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The Ethos of “The Captain”

The Boy’s Own Paper has entered the English language as a name for a kind of sporting cliché which combines the heroic and the far-fetched. “Boy’s Own stuff”, we say (or at least journalists do) when the debutant football arises from a tackle that looks as if it had put him in hospital to score a last-minute winner or when the rugby winger appears on the “wrong” side of the field to secure an improbable win with an equally improbable tackle. The magazine’s name has become a label for a particular conception of heroism in sport which is linked to an ideal of heroism in general. In fact there were several “Boy’s Own” – and “Boys’ Own” – magazines in Victorian England; it would have been surprising if there were not given the combination of Empire, universal education and the rise of organised games which were all prominent features of the second half of Victoria’s reign. But the “BOP” was the one founded by the Religious Tract Society in 1879 which continued, albeit with different publishers, until 1967. It is generally calculated that there were over 100,000 periodicals founded during Victoria’s reign, but the “BOP” was one of the most long-lived. However, this essay is not concerned with the Boy’s Own, but with a relatively short-lived rival, The Captain magazine (1899-1924), which in its time was regarded as being at the top of the hierarchy of boys’ magazines at least in social and literary terms.

The Captain described itself as a magazine for the boys and old boys of the public schools. It came out monthly and cost sixpence, though a six-month collection could also be purchased bound in hard covers. It was substantial, averaging over eighty pages of two dense columns, though this was down to nearer seventy in later years. The magazine was part of the publishing stable of Sir George Newnes Bt. (1851-1910), a self-made and innovatory publisher from Matlock in Derbyshire. Newnes made his name and fortune with Tit-Bits (1881) which is often claimed to be the first periodical aimed at a genuinely mass market and which at its peak reached a circulation not far short of three quarters of a million. He followed this up with six more niche-oriented publications introduced in the 1890s. The first of these was The Strand Magazine (1891) and the last was The Captain (1899).

Arguably, Newnes was an extremely important figure in the development of mass media. If the argument is accepted then the remark follows that he has been substantially overlooked by history especially when compared to the importance attributed to Arthur Pearson, founder of the Daily Express and Alfred Harmsworth, founder of the Daily Mail. They both worked for Newnes and acknowledged his influence, Harmsworth very specifically in a Times obituary. He has only two biographers: the Prussian-born Hulda Friederichs, a friend who published shortly after his death and who had access to his own papers and Kate Jackson, almost a century later. (1) There would seem to be two obvious reasons for this comparative lack of attention. The first is that Newnes did not found a newspaper, though in his own time others forms of periodical were at least as important and Tit-Bits had a very obvious and considerable influence on mass-circulation newspapers. The second is that most of the documents on which a substantial biography might be based have been lost. Jackson remarks that, “The Captain has been acknowledged as one of the most successful juvenile publications of the early twentieth century, but has remained unresearched”. (2) It is not the aim of this essay to give the missing historical account of the magazine’s development, let alone of Newnes’ career; instead I want to illustrate how the magazine’s content throws light on the ideas about sport and its relation to culture in the period, which I have typified as the early stages of the amateur-elite dominance of sport. I have argued that this period should be understood as lasting from 1895, the date by which the overwhelming majority of modern sporting institutions were in place, to 1961, the date at which the most important sport, Association Football, abolished its maximum wage and opened the path to redevelopment on a purely commercial basis. (3)

The expansion from Tit-Bits to The Strand was, in every respect, an upwards move in the market. It was intended that the latter should be read by gentlemen of means and those who aspired to this status. The Captain was commonly nicknamed “the junior Strand“: it looked like its adult stable partner and was constituted and organised in similar ways. In each case a truly great popular author was introduced to the public through the pages of the magazine. In the case of The Strand it was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while The Captain offered Sir (eventually) P.G.Wodehouse. Having said that it must be remarked that the relationship between the writer and the magazine is slightly different in the two cases because the character of Sherlock Holmes pre-dates The Strand by more than three years whereas, although Wodehouse had written and published from his teens he had achieved little that was to last until he wrote for The Captain.

