No American tourist strolling today through the grounds of Eton—England's most famed "public school"—could fail to be impressed at the quiet dignity of the scene. "What a perfect spot for study," he might say as the hordes of aristocratic young scholars, white tied and tailcoated, stride languidly past, their Latin and Greek textbooks under their arms.
Yet, scarcely a century and a half ago aristocratic Eton was as squalid a ghetto of scholastic horror as one could find. Wellborn as its inmates were, the only meat served to them at commons was overripe mutton of the cheapest cut, and to liven their diet the boys used its bones for the catching of fresh and succulent rats. When one floor was taken up for repairs in 1858, two cartloads of mutton bones were removed. One enterprising group of 19th-century scholars kept a sow hidden under the roof and, when she farrowed, they ate the suckling pigs.
The boys shivered in vast, unheated buildings unimproved in hundreds of years. Bullying was rife, and it was the established privilege of certain senior boys to chastise their juniors with rubber hoses. Only just abandoned in the early 19th century was a time-honored custom that on one very special day of the year the boys should surround a ram and batter it to death with wooden clubs. It might be thought that the headmaster and his assistants would take steps to control the amount of mayhem in the school—but not when the headmaster was Dr. John Keate.
Dr. Keate was undoubtedly the most brutal and bloodthirsty flogger who ever put hand to birch. He was a stocky 5-footer with flaming red hair and huge shaggy eyebrows that he almost seemed to use as pointers for demonstration. He was nicknamed "Baffin" from the noise he made in his irate fits of coughing. A brilliant classical scholar, he was convinced that every Etonian was a perpetual liar: "You're hardened to falsehood," he would say angrily, in a voice that has been likened to the quacking of a duck; meanwhile, his fingers would wrap themselves gleefully around the bound handle of a bundle of stinging birch twigs. Day after day, guilty and innocent alike were paraded before him; after a brief and biased trial, his victims were deprived of their striped trousers and held down by a school official over the traditional wooden flogging block while the Doctor warmed to his work. Should the punishment call for more than six strokes he would call for a new weapon, the cost being charged to his victim's parents. When a certain boy could not be found for execution, Keate would seize a passerby of the same surname and perform on him. One persistently maltreated boy called Micklethwaite challenged Keate to a duel and was expelled for his insolence.
One afternoon, while the rest of the school pelted him with rotten eggs, Dr. Keate publicly birched no fewer than 80 boys. At that time many of the young scholars held commissions in the British army. Parents found that buying a captaincy for their 15-year-old, who was promptly put on leave with half pay, was quite a help with the school fees. This quaint custom was an added fillip to Dr. Keate's inflated ego. One day he was heard to boast: "This morning I have flogged 20 captains, 10 majors and a colonel."
Three times, at least, the students were in a state of open rebellion against the Keate regime, pouring gunpowder into the headmaster's candle snuffers, refusing all orders and parading with placards that read "Floreat Seditio" or "Long Live Sedition!"
It was in this atmosphere then that on the last Sunday of February 1825, a boy called Charles Wood had a tiff with the Honorable Francis Ashley-Cooper, fifth son of the sixth Earl of Shaftesbury. The cause was a minor one: the possession of a certain seat at 2 o'clock prayers. After the service a prankish group of Etonians had playfully pushed Wood to collide with Ashley-Cooper. In the venerable cobbled quadrangle of School Yard, closed in by the ancient buildings of College, by the double turrets and clock of the 16th-century Lupton's tower, the boys exchanged a few small blows. But it was Sunday, and the captain of the school intervened firmly; arrangements were made for a formal fight to be staged the next afternoon, just after evening chapel.
So it was that at 4 o'clock on the chilly Monday a group of several hundred tailcoated and top-hatted Etonians formed a human ring at the traditional fighting spot, beside the south end of the great brick wall where Eton's unique Wall Game is still played. Both combatants were stripped to the waist. Francis Ashley-Cooper, a slimly built, handsome boy of 14, looked a poor match for Charles Wood, who stood a brawny half-head taller, was getting on for 15 and already sported an incipient mustache.
Yet, during the first few rounds the nimble action of the younger boy seemed to give him a good chance. With darting feet and incisive handiwork he was able, time and again, to dodge in under Wood's hefty guard and plant his fists on his opponent's chest and face. At the end of the fourth round Ashley-Cooper offered his failing opponent the chance to end the fight; but Wood refused. His persistence may have resulted from the fact that he was missing an appointment with his tutor. Whatever the reason, the tremendous pace of Ashley-Cooper's energetic footwork soon began to tell, and by the 10th round Wood was visibly gaining. In round 11 he lunged in with a hammer blow; his naked, clenched fist swung hard into Ashley-Cooper's temple; the boy went down to lie motionless on the ground. Charles Wood's supporters cried out in triumph that surely their man had won.
It was all very disappointing for the spectators. Here they were, with a half holiday to ensure freedom from more classes, and the wretched fight was over in less than half an hour. But the oldest of three Ashley-Cooper brothers at the school had an idea. Someone had already obtained a six pennyworth of brandy to rub the fighter's aching knuckles between rounds. Seizing the bottle, the senior Ashley-Cooper thrust its neck into the unwilling mouth of his brother and tilted it upward. The boy gulped, hiccuped and rose unsteadily to his feet. "We will have another round," said his second. "We are in no hurry." Ashley-Cooper was soon gamely lashing out once more at his larger opponent.