Even by the standards of the Victorian boarding school, William Sewell, the founder and (after two wardens had resigned in quick succession) the third warden of Radley, was eccentric. From his days as an Oxford don he had loved the sound of his own voice: all his lectures, according to one listener, were lectures on Sewell. He suffered agonies of indecision, prostrating himself in the locked chapel before flogging a boy and sometimes bursting into tears after doing so. In later years he treated the school as though it was his own property. Nor did anything in the behaviour of the first warden, Robert Singleton, who was Irish, overbearing, impulsive and never in the wrong, contradict the judgement of one of his senior boys that his training and disposition "had not fitted him to be head of an English public school''.
It is scarcely surprising that the first attempt of these two men to found a school in Ireland that would be "something more than Winchester or Eton'' foundered within two years. When Radley Hall near Abingdon, with grounds laid out by Capability Brown, became available, they transferred their ambitions to Oxfordshire. Sewell and Singleton believed that boys should be surrounded by fine things and spent lavishly. Radley was to be a place "in which noblemen's sons might live as in their own father's house'', said Sewell, who was, it has to be said, a snob. Sadly for him noblemen did not flock to enter their sons, and nor did commoners. There were only two boys on the roll when the school opened in 1847, and 15 months later no more than 36. By contrast Marlborough, in the same era, began with 195. However the Bishop of Oxford, "Soapy Sam'' Wilberforce, agreed to become visitor and sent two of his own sons to the new school.
Despite the lavish furnishings life was hard for these early pupils. Sewell had the traditional view of the educational value of hardship. Cold baths were a virtue, and meals for many years even less eatable than at other public schools of the day. Singleton devised a daily timetable that "got rid of luncheons which cause trouble and stuffing'' and the boys were so hungry that they dug up and consumed bulbs from the garden and park. Food was even more sparse during Lent, and the masters were expected to go without dinner on Fridays.
For decades after Sewell and Singleton the school struggled on. Christopher Hibbert's scholarly and entertaining history illustrates the extraordinary conservatism of educational institutions, in this case the way in which the ethos survived the changes from warden to warden, and the chances that brought together successive generations of teachers and taught.
Radley was for 100 years a slightly kinder and more tolerant place than many public schools; its boys were noted for good manners, and its high church chapel services were not a mere matter of form. But it lacked intellectual cutting edge and it did not do outstandingly well at games, nor indeed at anything else. The best of the early 20th-century wardens, William Ferguson, complained that it was like a "glorious country club for both young and older men''.
The "dons'', as they rather grandly called themselves, at times took life in as leisurely a way as their pupils. In one respect, however, they were not as easy-going: they were often at war with the warden and usually won. The Radley common room, it was said, "always breaks its warden''. As late as 1968 W. M. M. Milligan, on the point of retirement as warden, referred to his dons as "those bloody, bloody men''. Some wardens, notably W. H. Ferguson and J. C. V. Wilkes, pushed the school onwards better than others, but Radley remained a pretty ordinary place until the arrival of Milligan's successor, Dennis Silk.
The school historian, especially when he is writing of his own alma mater as Hibbert is, tends to judge recent decades kindly, knowing that some of the principal actors and those who knew them are still alive and ready to take offence. The reader should not be led on this occasion, however, to underestimate the impact on Radley of the transforming 23-year reign of Silk. "You're not going to find this school very easy, sir,'' was the senior prefect's encouraging judgment at his first meeting with the new warden. But the competitive former Cambridge cricket and rugby blue, in partnership with a wife who also threw herself into the life of the school, led by example. His energy blew away the country-club complacency of the past, and his dedication to hard work and all-round excellence proved infectious to masters and boys alike. If he remained formidable he was also approachable, and boys became used to the summons to a drink and a one-to-one chat on their birthdays. Academic standards rose; the arts flourished and so did rugby, cricket and rowing; parents queued to enter their sons.
In the words of John Rae, then headmaster of Westminster, "he has brought Radley up to being, after Eton, the most sought-after school in England". Those of us who were headmasters during his era generally acknowledged that he was the best of us all. Certainly he did what few headmasters can claim to have done: he won his school promotion from the second division to the first. No ordinary place at last.
Eric Anderson is rector, Lincoln College, Oxford, and was formerly headmaster, Eton College.
No Ordinary Place: Radley College and the Public School System 1847-1997
Author - Christopher Hibbert
ISBN - 0 7195 5176 5
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £26.00
Pages - 385