Eton College, an English public school for boys, founded in the 15th century. The archetypal public school in the imagination of many. Entry to Eton is through an exam (King's Scholars), or through one's name being put on the application list anytime between birth and 10.5 years of age (Oppidans). Has produced numerous politicians, writers and other prominent men in history. Alumni include Aldous Huxley, Percy Shelley (who had a dreadful time there), Peter Wimsey and Bertie Wooster.

This has turned out to be a fairly lengthy node, so those with a short attention span should look elsewhere now, if you haven't already done so. I was at Eton from 1988 until 1993, too early to meet Prince William or Prince Harry - although I did once meet the late Prince Dipendra of Nepal. This node is part historical fact, part personal observation. I hope it entertains and informs in equal measure.

Foundation and history

Founded in 1440 by King Henry VI, Eton College is one of the most illustrious and famous schools in the world. The school's alumni include 18 Prime Ministers of Great Britain, including 5 who have served during the twentieth century, and one Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, as well as several leading figures from the sciences and arts, some of whom are listed below.

The college was established for 70 scholars to receive free education. Henry's grand vision was of a larger foundation, including King's College at Cambridge University, which the King established the following year, and which was to be supplied with Eton scholars. All was going well until Henry was deposed by Edward IV in 1461, and the College was ordered to hand over its valuable land and possessions. Luckily, Edward's mistress pleaded Eton's case, and some land was restored to the school.

In the 16th century, the scholarly life was not one of luxury, with boys sleeping two or three to a bed, working (in Latin, which was pretty much the only taught subject) from six in the morning, and fasting on Fridays. As the school expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries, conditions improved as pupils started boarding in houses around the school. However, Under the long-serving headmaster Dr Keate's disciplinarian rule in the early 19th century, the school recovered somewhat from its lax regency period disorderliness, but on the whole the school had to wait until the latter half of the century for the grand reforms it so badly needed.

Even so, and even after further reform and progress in the twentieth century, both gradual and rapid, Eton has laboured under an external misconception that it is old-fashioned and austere. The practice of fagging, whereby young pupils would perform work for older pupils - heating crumpets on an open fire for instance - wasn't formally abolished until the 1970s, and informally a hierarchical power structure still exists among pupils. In the face of this, though, in 1948 George Orwell saw in the school "a tolerant and civilized atmosphere which gives each boy a fair chance of developing his own individuality", an observation that contrasts with the more typical view of Eton and other public schools as having been more like prisons. It is precisely this combination of power given to pupils at an early age, and the ability to express oneself at Eton, though, that gives its old boys the confidence in facing the world outside that they are often seen to possess. Unfortunately this confidence often spills over into arrogance, a trait also commonly attributed to Old Etonians.

The Eton Foundation is now enormously wealthy, due in no small part to the land it owns, especially in and around London, as well as the large annual fees paid by the generally wealthy parents of pupils attending Eton, where the education comes with a hefty price-tag attached; for the academic year beginning in September 2002 the annual fee per pupil is £19098.

Contemporary Eton

The College has grown consistently over the centuries, and is now home to almost 1300 boys, from the ages of 13 to 18. With only a few rare exceptions, all Etonians are boarders, and are either known as oppidans or King's scholars. The oppidans - the word derives from the latin word oppidum, meaning town - live in 24 'houses' spread around the school premises in Eton, with around 50 boys in each house, while the King's Scholars are housed under one ultra-intelligent roof, and wear gowns so the plebby oppidans know to look on their works and despair.

Eton marks out its pupils in a variety of ways. King's Scholars use the initials KS after their name, Oppidan Scholars use OS, while Music Scholars use MS, and ME. Heads of houses, captains of sport, and heads of societies, among others, are entitled to wear a bow-tie instead of the standard tie, and members of the grandly titled Eton Society, more commonly known as 'Pop', and more casually known as 'that big clique' can also wear garish waistcoats of their own choosing, rather than the standard black number (available from all good high street tailors and gentleman's outfitters)

Eton's power and influence over English society have waned since Wellington declared that "The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton", and in 1941 an embittered George Orwell retorted that while the old Duke probably had a point, "the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there", referring to the oft-cited incompetence of COs and military leaders, which were typically drawn from the country's upper-class elite, many of whom were educated at Eton.

