Tom Brown’s Schooldays

The Author 

Thomas Hughes, the son of a landowner from Uffington in Berkshire, was born in 1822. After being educated at Oriel College, Oxford, Hughes trained as a lawyer. While a student Hughes read The Kingdom of Christ (1838) by Frederick Denison Maurice. In the book Maurice argued that politics and religion are inseparable and that the church should be involved in addressing social questions.  

Hughes became a supporter of Chartism and after the decision by the House of Commons to reject the Chartist Petition in 1848, he joined with Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Kingsley to form the Christian Socialist movement. The men discussed how the Church could help to prevent revolution by tackling what they considered were the reasonable grievances of the working class.  

The Christian Socialists published two journals, Politics of the People (1848-1849) and The Christian Socialist (1850-51). The group also produced a series of pamphlets under the title Tracts on Christian Socialism. Other initiatives included a night school in Little Ormond Yard and helping to form eight Working Men's Associations. In 1854 the evening classes that the Christian Socialists had been involved in developed into the establishment of the Working Men's College.  

In 1856 Hughes wrote Tom Brown's Schooldays (1856) based on his school experiences at Rugby School. His follow-up novel, Tom Brown at Oxford was less successful. Hughes became a Liberal MP between 1865 and 1874 and principal of the Working Men's College from 1872 to 1883. Thomas Hughes died in 1896.

 First published in 1857 ‘by an Old Boy of Rugby’, Thomas Hughes, this story of life in a mid-Victorian public school has become a classic of English Literature. You will study this text in conjunction with a very modern work, by JK Rowling, whose own story of school life shows many parallels. The Harry Potter series (at present an unfinished account of seven years in a similar school system) is seen by many critics as something of a future ‘classic’ of children’s literature. Whether or not you agree with this, you will certainly find that the two texts do have a good deal in common. 

You will probably find that the Hughes book presents quite a bit of difficulty, unless you are presently studying in the same school system. Twenty first century pupils in the State system may find, for example, that much of the content, especially that relating to Rugby school traditions, sounds very archaic and obscure. Try not to get too discouraged if you can’t understand the slang Hughes uses, for example. What you need to concentrate on are the broad issues of attitudes, values, plot, themes and characters. The language changes are not as difficult to spot as you think. I will try to make them a little bit clearer as we go through this study.


First of all you need to think about the contexts of the book. Thomas Hughes was an old boy (former pupil) of a great English public school, called Rugby School. Rugby is in Warwickshire, what we might call the ‘Heart of England’, a little to the east of Coventry and north-east of Royal Leamington Spa. Hughes himself, the ‘Tom Brown’ of the novel (although he never directly stated that he had based his central character upon his own), was born and raised further south, in the Vale of the White Horse, in Oxfordshire. According to my atlas that’s in Oxfordshire, although you can see that the biography above asserts it to be in Berkshire. The first three chapters of the book are a lyrical celebration of that area of England and the people who have lived there for generations, most notably the ‘great army of Browns’, who are, according to Hughes, a ‘fighting family’.  

Hughes uses a very familiar Victorian convention in the first chapters, addressing his audience directly as ‘gentle reader’ or ‘simple reader’ and taking the opportunity to introduce the ‘cast’ and the location to his audience. The tone here is very patronising to a modern audience, indeed you might be a little offended by being addressed in such a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ authorial voice. Similarly, you may find that Hughes’ passionate defence of the people of the White Horse Vale and the Vale itself is very biased. You are right – it is biased, but it was quite common for the author to take on the persona (character) of a didactic lecturer and I suppose you might say that Hughes does sound very much like a lecturer or a preacher in these first three chapters. His Victorian audience would not think that this was at all inappropriate and you also need to bear in mind that he was probably addressing rather a narrow audience, too. He makes no pretence of doing anything other than praising the people of his own area, the area itself and, of course, the school he went to and the friends he made there. It does sound very incongruous to a modern reader, to be told that ‘if you don’t like the sort, why cut the occasion at once and let you and I cry quits before either of us can grumble at the other’, but Hughes would have seen that as honest and straightforward, rather than patronising and arrogant and so, probably, would his readers.  


This brings us to a consideration of where to assign this novel in terms of genre. Hughes makes no pretence as author. He claims to be ‘an Old Boy of the School’ on the title page and although he never admitted that Tom Brown’s character was based on his own life and experiences, it is obvious that this work has a good deal of autobiographical content. The location he describes so lyrically in the opening chapters is the place where he grew up and so again we must assume that these recollections of place are based on personal experience and sentiment. Is the novel, then, really a ‘novel’ at all? Can we really say that is it fictional, even though the character of Tom Brown has a different name to that of Thomas Hughes? In addition, we have to ask ourselves what is the primary purpose of the writing. If a novel is designed to entertain, then we could say that the account of this ‘fictional’ character is entertaining, but we have to consider the themes, too. One of the main themes in the book is that of bullying and the struggle between Flashman and Brown is often regarded as a seminal account of the harsh brutality of the school bully and his victim. There is nothing entertaining in the account of Tom’s ‘roasting’ on the day of the Derby sweepstake. Is it autobiographical? Was there a ‘real’ Flashman? Is the book really a piece of persuasive writing about the evils of bullying? Hughes himself said this about the book: 

“But though, for quite other reasons, I don't like to see very young boys launched at a public school, and though I don't deny (I wish I could) the existence from time to time of bullying, I deny its being a constant condition of school life, and still more the possibility of meeting it by the means proposed I don't wish to understate the amount of bullying that goes on, but my conviction is that it must be fought, like all school evils, but it more than any, by dynamics rather than mechanics, by getting the fellows to respect themselves and one another, rather than by sitting by them with a thick stick. 

