Dr Duncan Stone, University of Huddersfield
Writing of the thirteen elite public schools of England in 1891, the educationalist M. J. Rendell unashamedly pointed out that ‘of the “thicks”; “intermediates” and “clever” boys, it is the intermediates: a group of “honest workers with sound headpieces and average wits, who will soon be playing a considerable part in the politics and general life of England’.
Average wits notwithstanding, anyone emerging from Eton, Harrow, Winchester or Westminster at this time was afforded – as a ‘gentleman’ – an indisputable authority that allowed them to simply assume positions of leadership. Their authority remained mostly intact, even if the ‘blood’ so crucial to a gentleman’s nobility in the past had been severely diluted by the overwhelming expansion of the public school system and the middle-classes it helped to produce.
The idealised gentleman was brave, loyal, and chivalrous towards females, put public duty before his own interests, and took part in activities for love rather than financial gain. These values were applied to a wide range of activities during the nineteenth century. Science, politics and the arts were all defined by this hegemonic ideal of the ‘gentleman amateur’.
Politics aside, large numbers of these ‘volunteers’ proved to be selfless and financially generous patrons, or anonymous hobbyists. But their attitudes and activities could still hinder progress, or infringe upon the livelihoods and freedoms of lower-class professionals. Nowhere was this intrusion more pronounced than in sport. Indeed, ‘the stage’ apart, sport appears to have been the gentleman amateur’s favourite fields of operation.
Predictably, how long such gentleman remained a cultural influence is contested. Whereas Mark Girouard cites the period following the carnage of the First World War, and Marcus Collins proposes the post-Suez 1950s as the time the English gentleman ceased to exist, Martin Weiner argues that the concept survived into the 1970s.
There is a good deal of evidence – most recently Boris Johnson’s ascension to Prime Minister and a cabinet of which some two thirds were educated at public schools – to suggest such conclusions have proved way off the mark. The public school ‘Old Boys Network’ continues to flourish. How this has been achieved is open to question. But sport – famous for its alleged ‘level playing field’ – provides clues as to how the public schools continue to dominate every significant aspect of British life.
In essence this continued dominance relies upon the suppression of meritocracy. Rugby split in two in 1895 because of the Rugby Football Union refused to allow ‘broken time’ payments to predominantly northern, working class players. In the southeast of England, competition in recreational cricket was outlawed between the wars to create a cultural and physical distance between the classes. This overt elitism was overturned during the 1960s and 1970s. But, as the ‘profit’ principle gradually replaced Keynesian welfare state economics from 1979, it was replaced, nationwide, by a different form of elitism largely hidden within broader policy decisions.
The sale of some ten thousand playing fields between 1981 and 1997, allied to severe cuts to the education budget, had a hugely negative impact on sport participation rates that Prime Minister, John Major sought to reverse with a highly personal policy statement ‘Sport: Raising the Game’ in 1995. This initiative privileged highly gendered, team sports such as cricket, football, rugby, netball and hockey – and signaled a shift away from the Sports Council’s ‘Sport for All’ credo of the 1970s. It was a retreat from ‘mass participation, informal recreation and leisure pursuits’ towards elite level sport.
As in the Cabinet, the privately educated are once again overrepresented among Britain’s top athletes. A third of Team GB’s medalists at the Rio Olympics in 2016 were privately educated and the England Test side was 73% privately educated in 2015.
Despite the modern game’s hyper-commercialism, cricket remains the sport most influenced by the gentleman amateur. Off the field, the BBC’s Test Match Special commentary box remains dominated by public school attitudes and archetypes, with ‘Aggers’ (Uppingham), ‘Tuffers’ (Highgate) and, until his retirement in 2017, ‘Blowers’ (Eton) frequently exploiting the forthright opinions of Geoffrey Boycott (the son of a Yorkshire miner) as a source of humour. Giles Clarke (Rugby School) acted as the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) unpaid chairman between 2007 and 2015.
Boris Johnson’s rise to Prime Minister, like many Olympians, cricketers and sports administrators may have involved a degree of ‘hard work’ but there is little doubt the privately educated benefit from social and administrative structures that ensure class divisions remain as strong as ever.
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About the author: Dr Duncan Stone is a visiting researcher at the University of Huddersfield, where he is writing a social history of recreational cricket in England (Chronos, 2020). His research explores the links between social class and cultural change, as well as the social and philosophical origins of the so-called ‘gentleman amateur’.