Feature Articles - The Most Popular War in History - Homosexuality and Public Schools

Drawing of athletic young man catching a cricket ball single-handed. He might well be the focus of  'crush', hero-worship, or even straight romantic emotions. At first sight, it might be thought that this would be a significant factor in encouraging the games cult in particular.  Games, by definition, do after all centre on physical, bodily activity from whence you might expect a very short journey to something more blatantly homo-erotic in a community of adolescent boys isolated from the opposite sex.  It would be tempting therefore to see a crush on the team captain as an additional and powerful spur to do well for team, House and School.

The only snag to this idea is lack of evidence, with the caveat that, especially where this subject is concerned, absence of evidence is by no means evidence of absence.  Possibly there were a lot of people for whom a mild crush on the captain, or other team members, helped strengthen team spirit, but I have not been able to track down hard evidence.

Certainly homosexual relations did exist, and amongst the sources consulted by me the topic is covered in most depth by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy (The Public School Phenomenon).  My father does not mention it at all, which is perhaps, and with all due respect, a mistake.

However the relationships seem, if anything, to have been subversive to the games and team spirit cult rather than supportive of it.  Gathorne-Hardy looks at a number of individual relationships between boys, and some of the accounts read more like romantic fiction than anything else:

"Oh, I do love you.  I love you, my darling.  Don't be shy, look at me.  Do you love me?"
"Do you swear?"

He leaned up and kissed Allen softly on his blushing cheek... He felt he had become, instantly, a more tender person...

Quoted from Lord Dismiss Us (Michael Campbell) in Gathorne-Hardy The Public School Phenomenon, p170

And here are the cadences of boys' magazines and 'ripping yarns' turned into the language of love.  Written in 1890, it may look odd to us in 2003, but the undercurrent of strong emotion is quite clear:

"Your head is all right, old Jonathan.  And your voice is simply beautiful."  He spoke seriously, staring at Jon as he had stared in the speech-room when Jon began to sing.  "I came here to tell you that I felt odd when you were singing - quite weepsy, you know.  You like me, old Jonathan, don't you?" 

Another indirect quotation by Gathorne-Hardy, op. Cit. p167.  Quoted by him from The Hill: A Romance of Friendship.

Becoming a 'tender person' would scarcely agree with the tough-guy games cult, and the intensely individual nature of the quoted and similar relationships would surely undermine rather than lend support to the team ideal.  It would also undermine the ideal of impersonal duty to the school community as a whole.

It should be noted by way of caveat that many of Gathorne-Hardy's quotations are indirect in that they come from fiction or semi-fiction written by ex-public schoolboys.  However the evidence seems to be that homosexuality usually found expression in individual relationships, sometimes very intense, which acted as an escape from, rather than an affirmation of, the fiercely corporate ideals of the public schools.  Many of them, again according to Gathorne-Hardy, were chaste and idealised.  In this way they perhaps reflected the value-system of the school even though in other ways subversive to it - Platonic love was a popular concept.

Another source, Tom Brown's Universe, describes how homosexuality became a serious worry to school authorities to the extent that, in one school (Rossall) in 1910, no master was to be left alone with a boy for more than 10 minutes, and never in a room with the door shut.

This panic may even explain the long 'shorts' worn for football and other games.  It almost parallels the intense fears in the present age over child protection and might serve to reassure anyone who thinks these problems are unique to our age.  Homosexuality was undoubtedly present, and an issue, but in the welter of claim and counter-claim over its influence, its real impact is difficult to assess.

There is of course a dark side to this, centring on sadism, flogging and so forth.  Public-school regimes could be very tough, and provided only too numerous opportunities for sadistic sexual expression.  Given that sadistic tendencies in individuals will in some cases have given an already tough regime an extra viciousness, it is arguable that a warped homosexuality did, in some ways, support the aims of the system in producing toughened, hardened human beings.

Against this is the fact that flagrant instances of sadism are by their nature sensational, and thus apt to receive exaggerated attention.  I think you can therefore argue for a localised, but probably not general, impact of warped sexuality on the public-school system as a whole.

It seems more likely that, for the majority, the public-school experience was a bit of an endurance test but no worse.  Most alumni will have emerged perfectly capable of normal sexual relationships, becoming solid, steady soldiers, civil servants, Colonial administrators and other professionals, and these schools, by instilling conscientiousness and a sense of duty, were very good at providing these.

Arguably the tough regime even produced benefits in that those who went through it were cool under pressure and able to withstand disappointment (through having to do so much that they didn't like).  They would also be disinclined to annoy others or cause disruption in the workplace or office through showing-off or attention-seeking behaviour.


1. Honey, J R de S (1977) Tom Brown's Universe: the development of the Public School in the 19th Century Millington Books Ltd., 109 Southampton Row, London WC1B 4HH

2. Gathorne-Hardy J (1977) The Public School Phenomenon, Hodder and Stoughton, London


Young England, collected and bound magazines for 1912

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Article and photographs contributed by Humphrey Reader.

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