A Brief History of Boarding Schools

The British Tradition

British boarding schools have historically provided the model for boarding schools in Canada. Prime among the antecedents is the King’s School in Canterbury, England. It was founded in the year 597 and, until the dissolution of the monasteries act nearly a century later, it remained a cloistered religious institution. At King’s, students were kept apart from society at large, were instructed by clergy, and were expected to devote themselves to religious contemplation. Certainly, there wasn’t time for much else—there were 14 chapel services each day in addition to mass and daily prayers for the dead.

King’s was a grammar school in the literal meaning of the term. The main focus of study was Latin grammar, the language of the church. While there were a few other subjects on offer, all were intended solely to prepare students for religious work, not creative thinking or academic engagement. There was music for religious services, astronomy and mathematics to set and interpret the church calendar, and law to prepare students for administrative roles in the church.

Similarly, when Eton was founded in the 15th century by Henry VI, it was a charity school intended to provide free education to seventy boys. As Sir Henry Lyte wrote in his history of the school published in 1877, Eton reflected a renewed interest in the dissemination of knowledge, and that “a movement in popular education had set in.” He writes that the foundation of the school “is also important as marking a turning-point in the struggle between the regular and the secular clergy. During the middle ages the monasteries had been the principle seats of education in England, but their inefficiency had become notorious.” Lyte didn’t see it, perhaps, but it wasn’t so much a question of quality than it was a changing view toward the goal of education. The monasteries produced religious leaders, though the founders of Eton wanted instead to supply the universities with “scholars from a great grammar-school.” Ones that, in turn, would advance to positions of leadership within business and the military rather than the church.

That said, life at the school, by today’s standards, can seem strikingly monastic. Students were roused at 5 a.m., chanted prayers while they dressed, and were at their lessons by 6 a.m. They had two meals every day except Friday, when they weren’t fed at all. Lessons ended at 8 p.m. when all students went to bed.

When William Shakespeare attended King’s New School in Stratford, the school was open to all boys. There was no tuition. The only requirement for admission was the ability to read and write. “Pupils sat on hard wooden benches from six in the morning to five or six in the evening,” writes Bill Bryson, “with only two short pauses for refreshment, six days a week. … For much of the year they can hardly have seen daylight.” The school was, for the time, one of the best in the country. There Shakespeare learned Latin grammar and rhetoric (“one of the principle texts of the day,” writes Bryson, “taught pupils 150 different was of saying ‘Thank you for your letter’ in Latin”) and little else. “Whatever mathematics, history, or geography Shakespeare knew, he almost certainly didn’t learn it at grammar school.”

However daunting the experience may have been, the early boarding schools met the needs for which they were created, namely to educate boys into positions of religious leadership within a society that was organized, socially and politically, around religious life.


Illustration from A History of Eton College 1440-1875, by Sir Henry Churchill Maxwell Lyte. When the history was published in 1877, Eton had been operating as a boarding school for more than four centuries.


As society changed, so did the schools. At the time of the Reformation schools were removed from the authority of the church, marking an abrupt change in how education was conducted, and what it was intended to do. The Reformation coincided with (if not directly caused by) a decline in feudalism and a rise in nationalism, common law, and printed books.

Grammar schools soon reflected all of that, adopting new curricula and adjusting admissions in order to produce the human resources needed in post-Reformation England, one increasingly organized around the demands of a market economy. The result was the development in the sixteenth century of an educational curriculum based in humanism and a formulation of the liberal arts as we think of them today. The goal of education was to prepare free people for active roles in civic life. Debate, criminal law, logic and rhetoric were taught intensively for the first time. Math and geometry, once taught for the purposes of calendar making, were now taught also for the purposes of engineering and the maintenance of civic works. That kind of curriculum—liberal arts education grounded in classical languages and literature—persisted throughout Europe and North America well into the 20th century. While there has been a recent proliferation of alternative curricula, the foundation of education of North America still reflects those innovations undertaken in the 16th century. Often unwittingly, many of the alternative approaches do as well.


boarding-hub-2Eton, founded in the 15th century by Henry VI.


