between the teachers and the students. His efforts contributed to a drop in incidents of physical abuse. However, even his model school used a variety of physical punishments.

Arnold took on his responsibilities with very clear goals in mind. “What we must look for here is, first, religious and moral principles; secondly, gentlemanly conduct; thirdly, intellectual ability” (Arnold in Warner, p. 25). Arnold aimed to provide the boys at Rugby with the foundation to become Christian men, and he took a direct role in this by serving as the chaplain for the school as well as the headmaster. He was able to communicate his moral and religious philosophies to every student who attended Rugby through personal communications and his weekly sermons. Arnold also influenced his schoolmasters and more responsible older students, urging them to pay close attention to every individual enrolled in the school. Every three weeks Arnold held meetings with his schoolmasters to review the work and behavior of his students and to keep tabs on any potential problems within the school. Using the knowledge he gathered, he sent monthly reports home to the parents regarding the progress of every child.


When Arnold administered punishment, he was swift and severe. He wasted no time with repeat offenders of his school’s policies on drinking, swearing, and lying. Before he received the title of Rugby headmaster, he had stated to his superiors that he would expel students more easily than had been previously done, and in fact he did. After one instance in which he expelled several students, he stood before the assembled school and said, “It is not necessary that this should be a school of three hundred, or one hundred, or of fifty boys; but it is necessary that it should be a school of Christian gentlemen” (Arnold in Findlay, p. 60).

The students themselves gained more responsibility under Arnold’s individualized system as well. He believed that students learned best if they could work, study, and think for themselves rather than have their education created for them by their schoolmasters. The teachers were used as guides and experts, but ultimately the children were responsible for their own education. This philosophy extended to the government of Rugby school. Arnold developed an environment in which the children ran their own dorms and study areas and controlled their own free time and responsibilities. The schoolmasters, leaders of the sixth form (the oldest students), and Arnold provided guidance and stood ready to extend punishment or remedies as needed. For the most part, however, the students were allowed great freedom.

Under Arnold’s tenure, Rugby became a highly respected institution. But Arnold also proved to be influential in shaping other public schools in England. Many were founded in the years following Arnold’s reforms, whereas earlier the public school had been a dying institution. These new schools were modeled after Arnold’s ideals, though none succeeded quite like Rugby.


Latin and Greek were traditionally emphasized at the public school, with some attention paid to Scripture, history, mathematics, and French. Usually a different schoolmaster taught each subject. A common weekday schedule looked something like this:

7:00-7:45 a.m.Latin and Greek (1st language lesson)
8:00-9:45 a.m.Breakfast and prepare 2nd language lesson
10:00-11:30 a.m.Latin and Greek (1st language lesson)
12:15-1:15 p.m.Arithmetic
1:30-3:15 p.m.Dinner and prepare 3rd language lesson
3:30-4:15 p.m.Latin and Greek (3rd language lesson)
4:30-5:30 p.m.Arithmetic
5:45-7:30 p.m.Tea and free time
7:45-10:00 p.m.Prayers and prepare 1st language lesson) next day

Religious studies formed only a small part of the weekly curriculum, but students devoted Sunday to biblical study. They learned the gospel and psalms on Sunday mornings. A weekly sermon by Thomas Arnold followed in the chapel. After an early dinner, students would study chapters of the Bible and then listen to a second sermon. They had free time every other weekday afternoon and after Sunday’s second sermon.

School sports

The most popular sport at Rugby was, and continues to be, the game of football. Football has been associated with Rugby School because of the game’s development and enormous popularity at the institution. A plaque at the school commemorates William Webb Ellis as the inspiration for the game; it states that in 1823 he was the first to pick up the ball and run with it, thus originating the Rugby style of football. The game was a consistent conversation piece among students, and an almost fanatical pastime during the Christmas term. One historian notes that some of the games at Rugby were “really pitched battles, and more than once the masters had to interfere to prevent serious physical injuries” (Reddall, p. 212). The various schoolhouses at Rugby played intrasquad matches. There was even a game featuring active students against alumni, but no games with other public schools took place until many years later.

While a student at Rugby, Thomas Hughes became captain of the football and cricket teams; both sports are described in positive terms in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Played on a large, circular outdoor field, cricket features ten players spread out on defense as a hurler pitches a ball at three wooden sticks, called wickets. One batter from the opposing team protects the wickets by swinging at the hurled ball. A batter scores a run by hitting the ball onto the playing field and running to another set of wickets, behind the hurler. Every player receives two turns at bat in a game that can last from a few hours in duration to as long as six days.

Another popular game at the school was fives. Rugby fives is a handball game played within four walls by two or four players. The object is to smash a ball off the front wall, leaving the opponent unable to return a shot.

Critics of public schools often charged that their students spent an inordinate amount of time playing sports and games. In fact, the amount of time most boys spent just thinking about sports, as mentioned in many firsthand accounts of various public schools, far outweighed the amount of time spent on studies.