  And now, having broken my resolution never to write a preface, there are just two or three things, which I should like to say a word about. 

  Several persons, for whose judgement I have the highest respect, while saying very kind things about this book, have added, that the great fault of it is 'too much preaching'; but they hope I shall amend in this matter should I ever write again. Now this I most distinctly decline to do. Why, my whole object in writing at all was to get the chance of preaching! When a man comes to my time of life and has his bread to make, and very little time to spare, is it likely that he will spend almost the whole of his yearly vacation in writing a story just to amuse people? I think not. At any rate, I wouldn't do so myself.”

 There you have it, from the author’s own preface to the sixth edition of the book. He is ‘preaching’ and his object is not to ‘amuse people’.  As you study and analyse this text, you need to look at what Hughes ‘preaches’ about. Not all of it is bad, either. One of the things he does is to celebrate the values of friendship and honour among friends. He also makes it very clear that he admires and respects the integrity of the Headmaster, Dr Arnold. Thomas Arnold (1795-1842) was a famous schoolmaster, head of Rugby School from 1828 to 1841. He was born on the Isle of Wight, and was educated at Winchester and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. There he excelled at Classics and was made a fellow of Oriel in 1815. His appointment to the headship of Rugby, turned the school's fortunes around, and he is portrayed as a leading character in the novel. In 1841, he became Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford.  

The School 

Maybe here is a good place to talk a little bit about the central location of the book – Rugby School itself.

Rugby School located in Rugby, Warwickshire is one of the oldest public schools in the United Kingdom and is perhaps the leading co-educational boarding school in the country. Rugby School was founded in 1567 as a provision in the will of a certain Lawrence Sheriff who had made his fortune supplying groceries to Queen Elizabeth I of England. Since Lawrence Sheriff lived in Rugby, the school was intended to be a free grammar school for the boys of that town. Gradually, however, the nature of the school shifted to become fee-paying, and so a new school - Lawrence Sheriff Grammar School - was founded to continue Lawrence Sheriff's original intentions.

The game of Rugby owes its name to the school. The legend of William Webb Ellis and the origin of the game is commemorated by a plaque which states;  

A.D. 1823 

 The story has been known to be a myth since the Old Rugbeian Society first investigated it in 1895. There were no standard rules for football during Webb Ellis's time at Rugby (1816-1825) and most varieties involved carrying the ball. The students and not the masters organized the games played at Rugby, the rules of the game played at Rugby and elsewhere were a matter of custom and were not written down. They were frequently changed and modified with each new intake of students. The sole source of the story is credited to one Matthew Bloxam (a former student, but not a contemporary of Webb Ellis) in October of 1876 in a letter to the school newspaper (The Meteor). He quotes some unknown friend relating the story to him. He elaborated on the story some 3 years later in another letter to The Meteor, but shed no further light on its source.  

Rugby School now has both day and boarding-pupils - the latter in the majority. Originally it was for boys only, but girls have been admitted to the sixth form since 1975. It went fully co-educational in 1995. One of the more famous alumni of Rugby School was Charles Dodgson, later to become famous as Lewis Carroll (author of the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ books), who did not enjoy his stay there. Salman Rushdie also attended Rugby School.

 In Hughes’ time, of course, Rugby was a boys-only school and he attended as a pupil when Dr Arnold was in post as Head. It is obvious that he admired and respected Arnold’s leadership, although the central character, Tom Brown, does not always communicate that respect. At the end of the book, when, as a sixth former about to leave, he acknowledges that ‘there wasn’t a corner of him left that didn’t believe in the Doctor’, we see that Tom Brown has, in a way, ‘become’ Thomas Hughes. This is, of course, one of the things you need to mention when you talk about authorial viewpoint and the reliability (or otherwise) of the narrator. ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ was written as fiction, but is very probably autobiographical. The author himself has stated that he intended to ‘preach’. His narrative voice, therefore, is almost certainly biased and it is very clear that he has strong views on a variety of important issues. Perhaps, then, you can make a case for the book as a piece of persuasive writing, rather than for entertainment. As to genre – you’ll have to puzzle that one out for yourself.

 The Text 

Let’s go through the text chapter by chapter and try to sift out some of the themes, attitudes and values on the way.  In Part One Hughes takes us through Tom's childhood in Berkshire up to the start of his senior years in Rugby school.

Chapters 1-4 

Primarily this is a book about school life in the mid nineteenth century, so you will need to do some research on that if you want to understand what things were important to the society of that time. The first few chapters, though, deal with people and the area of England in which they lived. The purpose here is to sketch out the background for the reader and to introduce us to a ‘clan’ of people, with very specific character traits. The mythical ‘Browns’ are yeomen, that is to say they are country people, some of whom, like Squire Brown, Tom’s father, belong to what we might call the lower rank of gentry. It is very difficult to understand this rank of society. They were not aristocratic and in the main did not have important titles, but many of them owned land and held County offices. Tom’s father is, for example, Squire of the village and a Justice of the Peace. He would probably have title to a fair amount of land and would collect rents from those who lived on it and farmed there. If you read the first section of the book it is obvious that the Squire is something of an important figure in the county and has a responsibility to the people.  Hughes obviously admires this section of the English population and suggests that somehow they are the foundation of all that is noble and good in English life. We have to speculate here again as to whether he is describing his own family or a type of Englishman he creates as a kind of blueprint for the time. No easy answers here, either. The landscape, however, is very dramatic and it is obvious that Hughes is deeply attached to it.

