The Playing Fields of Eton

The Battle of Waterloo is supposed to have been ‘won on the playing fields of Eton’; which seems unlikely, in view – firstly – of how many German troops were on our side, and secondly of how generally brainless Britain’s public school-educated officer class has been throughout modern history. (On the origin of the quote, see 

To the extent that it may be true, however, it could reveal something more about Eton’s and other public schools’ contribution to British public life. The ‘playing field’ was central to them. Cricket and Rugby moulded and tested ‘character’. A good example is Henry Newbolt’s famous poem, Vitai Lampada, which was meant to illustrate how lessons learned at cricket prepared boys for the horrors of war, no less. Here it is, reproduced in full. 

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night—
Ten to make and the match to win—
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
‘Play up! play up! and play the game! ‘

The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! play up! and play the game! ‘

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind—
Play up! play up! and play the game! 

Stirring stuff, isn’t it! And if it had this effect – to motivate young men to hurl themselves before the enemy guns by pretending that instead of soldiers in a great global conflict they were No. 11 batsmen in a cricket match between Gryffindor and Hufflepuff – I suppose it might have had its uses. But isn’t it likely to trivialise great events, to reduce them to the level of – essentially – play?

I wonder if our prominent present-day Etonians have been conditioned to look at public life in the same way? It would explain their lack of intellectual depth in dealing with the great problems of the day, which Boris Johnson – the most stereotypically Etonian of the three of them (the others are Cameron and Rees-Mogg) — does appear to treat as a kind of sport, a ‘game of thrones’, to be won for onesself (not necessarily for one’s nation) by any means necessary, without consideration for its broader implications and effects. Hence Boris’s flagrant lies and cheating, intended mainly for effect, and for his own self-advancement. He’s simply playing a game. Is this what an Eton education is all about? Games, Latin, and acting up to the image of the loveable toff? Nothing more solid and substantial, about serious politics, for example, or economics, or the real – modern – world? 

He surely can’t last long. Number 11 batsmen generally don’t.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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3 Responses to The Playing Fields of Eton

  1. Pingback: A Wilderness of Mirrors | Porter’s Pensées

  2. Phil says:

    Kipling’s _The Young British Soldier is a useful corrective to Newbolt (although it was written several years earlier) – the last few verses especially.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right. Kipling didn’t think much of those ‘flanneled fools at the wicket and muddied oafs in their goals’ (is that the reference?). But he was a bit of a weed himself; and always resented never having been to a PROPER public school.


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