Arnold Reforms Rugby School Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the years after his death, Dr. Thomas Arnold came to be regarded as the most innovative educator of his generation. This posthumous fame, due in large part to the testimonies of former students and friends, permanently associated the name of this headmaster of Rugby School with nineteenth century educational reform.

Summary of Event

Born on June 13, 1795, Thomas Arnold was the son of a customs official stationed on the Isle of Wight. When he was six years old, his father suddenly died of a heart attack—just as Thomas would die the day before his own forty-seventh birthday in 1842. Educated at Warminster and Winchester, Arnold was elected a scholar at Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, in 1811, when he was only sixteen. Three years later, he earned a first-class degree (the equivalent of an A average) in classics and received a fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford, in 1815. In 1818, he was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England, and in 1820 he married Mary Penrose. The Arnolds had five sons and four daughters; their most famous child was Matthew Arnold, the poet and essayist. Rugby School England;education Education;British Arnold, Thomas England;public schools [kw]Arnold Reforms Rugby School (1828-1842) [kw]Reforms Rugby School, Arnold (1828-1842) [kw]Rugby School, Arnold Reforms (1828-1842) [kw]School, Arnold Reforms Rugby (1828-1842) Rugby School England;education Education;British Arnold, Thomas England;public schools [g]Great Britain;1828-1842: Arnold Reforms Rugby School[1390] [c]Education;1828-1842: Arnold Reforms Rugby School[1390] Hughes, Thomas Stanley, Arthur Penrhyn

Thomas Hughes, author of the novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays, which immortalized Rugby School.

(Library of Congress)

In 1828, Thomas Arnold received the degrees of bachelor of divinity and doctor of divinity; that same year, he was appointed headmaster of Rugby School. His only previous experience teaching was coaching a small number of students seeking a place at either Oxford or Cambridge. Other than his own experience as a student, Arnold had no real practical knowledge of education. He was, however, an intensely religious man who believed he had a mission to help reform the morals of the aristocracy and of the rising middle class through education based on Christian principles. At times, Arnold approached this calling with the zeal and intensity of a seventeenth century Puritan. For the next fourteen years, he would exhort successive generations of students to follow the course he had set for himself.

Arnold was an innovator in the area of interdisciplinary studies. While the curriculum at Rugby School was broadened to include work in mathematics Mathematics;and English education[English education] , the sciences, and modern foreign languages, half of the academic program still was grounded in the classics. Arnold’s primary goal as headmaster was the promotion of “Christian education” as the cornerstone of the future. He also sought to mold gentlemen from the boys who were sent to him from every stratum of British society. Creating a climate in which first-class scholars might thrive was not half as important to him as fashioning an atmosphere in which the youngsters under his control might be transformed into models of manly virtue. While he recognized the value of exercise, Arnold was not an advocate of games—such as Rugby football—as tools for building character.

At times, the system of forcing younger boys to perform all manner of domestic duties for older students (known as “fagging”) had amounted at Rugby School to institutionalized sadism. While Arnold approved of the system in principle, he sought to transform it to serve the greater good. The most able and mature older boys were appointed as prefects and given the responsibility of training and supervising the younger boys within the framework of the fagging system. In addition to their teaching duties, the school’s masters were expected to monitor and advise the prefects. By integrating the older boys into the administrative structure of the school, Arnold was able to gain greater control over the whole student body in a manner that was soon copied in other schools throughout the kingdom. As masters left Rugby to assume the leadership of other schools, they duplicated Arnold’s managerial system in their new situations.

In 1841, Arnold was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford. The position required him to deliver eight public lectures a year, so Arnold was able to remain at Rugby School as headmaster and still fulfill his duties at Oxford. He was able to deliver only one lecture, however, before his untimely death from a heart condition in June, 1842. After his death, Arnold’s accomplishments and aspirations might have faded into obscurity had it not been for the devotion of his former students to his memory and to what they considered his legacy. In 1844, the Reverend Arthur Penrhyn Stanley Stanley, Arthur Penrhyn published The Life and Correspondence of Thomas Arnold, D.D., but it was Tom Brown’s School Days Tom Brown’s School Days (Hughes)[Tom Browns School Days (Hughes)] (1857) by Thomas Hughes Hughes, Thomas that created the popular legend of Dr. Thomas Arnold.