Oxfordshire's White Horse Country, only 60 miles from London, lies between the Ridgeway and the River Thames and stretches from the edge of Oxford to the threshold of the Cotswolds. Its landscape is marked by a mysterious pagan past - the very name of the Vale comes from the oldest chalk figure in Britain dating back over 3,000 years. The White Horse is cut out of the turf on the upper slopes of Uffington Castle near the Ridgeway. It is 374 feet long and thought to represent a Celtic god or tribal symbol. For centuries, however, local people have maintained that it is a portrait of the dragon slain by St. George on the nearby Dragon Hill.

 In Hughes’ time, the area was in the county of Berkshire, but is now part of Oxfordshire. Don’t worry too much about this, what you need to get hold of is the idea of the ‘Heart of England’. The school that Tom Brown attends is further north than the Vale, but the whole area is the heartland of the country and has been settled for thousands of years. There is an obvious sense of ‘belonging’ in Hughes’ account of the Vale and its inhabitants. The people he describes have deep roots and Hughes himself says that ‘there is enough of interest and beauty to last any reasonable man his life’ in  ‘a circle of five miles’. This is what we call a ‘narrow canvas’ in writing. Hughes doesn’t extend his narrative beyond a very small geographical area. As a child, Tom Brown occupies a tiny part of the centre of England, but to him and to his author, this is ‘enough’. School in Rugby is even more circumscribed – the buildings and the town around it are ‘enough’ once more. This is a tiny world, but for the author and the central character, it is hugely important and significant.

 You need also to think about what Hughes says about the people, especially the Brown family, because here we have a very important picture of Victorian England’s values and attitudes. Have a look especially at the apostrophised passage that begins ‘Oh, young England!” on page 19. An apostrophe, incidentally, is a Classical figure of speech where a thing, a place, an abstract quality, an idea, or a dead or absent person is addressed as if present and capable of understanding.

You will see that Hughes makes rather an impassioned attack on the young people of the time who prefer foreign travel to exploration of their own ‘lanes and woods and fields’, calling them ‘young cosmopolites, belonging to all counties and no countries’.

The Browns, however, are ‘stalwart sons’, who have ‘done yeomen’s work’ throughout history. Solid, country people who have ‘belief in one another’ and are ‘eminently Quixotic’ (they can’t let anything alone which they think is going wrong). Hughes paints a picture of dogged, respectable, honest English squires and it is obvious that he admires and respects these characteristics.

 The whole of the first chapter is, then, a celebration of people and a place and Hughes makes no pretence at unbiased narrative here. If his intention is to ‘preach’ then he preaches passionately about what he regards as ‘real’ Englishmen. Tom himself is ‘a hearty, strong boy’ who from childhood is given to ‘escaping from his nurse and fraternising with the village boys’ (note the subtle social distinction implied here – Tom is not a peasant but the son of the village squire, the ‘young master’.) Hughes makes it seem a virtue that Toms family ‘didn’t go out of the county once in five years’.

 The tone here is certainly didactic (the authorial voice is telling the reader what to think) and a modern reader may not warm to it. Hughes’ readers would recognise it perfectly well and they would also probably recognise the sentiments expressed. Remember that this book was published at the very height of the Victorian age. England was very much a world power at that time and regarded itself as eminently important. We might find the patriotic sentiment overdone or even offensive in our multi-cultural post modern times, but the Victorians would recognise a ‘Brown’ and moreover admire what Hughes has to say about erosion of national values and loyalties. Foreigners were foreign in Victorian times. Englishmen were admirable. Inward-looking, yes, but remember that you have to understand what shapes the text and this one is shaped very much by Victorian attitudes and values.

 Chapter two looks in more detail at the place in which the young Tom grew up and sketches out a more detailed portrait of the central character and his companions. His ‘nurse’ (nanny) is Charity Lamb and his ‘two abettors’ (people who encourage him to get into trouble) are in fact both old men – Noah and ‘Old Benjy’ (Benjamin). There is much more here about the social hierarchy of the time, with Charity being portrayed as something of an idiot ‘two left hands and no head’ and the old men as faithful ex-servants. Noah was a carriage driver and valet (gentleman’s servant) but Benjy’s past is not explained. He is, though, a long-time resident of the Vale and knows Tom’s family well.

The main topic of this chapter concerns the ‘Veast’ (Feast). Note the way that Hughes uses dialect throughout the first section of the book, certainly to enforce the idea of the importance of heritage and to add ‘local colour’ to the narrative. Notice also how obscure it makes the meaning for the reader who is unfamiliar with this dialectic form. 

What is interesting here is the account of a very significant part of English rural life, although now sadly archaic, with its references to it being a ‘day of reconciliation for the Parish’. What you also see is the way that village life revolved around the old church year (‘holiday’ is derived from ‘holy day’ – a church feast day) and also the way that the Squire and his family were the human centre of that life. Note, too the idea of human equality implicit in Hughes’ remarks about ‘sociable and universal’ pastimes.

The ‘Veast’ account is interesting, with references to medieval games like ‘Blind Man’s Buff’, which Hughes calls a ‘jingling match’, possibly deriving from the Great Plague, like the nursery rhyme ‘Ring a Ring ‘o Roses’ and fighting with wooden swords (back-swording), which is possibly also from medieval times. Note how simple they are, but also how violent they can be and how competitive the villagers are. Note too, Hughes’ sermon on the value of this kind of honest competition as an ‘educational grapnel’ (something to ‘hook’ a person into being educated) for the ‘working boys and young men of England’. You can maybe see something similar being suggested today from the educational lobby, which is trying to re-introduce the idea of competitive sporting activities into modern school life.

 Hughes is once ore on his political soap-box at the end of this chapter, criticising the government  for having allowed ‘too much over-civilisation’ and ‘the deceitfulness of riches (money)’ to corrupt society. 