The founding editor of The Captain was R.S. Warren-Bell who appeared to readers, in the convention of noms de plume of the time, as “Old Fag”. The stated aims of the magazine were very much those of a decade that gave us the words “adolescence” and “hooligan”. They were to help boys live “clean” lives, to acquaint them with good literature and to help them be better sportsmen. In two respects Warren-Bell emphasised functions which other editors of the time might have ignored: these were that he wanted boys to know about developments in technology and he also wanted to maximise their knowledge of available careers. He was even slightly hostile to the heavy classical emphasis in public school education, though (as with any magazine) this was not necessarily true of his contributors. An important strategy was the appointment of what was claimed to be the world’s first “athletic editor” in the person of the great all-rounder C.B.Fry who wrote what were essentially coaching columns. As the most prominent sportsman of the day Fry was commercially important and his appointment was a response to W.G.Grace appearing in the B.O.P. In both cases they were “amateur” sportsmen, but in the highly devolved regulation of amateur status they had no problems as (primarily) cricketers in earning money from sharing their expertise. This would not have been possible under the more purist definition of amateur status operated in some other sports, particularly Rugby Union. Fry’s successor was P.F. “Plum” Warner, eventually knighted for his services to cricket and in the latter years of the magazine, when track and field athletics had increased in status, it was Harold Abrahams.

The content of the magazine essentially divided into three categories, articles, features and stories. The articles are the most difficult to sub-categorize, but a substantial minority were about technology including bicycles, railways, steamships and photography. The regular features in the early years included Fry’s coaching column and news updates of various inter-school matches and events. But features also covered chess and stamp collecting and there were many kinds of puzzles, the ancestors of the kind of puzzles found in newspapers today. The stories always included two serials which ran for six months. As if in tribute to Sir Henry Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada and its comparison of battlefield and playing field, one of these was always set in a public school and had a strong sporting element while the other was set in the context of war or frontier life. This mostly meant the contemporary British Empire, but there were also stories set in the English Civil War and the Wild West. Naturally, the Second Boer War featured prominently in the early years and the Great War from 1914, though enthusiasm clearly declined quite rapidly after 1914. The short stories demonstrated a similar balance, though with a much larger humorous element. After Wodehouse the best known author employed was probably Percy F. Westerman, who was publishing stories for boys over half a century, from 1908 until 1959, including a hundred and seventy six novels.

If one compares the April-September collection of 1923 with its equivalent from 1900 there is a strong first impression of extreme similarity. The changes are relatively small. The magazine is shorter (466 pages for six months as opposed to 540) and the main thing that has gone is the novel-length adventure story. The full-length school story remains; in this case it is The Liveliest Term at Templeton by Richard Bird. Fry has been replaced by Abrahams and the dominant technology is now the wireless. The magazine looks almost exactly the same, but the quality of paper is clearly lower. This is changing with the times, albeit in a minimalist spirit.

At no stage could one have doubted the patriotism explicit and implicit in the magazine’s message. In the two wars during its period “we” were entirely in the right and our enemies were bad. This was extended to the view that our empire was an entirely noble cause. One puzzle during the Boer War, in the form of a maze, offered the successful boy who made it to the centre of the maze the right to kill Paul Kruger, the Boer leader. At first sight one might judge that the view of what constituted virtue in a boy promulgated by the magazine was equally uncomplicated, but I will argue that the range of writing offers considerable complexities on some of the issues which arise when considering this subject. Generally, of course, females are absent; when they are present it is in the form of sisters to be “ragged” or beautiful ladies to be saved from disaster. So it comes as some surprise to read a piece called “What We Think of Boys” with the by-line “Two Girls” in the 1900 edition. (4) These turn out to be Jennie Clapper and Fiona McCallum and they think boys are “brutes”, slow on the uptake, anti-intellectual and mindlessly cruel (with bird-nesting given as the prime example). The only defence for boys is that they grow into men, without whom life would be very boring. These are eternal complaints, but it is a surprise to see them here; I can only surmise that, as most editors do at some stage, “Old Fag” saw this as an “off the wall” piece of sufficient quality that he ought to use it.


