A Letter to the Viscount Palmerston, M.P. &c. &c. &c. on the Monitorial System

&c. &c. &c.



p. 2This Letter, when first printed, was designed only for private circulation amongst those personally or officially interested in its subject. Circumstances have since arisen, which appeared to render its publication expedient.

&c. &c. &c.
My Lord,

I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of your Lordship’s letter of the 11th instant; to which your great abilities and varied experience, as well as your affectionate attachment to Harrow as the place of your own education, give peculiar value and interest.

I am grateful for the opportunity which it affords me of briefly stating the principles of the Monitorial system as at present established at Harrow.

p. 4I do not, I think, misapprehend the precise point to which your observations are directed. It is not upon the Monitorial system itself—upon the commission of a recognized authority to the hands of the Upper Boys—but upon a particular method of enforcing it, that you comment in terms of anxiety. The principle is coeval with the School—established by the Founder. It is the universal rule of Public Schools:—until lately, when the experience of its salutary effects has led to a wider extension of it, it was the one distinguishing feature of a Public as contrasted with a Private School.

But the Monitorial system might exist without this particular method of enforcing it—the power of inflicting corporal punishment. And this is the question to which your Lordship has been good enough to call my attention.

Those who are acquainted with Dr. Arnold’s Life—a book regarded by many as one of authority upon such a subject—are aware that the right of his Sixth Form to the use of the cane was one for which p. 5he contended with the greatest earnestness, as indispensable to the efficient working of that Monitorial system to which he considered that Rugby owed so much of its well-being under his Head-Mastership. [5] p. 6And although many Masters might shrink from avowing so boldly their approbation of a power liable to so much abuse and to so much misconstruction, yet I have never heard it questioned that the same power is exercised, whether by permission or by acquiescence, in most of the great Public Schools of England, as I know that it existed at Harrow, actually if not avowedly, for very many years before I became Master.

But I have no wish to plead authority or prescription in defence of a practice which, if bad, can at any time be abolished, and for the toleration of which I do not deny that the Master under whom it exists may fairly be held responsible.

There can be no doubt that a Master who consulted merely his own ease and present popularity would at once abolish the power in dispute. The tide of public feeling is setting strongly in that direction. It would be easy to aggravate that feeling. p. 7Corporal punishment of any kind, by whomsoever administered, is inconsistent with modern notions of personal dignity, [7] and modern habits of precocious manliness; it needs nothing but a few cases of exceptional excess in the infliction of such punishment to direct against it a storm too violent to be resisted.

If, in the face of this feeling, and amidst so many temptations to yield to it, a Master still ventures to maintain that, liable as it is to abuse, open to misrepresentation, and difficult of explanation, the power of corporal punishment by the Monitors of a Public School is one not lightly to be abolished, because capable of great good and impossible to replace by any efficacious substitute; he may fail to convince—it is probable that he will fail to convince—those who judge of the system from without, p. 8and with no opportunity of calmly balancing its evil against its good; but at least he may be believed to speak honestly, and listened to as a disinterested witness.

There are in every Public School certain minor offences, against manners rather than against morals—faults of turbulence, rudeness, offensive language, annoyance of others, petty oppression and tyranny, &c.—which, as Public Schools are at present constituted, lie ordinarily out of the cognizance of the Masters, and might, so far as they are concerned, be committed with impunity. [8] Even p. 9some graver faults might, with due precautions against discovery, long escape the eye of a really vigilant Master.

To meet such cases, there is no doubt a choice of measures.

You may adopt what might with equal propriety be called the foreign School, or the Private School, system. You may create a body of Ushers; Masters of a lower order, whose business it shall be to follow Boys into their hours of recreation and rest, avowedly as spies, coercing freedom of speech and action, or reporting to their superior what such observation has gleaned. This is consistent and intelligible. Ruinous to that which has been regarded as the great glory of an English Public School—its free developement of character, its social expansiveness, in short its liberty: but yet, in itself, intelligible enough, and in theory perhaps preferable to the other.

If not this, then the alternative must be some form or other of the Monitorial principle. p. 10Ten, or twenty, or thirty, of those Boys who are (generally speaking) the elder, at all events the abler, the more diligent, the more meritorious,—selected by no favour, exempted from none of the rules and restraints of School, but yet brought by their position into a more intimate intercourse with their Master, and largely influenced (if he be what a Master ought to be) by his principles of judgment and discipline,—are empowered to exercise over their juniors a legalized and carefully regulated authority, while at the same time they are left to mix with them on terms of perfect freedom at times and in places to which no Master’s inspection could by possibility extend.

But this system is capable of at least two modifications.