In chapter three Benjy, who is growing older and more infirm, takes Tom to visit  a ‘wise man’ called Farmer Ives. The ‘wise man’, or woman would nowadays be called an expert in alternative medicine or healing therapies. What they did was to use a combination of charms, herbs and natural resources to cure illness. Please don’t call them ‘witches’ – although there were certainly people who did practise witchcraft, Hughes is very careful not to use that word here. Farmer Ives is also a horse and cow doctor (but not a vet – that’s quite a modern term) and lives in a hut ‘very like those of the better class of peasantry in general’. Despite his treatment of Tom’s wart, he is not able to deal with Benjy’s ‘rheumatiz’, except by suggesting that it will only get better when Benjy dies. 

Tom’s friends are mostly ‘village boys’ before he goes to school and it is interesting here to notice how Hughes makes it clear that although Tom spends time with them, he is never one of them, because of his status as the ‘young master’ and the Squire’s son. There might be a touch of hypocrisy here, too, because Hughes goes to great lengths to explain Squire Brown’s ideas about the equality of mankind. The idea that ‘a man is to be valued wholly and solely for that which he is in himself’. Certainly a noble sentiment, but Tom is sent off to public school away from the village as soon as he is old enough and that marks him out as privileged, despite Hughes’ passionate defence of the Squire’s beliefs that ‘it didn’t matter a straw whether his son associated with Lords’ sons or ploughmen’s sons’. Maybe just another example of Victorian double standards here. 

To be fair, though, Hughes’ Christian socialist background would suggest that the sentiments he expresses about equality are sincerely meant. Certainly some of the main themes of the book are those of honour and decency, so perhaps you might need to do some reading about Victorian philanthropy and you’ll see where Hughes and people like him were coming from at the time. 

You can’t though, ignore the reference to the differences in education between the village boys and Tom Brown. Tom has lessons at home, preparing him for public school and the boys of the village go to the ‘well-endowed’ village school. Tom is not allowed inside and when he hangs around distracting the village lads, the master takes him to Squire Brown to complain. Squire Brown makes the master ‘release ten or twelve of the best boys’ to play with Tom at three o’clock. If that isn’t privilege, then what is? Despite the notional equality, it is clear that Tom is set apart from the rest of the boys and cannot ever really be equal to them, because he is the ‘young master’. 

What the boys ‘teach’ Tom is physical development. He runs, wrestles and develops into something of an athlete. What Tom gains from this rough education is celebrated as ‘manly and honest’, while intellectually his lessons (taught at home by a governess) are passed over quite dismissively by Hughes as ‘petticoat government’. 

When Tom leaves the village to go to private school for a year to prepare for entrance to Rugby, you should note the way that Hughes deals with the separation from Mrs Brown (page 70-71). ‘Their love was as fair and whole as human love can be, perfect self-sacrifice on the one side meeting a young and true heart on the other’. Obviously there is a typical Victorian attitude towards women here, with its ‘perfect self-sacrifice’. 

Tom’s preparation at private school is also interesting and it might be wise to have a word about private schools here. I suppose they would today be called ‘Preparatory’ or ‘Prep.’ Schools and their function was to prepare the pupils for entry to public school. Tom’s private school seems to have been quite a modest one, with a very small staff – two masters and two ‘ushers’ and fifty boys as boarders. The masters would teach the Latin, Greek and other subjects required for entrance and the ushers supervised the pupils all the rest of the time until they went to bed at night. Hughes is indignantly critical of the ushers at Tom’s private school, who were ‘not gentlemen’. Here we have the first mention of injustice in the form of two men who ‘encouraged tale bearing’ and thereby ‘sapped all the foundations of school morality’ by creating ‘abominable tyrants’ among the older pupils. Note also the incident with the boys who call Tom ‘Young Mammy-sick’ and how Hughes suggests clearly that Tom’s violent response is justified . Note, too, the punishments for hitting another pupil – a flogging for ‘hitting in the face’. It is clear that Hughes admires Tom’s spirit, when he is flogged for digging out the sand-martin’s nest on the downs and equally clear that Tom is not an academic, as Latin and Greek ‘on the whole did not suit him.’ 

The chapter ends with Tom’s arrival home after fever breaks out in his private school and his father’s decision to send him to Rugby for the rest of the school year. Tom is nine years old and determined to ‘launch into a public school’. 

Chapter four takes us with Tom on the journey to Rugby. He travels by stagecoach and the journey takes nine hours from London, with many pauses on the way. The main interest in this chapter is the account of travelling by coach and horses over long distances. By the time the book was published, railways had begun to make travel much quicker and easier, but Hughes sets this story in pre-Victorian times, before the advent of trains and the journey is extremely arduous. To get to Rugby, Tom and his father first go to London, to take the fast coach, the ‘Tally-ho’, which goes ‘down’ from London to Leicester, passing through Rugby on the way. Tom travels alone and has to sit on top of the coach with his feet ‘dangling six inches from the floor’. The journeys were done in ‘stages’ (hence stagecoach) with pauses for the horses to be rested or changed along the way at coaching inns. Passengers could also have meals in these inns and notice how much drink is automatically taken by passengers and drivers.Note also the quantity of food available.

References to ‘sportsmen’ reflect the very common pastime of hunting, which was widely pursued at the time. They are also referred to as ‘pinks’ which derives from the traditional reddish-pink colour of hunting coats. Many towns and estates had packs of hounds and ‘meets’ were held throughout the season, during autumn and winter. Later on there is a reference to Rugby school having its own ‘pack’ and also to the unpopularity of the ‘Doctor’s’ decision to abolish it. 

