‘Ready to Fight Everybody’: The Rise and Fall of Pupil Insurgency in England’s Public Schools: 1768-1868

Wells, Elizabeth (2024). ‘Ready to Fight Everybody’: The Rise and Fall of Pupil Insurgency in England’s Public Schools: 1768-1868. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.00095808


This thesis explores the distinctive phenomenon of pupil rebellions in English public schools which flourished in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The findings of this investigation challenge several commonly accepted theories concerning public schools during the period.

The potential causes of pupil insurgency are addressed in turn: the influence of contemporary political ideologies; changing conceptions of adolescence coupled with rebellion as a rite of passage; and the schools’ disciplinary environments. It is argued that, contrary to popular belief, late eighteenth-century public schools were not stagnating institutions. Instead, the spike in pupil insurgency was reactionary, triggered by attempts at reform. This section concludes with a consideration of whether rebellious behaviours were contagious and spread between schools.

The final part of this thesis addresses the reaction to pupil insurgency and its decline. Whilst parents and the public occasionally expressed sympathy with schoolboy rebels, generally school masters were supported, particularly as war with France increased agitation with episodes of domestic disorder. The development of the monitorial system within schools, widely attributed to Thomas Arnold, but in evidence in the early nineteenth century, helped reduce rebellion.

Involvement in a school rebellion could have lasting impact on a pupil’s life. For some, the experience was a proving ground allowing them to establish an identity as a leader, or a rebel. However, the disgrace of public expulsion could have a significant impact on the lives of those who were dependent on their education to access professional careers.

Together, this work suggests a new portrait of Georgian and early Victorian public schools as interrelated, dynamic and reforming in response to competition from private schools, and socio-economic changes of the time. It also emphasises their crucial role in the formative years of a significant proportion of influential figures in nineteenth-century society.

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