Given that The Captain was founded at almost exactly the time that the amateur-elite hegemony had established itself as the dominant force in English sport it is interesting to see how the magazine handles the issues of amateurism and professionalism. The simple answer is that professionalism is largely ignored. In both its fiction and non-fiction the magazine is bounded by the world of the public school with occasional references to the varsity. There are no stories, as there were to be in boys’ magazines and comics in later periods, about professional sportsmen. They are barely more visible than girls; in both cases they must exist, but they have a very low profile. Most of the appearances of a professional are as coaches, usually in boxing and the racket sports rather than team games. In some respects this is odder than it might appear at first glance. The original “athletic editor” was, after all, a top class sportsman: though an amateur himself he played cricket and football at the highest levels in predominantly professional teams. But the assumption is always that sport is bounded and defined by amateurism however vague its definition and permeable its boundaries.

On the other hand there is nothing amateurish about the way that sport is treated, especially by Fry himself. Nothing he advises would be out of place if he were coaching young professionals. He frequently touches upon issues that would now fall under the heading of “sports psychology” – and says the same things that would now be said. I was particularly taken with the column he wrote in April 1900 called “Some Thoughts on Net Practice”. (5) He acknowledges that some people may go down to the cricket nets for a wack and a bit of fun and insists that he has no quarrel with this. But his prescription for net practice is: every day, only half an hour but intense, only two bowlers per net to keep the work rate up and concentration, in any particular session, on stated aims and objectives. On reading this I could not help but compare my own fifty years of cricket nets: Friday night only, five or six bowlers per net, lots of chat and jokes, main objectives to unwind and work up a thirst. This generates a sort of Crocodile Dundee moment putatively between myself and Fry: “You’re an amateur? No: I’m an amateur”.

Thus there is a kind of residual category of respectable professionalism in sport. It is never criticised, but its existence is minimised in a sporting world defined by amateur-elite institutions. However, for some contributors there was also a darker image of professionalism in sports and games. This will become apparent in a consideration of one of the more substantial stories from the early days of the magazine, Acton’s Feud by Fred Swainson. (6)

Acton’s Feud

The story was published in six parts between April and September 1900 though it is explicitly set in 1898; it ran alongside The Three Scouts, a Boer War story. John Acton is a wealthy, handsome and athletic boy at St. Amory’s School. Selected for a “Socker” (sic) match against a select XI of adult players, including internationals and old boys, at the beginning of the academic year he commits what would now be called a “professional foul” by tripping a player called Aspinall who crashes into a post and suffers a head injury. His captain and fellow back, Phil Bourne, is appalled by his behaviour and, though he continues to pick him for the team, Acton is not awarded a “cap”. A feud develops during which Acton wins the “hearts and minds” of the school, especially the younger boys, not least because he wins the (national) public schools heavyweight boxing championship. (Bourne is also a national champion – at racket pairs.)

The most serious aspect of this feud is that Acton befriends Bourne’s younger brother, Jack, and leads him into a sporting demi-monde of gambling and barely legal forms of shooting. He thereby lures the younger Bourne into debt and into committing the kind of offences which could result in expulsion and potential ruination. There is a sub-plot involving two more junior boys, “Jim” Cotton and “Gus” Todd who fall out over a bet which leaves Todd embarrassingly without funds. The two are eventually reconciled, by which time Todd has discovered in himself the sort of self-discipline which will allow him to succeed academically while Cotton has found a vocation for a military career.

In a melodramatic climax the elder Bourne instinctively risks his life by bravely stopping a runaway carriage whose sole, terrified occupant is a beautiful woman. This (of course) turns out to be Acton’s mother. Acton, over-awed and grateful, confesses his previous caddishness and acknowledges Bourne’s virtue. He throws himself into the campaign to make Bourne captain of school (as opposed to captain of “socker”) and the two become firm friends.

The story is told by Carr, current captain of the school and a friend of the elder Bourne. It does seem to me, though, that Swainson’s use of the first person device is slippy and inconsistent. He loses sight of it for long periods and has the narrator describing scenes which Carr could not have witnessed. The other aspect likely to jar with the modern reader is the extent of the racism and classism built into the narrative. The South Asian pupils at the school are “niggers” and “dervishes” and the narrator expresses his disapproval of the practice of picking them for house teams (it is admitted that they can be good at cricket). There are hostile references to Jews and the only person of African extraction is an “Alabama coon” employed to coach Acton at boxing. The lower classes appear only as “guttersnipes”: a group of them attack Jack Bourne when they find him alone.

