Thomas Arnold (1795 – 1842)

Image: poster of 1932.

From the website of Rugby School, Warwickshire:

“…At the top of The Close stands The King’s Oak, planted by Edward VII in 1909, beneath which the Heads of School watch the School file into Chapel every morning. Behind it rises the battlemented skyline of School House where the Head Master has his study – he still sits at Bishop Percival’s desk – which pupils can enter by a spiral staircase at the foot of a tower.

Rugby’s greatest Head Master Dr Arnold (1828–42) instigated this practice so that boys could see him privately and the tradition continues today. Arnold is famed for ridding the School of its Flashmans and emphasising subjects that were a good ‘preparation for power’. He treated his senior boys as gentlemen, increasing their power and duties so that they shared responsibility for moral tone and discipline with him. As Arnold put it: ‘First religious and moral principle, second gentlemanly conduct, third academic ability.’ Masters were expected to supervise as well as teach; the dames’ houses were abolished and pastoral care was born.

If Arnold’s educational initiatives had not assured Rugby’s fame, his political intervention certainly would have done. His 1829 pamphlet on the issue of Catholic Emancipation attracted widespread criticism, and though the storm of publicity had subsided by the late 1830s, Rugby School and its remarkable Head Master were now national news and the School was growing rapidly. Not only did the 260 boys Arnold inherited become 360 by the time he died, but his disciples spread his ideas throughout the United Kingdom and Empire. No fewer than 23 of his assistant masters became Head Masters of other public schools between 1842 and 1899. This trend has continued ever since.

Arnold’s ideas – or at least Thomas Hughes’ version of them – found particularly fertile ground in France and in the mind of one French boy in particular. Pierre de Coubertin was twelve years old when he first encountered Thomas Arnold in the pages of Tom Brown’s School Days. By the time the novel was translated into French in 1875, Arnold had become something of a legend. Inspired by what he had read, de Coubertin visited Rugby several times during the 1880s and concluded that organised sport could be used to raise the aspirations and improve the behaviour of young people. This idea fuelled his vision for universal amateur athletics which culminated, in 1896, in the first modern Olympic Games in Athens. As one world expert on Olympic history says, ‘Thomas Arnold was the single most important influence on the life and thought of Pierre de Coubertin’.  

Arnold’s influential role in the Olympic Games is commemorated in a plaque on the School’s Doctor’s Wall, unveiled by Lord Sebastian Coe in 2009.  In July 2012 the Olympic Torch came to Rugby School on its route towards the Olympic Stadium and paused at the plaque to acknowledge the importance of Thomas Arnold who would certainly have enjoyed the School’s re-enactment of a 19th Century game of rugby with the boys wearing kit of the time…”

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