IT is often remarked by our neighbours on the Continent, and it is seldom denied among ourselves, that we are a nation of grumblers. Grumbling letters to the editor, for example, and grumbling articles in support of those letters, form two of the characteristics which are peculiar to English newspapers. Grumbling speeches, again, in virtue of their steady burden of complaint, secure a favourable reception for those patriots at our public meetings who have no oratorical recommendations of any sort to give them a personal claim on the attention of an audience. And a grumbling conversation is well known to everybody as the safe neutral ground on which two Englishmen, strangers to each other, can generally contrive to meet with the completest sense of ease and comfort. Unquestionably we are a race of grumblers; and grumbling is one of the very few national defects which we happen to be clever enough to discover for ourselves.
To do us justice, however, there are some few subjects of public importance to the discussion of which we are always ready to apply ourselves in a spirit of the most unquestioning contentment and approval. The great and general improvement in the condition of society; in its principles and practice; in its stores of knowledge, its habits, manners, and modes of thinking, is one of these subjects. There is hardly any public means of loudly congratulating ourselves on our own progress which we have not tried; and it may fairly be added, that our exultation in this matter is not without its solid foundation on reason and on truth. We have, in many most important respects, advanced resolutely, industriously, and honourably from a state of past darkness to a state of present light. No thoughtful man can look back, even through no longer a period than the last fifty years, without thankfully acknowledging that the English nation has been, up to this moment, both politically and socially, a notable gainer.
But, while we freely assert our right to take some credit to ourselves for the progress that we have indisputably made, we must by no means be disposed to deny that many—far too many—more victories still remain to be won over the barbarous forces led by those three rampant commanders, General Ignorance, General Prejudice, and General Folly. Probably, the most dangerous national fault, of the moral sort, which we can now commit is to look too complacently at what we have done, and thereby to fall into the error of forgetting too readily all that we have still left to do. Strong as it has become, the new life of the nation, in this age, is still beset by base infirmities and lamentable weaknesses which its constitutional vigour has yet to throw off. Hardly a week passes without some event happening which, for the moment, staggers the belief of Englishmen in their own progress, and warns them that they have not gained ground enough, even now, to warrant any slackening of their pace on the forward march. An occurrence of this kind—private in its nature, but leading with the strictest directness to certain useful conclusions which may fairly be claimed as public property—has recently come within our own knowledge. We propose to give it general notoriety in these pages, because we believe, on the grounds just stated, that its exposure can hardly fail to be productive of some public good.
Some little time since, a gentleman, well and widely-known to the public as an excellent manager of a theatre and an actor standing deservedly in the foremost rank of his profession; equally well known among a large circle of friends and acquaintances, as an honourable man, in the strictest and the highest meaning of those words—Mr. Alfred Wigan—sent his son, aged eight years, to be educated at a certain private school. The boy was happy and comfortable, and was getting on with his learning to his father’s satisfaction, when, one day, the master of the school called upon Mr. Wigan, to say that he had just found out the nature of that gentleman’s profession, and that, as a necessary consequence of the discovery, he could no longer consent to number among his scholars Mr. Wigan’s son. No shadow of objection was advanced against the boy. On the contrary, the schoolmaster admitted that he was as good and as gentlemanly a boy as he had ever met with. But the school was a genteel school; the connection was a genteel connection; and a fatal injury might be done to the character of the establishment if the fact became generally known that its walls contained the son of an actor. Further questioning elicited that the schoolmaster, in his alarm for his own reputation, had taken Time by the forelock, and had not waited until any actual objections had emerged from the genteel connection. He was not, however, on that account the less certain that the objections would in course of time arise. His conclusions in this respect were shared, and his course of conduct approved, by his brother-in-law, who also kept a private school; and he had, therefore, only to reiterate his request, that one of his best pupils should be removed from his school, on this one ground only—that the boy was an actor’s son.
We are not disposed, in noticing this business, to waste too many words on the schoolmaster. If he felt for himself, when he was in Mr. Wigan’s presence, one-fiftieth part of the contempt which we feel for him, his sense of self-degradation must have been complete. Compare the conditions on which this obedient servant of the genteel classes gets his bread with the conditions on which a sweeper of crossings gets his bread—and see how immensely the balance of creditable independence turns against the man with the birch, and in favour of the man with the broom! It is no doubt hard, in the first heat of indignation, to abstain from assigning to the schoolmaster rather more than his own insignificant share in the outrage. But a little calm reflection soon sets him in his proper place, and even suggests a reasonable doubt whether it is strictly right to speak of him as a schoolmaster at all. Looking to the motive which produced his visit to Mr. Wigan, is it not fitter to consider him as a small tradesman who keeps, not a school, but a little knowledge-shop, and who is horribly afraid of offending, not his connection, but his customers? Surely anger is too large an emotion to be stirred up by such a very small man. Surely it is a waste of attention to bestow much notice upon such an extremely trifling smear on the garments of civilised humanity as this.
But the aspect of the matter, as it regards the connection (or the customers) of whose inexpressibly mean prejudices the schoolmaster (or small tradesman) is only the unsavoury mouthpiece, suggests considerations of a more serious kind. It would give us pleasure, if we could fairly persuade ourselves that this was an isolated case, and that the brother-in-law, who would have acted like him under similar circumstances, were two exceptional proprietors of private schools. Unfortunately we happen to know that the instance of Mr. Wigan’s son is not a solitary instance. The little daughter of Mr. Phelps—whose management of Sadler’s Wells Theatre has entitled him to the gratitude and respect of every decent man in this country—was outlawed by another private school under precisely similar circumstances.