Acton himself is portrayed as an outsider capable of becoming an insider. When Phil Bourne asks about him he is told:

“Yorkshire people, I believe. Own half a town and no end of coin. Been to school in France and Germany and consequently came here rather late . . . . I imagine his amiability is only a little foreign blood working its way out.” (7)

The reference to “amiability” is not merely to the football foul, but to Acton’s loss of temper during boxing practice. But all this is very odd: “Yorkshire people” do not acquire “foreign blood” by having business interests overseas or by going to school abroad? At this point we have to consider the name chosen for the leading character. A substantial number of Swainson’s adult readers, at least, would surely think of Lord Acton, still alive at the time of publication. But the English-sounding “Lord Acton”, Liberal peer and distinguished writer, turns out to be John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, eighth baronet, first Baron, a Roman Catholic born in Naples (in 1834) who was to die in Tegernsee in 1902, a much more exotic catch with connections to the aristocracies of several continental countries.

I think it is extremely instructive to read Acton’s Feud alongside the original model and exemplar of its genre, Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Swainson’s story was published more than four decades after Tom Hughes’, by which time the “school story” had become the staple of at least middle-class adolescent reading. If one reads both it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, although there are very obvious similarities of structure and context, they are also opposites in some ways. The Hughes-Arnold project, so admired by Pierre De Coubertin among others, was to revive a kind of “chivalry” of behaviour which was in some respects antithetical to the capitalism and “modernity” that characterised contemporary society. The Arnold-Hughes “gentleman” served values which were personally adhered to and in many respects opposed to the main currents in society. The Swainson “gentleman” is a member of a caste defined by class, race and nationality. The Arnold-Hughes model for humanity requires a distinct development of a kind of spirituality which has a long history of Christian and theist antecedents, though this is much clearer in the book itself than in any of the dramatisations of it. Spirituality is completely absent from Swainson’s story. We must concur with Lytton Strachey’s conclusion, in his brilliant biographical essay on Arnold, that the fate of “the Doctor” was to inspire a movement (the development of the “public” schools as bastions of conservatism and imperialism) he would not have liked. In a literary sense the same could be said of Hughes. It is as if the Doctor’s enemies are back in power; by this I do not mean the wicked Harry Flashman, but the defenders of the “old ways” whom Brooke (the equivalent of the elder Bourne) has to persuade to drop their hostility to Arnold in Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

To a twenty first century reader the “code” of morality invoked in Acton’s Feud often seems incoherent and purposeless. Isn’t it hypocritical for Bourne to pick Acton but not “cap” him – a case of having the best of both worlds from Bourne’s point of view? Insofar as there is a problem it remains insoluble largely because the code incorporates a huge measure of tight-lipped silence, of things that cannot be acknowledged, let alone discussed. It seems never to be possible to point out to a chap that he has done wrong because all wrongdoing is unthinkable. It is no longer possible to argue about the “code” as it was in Rugby as described by Hughes – to challenge it in any way would be to show that one was an outsider, not “one of us”.

It would be, perhaps, dangerous to say that Swainson’s work was “typical” of the school story as it had developed by the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps it would be more careful to say that it was “not untypical” or that Swainson, given his status and outlets, had become central to that genre. That would be a reason for studying the book, but there is another and more interesting reason for so doing and that is that Swainson inspired what is possibly the greatest work to appear in the pages of The Captain, P.G.Wodehouse’s The Lost Lambs which appeared in serialised form between April and September 1908 and which, under several different titles, has been in print ever since. (8)

The Lost Lambs

P.G.Wodehouse described reading Acton’s Feud:

It began, I remember, “Shannon, the old international, had brought as hot a side down to play the school . . . ” and if there has ever been a better opening line than that I have never come across it. It was something entirely new in school stories – the real thing – and it inflamed me to do something in the line myself.” (9)

It is going too far, however, to suggest, as Kate Jackson does, that reading Swainson inspired Wodehouse “to write”. He had been a compulsive writer from childhood and already had a long list of publications. His claim should be taken at face value: he was inspired to write school stories. In doing so, it can be argued, he succeeded in two important respects: he found a “voice” as an author and he explored a subversive potential in the school story.

