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The Reign of Dr Keate

The longest-serving and arguably the most remarkable Head Master in Eton’s history is Dr Keate (1809–34). He has the reputation of being the greatest flogging Head Master, the symbol of unreformed Eton, and a figure of fun. He is caricatured by Kinglake as follows: ‘He was little more (if more at all) than five feet in height, and was not very great in girth, but within this space was concentrated the pluck of ten battalions. You could not put him out of humour, that is out of the ill-humour which he thought to be fitting for a Head Master. His red, shaggy eyebrows were so prominent that he habitually used them as arms and hands for the purpose of pointing out any object towards which he wished to direct attention. He wore a fancy dress, partly resembling the costume of Napoleon, partly that of a widow woman.’

He was the last Head Master to attempt to teach all the senior boys (up to 200 but mainly around 100) in Upper School: given the lax state of discipline when he took up office and the disorderly character of the Regency period it is hardly surprising that he took severe measures. There was, of course, another side to Keate. He was a notable scholar and a gifted teacher. A fine orator himself, he taught boys to deliver speeches clearly enunciating words, and using voice and gesture to maximum effect. Two of his pupils became Prime Ministers, Derby and Gladstone, and it may well be that the training in public speaking given to boys for Speeches and Declarations had some effect on raising standards of parliamentary debate. In private, Keate was a man of geniality and kindness who much enjoyed entertaining boys to supper.

An example of the intellectual vitality of the school at this time is the foundation of the Eton Sociey in 1811. Initially a debating society, it met in Mrs Hatton’s confectionery shop (which would have sold sweets and buns) on the site of what is now School Hall. Soon it became known as ‘Pop’ (derived from the Latin ‘popina’ meaning ‘cookshop’) and later became a society for athletes rather than intellectuals and debaters. In the course of time Pop became responsible for discipline in the school, a function it has retained to the present day.

Although the reputation of Eton under Keate remained high, the school was in need of radical reform and this was undertaken over the next few decades. Class sizes were much reduced, more class rooms were built (New Schools, 1861), more and abler staff were appointed, the curriculum was widened from its narrow concentration on the Classics and the conditions in which scholars lived were immeasurably improved. These had deteriorated in the 18th century and were a scandal. No longer did the Head Master and Usher occupy the rooms at either end of Long Chamber, so there was a complete lack of supervision in this huge dormitory after the scholars were locked in at 8 p.m.: no longer did the Fellows eat in Hall and the food had become insufficient, monotonous and unappetising, while breakfast and tea were not even provided. As a result the numbers and quality of the scholars fell to such an extent that in 1841 half the places were unfilled. The deficiencies were remedied in the 1840s when Long Chamber was abolished and the New Buildings were erected, providing comfortable single rooms for the scholars.