The Monitors may be desired to act as the Master’s deputies; to observe for him, and to report to him. They may be charged to see nothing wrong done, to hear nothing wrong said, without hastening to his presence and invoking his interposition. They may be taught to regard themselves as the p. 11Master’s spies, informers, and creatures. Such has been made, sometimes, the theory of their office. They have been solemnly warned of the responsibility attaching to their office, as the Master’s eyes and the Master’s ears. No real power was entrusted to them. The terms of their commission were large, its tone was solemn: but the power to enforce obedience either did not exist, or existed only on sufferance and by stealth.

Now it appears to me that a Monitorial system of this nature is either nugatory, or worse. If the Monitors thus commissioned have the ordinary feelings of the sons of Gentlemen, they will virtually repudiate such an office. They will say, I was not sent here to be an Usher—a Master’s spy, a Master’s informer. They have too much self-respect, too nice a sense of honour, to live amongst their Schoolfellows on terms of unguarded equality, and then use the knowledge thus gained as a means of drawing down upon them the arm of authority and of punishment. The result will be, as it always has been wherever such a view p. 12has been taken of Monitorial duty, that the Monitors will not act for the purposes for which they were commissioned, but only for the maintenance of a selfish dignity which looks for its support to other means than those recognized by the system.

It astonishes me that those who regard submission to a corporal punishment as a degradation inconsistent with honour and self-respect, should look with toleration upon that antagonist system under which their sons might be called upon, as the reward of ability and diligence, to assume the office of a delegated spy.

The alternative—as I believe, the only alternative—is that form of Monitorial discipline which it has been my endeavour to carry into vigorous operation at Harrow during the last nine years.

I have taught the Monitors to regard their authority as emanating indeed from mine, and responsible to mine, but yet (with the limitation naturally arising from these two considerations) independent and free in its ordinary exercise. They are charged with the enforcement of an internal p. 13discipline, the object of which is the good order, the honourable conduct, the gentlemanlike tone, of the Houses and of the School. In these matters I desire that they should act for themselves; knowing well how doubly, how tenfold, valuable is that discipline which springs from within the body, in comparison with that which is imposed upon it from above. It is only on the discovery of grave and moral offences, such as would be poisonous to the whole society, and such as they may reasonably be expected to regard as discreditable and disgraceful even more than they are illegal, that I expect them to communicate to me officially the faults of which they may take notice. In certain cases, it may be optional whether an offence should be regarded as one against manners or against morals; and in these instances it will depend upon the accident of the prior discovery, whether it be taken up by the Monitors or by myself.

It follows as a matter of necessity that the Monitors should possess some means of exercising and asserting their authority.

p. 14Hence arises the old custom of fagging. It is a memento of Monitorial authority; a standing memorial of the subjection of the younger to the elder for higher purposes than any merely personal distinction. It is the daily assertion, in a form which makes it palpable and felt, of a power which has been instituted for the good not of the superior but of the inferior in the relation.

This is the ordinary assertion of Monitorial power. But there must also be some method of punishing disobedience, insubordination, turbulence, or other transgression. To give the Monitors no executive power beyond that of reporting and complaining, would be to leave them practically defenceless. Such a power would possess no influence with a community of Boys. It would be trifled with and trampled upon. Great and long must be the provocation which would overcome the natural repugnance of an honourable Boy to lodging a complaint with a Master against a Schoolfellow: and what would be the redress when it came? Such a remedy would be, p. 15in the popular feeling of a Public School, far worse than none.

Shall the power entrusted to the Monitors be that of “setting punishments” (as it is technically called)—that is, of imposing tasks of writing? Such has been the prerogative formally conferred upon the Monitors of Harrow: but it is easy to see how speedily such a right, if widely exercised, would come into collision with ordinary School duties; how impossible it would be for it to coexist with the similar power of the Masters, or even with the performance of the regular work and exercises of the several Forms.

Or shall the right of punishing be made to depend upon the physical power of the individual Monitor? Shall an older and stronger Monitor be at liberty to enforce his authority by blows, while a weaker and younger is left defenceless? Such a rule would be, in effect, an awkward and inconsistent return to a state of things which it is the one object of the Monitorial government to counteract—a system of brute force. Under any constitution of a School, p. 16the stronger can protect himself against the aggression of the weaker: it is the object of the Public School system to substitute for the brute force of the stronger the legalized power of the better and the abler. Unless therefore the power entrusted to the Monitor be something different in kind from that of physical strength, the whole system falls to the ground by losing its essential characteristic.

