No American tourist strolling today through the grounds of Eton—England's most famed "public school"—could fail to be impressed at the quiet dignity of the scene. "What a perfect spot for study," he might say as the hordes of aristocratic young scholars, white tied and tailcoated, stride languidly past, their Latin and Greek textbooks under their arms.
Yet, scarcely a century and a half ago aristocratic Eton was as squalid a ghetto of scholastic horror as one could find. Wellborn as its inmates were, the only meat served to them at commons was overripe mutton of the cheapest cut, and to liven their diet the boys used its bones for the catching of fresh and succulent rats. When one floor was taken up for repairs in 1858, two cartloads of mutton bones were removed. One enterprising group of 19th-century scholars kept a sow hidden under the roof and, when she farrowed, they ate the suckling pigs.
The boys shivered in vast, unheated buildings unimproved in hundreds of years. Bullying was rife, and it was the established privilege of certain senior boys to chastise their juniors with rubber hoses. Only just abandoned in the early 19th century was a time-honored custom that on one very special day of the year the boys should surround a ram and batter it to death with wooden clubs. It might be thought that the headmaster and his assistants would take steps to control the amount of mayhem in the school—but not when the headmaster was Dr. John Keate.
Dr. Keate was undoubtedly the most brutal and bloodthirsty flogger who ever put hand to birch. He was a stocky 5-footer with flaming red hair and huge shaggy eyebrows that he almost seemed to use as pointers for demonstration. He was nicknamed "Baffin" from the noise he made in his irate fits of coughing. A brilliant classical scholar, he was convinced that every Etonian was a perpetual liar: "You're hardened to falsehood," he would say angrily, in a voice that has been likened to the quacking of a duck; meanwhile, his fingers would wrap themselves gleefully around the bound handle of a bundle of stinging birch twigs. Day after day, guilty and innocent alike were paraded before him; after a brief and biased trial, his victims were deprived of their striped trousers and held down by a school official over the traditional wooden flogging block while the Doctor warmed to his work. Should the punishment call for more than six strokes he would call for a new weapon, the cost being charged to his victim's parents. When a certain boy could not be found for execution, Keate would seize a passerby of the same surname and perform on him. One persistently maltreated boy called Micklethwaite challenged Keate to a duel and was expelled for his insolence.
One afternoon, while the rest of the school pelted him with rotten eggs, Dr. Keate publicly birched no fewer than 80 boys. At that time many of the young scholars held commissions in the British army. Parents found that buying a captaincy for their 15-year-old, who was promptly put on leave with half pay, was quite a help with the school fees. This quaint custom was an added fillip to Dr. Keate's inflated ego. One day he was heard to boast: "This morning I have flogged 20 captains, 10 majors and a colonel."
Three times, at least, the students were in a state of open rebellion against the Keate regime, pouring gunpowder into the headmaster's candle snuffers, refusing all orders and parading with placards that read "Floreat Seditio" or "Long Live Sedition!"
It was in this atmosphere then that on the last Sunday of February 1825, a boy called Charles Wood had a tiff with the Honorable Francis Ashley-Cooper, fifth son of the sixth Earl of Shaftesbury. The cause was a minor one: the possession of a certain seat at 2 o'clock prayers. After the service a prankish group of Etonians had playfully pushed Wood to collide with Ashley-Cooper. In the venerable cobbled quadrangle of School Yard, closed in by the ancient buildings of College, by the double turrets and clock of the 16th-century Lupton's tower, the boys exchanged a few small blows. But it was Sunday, and the captain of the school intervened firmly; arrangements were made for a formal fight to be staged the next afternoon, just after evening chapel.
So it was that at 4 o'clock on the chilly Monday a group of several hundred tailcoated and top-hatted Etonians formed a human ring at the traditional fighting spot, beside the south end of the great brick wall where Eton's unique Wall Game is still played. Both combatants were stripped to the waist. Francis Ashley-Cooper, a slimly built, handsome boy of 14, looked a poor match for Charles Wood, who stood a brawny half-head taller, was getting on for 15 and already sported an incipient mustache.
Yet, during the first few rounds the nimble action of the younger boy seemed to give him a good chance. With darting feet and incisive handiwork he was able, time and again, to dodge in under Wood's hefty guard and plant his fists on his opponent's chest and face. At the end of the fourth round Ashley-Cooper offered his failing opponent the chance to end the fight; but Wood refused. His persistence may have resulted from the fact that he was missing an appointment with his tutor. Whatever the reason, the tremendous pace of Ashley-Cooper's energetic footwork soon began to tell, and by the 10th round Wood was visibly gaining. In round 11 he lunged in with a hammer blow; his naked, clenched fist swung hard into Ashley-Cooper's temple; the boy went down to lie motionless on the ground. Charles Wood's supporters cried out in triumph that surely their man had won.
It was all very disappointing for the spectators. Here they were, with a half holiday to ensure freedom from more classes, and the wretched fight was over in less than half an hour. But the oldest of three Ashley-Cooper brothers at the school had an idea. Someone had already obtained a six pennyworth of brandy to rub the fighter's aching knuckles between rounds. Seizing the bottle, the senior Ashley-Cooper thrust its neck into the unwilling mouth of his brother and tilted it upward. The boy gulped, hiccuped and rose unsteadily to his feet. "We will have another round," said his second. "We are in no hurry." Ashley-Cooper was soon gamely lashing out once more at his larger opponent.