Tom learns about the school and some of the customs of the boys who travel up and down in the coach from the guard, who tells a number of anecdotes about the pranks played on passers-by during start and end-of-term journeys. To a modern reader, these tales of pea-shooters and stone-throwing are quaint and rather old-fashioned. Hughes’ narrative certainly seems to imply that he considers the behaviour of the Rugby students is rather admirable – no more than natural high spirits. Tom himself hopes that the ‘desperate and lawless character’ of the guard’s stories is ‘true’. However, if you look closely, you might have a different opinion. Look at the episode of the attack on the Irish labourers and you might find some implicit prejudice there, for example.

What is clear is that the Rugby boys are unruly and have something about them that may be called arrogance. Tom seems to think it is all ‘fun’ and of course the contemporary reader of the time would understand and quite probably approve of these boyish escapades, especially if they mirrored the reader’s own childhood experiences. You need to consider how a present-day reader would react. 

The final incident, when the boys from Rugby school race the coach as it enters the town, is interesting in that it highlights the sporting emphasis of a good deal of this book. The whole of chapter six is a graphic account of a Rugby football match and all through the book there is a very significant amount of reference to sport and physical excellence. I think you have to take into account the Victorian ideal of ‘mens sana in corpore sano’ (I bet I’ve misquoted and somebody will email me to correct the Latin) The translation is ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’ and to a very great extent it did influence Victorian thinking. Sport was regarded as a jolly good way of achieving this. 

Chapters 5 – 7 

Tom’s first ‘half’ at Rugby takes up these three chapters and here we are taken into the second small ‘world’ of the book – Rugby School - and introduced to the boys and some of the masters.

Tom is met at the school by a pupil called ‘Scud’ East, who is  the son of family acquaintances and he becomes Tom’s ‘mentor’ or ‘cicerone’ (both archaic terms for someone who knows the ropes and can show them to someone else – a kind of companion). This is a clever narrative device, because it is through East’s eyes, so to speak, that we (the ‘new boys’) are introduced to the school and some of its customs. Here, too, we get much more direct speech and dialogue, as East and Tom get to know one another and Tom finds out about the school. For the reader, the pace becomes much faster from this point, although Hughes still intrudes on the narrative from time to time, with the impersonal observer’s ‘voice’ which makes the first three chapters rather slow. 

What you are certainly going to find in these chapters is a very high level of field specific lexis. You may be lucky and already attend Rugby school, in which case all the references to ‘Blacks’ (nicknames), calling-over’ (taking the register and ‘fives courts’ will be a piece of cake and perfectly understandable. They may, indeed, form part of your own school’s lexis, if you go to one of the other public schools in the country. There are probably a great number of common terms in existence. What my own students found, though, is that many of the references are totally obscure. This caused a good deal of anguish and one or two copies of the book were, I suspect, put into the dustbin. They could cope with ‘Muggles’ but not with ‘fagging’. 

How, then, do we deal with this for the exam? I suggest that you underline everything you don’t understand and adopt a blanket policy of referring to slang, colloquialisms and field specific lexis as just that. Make the point that this will obscure the meaning for the modern reader (with the exceptions noted above) and also that the author is indulging himself, possibly at the modern reader’s expense. You may get no marks, but I can’t translate everything for you.

Here’s a suggestion: How about a glossary of terms, compiled either by a Hughes aficionado or somebody who is or was at the school? Post it to me and I’ll publish it with accreditation and we’ll all be happy. 

The description of the school itself and the various buildings and uses should be reasonably clear, especially if you have an illustrated copy of the book. It is obviously very different when compared to many of today’s schools and you will probably want to make some points about the rather primitive living and studying conditions. You need, too, to remember that conventional classrooms did exist as well and the studies that the boys shared were for private study purposes. Many of the traditional universities also have the same system, with students attending lectures or seminars around the University campus and living and studying in their own set of rooms in Hall. In fact, our older Universities are organised in a very similar way to public schools, except for sleeping arrangements. In University, the student sleeps in his or her room, in Rugby, the boys slept in dormitories, of which more later on. 

Note, too, the system of self-regulation, with older boys in charge of younger pupils. The term ‘praepostor’ means a kind of prefect, or someone in authority and this is quite unusual in today’s school world. The praepostors had a real position of authority and were expected to keep order around the school. Senior students held these positions. Of course, there was also a ‘pecking order’ of importance and some ‘perks’ to the job. Jones, the praepostor at the end of the study corridor in School House, for example, makes sure that he gets all the heat from the fire at the end of the corridor by fixing up a curtain across the passage outside his room. You might also want to comment on the ways in which the rules and regulations are ‘bent’ by the pupils, when they can get away with it. The bars on the windows of ground floor studies are there to ‘prevent the exit of small boys after locking up’. 

The whole reading of this text will be affected by the reader’s experience and knowledge (or otherwise) of the English public school. Some readers may be quite shocked by the Spartan conditions and others, like Tom Brown and his alter ego, Thomas Hughes will find the description of school life delightfully familiar. Tom Brown certainly feels delighted to be part of the system from the beginning. 

You need to make a note also of the obvious hero worship of older boys, like Brooke, who is described as ‘cock of the school’ because of his sporting prowess ‘head of the School House side and the best kick and charger in Rugby’. It may well be tempting to see this aspect of the book as odd, but remember the previous remarks about manliness and honour through good, clean competitive sport. Hughes is not making fun of this at all. In fact he is sincerely paying tribute to what was (and still is) considered to be important. This is a biased viewpoint on the author’s part, but it was pitched into a society where that bias was not even considered to be politically incorrect at all. What a modern audience reads into the text will be quite different and you need to take that into consideration. Do we still feel the same way, for example, about the ‘healthy mind in a healthy body’ ideal? 

