Every time a public schoolboy reveals where he went to school, another similarly well educated chap looks down on him.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (Eton) was at it just the other week in the Commons, when he disagreed with Nick Boles (Winchester) over Brexit.
Boles had just said he voted to leave the EU by backing Theresa May’s deal, while Rees-Mogg voted against it.
Rees-Mogg responded, “My honourable friend makes a characteristically Wykehamist point: highly intelligent but fundamentally wrong. I must confess that I have sometimes thought my right honourable friend the Member for West Dorset (Oliver Letwin, Eton) was more a Wykehamist than of my own school.”
Rees-Mogg was riffing on the old cliché that Wykehamists (so-called because Winchester was founded by William of Wykeham in 1382) are so planet-brained that they’re not fitted for real life. As a Wykehamist told me, “Etonians have traditionally regarded Wykehamists as intellectually able but not practical. Wykehamists regard Eton as a mixed ability school.”
The Etonian-Wykehamist spat has been going on for centuries. As have endless snobbish squabbles over supposed different characteristics produced by the handful of leading public schools. Oh, the tyranny of small differences!
Here is a guide through the morass of inter-public school rivalries.
The Chair Story
The most famous public school anecdote. An Etonian, a Wykehamist and a Harrovian are sitting in a bar. A woman walks in. The Etonian says, “Fetch her a chair.” The Wykehamist fetches it. The Harrovian sits in it.
The seven most celebrated public schools, whose products are most inclined to attack each other for tiny differences.
In 1864, the Clarendon Commission, chaired by the Earl of Clarendon, investigated nine public schools, after complaints about the way Eton was run. The Commission examined nine schools: Eton, Charterhouse, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Westminster, Winchester, St Paul’s and Merchant Taylors’.
Acting on the Clarendon Commission report, the Public Schools Act 1868 gave the first seven schools independence from direct jurisdiction or responsibility of the Crown, the Established Church or the Government. In 1887, the Divisional Court and the Court of Appeal found that City of London was also a public school.
To make things even more complicated, St Paul’s School and Merchant Taylors’ School argued that their constitutions made them “private” schools and couldn’t be affected by public legislation. Thus the maddening confusion where independent schools are called both private and public schools. But comprehensives – the most public of schools – aren’t in fact public schools.
The most famous school in the world has more alternative names than any other school: Slough Grammar; the Old Coll; and, to those Etonians who can only conceive of one place on earth to be educated, “School”, as in “Did you go to School?”
Eton also appears in more poems and stories (see THE CHAIR STORY) than any other school. It stars in this 19th-century poem:
The most famous Eton boatman was Captain Cook in Peter Pan. His last words were the school motto, “Floreat Etona” – “May Eton flourish.”
The Scottish Eton, where James Bond was exiled to after being sacked from Eton for ‘trouble’ with a maid. Bond’s father, Andrew Bond, went to Fettes. In You Only Live Twice, Ian Fleming says of James Bond’s time at Fettes, “Here the atmosphere was somewhat Calvinistic, and both academic and athletic standards were rigorous.”
Sir Harry Flashman VC sums up the worst public school values in Tom Brown’s School Days and the George MacDonald Fraser sequels. A cowardly, drunken rapist, Flashman went to Rugby in the 1830s. It’s inaccurate then that David Cameron (Eton) should have been so frequently compared with Flashman.
Considered to be dim roués, like the late Marquess of Bristol, avid drug fiend, who managed to blow a £35m fortune on cocaine before dying in 1999, aged 44. But then again, showing the unreliability of school clichés, Harrow was the alma mater of one Winston Churchill, who did OK.
In The Spectator in 2015, Michael Gove (Robert Gordon’s College) criticised Jeremy Paxman (Malvern) for his “Old Malvernian hauteur”, when he asked Tony Blair whether “he had prayed together with his fellow Christian George W. Bush”.
The new Eton, not least thanks to old girls, Pippa Middleton and the Duchess of Cambridge. Old Marlburian John Betjeman, at the school in the 1920s, mockingly said of himself, “Spiritually, I was at Eton.”
Minor public schools
The snobbish apartheid among public schools is so extreme that the vast majority of public schools are considered minor public schools by the products of the handful of leading public schools (see CLARENDON SCHOOLS).
Strangely enough, the expression has nothing to do with sex but is used of those hearty public schoolboys who are a leetle short on the leetle grey cells. Also strangely enough, rugger buggers aren’t exclusively from Rugby School – where rugby was invented by William Webb Ellis in 1823. Even more strangely, William Webb Ellis wasn’t really a rugger bugger. He played, erm, cricket for Brasenose College, Oxford, and later became the Rector of St Clement Danes in London. Rugger buggers aren’t churchmen.
“It will never be well with the nation until Westminster School is suppressed,” said Richard Owen, a 17th century Dean of Christ Church, Oxford.
That bolshie, rebellious reputation of Westminster continues. Consider old boys, Russian spy Kim Philby, Tony Benn and Pogues singer Shane MacGowan.
Then again, I was at Westminster and I could introduce you to countless non-bolshie, non-rebellious Old Westminsters, now perfectly respectable lawyers, bankers and teachers.
If you’ve been to any of these schools, you know they don’t really have that precise an effect on character. As George Colman said of Westminster in 1772, “Geniuses and boobies have been brought up in it, who would have been geniuses and boobies had they been brought up anywhere else.”
Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Penguin)