According to the pugilistic custom of the day, a round went on until someone was floored; after an interval the fighters would mutually agree to start again. Ashley-Cooper was soon in a worse way than before. A shock of tousled hair fell over his blackened eyes; the pallor of his lithe young body was accentuated by the angry red blotches and purple bruises on his chest and ribs. Yet, with bloody nose, bruised lips and fingers puffed up like mushrooms, he stood up for round after round. There was more to the fight than a matter of schoolboy honor. Ashley-Cooper's father, the earl, and Wood's father, a colonel and member of Parliament for Brecknock, Wales, were sworn political rivals. Each time young Francis struck out at Charles Wood it was a blow for Toryism against the notorious radicalism of the Whigs. The very reputation of the Tory party and of the ancient Shaftesbury name depended—or so Ashley-Cooper must have thought inside his poor battered skull—on what he did that afternoon.
By dusk and the 60th round, onlookers could see that the two contestants were near exhaustion and able to keep upright only by a massive effort of will. For 25 minutes they had lurched opposite each other with feebly flailing arms, hardly a blow being landed. But in one last effort Charles Wood swung his whole body toward Ashley-Cooper.
After a few seconds of near-embrace the smaller boy fell backward to the ground. Wood's knee striking him brutally on the head as he, too, collapsed. Wood pulled himself unsteadily to his feet; but Ashley-Cooper lay motionless. The fight was over and the crowd dispersed.
But for the larger world outside Eton, the affair was just begun. When not even more brandy could revive the prostrate form of the vanquished boy, his two older brothers, Henry and John, carried him across the road to his boardinghouse, an ancient warren of a building under the supposed care of the Reverend Dr. Knapp. They took him to his room, meeting on the way one of the housemaids, Dorothy Large. Miss Large took one look at the bleeding schoolboy and offered to send for a doctor; Henry Ashley-Cooper assured her that his brother was perfectly all right, or at least would be as soon as he woke up. To report the matter would mean disclosing that his brother had been drunk.
But Francis Ashley-Cooper would never wake again. When, some four hours later, someone thought after all that a doctor should be called, the boy had ceased to breathe.
As soon as the news reached the world, there was an outcry. The Times published a leading article in typically thunderous terms, and the more sensational papers printed every squalid detail of the mess. "The seminaries of our noble youth are converted into boxing schools," complained one editor. "We admit that it is out of the power of the masters to prevent lads fighting," commented another, "but we think they might be prevented from killing each other."
Oddly enough, no one seemed to blame Headmaster Keate at all for his scholar's death. There was much criticism of Henry Ashley-Cooper and his friend Alexander Leith, the dead boy's second, for providing the brandy; of a party of horsemen, returning from some hunt, who had passed the fight but had not seen fit to interfere; of the Rev. Dr. Knapp, whose house was within 20 yards of the fight and who had been dozing in his armchair throughout it.
Charles Wood's father visited Eton to apologize on his son's behalf; Lord Shaftesbury sent his secretary down to remove his remaining sons from Keate's care. Soon afterward young Wood and his second were haled to court on a charge of manslaughter. "That you, Charles Alexander Wood, Gent., stand indicted for having, on the 28th of February last, in the Parish of Eton, in this county, unlawfully and feloniously assaulted the Honorable Francis Ashley-Cooper, and that you, Charles Alexander Wood, with both your hands, did beat the said Honorable F. A. Cooper on the head, and strike him to the ground, and did thereby cause the rupture of a large blood vessel, of which mortal wound he died; and that you, Alexander Wellesley Leith, was then and there present; and did the same Charles Alexander Wood comfort and assist in the felony and manslaughter, of which he stands charged," ran the indictment.
The two terrified boys pleaded "not guilty" and wondered at that moment if they would ever return to the comparative pleasures of Eton College; but Lord Shaftesbury proved himself an utter nobleman and refused to prosecute or encourage any prosecution witnesses to appear. The accused returned that day to Eton; and the only public trial of the affair was that in the coroner's court.
There, the jury viewed the battered little body, listened to several accounts of the fight and heard a surgeon testify that in his long career he had never seen so much blood running loose in a human brain. When one Etonian stated that Francis Ashley-Cooper had been dosed with no less than half a pint of brandy, the coroner, by name Charsley, uttered a remark that must hold pride of place in any collection of legal fatuities: "Nonsense! He could not have drunk so much neat brandy. Why, that would have been sufficient to have killed him."
Six days later Dr. Keate himself conducted the funeral service in the school chapel. For many Etonians it was their first sight of a coffin; Ashley-Cooper's corpse was interred in a vault under the organ loft, where the grave still stands today. Dr. Keate appeared to feel little remorse; rather, in his address, he blamed the senior boys for not interfering. "Not that I object to fighting in itself," he added. "On the contrary, I like to see a boy return a blow."
It would be pleasant to end this tale with an account of a comprehensive government inquiry into the state of the school, a new system of periodical inspectorship and the dismissal of Dr. Keate. But it was not for 40 years that a Commission of Enquiry was sent to Eton, part of an investigation into the conduct of nine leading schools. And as for Dr. John Keate—he remained as headmaster another nine years after the death of Ashley-Cooper, until his retirement in 1835, continuing his rule by birch as if nothing had happened. When at last he retired, after 25 years of vicious dictatorship, Etonians, present and past, clubbed together to buy him a magnificent collection of silver plate worth at least ¬£600. Dr. Keate was so moved that he silently took off his cocked hat at the moment of presentation: a gesture he had never before made.