Eton College has a very long list of distinguished former pupils, including eighteen former British Prime Ministers. Traditionally, Eton has been referred to as "the chief nurse of England's statesmen", and is often described as the most famous public school in the world.
Eton is famous for the traditions it maintains, for its strict hierarchies, rules, and traditional school uniforms. The English boarding school system, for which Eton is perhaps the most famous example, is said to have been inspired by the strictness of the Spartan educational system.
Eton College is organized by Houses which board about 50 boys each. Each House is headed by a House Master, who is selected from the more senior members among the teaching staff.
The number of Houses has grown over the centuries. Currently there are 25 Houses which board 1,308 boys.
In addition to the housemaster, each house has a House Captain and a Games Captain. Some Houses choose to elect more than one. House prefects were once elected from the oldest year, but this no longer happens. The old term, Library, survives in the name of the room set aside for the house prefects use, and they often have a kitchen. The situation is similar with the junior prefects of the year below, once known as Debate.
There are entire house gatherings every evening, usually around 8.05-8.15 p.m. These are known as Prayers, due to their original nature. The housemaster and boys have an opportunity to make announcements, and sometimes light entertainment is provided by the boys.
There are many inter-house competitions, mostly in the field of sport.
For much of Eton's history, junior boys had to act as fags, or servants, to older boys. Their duties included cleaning, cooking and running errands. A Library member was entitled to yell at any time and without notice "Boy, Up!" or "Boy, Queue!", and all first year boys had to come running. The last boy to arrive was given the task. These practices, known as fagging, were phased out of most houses in the 1970s and completely abolished in the 1980s, although first year boys are still given some tasks by the Captains of House and Games.
Corporal punishment at Eton
At Eton, older boys were traditionally permitted to chastize younger boys, and the majority of corporal punishments on the school grounds was inflicted by students such as fagmasters rather than masters. But of course Eton students were also beaten by the adult staff. The beatings were harsh even by the standards of their time, but what many students remember as being worse were the fear-inciting rituals that were made about them.
Canings were most common, for example bent over a chair, or kneeling on a chair, placed in the middle of the Library of the student's House. For the most serious offenses, birchings were given - these punishments were called floggings, or colloquially, swishings.
Birching in the Eton fashion, from early times up until the mid 19th century, was undoubtedly a severe and unpleasant punishment to undergo. A special birching block was used, with a step to kneel on. The delinquent boy was told to 'Go down' at which point he was required to let down his breeches (i.e. trousers) and underpants and to "mount" (kneel on) the block with his buttocks thus exposed. The boy would kneel on the lower step and bend over the upper step, placing his hands flat on the floor on the other side. His clothing would be adjusted by the two boys (known as Praepostors) who were designated as helpers. Each part of the school had its own flogging block, with a smaller block for junior boys in the "Lower School", and a larger one for seniors in the "Upper School". The one in the illustration is the smaller "Lower School" block.
The Praepostors were responsible for ensuring that the boy did not get out of position until the full number of strokes (or "cuts", as they were also called) with the birch had been administered to his bare bottom. In some accounts, boys mention the practices of stuffing a handkerchief in their mouths to stifle their cries and of keeping one arm, protected by a pulled-down sleeve or even a glove, down by their right side to stop the painful effect of the ends of the birch twigs curling round their body on impact.
The Eton Birch used was a lot bigger than usual birches, and was a savage and grotesque instrument. It was 54 inches (132 cm) long, three feet of which were the handle and two feet of a thick bunch of birch twigs. It was common for the birch to draw spots of blood by the end of a flogging, and bits of birch twig would often be left embedded in the victim's buttocks. For the severest punishments, it was not unknown for two birches to be used, with a fresh birch being called for halfway through the flogging, if the first had become worn, and lost some of its effectiveness. In the 19th century, a new dozen birch rods were supposed to be at hand at Eton every morning, to be used in the course of the day.
Until well into the twentieth century, all birchings of junior boys in the "lower school" were carried out in public. Boys in the sixth form were flogged in private in the Headmaster's own schoolroom. Birching on the bare buttocks was retained as a method of punishment right up until 1964. It was banned by the headmaster Michael McCrum, though he continued to use the cane.
Eton's greatest flogging Headmaster of the early 19th century, Dr. John Keate, who birched dozens of boys everyday during his reign, was said to have known his pupils by their posteriors better than by their faces.
"A boy 'complained of' by a master or tutor, for any one of a long list of possible offences and also for idleness at lessons, would be 'put in the bill' (the flogging list). Then, at the appointed hour, he would be birched by either the Head or the Lower Master, depending on his position in the school. In the Lower School the 'executions' were always fully public and the boys would gather to watch the fun, with Upper School boys also permitted to attend. It must have been humiliating, especially for sensitive victims. Generally a boy endured the ordeal with fortitude, but sometimes there were scenes of screaming, howling and struggling.
The poet Algernon Swinburne (1837 – 1909) is said to have become a spanking fetishist directly as a result of his schoolboy experiences at Eton, during which he received several birchings himself, and would have been a witness to hundreds more. He wrote many poems based on his experiences at Eton with titles such as "Charlie Collingwood's Flogging", "Arthur's Flogging" and "Reginald's Flogging", plus the epic "The Flogging Block."
Eton today has a school museum where the type of blocks and birches used are on display.
- Lower schoolroom at Eton (photo), with the birching block and birch against the far wall.
- Corporal punishment at two contrasting public schools
- Photo of an Eton birch vs. a Christ's Hospital birch
- Birching at Eton (a forum thread)
- Artist's impression of the Birching Room at Eton College, showing the flogging block which was used in the "Lower School" for the birching of junior boys aged between 10 and 13.