Places: Tom Brown’s School Days

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1857, anonymously; 1858, with full authorship

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Rugby School

*Rugby Tom Brown’s School DaysSchool. One of the great English public schools, founded in 1567. In writing this novel, Thomas Hughes described the world of Rugby School as he knew it when he was a student there in the 1830’s. Tom’s first sight of the school is of the playing field and a long line of stone buildings, with the chapel at one end and the schoolhouse, containing the headmaster’s residence, at the other. Much of the action occurs on the close, or playing field, a large, open space divided into two areas. Between a gravel walk bordering the building and a line of elm trees, the younger boys play their cricket matches, and on the other side of the trees the older boys play theirs. There are goals at the ends of these fields, which are kept in good repair by the school’s servants, as are the grassy fields themselves, which are regularly wetted down and smoothed with rollers. At one side is a fives’ court for handball players. From his first day, when he throws himself into a cricket match, until his last day, nine years later, when he plays as the respected captain of the school’s best team, many of Tom’s successes and failures take place on the close.

Schoolhouse hall

Schoolhouse hall. Large chamber, thirty feet long and eighteen feet high that is the setting for many of the indoor events in the story. Along one side are two large fireplaces whose blazing fires provide the heat and much of the light. There are two long tables where the boys eat, one in the middle of the room and the other closer to the wall. It is in this room that Tom first sees the august headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold, presiding over the main meal, served at midday. This room is the site of mealtime pranks, companionable chats, and school singings. It is also the place where Tom is dangled before one of the great fireplaces by Flashman, the school bully.

Study rooms

Study rooms. The boys’ studies are important in the novel. The study rooms are roughly six by four feet assigned to pairs of boys for the preparation of their lessons. Each contains a table, a chair, a sofa and bookcases. The study of Tom and his friend East, adorned with prints of dogs and horses, is the repository for their beloved cricket bats and fishing rods. Later, Tom shares a larger study with George Arthur, a young protégé assigned to him by Dr. Arnold. George’s mother provides a fine desk, curtains, and a carpet. These studies are the places in which Tom foments rebellion against the tyranny of the older boys, struggles with his Latin and Greek translations, and has long religious and philosophical discussions with his friends.


Chapel. In the area behind the chapel, traditionally the location for the boys’ fights, Tom engages in his only bout of fisticuffs. Within the chapel, Dr. Arnold delivers from the high pulpit sermons which hold the attention of some of the boys, while others fidget in the pews and scratch their initials into the wood. Others stare out at the treetops visible through the large window behind the organ loft. In the book’s closing scene, Tom pays his respects to the memory of Dr. Arnold, whose remains lie beneath the altar.


*Rugby. Village located about twelve miles southwest of Coventry. Rugby of the 1830’s is a quiet place, lacking street lighting or paving. The boys are in the village almost daily, most especially to visit Sally Harrowell’s, a shop where they buy sweets and roast potatoes for their teatime. Throughout the year they roam the nearby farmers’ fields and woods and swim and fish in the River Avon, which borders the town.

BibliographyBriggs, Asa. Victorian People. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. The author, an eminent British historian, discusses the notable figures, ideas, and events of the high Victorian era (1851-1867). Included is a brilliant chapter on “Thomas Hughes and the Public Schools.”Chandos, John. Boys Together. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. In this scholarly analysis of the English public school from 1800 to 1864, Dr. Thomas Arnold plays the central role. The importance of Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days as popularizing Arnold’s reforms at Rugby is discussed.Mack, Edward C., and W. H. G. Armytage. Thomas Hughes: The Life of the Author of “Tom Brown’s School Days.” London: Ernest Benn, 1952. This is the standard biography of Hughes, an archetypal Victorian figure, and illustrates his many literary, political, and social endeavors. Included is an extensive discussion of Tom Brown’s School Days.Quigly, Isabel. The Heirs of Tom Brown: The English School Story. London: Chatto & Windus, 1982. Analyzes the development of the numerous stories written about England’s public boarding schools, a genre that began with Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days.Worth, George J. Thomas Hughes. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A recent analysis of Hughes the writer rather than Hughes the politician and public figure. Concentrates on Tom Brown’s School Days.
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