Some of the more traditional English sports and activities are mentioned in the novel at the “Veast day” (Feast day) celebration that occurs in the main character’s home county of Berkshire. Jingling matches, a spectator sport at the veast, involved about a dozen blindfolded men in a roped-off ring. A man with no blindfold but with a bell around his neck then entered the ring. The blindfolded men would subsequently stagger around in frantic efforts to catch the bell-carrying noisemaker, a sight that provided fine entertainment for the watching crowd.

Another pastime, backswording, featured two men who faced off against one another with cudgels, or clubs. The object of the contest was to open a bleeding wound on the head of one’s opponent, which required only a slight scrape with the weapon. While description of the pastime makes it sound as if the contest was one of simple violence, it actually took great skill—competitors were encouraged to use strategy instead of brute force.

Pastimes at Rugby differed from those in Berkshire County. Aside from some of the schoolboy pastimes mentioned in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, including hiking, fishing, collecting birds’ eggs, and annoying local farmers, the boys read novels and Charles Dickens’ Pickwick serials. Much to the dismay of their schoolmasters, students became obsessed with reading these unscholarly weekly serials, known as The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club.


A tradition passed down throughout public school history, fagging has long been a controversial topic. Younger children are required by unwritten rule to perform menial tasks for the school’s oldest students, those in the sixth form. These tasks include polishing boots and cooking breakfast. In Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the fifth form also attempts to garner favors from the younger children, but the attempt is unsuccessful.


A praeposter was a student of the sixth form whose duties included watching out for school members of younger ages, regulating fagging duties, and serving as a liaison between the student body and the headmaster. Thomas Arnold developed trusting personal relationships with his older schoolboys, choosing the more responsible students to be praeposters.

Defenders of the practice have pointed to the benefits of fagging. They contend that the practice results in the development of a relationship between newer students and their respected schoolmates. Older students are able, through the interaction, to keep close tabs on the greener students. Fagging also has been said to foster teamwork, mutual respect, and responsibility. However, fagging leaves the use of younger boys to the discretion of older boys. Abuse of the privilege resulted in the bullying of younger students. At Rugby, Arnold would not tolerate repeat offenses of bullying. Under the theory that others would imitate troublemakers, he would expel students for persisting in this as well as other forms of misbehavior.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

The novel begins with the narrator supplying background information on the widespread and famous Brown family. Explaining in part the origins, accomplishments, and respect enjoyed by its members, a scenario is created of a proud family.

Out of this extended family emerges the young Tom Brown. Tom is educated in the country style, by tutors instructed to bring up the robust and combative boy as a well-rounded young man. His early childhood develops along traditional English lines, involving exploration, physical activity, and innocent mischief.

Interspersed with Hughes’s account of Tom Brown, though, are passages that outline the author’s own personal beliefs. At one point, for example, the narrator laments the lack of understanding that many young people have about their country:

Oh Young England! Young England! You who are born into these racing railroad times, when there’s a Great Exhibition, or some monster sight, every year, and you can get over a couple thousand miles of ground for three pounds ten, in a five weeks’ holiday; why don’t you know more of your own birth-places?

(Hughes, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, p. 9)

Many of Tom’s friends attend a small boarding school, but Squire Brown seeks a better education for his son. Unfortunately, Tom first attends a school that is run by an overworked schoolmaster and a pair of poorly educated, disinterested assistant teachers. Tom grows discouraged, and when an outbreak of fever plagues the school in mid-semester, Squire Brown packs his boy off to a public school.

Upon his arrival at Rugby, Tom makes a friend named East, who informs him on the particulars of proper dress and gives him preliminary instructions on the rules of football. The bright-eyed Tom soon finds himself on the playing field, adjusting easily to becoming a real Rugby schoolboy.

East and Tom prove themselves thorough ragamuffins, ignoring school boundaries, fishing in private holes, and pirating poultry. The Doctor, Rugby’s headmaster, is informed of the antics of the charismatic troublemakers through a praeposter and decides to pair up a timid newcomer with the boisterous Tom Brown. At this point, Tom’s character begins to undergo a dramatic change. He is increasingly influenced by his very pious young charge, Arthur.

Tom’s charismatic and physical gifts aid Arthur’s adjustment to Rugby, while the younger boy’s spiritual and emotional purity help guide Tom on the path into adulthood and responsibility. Previously in his educational career, Tom had taken shortcuts to better grades, but witnessing Arthur’s passion for learning kindles Tom’s own intellectual interests. He, East, and Arthur engage in religious and philosophical discussions, exercising their minds. Previously only Tom’s body had received real training.

An eccentric nature lover befriends Arthur, Tom, and East, and the four adventure through the neighboring communities, encountering some minor trouble along the way. Further difficulties arise when Tom hazards a fight against a class brute to defend Arthur’s honor. His troubles appear to be worth the effort, for he gains the respect of his challenger.