The story concerns two boys down on their luck. Mike Jackson is due to take office as cricket captain at Wrykyn, a prestigious public school, when his stern father withdraws him from the school because of academic under-achievement and bad behaviour. He is to be sent instead to Sedleigh, a “minor” public school. There he teams up with one Rupert Smith who has suffered exactly the same fate as himself; they “bag” a good study together and adopt a policy of dumb insolence towards authority. In a hint of what is to come in Wodehouse’s literary development the more conformist boys are labeled as “Keen” whereas the non-conformists are “Drones”. (Even the most casual reader or viewer of Wodehouse’s work will recognise that Bertie Wooster was a member of the Drones’ Club.)

Mike refuses to play cricket at Sedleigh and his companion remarks that he doesn’t like cricket though he has, on occasion, played with his sister in the garden. Their initial conflicts are with Adair, the worthy head boy, though a much more serious enmity develops with an officious housemaster, Mr. Downing. One of the best scenes involves Smith cleverly moving a piece of evidence that will incriminate Mike and lead to his expulsion so that he is always one step ahead of the master. In the end the pair are persuaded by Adair’s decency to take up cricket again and luck offers them the chance to arrange a fixture against Wrykyn. It turns out that Smith does play cricket, after all, and was expected to play for Eton against Harrow at Lord’s; his left arm slow bowling is crucial in obtaining a famous victory for Sedleigh.

Rupert Smith is, of course, not just “Smith”, but Psmith, the silent “P” (as in “pshrimp”) in his name part of a mass of affectation which is intended to create a persona of languid insouciance. He is very tall, wears a monocle and rarely admits to understanding what has been said to him. His creator comments that “if he met the Great Pyramid he could patronise it”. As a creation there are two major claims to be made about Psmith. The first is indisputable: it is that he turned out to be a success. The Lost Lambs, republished as Mike and again as Mike and Psmith, has never been out of print. Nor have its three sequels in which Psmith alone becomes the eponymous character.

The second is vaguer, but in its way even more important. It is that it is in The Lost Lambs that Wodehouse finds his true literary “voice” and it was claimed most convincingly by the novelist Evelyn Waugh. As a boy Waugh had read The Captain with his father, Arthur, and his brother, Alec and had been particularly fond of Wodehouse’s stories. As a celebrated writer forty and fifty years later Evelyn defended Wodehouse from accusations of collaboration and of triviality. It is when he introduces Psmith, says Waugh, that we first meet the true Wodehouse: (10)

“Take a seat”, said the immaculate one, “If you don’t mind dirtying your bags, that’s to say. Personally, I don’t see any prospect of ever sitting down in this place. It looks to me as if they meant to use these chairs as mustard-and-cress beds. A nursery garden in the home. That sort of idea. My name,” he said pensively, “is Smith. What’s yours?”

“Jackson”, said Mike.

“Are you the Bully, the Pride of the School or the Boy who is Led Astray and takes to Drink in Chapter Sixteen?”

“The last for choice”, said Mike, “but I’ve only just arrived so I don’t know.” (11)

It would be extremely difficult to disagree with Waugh. Having found this tone – light, cynical and self-referential – Wodehouse maintained it over an astonishingly long literary career. One can, for example, find hints of both Jeeves and Wooster in Psmith. Much Obliged, Jeeves, published sixty eight years after The Lost Lambs, is recognisably by the same author.

It has been widely acknowledged that Wodehouse is just about at his best when writing about cricket. He is witty and original and combines these qualities with a shrewd knowledge of the game. For example, there is a scene in which Mike finds himself as a batsman facing the bowling of his would-be nemesis, Mr. Downing:

Mr. Downing was a bowler with a style of his own. He took two short steps, two long steps, gave a jump, took three more short steps and ended with a combination of step and jump, during which the ball emerged from behind his back and started on its slow career to the wicket. The whole business had some of the grace of the old fashioned minuet, subtly blended with the careless vigour of a cakewalk. The ball, when delivered, was billed to break from leg, but the programme was subject to alteration. (12)

But it must be pointed out that, as a schooled Edwardian cricketer, Mike plays out the first five balls for no runs, making sure he has read it properly in the context of the pitch. He takes a careful single off the last ball to retain the strike.