This brings me neatly on to the main content of the chapter, which is the (long) account of the football game played by School House and the rest of the school. You will find that the rudiments of present day Rugby football are quite clearly described. What you might find a bit difficult is how many people are on the field. I estimated about two hundred altogether, but School House team seems to be 75 boys, so the teams are far from equal. If you read the little bit at the start of these notes about the game and its origins, you’ll see that the ‘rules’ were not rigid, but seem to have been adapted by the players as time went on. Don’t, then, try to sweat out the mysteries of what is going on. In principle everybody is out there knocking hell out of everyone else and having great fun doing so. School House wins and it’s the sentiments afterwards, during Brooke’s speech at the evening singing that are important. I am tempted to go into some remarks about the playing fields of England here, but maybe I’ll leave you to do some research on that one instead. Just hang on to the idea that what they do out on the field is considered manly, sporting, healthy and good for the soul and Tom loves all of it. 

Chapter six describes the evening after the match. This is Tom’s first day, remember, but Hughes runs the narrative along very quickly. Tom is integrated into lower school life and proves popular because he is quite willing to spend his money on extra food which he shares out between East and other pupils before the singing session, which is a regular tradition on Saturday evenings at the end of term. You’ll note here again that there is a high proportion of field specific lexis and some very dated  (or maybe archaic) slang. Tom, for example, is described as ‘green’, which means ignorant or very young, like a green twig and the boys dash off to buy baked potatoes called ‘murphies’, a derogatory term derived form the Irish name Murphy (the Irish were supposed to eat nothing but potatoes.) The beer served out to all the pupils is a regular part of the drink allowance of the school. Don’t be shocked – the water was probably quite poisonous unless boiled for tea or coffee, which was expensive. Beer was cheap and relatively germ free. 

The songs sung are traditional British ones, still to be found in ancient choral collections and what Hughes describes here is rather a naïve ceremony of self entertainment, enjoyed hugely by all present. The speeches, though, are interesting, especially the one given by ‘Pater Brooke’. ‘Pater; is Latin for ‘father’ and this gives us a good idea of the esteem in which this sort of senior was held. He was seen as a father figure and an example to the other students. His speech is full of manly sentiment and celebration of ‘house feeling’ and ‘fellowship’. It is obvious, too, that he takes his senior position very seriously, as he defends the changes which are being made by the new Head, the Doctor. Note, though, that he is careful to put the pupils first and foremost – the beginning of the speech is all very complimentary to them. It is only later that he makes his defence of the Doctor’s changes, being careful to say that he’s ‘not the fellow to back a master through thick and thin’. The changes being made are not affecting sporting games (it seems that he doesn’t regard hunting as sport) so he feels that they are fair. He also condemns excessive drinking ‘drinking bad spirits and punch’ as ‘unmanly’ and agrees with the Doctor’s ‘putting down’ of property damage (taking the linchpins out of carriages at local fairs so the wheels would fall off).  He also comments on the amount of bullying that happens in the House, but this section is quite ambiguous. He condemns the idea of bullying, but defends the fact that the sixth form doesn’t interfere, saying that it encourages tale-telling, which he finds obnoxious. In fact he suggests that the boys will be ’all the better football players for learning to stand it’ and suggests that they learn to ‘fight it through’.  

Hughes digresses at length about the speech and its effect, taking time to defend the actions which his own ‘Doctor’, Thomas Arnold, had introduced when he was at school and pointing out that ‘he (the Doctor) had found School and School House in a state of monstrous licence and misrule and was…..employed in ..the unpopular work of setting up order with a strong hand.’ Again we see the blurring of narrator and story teller and this occurs throughout the book, when Hughes interrupts the narrative flow (Tom’s story) to make some personal comment or observation. 

After prayers, there is the ritual humiliation of ‘tossing’ (throwing) younger boys up to the ceiling in a blanket held by older boys and here we are introduced to the famous Flashman, the school bully. Note the evident bias Hughes shows towards ‘brave’ pupils like East and Tom, who volunteer to be tossed, and the way he portrays the weakness of those who hide under their beds. Obviously we have something here of Brooke’s sentiment – learning to ‘stand it’ is better than being cowardly and hiding under the bed. In fact East and Tom are rather admired by the bigger boys for volunteering to be tossed in the blanket, while their fellow schoolmates see them as ‘trumps’ and ‘good plucked ones’. (Jolly fine brave chaps). Note, here, that there is some evidence that Brooke’s words have had an effect, as Walker refuses to have two boys put in the blanket together. Flashman, of course, is the one who suggests it. Apparently there are degrees of acceptable bullying. 

What does the reader today make of this episode? Again we have to look at the Victorian context first and note that Hughes (through Brooke’s speech) suggests that a certain amount of physical horseplay is a good thing for boys, shaping them somehow into ‘better men’ in the future. It seems to be suggested that the motive is what counts, rather than the deed. If things are done in a ‘manly’ spirit, then it isn’t bullying. If in a ‘mean’ spirit, then it is. 

Chapter seven takes the narrative to the end of Tom’s first ‘half’ and his return home for the winter holiday. The two main events here are Tom’s experience of school chapel and the hare and hound race and here we have two major Victorian ideologies. Sport, which we have already seen, is something which Hughes regards as fundamental to character development. Christianity is the other topic which is now introduced. School chapel (twice on Sunday) gives Tom his first experience of Doctor Arnold’s preaching.

