Thring of Uppingham: Victorian
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EDWARD THRING (1821-87) is today remembered best as the founder
of the Headmasters' Conference. Yet he did not call the first
meeting, and very nearly did not attend it. But, as Nigel
Richardson, a distinguished former headmaster and Conference
chairman, indicates in this splendid biography, there is much more
to celebrate; for, over a tenure of 34 years, Thring transformed a
little-known and unresourced ancient grammar school of only 40
pupils in rural Rutland to a sizeable, first-rate independent
boarding-school with a distinctive educational ethos.
Thring's own appalling education at Ilminster Grammar School and
Eton may, paradoxically, have been the best preparation possible
for the future Headmaster of Uppingham determined to make life for
his pupils very different. As Thring noted, England's problem was
not the untaught poor, but the "ill-taught rich".
Another lasting influence was his curacy in a slum parish in
Gloucester, which ended in breakdown. Throughout his life, Thring
would be dogged by insecurity and depression, even speaking with
his pupils of his vulnerability. He also remained conscious of the
poor, founding the first school mission in the East End of
Many of the situations that Thring faced are common to heads of
independent schools today: falling-outs with parents, obdurate
trustees, government interference, bad town-school relations, money
worries. But, for Thring, this meant making up shortfalls in income
and funding capital projects from his personal fortune. The result
was that his finances and the school's became so mixed up that on
his death in office his family were left very much at the mercy of
There is no doubt that Thring's defining moment was the typhoid
outbreak of 1875. With town and school at loggerheads, each blaming
the other, and the future of Uppingham, now with some 340 pupils,
under threat, Thring evacuated the school to a hotel in the Welsh
seaside town of Borth. The operation was undertaken with
extraordinary speed and efficiency. When, in May 1876, satisfied
that sanitation problems had been tackled, Thring moved the school
back to Uppingham, it was to a triumphant welcome. Both the school
and his reputation were secure.
Quite apart from his significant public profile after the
Taunton Commission, to which Richardson pays proper attention, it
is for his understanding of education, particularly spelt out in
Theory and Practice of Teaching, the book that made him
internationally famous, that Thring should principally be
remembered. He was decades ahead of his time, having an
extraordinary insight into all aspects of school life, educational,
physical, and domestic. Boys should have separate studies, and
dormitories should have partitions.
Central to his thought was the uniqueness of each pupil, and his
determination that every boy should do something well. Regardless
of natural ability, they must all receive equal attention and be
enabled to acquire self-confidence. Their happiness was crucial.
Further, pupils should love learning for its own sake, and not
simply to pass examinations. He was utterly opposed to "cramming
children with facts and pleasing governments". Instead, he valued
Socratic questioning, and the importance of observation and
While the curriculum was to be based on sound classical
teaching, it was to be supplemented by sport -in which Thring
himself would participate - and, unusually for those times, music,
although he was tone-deaf. He was deeply opposed to the muscular
Christianity that was to become a feature of so many schools. Games
were for creating manliness, not obsessive competition.
Thring had a simple faith, and was untroubled by contemporary
scientific ideas. He was a strong believer in the sacraments and
the power of prayer, and valued each pupil as a child of God. He
saw the part that he played in the chapel, which, over a decade, he
battled with the trustees to have built, as the centre of his work.
Perceptively, he valued failure; for it implied "the not
worshipping of success".
Indeed, through all the vicissitudes of his headmastership, "his
trust was in God and that it was his work." In view of Alan
Bennett's recent Cambridge sermon, can current heads of independent
schools feel as confident? I hope so.
Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King's