What does require some explanation is Wodehouse’s apparent admiration for Swainson. Where Wodehouse is light, Swainson is heavy. Where Swainson is snobbish and racist Wodehouse is not; his lower class figures are not menacing guttersnipes, but witty and wise to the same degree as their supposed social superiors. Where Swainson seems entirely committed to maintaining existing structures of authority Wodehouse is clearly subversive. It is impossible to imagine a Swainsonian leading character, given the choice between “Pride of the School” and “Boy . . . who Takes to Drink” choosing the latter role. One can only think that he admired what Swainson did well, which is to capture the style and argot of the public school of the time – the creation of a sort of Chapsworld. At the same time one feels certain, in the absence of any evidence, that Wodehouse knew that he was not just going to do “something in the line” of Swainson, but was going to produce something a great deal subtler and wittier.

Heroes (or, at least, leading men and boys)

Heroes are people who defend and protect us and therefore offer us some kind of leadership, whether structural or cultural. They show virtue, but the menu of virtues is worthless without the transcending virtue of courage. To some degree it always has been among the aims of “boys'” literature to offer us heroes and in this respect The Captain was anything but an exception.

Having said that one is still very far from understanding the discourse of heroism for two fundamental reasons. The first is that the definitional statement above covers a small core concept of heroism and an observation of usage is that many of its conditions can be weakened or even relaxed and, in fiction at least, we would call the leading character of a novel a “hero” provided he or she demonstrated some virtue and some courage in the end. (And if he doesn’t we might now classify him as “anti-hero”.) The other problem is that one cannot define heroism without resort to the idea of virtue or something very much like it and virtue is by its nature a contested, culturally variable and even contradictory concept. The figure of Prince Hal/Henry V, for example, is usually presented to us in Shakespearean productions as heroic. But to one of the most significant commentators on Shakespeare he was a brutal, snobbish, devious mass murderer. We have absorbed in later generations many of William Hazlitt’s ideas and opinions about Shakespeare’s plays, but these do not include his views on Henry V. (13)

An important ambiguity, in its way parallel to theological debates about faith and works, is this: must a hero present us with overt moral leadership or is it sufficient that he act in decisive way with good consequences at occasional moments? The head boy or captain of school meets the former criterion: Brooke (in Tom Brown’s Schooldays), Bourne (in Acton’s Feud) and Adair (in The Lost Lambs) were what Psmith called “Pride of the School” heroes. So, probably, was the real Henry V. But, of course, Shakespeare gives “Hal” a new dimension quite different from anything in the catalogue of saints. Hal is a playboy, a young man who lives on the edge of and sometimes well beyond the orthodox ideas of virtue – even though he tells us, the audience, very early on that we should not take him at face value. His own father sees him as anything but a hero and in what is essentially a sixty two line “telling off” in Act III, Scene 2 of Henry IV Part 1 he is berated for his triviality. His father imagines him inheriting the crown:

The skipping king, he ambled up and down

With shallow jesters, and rash bavin wits,

Soon kindled, and soon burn’d; carded his state,

Mingled his royalty with capering fools . . .

The spirit of this father-to-son remonstration is very close to that which Mike Jackson receives from his father in The Lost Lambs and may be similar, too, to that which Psmith has received, though this is only alluded to. But Hal and Mike and Psmith are heroes. They may lack conformity to the orthodox virtues and specifically lack the overt seriousness of purpose which we would counsel to all our sons and daughters, but they deliver loyalty and courage and efficacity in important moments. Mike and Psmith are alternative heroes – alternative, that is, to the “Pride of the School” model. They are descended from Hal and their own descendants are legion, including Lord Peter Wimsey and James Bond (the cinematic version more than the Bond of Ian Fleming’s books) and almost any character played by (say) Errol Flynn or David Niven. One contemporary cousin is Sherlock Holmes and another is the foppish and silly Sir Percy Blakeney, the “Scarlet Pimpernel”, who rescues many people from the guillotine in novels by Baroness Orczy. The first manifestation of the Pimpernel was on stage in Nottingham in 1903; the production moved to London and there can be no doubt that Wodehouse was aware of it when he invented (the foppish and silly) Psmith.