Arnold was appointed as Head Master of Rugby in 1828.  He used two means in particular in order to impose his philosophy on the school: one was the prefect system; the other was the Sunday sermon.  When, in 1831, the previous school chaplain retired, Arnold asked the Trustees to trust him with the school's spirituality.  The Trustees gave their assent and so, under Arnold, "the school chapel became the centre of the religious life of the community and played an important in the discipline of the school".  It was from the pulpit, in the chapel, that Arnold announced his intention of making the school a place of Christian education.  "What we must look for here is, first, religious and moral principle, secondly, gentlemanly conduct, thirdly, intellectual ability.
(from ’Rugby and the Myth of Dr Arnold’ by Dr J C Smith)

Read the section from page 146, Tom’s visit to evening chapel and the sermon he hears from the Doctor and you will see what importance is attached to Christian principles and teaching. Hughes takes over the narrative once more and describes the experience he must have had himself, listening to a man ‘with all his soul and strength, striving against whatever was mean and unmanly and unrighteous in our little world’.  Hughes here is obviously writing with sincerity in praise of a very memorable Head, describing him as a ‘captain..for a boys’ army’ (note the militaristic imagery) who would ‘fight the fight out to the last gasp’. There is a fervour to this section which is unsurprising, given the background of the author and the undoubted charisma of Thomas Arnold himself and although it may seem outmoded for the jaded audience of the post-modern era, you have to admire the passion of the writing.

After Christian character building, comes physical character building through sport, with the hare and hounds run. Hare and hounds is cross country ‘hunting’ with humans as prey (hares) and hunters (hounds). A team of runners sets off and scatters torn up paper as ‘scent’; the pursuing runners set off after them and try to follow the trail of paper scent to a specific place, in this case a country pub nine miles away from the school. The run is timed and anyone who finishes within the time is treated to beer and food by the ‘big side’ pupils. East, Tom and ‘Tadpole’ fail to finish the run and are so late back that they miss lock up and are sent to the Doctor as a result. Instead of fury, he treats them with kindness and so we see the practical application of the Christian principles he has tried to preach in chapel.

Term ends with the journey home (complete with pea-shooters) and Tom’s first ‘six o’clock dinner’ with his parents. This would be a significant event, as he would not have eaten with his parents before he went away, being too young and confined probably to the nursery, or schoolroom for his meals.

Chapters 8 – 9 

Tom’s time in the lower-fourth form sees Hughes turning to the serious theme of bullying which has been touched on previously but is now expanded with the account of Tom’s torments at the hands of Flashman and his friends.

Most of the boys in this class are eleven or twelve, but note how many are older and have been ‘kept back’ because they are not able to learn enough Latin and Greek to go up into the older forms. Hughes calls them ‘great stupid boys’ and there is an obvious contempt for their ignorance. Note too the emphasis here on learning the Classics, which were of course required for entrance to University at the time. An interesting point here as well is the way that Hughes seems also to be contemptuous of the ‘prodigies of nine and ten’ (very clever younger boys) as he describes how they were tormented by the older pupils and the mass of boys of the same age as Tom and East.  

Classroom discipline seems to have been chaotic, with all the lower school students ‘whipped in’ to the ‘great school’ (main building) and taught together. Note the hunting term here – it refers to the way a Master of Hounds whips the dogs into a pack and keeps them on task. The boys are certainly not treated with any form of individuality, but like an unruly pack of dogs. Hughes makes no bones about telling the reader how bad the control was from masters, either. Discipline was kept with the cane and boys were regularly beaten, but again you need to note that this did not seem to be a bother at all for the pupils, whose main objective was finding ways to waste time and not study.  

The account of the Doctor’s monthly examination (when he would visit the form and hear the boys ‘construe’ or translate a piece of Latin or Greek) is also rather odd. When a pupil fails to translate properly, the Doctor ‘gave him a good box on the ear’ (hit him across the side of the head) and knocked him down. After hearing some of the better pupils, he then shouts at the whole assembly and leaves. Hughes obviously thinks this is understandable behaviour as the Doctor was ‘provoked’, but it is clear that Hughes is telling us about a school which accepts corporal punishment as a natural part of the process of teaching and learning. Tom’s character deteriorates at this time and he becomes lazy and regards the masters as ‘his natural enemies’. 

Behaviour in School House is also bad, when old Brooke leaves. Without his influence all is ‘dark and chaos’ and the remaining sixth formers are too ‘weak’ to exercise control over the less savoury fifth form boys – ‘big fellows of the wrong sort’. The result is that the ‘fellowship’ disappears and the House breaks up into little ‘sets and parties’ of pupils. Hughes digresses about the necessity for public school boys to ‘quit (themselves) like men…for whatsoever is true and manly and lovely’. School House is taken over by this set of bullies and the main character is Flashman, who eventually moves into the praepostor’s study in Tom’s corridor and makes life Hell for the pupils who live there. Tom decides to make a stand against what he considers to be unfair fagging from Flashman and his other fifth year friends and is joined by East and one or two other brave types.  

Note how the boys are reluctant to report the unfair fagging from the fifth to any of the staff, because of a sixth form ‘levy’ (vote) which forbids ‘peaching’ (telling tales) as unsporting ‘against public morality and school tradition’. Again, we see that it is thought to be better to stand up alone, rather than tell tales, even if it means a beating from the bullies. Hughes introduces an ‘odd’ character in the form of ‘poor Diggs’, whose nickname is ‘the Mucker’. He seems to be a complete individual, and is allied to no one in particular, but this individuality sets him completely apart from the rest of the House. Tom and the rest of the pupils see his independence as very strange, because he doesn’t ally himself with any ‘set’ but the advice he gives them is good. If they stick to their guns and don’t fag for any of the fifth year pupils, the ‘good’ ones will soon stop trying to make them do it. This proves to be the case, although there is a short time of ‘chasings and sieges and lickings (fights) of all sorts’ before most of the fifth year pupils stop trying to get the younger boys to fag for them.  

