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King's Scholars, Oppidans and Private Tutors

There had always been a clear distinction between the 70 scholars provided for by the original foundation of Henry VI and other boys who were initially known as Commensals. Commensals, or 'table companions', so known because they took their meals with the King's Scholars in College Hall, were sons of the nobility who were not themselves scholars, and might be lodged with a Fellow in the Cloisters or in whatever accommodation they could secure in the town with a landlady. The precise origin of the term 'Oppidan' is obscure, with some suggesting that both Commensals and Oppidans existed side-by-side before the Commonwealth, when they almost certainly did not pay fees. Either or both had lessons in Lower School with the scholars and Commensals (but not Oppidans) took their meals in College Hall with Fellows and scholars. It was after the Civil War, when the royalist sympathies and nobility of the Commensals led to their demise, that a different system emerged.

Unlike the Commensals, ‘Oppidans’ (Latin ‘oppidum’ meaning ‘town’) were not allowed to take their meals in Hall. New and more elaborate lodging arrangements were needed and what developed in the early 18th century was the ‘Dame’s house’. The first of these dames’ houses was said to have been run by the mother of the Head Master, Dr Snape, who built Jourdelay’s House in 1722 for the purpose. Gladstone, for example, boarded with Mrs Shurey in the house now completely rebuilt at the southern end of the Long Walk; Wellington boarded with Miss Naylor at the Manor House which is adjacent to the Memorial Buildings in Common Lane. Dames’ houses were in a few cases run by men known as domines who were usually teachers of non-classical subjects but they were not part of the regular staff of the school. Of 13 houses in 1766, three were run by domines. Soon after this, assistant masters began taking boarders and the dames’ houses were gradually superseded. The last of the dames was the remarkable Miss Evans who had the attractive house on the left side of Keate’s Lane (Evans’s) and who died in office in 1906. There are now 24 oppidan houses with about 50 boys in each.

King's Scholars in School Yard

At the same time as the oppidan houses were coming into existence, the tutorial system was taking shape. Parents were able to choose from among eight or nine assistant masters a tutor to supervise their son’s work. Some of the wealthier parents, however, chose to send their sons to Eton accompanied by a private tutor. One of these, Dr Barnard, was so successful (Horace Walpole called him the ‘Pitt of masters’) that he was appointed Head Master, a post he held with great distinction (1754–65). In the mid-19th century it was made compulsory to have a tutor chosen from among the regular staff, and the private tutor disappeared from the Eton scene.