In short what Wodehouse and The Captain succeded in doing was to play a part in the undermining of the hero as earnest and virtuous chevalier, Pride of the School, and give us back the playboy, amusing hero who is a hero because of what he does when it matters not because of the example he sets us.

Of Boys and Old Boys and their Stories

Lytton Strachey’s essay on Thomas Arnold concludes:

Teachers and prophets have strange after-histories and that of Dr. Arnold has been no exception. The earnest enthusiast who strove to make his pupils Christian gentlemen and who governed his school according to the principles of the Old Testament has proved to be the founder of the worship of athletics and the worship of good form. Upon those two poles our public schools have turned for so long that we have almost come to believe that such is their essential nature and that an English public school boy who wears the wrong clothes and takes no interest in football is a contradiction in terms. Yet it was not so before Dr. Arnold, will it always be so after him? We shall see. (14)

Art often imitates Life and in this case Strachey’s passage offers us an excellent model for understanding what happened to the school story. Tom Brown’s Schooldays is an unorthodox and highly spiritual book; most of it’s successors assume a fairly rigid orhodoxy and are anything but spiritual. The Captain is to be understood as central to this succession, but the matter is also complicated by some of the writing in it, not least that of Wodehouse who gives us heroes far removed from those of the Victorians and their medieval models.

The answer to Strachey’s question in its educational dimension must be that for generations after his time the public schools remained in Swainsonian mode, much concerned with form and athleticism. However, in the twenty-first century spokespersons for what is generally called the “independent” sector would emphasise that their education emphasises individual development and conscience to a greater degree than previously and that in some respects they have moved back towards Arnold. At the same time there can be no doubting the continuing emphasis on sport – and on winning, a very unArnoldian concern.

But this essay is largely concerned with the literary dimension of the public school and I think I can best explore that autobiographically. I went away to school in 1957, as it happens the centenary year of the publication of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. The school was Lancaster Royal Grammar School, an ancient institution normally quoting 1469 as its foundation date. Although a grammar school its influences and pretensions came almost entirely from the public school sector. It had a large boarding section and all the traditional paraphenalia of prefects, “colours”, “caps”, canings, house rivalries and so on. There were both a general and a particular reason for this mimicry. The general reason is that status attracted pupils and it was to be found in the imitation of public school norms and traditions; thus the school had converted from Association to Rugby Union football in 1921 as did many other grammar schools in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The particular was that the headmaster for my first four years was R.R. (“Joss”) Timberlake who had taken up the post in 1937 having previously been a housemaster at Rugby. “Joss” did a very fair impression of Dr. Arnold, reading prayers and bible stories to us before bedtime. He even lived in a wing of School House, just as in the story.

It was in this context that I read a wide variety of stories aimed at boys. These included numerous editions of The Captain which had remained in our extended family as well as The Eagle, which my parents bought for me and The Rover, one of the comics produced by D.C.Thomson of Dundee, which I bought out of my own pocket money. Although later it was a comic strip when I bought it it was written in continuous text with one illustration per story and thus (in my mind) worth paying 3d for. One curiosity of this reading “basket” is that I was given class war propaganda from both sides. In The Captain I was presented with the lower classes as cowardly and vicious guttersnipes whereas in The Rover I was presented with the middle classes (strangely? the upper classes were occasionally presented as heroic) as over-privileged and snobbish “toffs”. One example of the latter was the athletic hero Alf Tupper, a middle distance runner who had to compete against athletes who had been given every advantage in life after he had been welding all night. I have to report that I felt no conflict at all: when reading The Captain I hated guttersnipes and when reading The Rover I hated toffs.