And it appears to me that, as soon as the power of the Monitors is transferred from the ground of strength to that of right; as soon as it is made, in its place, as the power of the Masters in theirs, a recognized and constitutional principle; at that moment all feeling of degradation in submitting to it is done away: there is degradation, because there is cowardice, in submitting tamely to the kicks or cuffs of an equal or an inferior, but there is none in rendering to a Master—nor need there be in rendering to a constituted authority of a lower rank—that submission even to personal correction which may be one of the conditions of the society in which you are placed.

p. 17By a custom, existing certainly long before my own acquaintance with Harrow, traceable for many years into the past history of the School, the common method of enforcing Monitorial authority has been the use of the cane. A power not formally committed to the Monitors, not (in the strictest sense) delegated by the Master, but still exercised without interference or censure within the limits prescribed by humanity or by the fear of penal consequences in case of its excess.

This custom, I repeat, I found established; ignored, it may be, by previous Masters, but not unknown. The question with me was, Is this custom, which I find in force, injurious in its use, or only in its abuse? If the former, it must be, not disavowed only, but destroyed. If the latter, it must be, not only connived at, but turned to account. It must be made conducive to the real welfare of the School. And a Monitor who avails himself of this prescriptive right, in support of good order and good discipline, must feel that he is safe in doing so, provided he stops short of p. 18inflicting injury. He must feel that he can depend upon the Master to stand by him, before the School and before the Public, so long as no wanton or tyrannical use of this power can be proved against him.

It is urged indeed that this Monitorial power is illegal in a higher than any School sense of that term,—that it contradicts the law of the land. “Delegatus non potest delegare.” The Parent delegates his power to the Master: the Master has no right to delegate that power to the Monitor. Now I will not enter into the question how far the Master is correctly described as the Parent’s delegate. Doubtless the act which consigns to him the individual Boy is the act of the individual Parent. But the Master of a Public School is not made so by that act, nor by any number of such acts: his office is conferred upon him by an independent authority, and is exercised under conditions irrespective of the parental will. Otherwise the Parent who created, might in each case limit, the right: he might prescribe to the Master the studies to be pursued and the punishments p. 19to be inflicted; he might depute his own functions thus far and no further. But, even allowing the justice of the appellation, it would scarcely be desired, I suppose, to admit all the consequences involved in this principle, and assert that the Master has no right to delegate any portion of his office, but that alone, unaided by coadjutors or subordinates, he must teach in person every Boy entrusted to him, hear every lesson, and impose every punishment. The fact surely is, that the system of a Public School is essentially peculiar and exceptional; and that, when that system is fairly established, and its rules publicly notorious, a Parent uses his own discretion in selecting the School for his son, and having done so he subjects him to its discipline as established, retaining only the power of withdrawing him when he will.

But, on the other hand, it is no less necessary, for the sake alike of the Monitors and of the School, that such checks shall be imposed upon the exercise of this power as shall make its abuse either absolutely impossible or at least a very rare exception.

p. 20With this view, it is one rule of the system, that any Boy has a right of appeal from the individual Monitor (however high his station) to the assembled body; who are bound to enter into the merits of the case, and come to a formal decision upon it. My experience thus far has led me to believe that ten young men, acting under such responsibilities, are not likely either to come to an unjust decision or to execute their sentence with undue severity.

But if, after all, this hope is in any case disappointed; if (which in such an event is the most probable supposition) an individual Monitor has outrun his powers, by not allowing this appeal to the collective body, or by not waiting for its result, or by executing punishment himself in undue excitement or passion; then the duty is cast upon me, of interposing my authority to redress the injustice, by the degradation of the offending Monitor, or by a measure of punishment yet more severe.

This, happily, is a case of rare, most p. 21rare, occurrence. The general testimony, alike of Boys and of their Parents, will rather be this—that, while the School has enjoyed, on the whole, under the Monitorial system, a very real exemption from the miseries of that tyranny of brute force which it is designed more especially to preclude, it is perfectly easy, on the other hand, for any Boy to pass through his Harrow life without once incurring the risk of Monitorial punishment, while the salutary dread of it has done much to keep him orderly and tractable, and to save him in no slight degree from the sight and hearing of evil. [21]

p. 22And, while this is so, however unpopular may be the avowal, I know that my duty is clear: to watch the operation of the system, to guard it from abuse, to influence and animate (so far as I may be able) those who are to take part in it—if necessary, to coerce and to punish its abuse; but, none the less, to adhere to it manfully, and to take my full share of its obloquy.