Imagining a better world

As Britain moved into the age of empire and industry, schools continued to evolve. By the 18th century—in response to Britain’s geographic and economic growth—students were learning modern languages, political leadership, military theory, and commerce. When Thomas Hughes wrote Tom Brown’s School Days in the 1830s, he used Rugby School as the setting, a school that his readers would have seen as strikingly modern. As he admitted at the time, Hughes created the characters of Tom and Dr. Arnold to illustrate how to live a good life and, by analogy, how to build a great nation. All the classic elements of the boarding school novel were there: students mentoring each other, a strong and empathetic teacher, sports and, inevitably, bullying and corporal punishment. With the help of friends and the advice of Dr. Arnold, Tom defeats the bully and becomes a mentor himself. He doesn’t cheat on homework, he plays cricket, and life goes on.

What would have struck early readers aren’t the things that strike us today. Corporal punishment, for example, would have seemed familiar, and not at all specific to boarding school. What also would have struck them were the educational reforms that Dr. Arnold brought to the school. What would have struck them were the educational reforms that Dr. Arnold brought to the school. Rugby wasn’t the King’s School, but something entirely different. Rugby was an example of a modern school addressing the needs of students in a modern world. Boys were encouraged to follow their desires, to think and act as individuals, and to choose their own path into religious, secular, or military life. That was big. Students, remarkably, were presented with options, choice, and an unprecedented range of individual autonomy.

Of course, there was also a dark side. While Hughes worked to show what boarding school could be, Dickens, as in Nicholas Nickleby, intended to show what it really was, exposing the faults that he found there. While writing the novel Dickens toured boarding schools, an experience that informed the fictional Dotheboys Hall, the boarding school for unwanted children that Nicholas attends. As cruel and abusive as the schoolmaster there may be, it seems that Dickens didn’t have to do much when creating the character—Mr. Squeers, even down to the wording of his business card, is a faithful portrait of William Shaw, a schoolmaster that Dickens had met. Not long after that meeting, Shaw was sued for blinding one of his students through physical abuse, malnourishment and neglect. Notes from the court case describe Shaw’s school, and the similarity between it and Dotheboys is striking.

The backbone of empire

Both Hughes and Dickens were writing at a time of intense change, both in England and the world. Indeed, it was change, specifically, that they were writing about. There was a significant rise in literacy, literature, and scientific inquiry. Schools were becoming more secular. There was a growing sense of how an individual might participate within society, and a greater awareness of the power of independent thinking.

During 1800s boarding schools cemented an association with the British ruling class, trading the religious focus for a military one. Sons of officers and administrators of the Empire attended boarding school while their parents fulfilled political and military postings overseas. The focus of education was diplomacy for the upper classes, and military life for those of lesser stature. Rudyard Kipling was an example of the former. He attended United Services College while his parents were stationed in India, an experience he wrote about in the novel Stalky & Co. Like Kipling himself, Stalky was educated to become part of the imperial machine. And he does. At the end of the book, fresh from that education, he is shown leading troops in India.

In life, as in fiction, boarding schools were part of the backbone of the empire, educating its military officers, senior clerics, lawyers, and administrators. They used the means that were popular for the time. Ben MacIntyre writes that Durnford School “epitomized the strange British faith in bad food, plenty of Latin and beatings from an early age.” At the school “there was no fresh fruit, no toilets with doors, no restraint on bullying, and no possibility of escape. Today such an institution would be illegal; in 1925 it was considered ‘character-forming.’”

School practices reflected a popular belief in social Darwinism—survival of the fittest—and that academic, moral, and physical strength were gained through challenge and adversity. Strict discipline, discomfort, even bullying was considered a necessary experience in the progress of moral and physical development. Royals experienced these things, too, not just students who came from poor families or who attended sub-standard schools. Thankfully, over the course of the 20th century, all of that would change.