Near the end of the semester, Arthur and many other students take to sick-beds during a fever epidemic. The sickness is so severe that one child dies, and Arthur contemplates his own mortality. His subsequent discussions with Tom are enlightening for both and display the genuine affection and camaraderie they feel for one another. A later discussion with East shows the distance the friends have traveled from their initial days as troublemakers to their present status as role models.

The novel concludes with a sixth-form Tom Brown, captain of the cricket team, discussing school with a schoolmaster and the now mature Arthur. The master recalls the days of Tom’s youth and mentions the decision made by the Doctor to have Tom sponsor Arthur. The revelation shows Tom how he has been blessed by the caring guidance of authority figures, who molded him into a respected member of the sixth form and a student bound for Oxford and manhood.

A monumental relationship

Tom’s introduction to Rugby is eased by the playful East, who entices young Brown to fun and trouble. His real maturation, however, comes later in the book from a boy younger than himself.

The relationship forged between Tom and Arthur is important for two reasons. First, it gives an example of the impact the headmaster had on the lives of Rugby schoolboys. Though the Doctor demands respect from and even inspires fear in his students, he always makes the effort to get to know and keep tabs on the hundreds of boys left in his charge. By heeding the information offered by his network of schoolmasters and sixth formers, he remains aware of the problems of individuals and is able to institute changes that deeply affect their lives.

Pairing Arthur with Tom benefits both children. The isolated, frail newcomer is physically empowered by the active Tom, who, in turn, gains the desire and courage to fulfill his academic potential because of Arthur’s influence. The relationship serves as a perfect counterbalance for the two boys; each gains strengths that round out his personality.

A behind-the-scenes influence on both boys surfaces through the character of Arthur. Arthur mentions his father, a clergyman and Christian Socialist who devotes his life to helping the poor laborer. Interestingly, the Christian Socialist movement (a short-lived effort to bring Christianity to less-educated people) did not occur in England until 1848, about fifteen years after the novel takes place. When Thomas Hughes wrote the book, he was immersed within the movement and greatly interested in the common worker. He took the opportunity during his writing of the book to introduce Christian Socialism to readers, though no such movement existed at the time the story was set.


Thomas Hughes attended the public school at Rugby from 1834 until 1842, where he achieved more respect for his athletic feats than his academic accomplishments. Though he never openly admitted that Tom Brown’s Schooldays was based on his own school experience, the story is regarded as autobiographical. Many characters in the novel are based on influential people from Hughes’s life.

Thomas Arnold, the model for the Doctor in the book, served as the headmaster of the Rugby School when Hughes was a student there. An excerpt from a speech Thomas Hughes gave at Rugby near the end of his life illustrates the author’s high regard for Thomas Arnold’s efforts on his behalf: “I passed all those years under the spell of this place and Arnold, and for half a century have never ceased to thank God for it” (Hughes in Worth, p. 4).

Thomas Hughes’s older brother, who died during the author’s youth, is probably represented by Old Brooke, a well-respected sixth former during Tom Brown’s early schooldays.

Perhaps the most significant character in the novel is Tom’s friend Arthur, whose father is a Christian Socialist. These characters are based on Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Kingsley, who along with Hughes founded the Christian Socialist movement. Hughes dedicated nine years of his life to the movement, and his depiction of the nobility of Arthur’s family was indicative of his high regard for Christian Socialist.


Tom Brown’s Schooldays was by and large regarded as a realistic portrayal of life under the Arnold administration. Immediately well received, it has become the accepted interpretation of life at the English public school in the 1800s.

Some readers have attributed its popularity at least partly to the attention Hughes pays to recreation rather than to academics. Worried that this focus would damage the image of the public schools, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Arnold’s son, showed concern over the book’s lack of concentration on academics:

[The novel] gives the reader the impression that it is the chief business at a public school to produce a healthy animal, to supply him with pleasant companions and faithful friends, to foster in him courage and truthfulness, and for the rest to teach as much as the regulations enforce, but no more.

(Arnold in Worth, p. 105)

Another criticism of Hughes’s novel has concerned the number of asides that appear throughout the book. The narrator stops to share his religious and moral views directly with the reader on many occasions, and this practice has alienated some readers. “We feel now and then that he is slapping us on the back with altogether too encouraging and muscularly Christian a hand” (Darwin, p. 159). Yet, despite its asides, the novel has a remained a popular favorite.

For More Information

Darwin, Bernard. English Public School. London: Longmans, Green, 1929.

Findlay, J. J. Arnold of Rugby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1897.

Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown’s Schooldays. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1857.

Reddall, Henry Frederic. School-Boy Life in Merrie England. New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1888.

Warner, Rex. English Public Schools. London: Collins, 1946.

Worth, George J. Thomas Hughes. Boston: Twayne, 1984.