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Book review: Bright the Vision: Public school missions from the Victorian age by Malcolm Tozer

12 January 2024

Anthony Phillips looks at the spirit of public schools’ urban mission

IN A brief introduction to this excellent volume, the editor sets the scene when he quotes from one of Thomas Arnold’s sermons in which Arnold admitted that, for his class, knowledge of the poor amounted to “next to nothing”.

Lucinda Matthews-Jones then describes in a prologue the contexts that brought the public-school missions into being and the social and religious problems that the movement sought to solve, in particular, reconnecting the working classes with the Church of England. In the eyes of their creators, however, the missions were not just for the benefit of the poor, but also sought to strengthen the moral stance of their pupils by immersing them, along with old boys, in a hands-on approach in the mission itself.

Although the initiative for mission came from his boys, it was the enthusiasm of Edward Thring of Uppingham which got the movement going. Of first importance was the selection of the missioner. In the old boy Wynford Allington, “that peerless knight of God’s army”, Thring identified the ideal candidate for the school’s North Woolwich mission.

Next, it was the business of raising money and providing buildings. Summing up the day of the consecration of the new church, St John’s, Thring told the whole school: “England has never before had this fastening of a school on to real life work in the world outside. . . I trust to see this mission a great central pivot of Uppingham life.”

A Southwark children’s day trip to Charterhouse School in the 1920s, from the book

Next came Clifton (1876), working in the slums of Bristol, where the secular side of mission was recognised as distinct from evangelism. In addition to churches, equally necessary were meeting rooms, coffee bars, and gyms. In the same year, Winchester started its mission in London, but quickly moved to Portsmouth, where it had considerable real estate and, against opposition, entrusted its organisation to Anglo-Catholic clergymen, among whom was Robert Dolling, Christian Socialist and “slum priest”. In all probability, one legacy of the mission was the considerable number of highly influential post-war Labour politicians produced by the school.

These three early school missions were quickly followed by others: Eton (1880); Radley, Marlborough (1881); Tonbridge (1883); Harrow, Charterhouse (1884); Wellington, Dulwich (1885); The Leys (1886), Rugby, Cheltenham Ladies’ (1889); Haileybury (1890); Bradfield, Repton (1894); and Highgate (1895). Later came Shrewsbury (1903), Durham (1904), Monkton Combe (1906), and King’s, Canterbury (1911). Rugby educated William Temple and his contemporary Richard Tawney, “saint of socialism”, while Clement Attlee’s first visit to Haileybury Boys’ Club “changed the trajectory of Clement’s life”.

Some missions were easily established, others with greater difficulty. The breadth of buildings and activities proved varied, as did the amount of participation by the pupils. But, essentially, they were all motivated by their Christian faith and the furtherance of the welfare of those who sought their support, both spiritually and materially, though one might wonder, as the author of the chapter on Tonbridge does, how much guilt played a part in their foundation.

Much depended on the charismatic leadership of the clergy. Initial small meeting places were soon outgrown and replaced by the foundation of new churches with burgeoning congregations and Sunday schools. Old boys were an important factor in their support, both financially and in person. Summer camps were a much loved feature, as were a variety of sports, boxing being important. Temperance was enforced.

Today’s society is very different from 1869’s. It is not only the working classes who are detached from the Church of England. In this secularist age, Thring’s vision of mission is seen as anachronistic in the era of the Welfare State, and, save for the remarkable Shrewsbury Mission, the missions themselves have largely disappeared, and their resources are being used for other charitable purposes.

But the hardship of the poor and the ignorance of their everyday condition among those from an entirely different social background remain as acute as ever. Most importantly, how can headmasters strengthen the moral stance of their pupils, as Thring envisaged doing? As his current successor points out, the fundamental question is not only how pupils can make a difference to others, but how they can make a difference to themselves.

Schools have answered this question in many different ways, education, not religion, being seen as of prime importance. So, Eton, with its plethora of educational projects, can be described by its current headmaster as a “charity for the advancement of learning, rather than a school with charitable activities on the side”.

It is, though, the effects of secularisation which trouble the Bishop of Worcester. In his closing epilogue, he expresses the hope that this collection “will promote reflection which might lead to a renewal of Christian faith, ethos and values in the schools featured in this volume. Without the single golden thread of faith, the whole fabric may unravel; with that thread it will strengthen.”

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

Bright the Vision: Public school missions from the Victorian age
Malcolm Tozer
Independent Publishing Network £35 (hbk), £25 (pbk)
978-1-80352-578-5 (hbk)
978-1-80352-579-2 (pbk)

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