The First Schoolboy Hero

Reading & Writing


The heroic English schoolboy is an archetype that has survived for two centuries, finding its most recent incarnation in the form of Harry Potter, a perfectly adequate avatar for a generation of middle-class children who wanted stories set in a rigorously ordered society of loyalties and hierarchies.

But the story of the English schoolboy goes back much further. It was originally kickstarted by a man named Thomas Hughes. Born in 1822, Hughes was sent to boarding school at age 8 and mentored by a high-minded moralistic headmaster who left his mark on the lad.

Hughes became a lawyer and a Liberal MP, and wrote books titled True Manliness and The Manliness of Christ (I’m still not quite sure what this means). However it was the novel he began writing for his son when he was 34 that lasted – yet for all its influence, very few modern-day children have read Tom Brown’s Schooldays or its sequel Tom Brown at Oxford.

This is mainly because the writing is incredibly preachy, although there’s a good adventure within it. Brown goes to boarding school, makes friends and faces the bully Harry Flashman, who in the book’s most unpleasant scene blisters his legs against an open fire. There are scrapes and dramas including a bout of pneumonia from a plunge in a lake, an honourable decision on cheating and a heroic last-minute substitution in a cricket match. All the ethical and moral dilemmas of young life are presented along with physical, social and spiritual development, coupled – inevitably – with a great amount of detail about the rigid order and structure of school life; Potter’s strongest suit by far.

Despite being didactic and not written to entertain, the book was an astounding success read by everyone from Tennyson to Dr Livingstone, and even in 1940 was still the fourth most popular read for schoolboys. In Japan it became the most popular English text of all time, although the cricket match was cut out because the translators didn’t know the game’s rules.

If you think the Potter saga has done well in other media, (it’s now a pair of plays as well) it’s worth remembering that Tom Brown has been filmed five times and was even turned into a musical (with Keith Chegwin). Its villain Flashman span off, becoming the anti-hero of George MacDonald Fraser’s successful novel series, and Tom Brown was a clear influence on every other school-set character from Billy Bunter to Jennings. However, it wasn’t the first book set in an English boarding school. That was Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, or the Little Female Academy, which had appeared in 1749 and was the first full-length novel written for children.

Inevitably George Orwell took against such tales (as he did with Bunter), to little effect. Readers preferred stories venerating idealised schooldays to ones vilifying them, and still do judging by the stupendous marketing success of the boy wizard. Of course, such characters bear no resemblance to the makeup of a modern British classroom at all, but it’s an image the world enjoys.

One wonders whether JK Rowling will go the same way of Hughes and vanish from bookshelves in years to come. If the queue to be photographed at the porter’s trolley in King’s Cross station is anything to go by, I suspect he’ll represent the archetypal English schoolboy for a very long time.

5 comments on “The First Schoolboy Hero”

  1. Peter Dixon says:

    My favourite schoolboy heroes are the splendid William Brown (no relation of Tom) and, of course, Nigel Molesworth who have a noble brow. Molesworth sa Tom Browns Schooldays is as much like prep skul as The Wooden Horse film is like life in a prisoner of war camp – except skool is more like the prisoner of war camp.

  2. Alan says:

    How different my life might have been had I been raised in a ‘rigorously ordered society of loyalties and hierarchies’. As it was, I was exposed to David Bowie during my formative years, with ‘all the ethical and moral dilemmas’ that man presented to my young life.. And for that I will always be grateful.

  3. chris hughes says:

    I never read Tom Brown’s Schooldays but saw the film when I was young and was terrified by the scene where they hold him over the fire but when I look back, coming from a tiny two up, two down, terraced in Peckham, I was enchanted by boarding schools. Most of my reading, Bunter, Jennings, Malory Towers, the Chalet School and a lot of the comic strips were about boarding schools where they were always having midnight feasts and finding secret passages. I never subscribed to the reading of books which depicted everyday life – you could just look out of the window for that!

  4. Vivienne says:

    I’ve never read Tom Brown (or any Potter), but did enjoy Molesworth. Otherwise, it was more the adventure stuff I looked out: Coral Island, and some books by Malcom Saville where the children seemed always to be climbing mountains and such (my memory clearly not strong here). But for everyday life, I did enjoy The Family from One End Street.

    When I was sent the form to choose a secondary school there was a state boarding school possibility. Apparently you had to have six sets of clothing including, as far as I could tell, brand new underclothes. Never having had more than one new anything at a time, and an awful lot of hand-me-downs, this in itself was strong temptation.

  5. Porl says:

    my fave was Winker Watson from The Dandy comic (This 70’s council estate kid found teachers in gowns and mortar boards really baffling though..)

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