In the latter book, Tom Brown and his best friend Harry East, typical English schoolboys subjected to the countless temptations of youth, are transformed into models of Christian manhood by the benevolent presence of Dr. Arnold and the friendship of the saintly George Arthur. As in all good quest literature, the heroes must overcome some form of corruption or evil—in this case, Harry Flashman, a vicious bully. It is ironic that this enemy of chastity, virtue, and Dr. Arnold has become the antihero of a series of delightful modern novels by George MacDonald Fraser.

Tom Brown’s School Days was an instant success with young readers but also, and most especially, with their parents. Hughes created, in his Rugby School, an idealized representation of the perfect public school, one that emphasized the wholesome comradeship of the playing field, solid scholarly achievement, and manly Christianity under the leadership of a faculty dedicated to the boys in their charge. Hughes’s picture of education reassured the rising middle class that their sons matriculating at public schools would be entering a safe environment where they could master the lessons that would fit them someday to share in the governance and moral leadership of a great empire. His novel also transformed the rough-and-tumble game of Rugby football into a character-building exercise for would-be gentlemen. Thus, the game and the school would be forever linked in the public mind.

In 1896, with the placement of a bust of Dr. Thomas Arnold in Westminster Abbey, that Valhalla of Victorian respectability, the legend of the headmaster who transformed British education was complete. In seeking to honor their beloved headmaster, Stanley Stanley, Arthur Penrhyn and Hughes created a myth that was enhanced by the heroism displayed in two world wars by the men who were nurtured by the system to which Arnold contributed.


Dr. Thomas Arnold became a symbol of reform in the British educational system during the mid-nineteenth century. His fourteen-year tenure as the headmaster of Rugby School was arguably no more innovative than those of many of his contemporaries who headed Great Britain’s leading public schools during the same period. Indeed, many of the men who served under him as masters were actually more creative than he was when they left his tutelage to assume the leadership of other public schools.

The reputation of Thomas Arnold as the dean of Victorian educators was in large part created by the popularity of two works published by former students in the years immediately after his death: Stanley’s laudatory 1844 biography and Hughes’s 1857 Hughes, Thomas autobiographical novel. Thomas Arnold was a pivotal, if often unseen, character in the latter work’s fictional portrayal of Rugby School, and this rather sentimental novel has never been out of print since its publication. A film version of Tom Brown’s School Days, produced in 1940 and starring Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the mythic headmaster, served to enhance the reputation of Arnold, who has become a symbol of everything humane and innovative in modern British education.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chandos, John. Boys Together. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. Study of English public schools from 1800 to 1860; deals in depth with Dr. Arnold’s tenure as the headmaster of Rugby School and with the enhancement of his posthumous reputation as the innovator who helped transform British private education.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Copley, Terence. Black Tom: Arnold of Rugby, the Myth and the Man. London: Continuum, 2002. Examines Arnold’s life and his influence as an educator, theologian, and churchman. Provides a more balanced view than previous uncritical biographies on one hand and cynical mythbreakers on the other.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown’s School Days. Reprint. Holicong, Pa.: Wildside Press, 2004. Novel based on the personal experiences of the author; its celebration of the life and work of Dr. Arnold is extraordinary in its innocence and candor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCrum, Michael. Thomas Arnold, Headmaster: A Reassessment. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1989. Biography of Arnold that evaluates him and his educational reforms within the framework of his own time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simpson, J. B. Hope. Rugby Since Arnold: A History of Rugby School from 1842. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1967. Fascinating study of the men who built upon the reputation of Arnold and transformed the very fabric of that most British of institutions—the public school.

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