Of all my reading it was The Captain alone that presented me with a context which I actually knew and understood. By 1957 interest in school stories was plummeting and the genre died quite a rapid death. (One would like to have been a fly on the wall in conversations between the remaining exponents, such as Westerman, whose last book appeared in 1959, and their publishers.) Film and television were largely responsible for this and they were able to present boys with much more exciting contexts. War stories, westerns and science fiction were the order of the day, increasingly in reading matter as well as film and television. Very few films were made from school stories, though Tom Brown’s Schooldays has been dramatised several times.

In that context I was very unusual and more like a boy of an earlier generation. Because I had an intellectual, headmaster father I did not see television and I had seen very few films. My heroes were drawn from life, not screen, from my school and from Burnley Football Club. Thus I was in an unusual position to observe that although the structures around me were similar to those in the school stories in The Captain my contemporaries were part of a very different ethos. Compared with characters in the magazine they knew far more about the world and its population of television and sports celebrities, they were vastly more absorbed by the world of professional sport and cared (even) more about winning. Their humour and attitudes to rules resembled those of Mike and Psmith rather than any other Captain characters. They also talked about sex a good deal more than Captain characters – though it could hardly be less.

Thus it would be difficult to imagine the mental universe of The Captain surviving into a society of “mass” media and the level of communication possible even in the 1950s let alone the twenty first century: the closed world of a rural public school behind stone walls is no longer possible. But some aspects of that ethos survive and even thrive. We still yearn for “gentlemanly conduct” and include it in our rule books and we still value the fierce, if rather arbitrary, loyalties exemplified by house games. Indeed, the author J.K.Rowling seems to have discovered a global response to the idea of adventure in a remote, stone-built school.

Lincoln Allison June 2021


1. Hulda Friedrichs, The Life of Sir George Newnes, Bart., Hodder & Stoughton, 1911. (Now available from Forgotten Books.) Kate Jackson, George Newnes and the New Journalism in Britain, 1880-1910, Culture and Profit, Ashgate, 2001.

2. Jackson, op.cit., p.5.

3. See especially, Lincoln Allison, Amateurism in Sport, An Analysis and a Defence, Frank Cass, 2002.

4. The Captain, Vol 3, April-September, 1900, p. 167.

6. This can currently be read at www.gutenberg.org/files/14772/14772/14772-h.htm

7. The Captain Vol. 3, April-September, 1900, p. 82.

8. The Captain, Vol. 19, April-September, 1908.

9. See Jackson, op. cit., Chapter 6, note 32.

10. Evelyn Waugh praised and defended P.G.Wodehouse on numerous occasions, including talks on BBC radio and endorsements on the covers of the Penguin editions of his books. The most substantial statement was the long essay, ” An Old and Lamentable Quarrel Must be Finally and Completely Made Up and Forgotten: An Act of Homage and Reparation to P.G.Wodehouse” in the Sunday Times, July 16th, 1961. Alec Waugh, Evelyn’s brother, also a novelist, thought The Lost Lambs among Wodehouse’s best work. So dis George Orwell whose essay, “In Defence of P.G.Wodehouse” was published in Windmill in 1946 and is available at: orwell.ru/library/reviews/plum/english/e_plum

11. The Captain, Vol. 19, 1908, p. 46.

12. Ibid., p. 207.

13. William Hazlitt, “Henry 5″ (sic) in Characters of Shakespear’s (sic) Plays, Roland Hunter with Charles and James Ollier, 1817. Currently available at https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hazlitt/william/characters-of-shakespeares-plays/chapter16.html

14. Lytton Strachey, “Dr. Arnold”, in Eminent Victorians, Chatto & Windus, 1918. Available at: https://www.bartleby.com/189/301/html

(This breaks the rules of prudence for an essayist in that it was supply-led and without an intended outlet. That is, I wrote it because the old mags were in my study witout a thought of who might publish it. It’s too long for a magazine article but rather short for most journals. In terms of subject matter the only remotely appropriate outlet would be an American journal, Aethlon: the Journal of Sports Literature. They did accept it, but there were insuperable problems of re-formatting it which neither I nor they could solve so I withdrew it. When I first published an academic article, fifty years ago, this would all have been dealt with by secretaries in the academic department where the journal was based, but everything is semi-automated and the process would have required technical skills from me that I don’t possess.)