It may be found impossible long to withstand such impressions as those to which your Lordship has adverted. To persons unacquainted with its practical operation the Monitorial system must always appear objectionable; a cumbrous and uncertain substitute for zeal and vigilance on the part of the Master. The time may come when public opinion will imperatively require the introduction of an opposite principle; p. 23of which it shall be the object to confine and preclude the expression of evil by the unceasing espionage of an increased staff of subordinate Masters. The experiment may be tried; I hope not at Harrow—certainly not by me. I see many difficulties, some evils, in the present system; some advantages, many plausibilities, in its opposite: and yet I believe the one to be practically ennobling and elevating—the other essentially narrowing, enfeebling, and enervating. I well foresee the results of the change, come when it may. I know how pleasing, yet how brief, will be the lull consequent upon the establishment of a rule of equality and fraternity; how warm perhaps, for the moment, the congratulations of some who have trembled for their sons’ safety under the present (so called) reign of terror; on the other hand, how gradual, yet how sure, the growth of those meaner and more cowardly vices which a Monitorial system has coerced where it could not eradicate; and how impossible the return to that principle of graduated ranks and organized internal subordination, which, amidst some p. 24real and many imaginary defects, has been found by experience to be inferior to no other system in the formation of the character of an English Christian Gentleman.

I have the honour to be, my Lord,

Your most obedient and faithful Servant,

December 14, 1853.


[5] “In many points he (Dr. Arnold) took the institution (the authority of the Sixth Form) as he found it, and as he remembered it at Winchester. The responsibility of checking bad practices without the intervention of the Master, the occasional settlement of difficult cases of school-government, the triumph of order over brute force involved in the maintenance of such an authority, had been more or less produced under the old system both at Rugby and elsewhere. But his zeal in its defence, and his confident reliance upon it as the keystone of his whole government, were eminently characteristic of himself, and were brought out the more forcibly from the fact that it was a point on which the spirit of the age set strongly and increasingly against him, on which there was a general tendency to yield to the popular outcry, and on which the clamour, that at one time assailed him, was ready to fasten as a subject where all parties could concur in their condemnation. But he was immoveable: and though, on his first coming, he had felt himself called upon rather to restrain the authority of the Sixth Form from abuses, than to guard it from encroachments, yet now that the whole system was denounced as cruel and absurd, he delighted to stand forth as its champion; the power, which was most strongly condemned, of personal chastisement vested in the Præpostors over those who resisted their authority, he firmly maintained as essential to the general support of the good order of the place; and there was no obloquy, which he would not undergo in the protection of a boy, who had by due exercise of this discipline made himself obnoxious to the school, the parents, or the public.”—Stanley’s Life and Correspondence of Dr. Arnold, Vol. I. page 105. See also Arnold’s Miscellaneous Works—On the Discipline of Public Schools: page 371, &c.

[7] “Corporal punishment, it is said, is degrading. I well know of what feeling this is the expression; it originates in that proud notion of personal independence which is neither reasonable nor Christian, but essentially barbarian. It visited Europe in former times with all the curses of the age of chivalry, and is threatening us now with those of Jacobinism.” Arnold’s Miscellaneous Works, page 365.

[8] “It is idle to say that the Masters form, or can form, this government; it is impossible to have a sufficient number of Masters for the purpose; for, in order to obtain the advantages of home government, the boys should be as much divided as they are at their respective homes. There should be no greater number of schoolfellows living under one Master than of brothers commonly living under one Parent: nay, the number should be less, inasmuch as there is wanting that bond of natural affection which so greatly facilitates domestic government, and gives it its peculiar virtue. Even a father with thirty sons, all below the age of manhood, and above childhood, would find it no easy matter to govern them effectually—how much less can a Master govern thirty boys, with no natural bond to attach them either to him or to one another! He may indeed superintend their government of one another; he may govern them through their own governors; but to govern them immediately, and at the same time effectively, is, I believe, impossible. And hence, if you have a large boarding-school, you cannot have it adequately governed without a system of fagging.”—Dr. Arnold, as above, page 372.

[21] “Public Schools are by no means faultless institutions; but, if there is one vice of which they have to a wonderful extent shaken themselves free of late, it is that of gross bullying and oppression: and this great improvement is owing mainly to the happy working of that institution which makes the ruling body in the School one which owes its acknowledged authority, not to inches or to sinews, or to boyish truculence, but to activity of mind, industry, and good conduct. Ask any ‘little fellow’ from Eton, Harrow, or Rugby, whether he is bullied at School; he will probably answer, ‘No:’ if ‘Yes,’ ask him by whom; and he will tell you that it is by some bigger or stronger fellow in his own part of the School—one who neither is nor ever will be a member of the ‘decemvirate,’ but who annoys him because he is industrious, or won’t do Latin verses for his more stupid neighbour, or ‘gets above him’ in form, and who dare not use his brute strength upon him within sight or hearing of any Sixth-form fellow. But it ought to be idle to say this after all that Arnold has done and written, after all that hundreds have seen and read of,” &c. &c.—Correspondent of the Spectator, December 17, 1853.