Life at King William's College, 1846-7

Taken from "Life of Dean Farrar" pp16/9 contributed by Professor E. Spencer Beesly and gives a rather critical view of his days at KWC - backed up by James Wilson's account from 1848.

Professor Beesly’s Narrative

When I went to King William’s College after the summer vacation of 1846, Farrar and I were both fifteen, he being a few months my junior. He had been there for several years, and had just reached the highest form. I was placed in the same form, and we shared the same study. We at once became great friends. I had been taught entirely by my father, and had read, in a loose, slovenly way, a great deal more Latin and Greek than Farrar had ; but he was the more accurate scholar, and he always beat me in examinations. Our study was a tiny room high up in the tower, just big enough to hold our two chairs, a table, and a wooden coal box of cubical shape with a cover, which furnished a third seat. The table must have been a very small one, for I remember that our two writing-desks, when opened, completely covered it. The room was lofty, relatively to its other dimensions, and in winter very cold. Our coal box was filled up once a week, and its capacity was not great, for one of us used to carry it up to the study. We could, therefore, not afford to have even the smallest fire, except in the evening ; and very cold we often were as we sat at our work. Everything was on the same Spartan scale. For breakfast and tea we had thick pieces of buttered bread : for dinner one very scanty helping of meat, with boiled rice or swedes instead of bread or potatoes. Bread was very dear that winter, and the potato crop had perished. On Sundays there was pudding, and on Thursdays treacle roll ; on other days no second course, My recollection of those dinners is vivid. ‘I used to rise from them almost as hungry as when I sat down. Silence was strictly enforced. If a boy was observed whispering to his neighbour he was " stood out," and lost the remainder of his meal.

I do not know that we had any claim to a more liberal dietary. The charge for our board and education was very low, and I dare say the margin of profit was small enough. I do not remember that there was any illness while I was there. The situation was a very healthy one on the seashore, and the schoolrooms and dormitories were airy and not overcrowded. There were four boarding-houses. Ours occupied a wing of the college, and consisted, I think, of about forty boys.

The classical teaching was poor, the mathematical —a subject in which my education had been entirely neglected — was, I believe, better. Æschylus, Demosthenes, Virgil, and Tacitus were the classical subjects that year in our form. Our Greek and Latin composition did not go beyond Kerchever Arnold’s books. We were made to write English verse sometimes, in my opinion a most useful and humanising exercise for schoolboys. Farrar shone at this ; and I, and others, caught some of his enthusiasm for poetry. But we were almost entirely without books, and we had access to no library. A few well-thumbed novels, liable to confiscation, circulated surreptitiously. We had no news-papers, and knew nothing of what was going on in the world. In the winter there was postal communication with England only twice a week.

The religious teaching, of which we had a good deal, was of the narrowest evangelical type. It was for that reason that Farrar and I and many other boys had been sent there. But none of the masters had any religious influence that I know of. The moral tone, at the beginning of my time, was neither better nor worse than in most schools ; but in the course of the year it was much injured by some new arrivals. Perhaps this deterioration was confined to our house ; I remember little or nothing about the others. Farrar’s influence was always exercised on the side of all that was honourable, high-minded, humane, and refined. He was already as a boy what he was afterwards as a schoolmaster, a " preacher of righteousness," and not a preacher only, but a shining example and a support to all who were well inclined. Having never left my home till I went to King William’s College, I was quite unprepared for the difficulties, dangers, and temptations of school-life, and I had great reason to be thankful that I was from the first thrown into close intimacy with so valuable a friend.

In a well-organised school, where his remarkable ability and untiring industry would have procured for him monitorial authority, Farrar, who had plenty of pluck, would have had the means of repressing and punishing evil-doers. But there was no such organisation at King William’s College. The law of the strongest prevailed, and there were many older and stronger than Farrar. But his approbation and friendship were valued by the better sort, and many, no doubt, were kept straight by unwillingness to lose his esteem.

Games were not cultivated in any systematic way. Cricket was as primitive and unconventional as upon a village green. There was no regular eleven. Foot-ball was pursued with vigour, but with no particular rules. I do not remember that Farrar played cricket, but he was fond of foot-ball and fives.

I left King William’s College at midsummer 1847. Farrar had to return there after the vacation. He wrote to me very despondently. The examination at mid-summer had placed him at the head of the school. There were no more honours for him to gain. He had learnt all that any one there could teach him. It was a dreary outlook for an ardent young fellow conscious of his own ability and thirsting for better instruction. But before the end of the year his prospects brightened. His parents returned from India. His father became the incumbent of a parish in the north of London, and Farrar, living at home, pursued his studies at King’s College. I was with a private tutor at Brixton, so we saw one another from time to time. During 1850-1853, while he was at Cambridge and I at Oxford, we did not meet, but we kept up a correspondence. In 1854 we were again thrown together as assistant masters at Marlborough.

I am sorry that I have not been able to paint my old school in more favourable colours. My friendship with Farrar is the only pleasant recollection that I have of it. I believe it is now an excellent school."

His son who wrote the biography included virtually no details of his time at King William's College - however he reprinted one letter to Beesley shortly after Eric or little by little was published which is supportive of the above description

" HARROW, December 7.

"MY DEAR BEESLY,: One line -I have no time for more - to tell you that I am exceedingly obliged for the Review in the Daily News and feel indebted for your kindness. I hear - but have not yet seen - that the odious 'Press' has been abusing 'Eric' and me. I daily expect the second edition.

" I have just heard from Brown at K. W. C. 'Eric' has been read there. No opinion can be got out of Dixon [Rev Robert Dixon - the then headmaster], but H.[Gilmour Harvey] thinks it will injure the school. Absurd ! but even if so, I am not to blame - for the picture, as far as it is one, is highly flattered. K. W. C. has no Mr. Rose, or even Mr. Gordon - or Dr. Rowland. K. W. C. had certainly no Russell or Owen ; and the things that did go on there are really far worse than I have described. By the bye-you are supposed by some readers to be the prototype of Montagu. Are you flattered? It was confidently asserted to me by an old Marlburian.

"Ever your affectionate friend,

" F. W. FARRAR."

 [Castletown Index]


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© F.Coakley , 2001