Flashman, though will not stop and takes a violent dislike to the ringleaders of the rebellion, Tom and East. He catches them and thrashes them regularly and they shout that he is a sneak and a coward at the tops of their voices while he is doing it. This makes him more angry and violent, and because he is, in his way, quite popular with many of the School House pupils (because he has a good deal of money and can be pleasant and hearty when he wants to be) Tom and East are put into a very difficult position. Flashman ‘left no slander unspoken and no deed undone, which could in any way hurt his victims’. Thanks to Diggs, who takes a liking to Tom and East, they are not alone, as he is able to an extent to protect them from Flashman for a while. This is made even more significant when the boys deliberately buy up a number of Diggs’s possessions at his regular auction (he sells his possessions when he runs out of money during term time) and put them back into his study. He returns the favour by correcting some verses for them and calling them ‘good hearted little beggars’.

The main event in this chapter is the ‘roasting’ given to Tom by Flashman when Tom draws the favourite in the Derby lottery in School House and refuses to sell the ticket back to Flashman’s ‘sporting gentlemen’. The narrative is clear enough and presents no major problems. You should note one or two things, though, about the morality. Hughes obviously disapproves of gambling and regards it as immoral and ungentlemanly. The allowances of a shilling are in fact stolen from the pupils by the older boys and they are forced to take part in the lottery, whether they want to or not. There is, though, an acceptance of it as a tradition, and even Tom, who draws the favourite, is prepared to sell on his horse for seven shillings until Flashman tries to intervene and make him sell it. It is Flashman’s intervention that makes Tom refuse, not a moral objection to gambling. Note, too, the way that East runs for Diggs while Flashman is holding Tom in front of the fire (something that would normally not have happened if the incident hadn’t been so serious) and also how nobody at all is prepared to tell an adult (the matron) anything about what happened or who did it. Tom doesn’t ‘peach’ on anybody, so ‘the whole House is with him’ next day, including the bullies who helped Flashman hold him in front of the open fire. In fact Hughes implies that Tom’s silence is enough to convert one or two of the bullies in the fifth. He is, in their opinion a ‘staunch little fellow’ and they realise ‘what brutes we’ve been’ as a result. Presumably the sentiment is the one we have already met, which advises the boys to stand up for themselves and ‘take their medicine like men’. Nobody tells the Doctor anything about the true events, so he ‘never knew any more’ than Matron. He could, of course, have dealt with Flashman instantly, but this book is very much a boy’s account of a boy’s world and perhaps Hughes as narrator has never forgotten his own boyhood either. At any rate, the Doctor is not involved and Tom and East ‘resolve never to be beaten by that bully Flashman’ without the intervention of the adults who are in charge of the school.  

Chapter 9 follows Tom and East into senior school with a ‘chapter of accidents’. Flashman’s character is quickly removed from the narrative after Tom and East fight him in the study hall with Diggs as referee and knock him out. Flashman is expelled later for getting drunk at a local pub, but before he goes he succeeds in ruining Tom and East’s reputation with tales and insults. Both boys fall into bad habits and their reputations suffer because of Flashman’s actions and also because the other seniors resent their attitude. They feel that Brown and East caused them some inconvenience by their rebellion against fagging and this, together with rather an arrogant attitude on the boys’ parts, damages their reputation in the House. 

Several further incidents are told, all showing that Brown especially, is becoming wild and unruly. The boys are described as ‘outlaws’ by Hughes, who obviously wants the audience to see that while he admires their spirit, he also regrets that they lack what he would probably regard as ‘steadiness’. The first incident concerns the fishing from the opposite bank to the School in the nearby river Avon. The boys all fish and the fishing rights on the far side of the river are held by a local landowner. He objects to what he sees as poaching and instructs his keepers to stop illegal fishing by the Rugby pupils. There is a good deal of public protest by Rugby pupils and fights between the keepers and the boys. The Doctor makes a rule that boys must fish from the school side of the bank, but of course poaching becomes the norm and Tom especially makes it his business to take fish from whichever bank he pleases.His encounter with the new under-keeper, who Tom nicknames (or ‘Blacks’) Velveteens (a reference to the material of the keepers breeches) leads to Tom being caught while hiding up a tree, then taken to the Doctor by the keeper and reported for poaching fish on the wrong side. Tom is flogged, but note that he makes a point of giving the keeper a reward for not confiscating the borrowed fishing rod and this makes it possible for him to become ‘fast friends’ with Velveteens, so he manages to still catch illegal fish. 

Tom and East climb on to the top of the tower and carve their initials on the hand of the clock, but the Doctor only gives them thirty lines to learn from that (perhaps he considers it a plucky thing to have done?) and then they both get a flogging for being out of school to a fair in the town. The end result is a summons to the Doctor’s study and a warning that if they do not mend their ways they will be asked to leave.  

The end of the chapter is interesting, when Hughes recounts the conversation between the Doctor and Tom’s housemaster. Before he gets round to talking about Tom and East, he has a conversation with a sixth former from another house concerning an unnamed ’boy’ and the Doctor instructs the sixth former, Holmes, to give him a ‘good sound thrashing’ in front of the House, because the House master is ‘a very good fellow, but slight and weak’. Hughes defend this incident quite vigorously, claiming that the same ‘boy’ (we never find out his name) was thrashed and went back later to tell Holmes that the thrashing was ‘the kindest act which had ever been done upon him’. He then goes on to tell the reader what is said about Tom and East. They are, in the Doctor’s opinion, in danger of ‘doing great harm to all the younger boys’. We might expect him to order a ‘sound thrashing’ to them, but instead he listens to the advice of the boys’ housemaster (this one isn’t presumably ‘slight and weak’) and his suggestion that Tom and East are given  ‘some little boy to take care of’ is considered.  

The end of this chapter marks the end of the first part of the novel. In it we have seen the beginning of Tom Brown’s school career as a junior boy. The second half of the novel will trace Tom and East’s senior years at Rugby and Hughes will show us how both characters are ‘turned around’ by their housemaster’s suggestion.

© V Pope 2004

More to come