However, an Eton education is still held in high esteem, partly through the aura of mystique it still commands despite a gradual increase in the school's openness to the outside world (the school can hardly hide away entirely; two public roads cut through the central school grounds).

The uniform

Contrary to popular belief, Etonians don't wear a top hat anymore. However, the uniform is still unusual by most standards, consisting as it does of a black tail-suit, worn with a black waistcoat and a white shirt. The white shirt is collarless; instead, a stiff collar is worn, while a rectangle of white cotton serves as a tie - called, believe it or not, an 'Eton tie' - and is threaded through the collar and shirt, over the collar, and behind the shirt. Thankfully, the 'bumfreezer', or 'Eton Jacket' - a particularly short, lethal in winter, jacket, and hence the nick-name - that boys under a certain height were required to wear, is no longer part of the uniform. If you want to see one being worn, you'll have to pop along to the Museum of Eton Life in the school, and take a look at the photograph of the celebrated Gosling brothers, 6 of whom were at the school at the same time. During particulary hot summer weather, which is sadly not that often, pupils can cool down by taking off the waistcoat and tail-coat, and donning a fetching sports jacket or blazer instead. This may not seem much of a concession to the weather, but on warmer days it certainly makes the heat more tolerable

The lingo

Visitors to Eton may find themselves bewildered, if they are the kind to eavesdrop that is, by some of the school's peculiar terms. For instance, if you were to overhear a boy saying "I was put on tardy book after I failed to cap a beak on my way past the burning bush because I was rushing to my first div after chambers, and we took a run anyway" you might think that at least one of you no longer understands English. The following brief glossary should help you to understand him slightly more easily:

A teacher
Burning Bush:
An old lampost near School Hall often used as a meeting point
To acknowledge a beak by simulating the removal of your cap. This has now been downgraded to sticking a finger in the air as the beak passes, but under no circumstances should it be the middle-finger.
A mid-morning break between divs to let brains cool down.
(short for division) A lesson.
If a beak doesn't turn up for a div within 15 minutes of its scheduled start the boys in the div can 'take a run'. In theory this means reporting the beak to school office and taking a free period in your house, but unless the beak is particularly hated, usual custom is to skip the reporting bit.
Tardy Book:
Unpunctual boys are put on tardy book, and have to sign themselves in at School Office early each morning, where early means before breakfast. The punishment is also sometimes used, by unimaginative beaks, for other offences .

Eton is not alone among public schools in having developed its own dialect. At Winchester College, for instance, the Winchester Notions are used, and are in many cases just as unintelligible to the outsider.


From the outside, and to a certain extent from within, Eton appears as a curious anachronism. The truth is rather different, though. For all its peculiarities, Eton is in many ways a forward-thinking institution. The school offers a number of scholarships and bursaries, with nearly one sixth of its pupils benefitting from reduced fees, thus allowing pupils from both the state and private education systems an education they could perhaps otherwise not afford, and the facilities are first-class by any English standards. Not many English schools have an outdoor and an indoor swimming pool, around 20 squash courts, an excellent athletics track and acre upon acre of playing fields, a dedicated theatre, two chapels, or a pub. And no other English school is currently constructing its own olympic standard rowing lake.

Facts to impress your friends with

  1. Together with a plethora of photographs of boys in their uniforms, boys playing sport, and some of the school's landmarks, a lengthy and slightly boastful list of famous old boys can be found at the school's official web site - The list includes such luminaries as:

  2. Late in his period in London, Canaletto nipped down the Thames - either that or his eyesight was sharp - to paint a view of the college. His not thoroughly accurate effort is part of the The National Gallery, London, collection.
  3. In Thomas Gray's Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, the author affords the school, and the pupils' time there a prelapsarian quality, one soon ravaged by 'The ministers of human fate'.
  4. Several scenes in the 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes were filmed at Eton, as were scenes in Chariots of Fire.
  5. The school motto, Floreat Etona, translates as 'may Eton flourish'. It was also the name of a black and white whippet owned by MAW Brown, who attended Eton during the 1890s. Fascinating.
  6. The school's library collection contains one of the surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible

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