Boarding in Canada

“What people teach their young is often what they think is most important. And so what people teach their children … in school gives us a very good sense of what the values of society are. What is it that you would like your children to learn? What is it that you’d like the next generation to learn?”

—Margaret MacMillan

The oldest boarding school in Canada, King’s Collegiate School (now King’s-Edgehill School), in Windsor, Ontario, was founded by United Empire Loyalists in 1788. It was given royal assent by King George III the following year, the first instance that honour was bestowed outside Britain. Beginning with just 12 boys in a private home near Windsor, Nova Scotia, the school quickly set an educational standard for the region and, later, the country. It continues to hold a place in the national consciousness today. Because of the age and importance of the buildings, King’s College is a National Historic Site, a designation it has held since 1923.

King’s was created at moment of heightened political anxiety in the wake of the American Revolution. While there were schools in New York and New England, there were none in the British colonies that remained after American independence. The initial goal of the school was to prevent young men from traveling abroad to receive an education, men that would be needed to stay to administer and defend the colonies. While the school remained small, its alumni took prominent roles in military, legal, religious, and political life (including two fathers of Confederation).

King’s set the tone for other boarding schools that would be created in the British Empire outside of the UK. They were established so that the children of British ex-patriots could receive an authentically British education, as well as to retain and augment the human resources required to maintain the colonies. Schools throughout the commonwealth were organized in the same manner as their British counterparts—there were houses and headmasters, forms and terms—and reflected the values of Victorian England. The educational environment was much as we might imagine: high brow, strict, and reflective of all the class distinctions of the age. Leadership was an important topic, in part because it was of prime interest to many of the political leaders who sent their children to board. Further, the benefits were unequivocal—merely having gone to boarding school, regardless of any academic achievement there, was often considered a reasonable prerequisite to positions of leadership in business and political life.

Many of the best-known Canadian schools were founded in the late 19th century: Pickering College, 1842; Bishop Strachan School, 1867; Stanstead College, 1872; Ashbury College, 1891; St. Andrew’s College, 1899. Life there, at least in the early days, was spartan and challenging in ways that no boarding school is today. At Upper Canada College, Frederick Hutt, a student in the 1830s, wrote to his brother, “I hope you will send plenty of nuts and cakes as I can hardly subsist on what we get.”

Ted Rogers, founder of Rogers Communication, went to board when he was seven. Having had a nanny at home, he recalled that “I went from having somebody brushing my teeth for me to being caned if my teeth weren’t clean enough. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it was a bit of a shock.” He later described the school as his “a surrogate father” in the absence of his own father, who had passed away prior to his enrolment.

There was a strong association with the military, something that was still very prominent when Rogers arrived. The Cadet Corps of Upper Canada College was begun in 1869, and through its 127-year history it remained an integral part of school life. Students took part in regular drills and exercises, including those with active rounds. Boys were expected be prepared for deployment at any time, as occasionally they were. During the Fenian Raids of 1866 UCC students were mobilized to guard military buildings and the port in Toronto.

The cadet program was an expression of the spirit of volunteerism and the Victorian militia movement, and it maintained an ongoing association with the national military. Between 1875 and 1937 UCC produced six commanding officers of The Queen’s Own Rifles. During WWI, 1,089 volunteered for military service, and 176 gave their lives. In 1919, membership in the corps became compulsory for all students. None of this was unique to a particular to UCC school, with boarding schools and many public schools following suit. Many cadet corps remained active into the 1960s and 70s.

In time, however, the cadet programs began to feel less relevant, more relics of an earlier time. Which indeed they were, especially when real rifles were replaced with wooden ones, or when real training evolved into a kind of pantomime of military training, and when the relationship with the military became less explicit. At UCC the corps was formally retired in 1987, one of last of its kind in Canada. (Two schools, St. Andrews College and Bishop’s College School have active cadet corps, though for the most part the programs have evolved, becoming more akin to outdoor education programs than military.)



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