These examples have come to us. We have not sought them out. If we chose to make inquiries, we have no doubt that many more, equally disgraceful to the age we live in, might be easily produced. But there is no need to heap instances on instances. It is sufficiently disheartening without seeking further, to have discovered even three private schools only, in three different parts of England, the genteel patrons of which impose on the proprietor, who exists by their custom, a species of treatment of the children of actors which would be inexcusable if applied to the children of felons. We hope, and believe, for the credit of our country, and our civilisation, that such people as these so shamefully ignorant of the first Christian duty which each man owes to his neighbour—are comparatively few in number. But, even assuming this, how lamentable a capacity for doing harm lies lurking in that mean minority! how vilely the little, little reptile can sting! how widely the taint that tells of its existence reeks up from the ground, and spreads through the atmosphere! What amount of moral and intellectual progress have some of our countrymen, our well-dressed, well-connected countrymen, made, since the bad bye-gone time when actors were refused the rites of Christian burial? Here is the wicked spirit of that wicked old social prejudice alive still among some of us, in the latter half of the nineteenth century. There is something portentous in the bare discovery that such people exist. How far behind the age they live in are they in other matters? In what rocky fastnesses do they lie hid? Is the ducking of witches one of their favourite amusements? Would they fly with shrieks if they saw a steam-engine? Where is Doctor Livingstone? Where are all the other missionary travellers? Here are the heathen about us, somewhere or other in this country, and no Society for the Propagation of the Gospel At Home, to find them out.
It will not be amiss to turn, for a moment, from these private schools and their customers, and to note the wholesome contrast which the practice of our public schools presents, in this very matter of the education of the sons of actors. Here are two examples which will strike everybody—Mr. Macready and Mr. Charles Kean. Mr. Macready was the son of an actor, and was educated at Rugby. Mr. Charles Kean was the son of an actor, and was educated at Eton. All the advantages which those two admirable schools could offer, were as fully, freely, and fairly bestowed on these two actors’ sons, as on the sons of any other men, peers or commoners, who were educated with them. A public school can afford to be independent of the prejudices of individuals. A public school does not appeal for a reputation to this parent or to that parent: it appeals to the nation. Its masters hold a public trust, and not a private speculation. Take your son away, or leave him here—which you please. Every boy in this school has his free, fair, equal chance among his fellows. We have the right hand of welcome just as ready for the son of an actor, as for the son of an archbishop. No small social animosities of yours, or of any man’s, shall worm their way into this place. In school or out of school, we have one rule here to which all parents and all boys must conform, or leave us—the rule of Fair Play. That is the language which a public schoolmaster could hold to-morrow to any parent in England, who raised a cruel, and senseless objection against the reception of any well-conducted boy as a pupil of the school. Where is "the proprietor of a select establishment for young gentlemen," who can take the same resolute ground? It is in the very nature of his speculation, that it places him at the mercy of the parents. If there were no other objection to private schools than the objection which this fact implies, surely the case against them, even thus far, rests unmistakably on a practical foundation.
A prejudice against the stage merely, is a prejudice which we can pity and pass by. But a prejudice against the stage which asserts its ignorant distrust of actors by cruelly fastening itself on innocent children, by meanly grudging them their education, and by pitilessly endeavouring to deprive them of a place in society at the very outset of life, is a prejudice for which we have no mercy. Bigots of this class are past reproof and past argument. It would indeed be monstrous to suppose that the question wanted any arguing at all. To say that Mr. Wigan’s son and Mr. Phelps’s daughter are the children of gentlemen, and have a right and claim to be educated along with the children of any other gentlemen in this empire, let them be whom they may, is about equivalent to saying that two and two make four.
Our hope of ever seeing the scandal abolished which is cast upon our social system by such proceedings as are here disclosed, does not depend upon any such desperate prospect as the possible letting in of light upon minds which have no capacity for receiving illumination. Mean class prejudices of all kinds are only finally scattered and disposed of when they come into collision with the sense of the nation at large. This sense is represented, in the question of education, by the system of our public schools; and a general extension of that sound, liberal, and thoroughly independent system, in the future, seems to us to offer the only hopeful prospect of effectually reforming the gross abuse which is here exposed—to say nothing of other abuses into the discussion of which we need not enter at present. A growing distrust has arisen of late years in the popular mind towards private schools. No very long time has elapsed since their shameless charges were publicly commented on, in the strongest terms and in all directions. At this moment, their system of education is being subjected to a public test, and is not answering that test to the national satisfaction. The facts disclosed in these pages will certainly not tend to improve their character in the estimation of any fair-minded judges. Upon the whole, the chance does not seem hopelessly remote that the next move in education may be a move towards the extension of public schools, and towards the consequent extinction of prejudices which, exceptional as we trust they may be, are nevertheless, so long as they exist at all, a disgrace to our country and our time.
We are not putting this matter forward as Mr. Wigan’s private grievance or as Mr. Phelps’s private grievance. The names of those gentlemen have been frankly mentioned, because their appearance here runs no risk of being misunderstood, and because the sympathy which we offer to them, and which we believe our readers will offer to them also, is such sympathy as men of high character may honourably accept. We bring this matter forward, not as the grievance of two individuals, but as the grievance of every man among us who has an interest in seeing the reputation of his countrymen for common intelligence, and common decency of feeling, properly maintained.
First published Household Words 2 October 1858 XVIII No.445 pp361-363
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