Local Heroes – Joseph Banks Walking Tour, Eton College, Windsor – Sunday 17th July 2011
Early on a wet Sunday morning in July our party from the Society boarded a coach in Horncastle Market Place for what was to be a quite unique opportunity to explore Sir Joseph’s old school. After further pick ups in Wragby and Lincoln we travellers followed the A1, M25 and M4 to Slough to discover that the Town of Eton is actually extremely difficult to access from the motorway. Interestingly perhaps for security reasons detailed plans of the College layout are nor freely available. Luckily waiting to meet us was George Fussey the Curator of the Eton College our guide for the day.
To avoid the rain the party quickly repaired to the Natural History Museum for lunch before setting out on a tour that visited areas not normally included on the tourist trail. The College we learned was established in 1440 by Henry VI to educate 75 “poor boys”, the number lives on in the number Kings Scholars, the remainder of the scholars are Oppidans all boarders. The King obviously set out to build a fine establishment but after Henry VI was deposed by Edward IV the College was forced to grow more slowly without a monarch’s generous support. To survive successive headmasters set out to attract the sons of wealthy benefactors so by the middle of the 18th Century the numbers had risen to around 200. It was in this period that the college established the boarding houses prior to that the boys had simply lodged in Town, no doubt a lucrative arrangement for everyone but the College. On the appointment of Edward Barnard, Joseph Bank’s Headmaster the College roll quickly doubled and the course set that the College has followed to this day.
Our tour started in the Court of the College, the only area large enough for all today’s scholars to assemble. Though there have been some extensions, the College is much as it would have been in Sir Joseph’s day. We started in the “Lower School” said to be the oldest school room in continuous use. The large low room still has uncomfortable looking benches and desks heavily carved with the names of generations of bored schoolboys. The scholars graduated to the “Upper School” on the first floor, again extensively carved with names including those of our present day Royal Princes. Marble busts remind the visitor that no less than 19 of our prime ministers were educated at the College.
Most poignantly a vast number of names also appear in the Cloisters on the College’s war memorial. Generations of Scholars especially after the Great War cannot have been unaware that the privileges they enjoyed also carried heavy responsibilities, Etonians were trained to lead, tragically for so many old boys up to and including Col H Jones in the Falklands that meant leading from at the very front in action.
The chapel, planned to have the longest nave of any college chapel in the land, never progressed beyond the chancel, was we found truly impressive though the roof reminiscent of Kings at Cambridge is actually a 1950s concrete structure. Faced with running out of time we opted to walk across the water meadows to the banks of the Thames, of course things must have changed but it was still possible to sense the peace and the variety of nature that inspired the young botanists that swam in the same river 250 years ago.
Walking through the college with it’s almost old university atmosphere one could only be surprised by sheer size of the school, with over 1300 boys each with their own room the boarding houses alone cover a large area. Each house consists of 50 boys supervised by their “dame” and House and Games Captains, in this respect the system has changed very little from young Joseph Bank’s day when fro 1756 he boarded with the redoubtable Mrs Francis Yonge at Jourdelay’s. We visited this impressive brick built home which must still be very much as it was in Sir Joseph’s day, indeed we saw in the garden the same mulberry tree that he would have known.
As members of the Sir Joseph Banks Society we had to be impressed by the obvious pride with which the College regards their old boy Sir Joseph. There were pictures and references to him throughout the college but it is the College’s Natural History Museum that recognises the importance of the man to the nation. The ground floor has a reproduction of Banks’ compact cabin on the Endeavour with a small bunk and a chest leaving little room for his lurcher to stretch out on the floor. There are numerous Banksian displays but for some of us it was the first time we set eyes on a complete set of Banks Florilegium, each box file of plant drawings is about 900 x 600 x 60mm and there are 34 of them! Not quite priceless but perhaps we will have to accept that a set is beyond the Society’s resources for a year or two. Outside was Eton’s Banks Memorial Garden, dare we claim it was not the most impressive in the UK!
We drove home reflecting on privilege, a society remote from most peoples’ lives, no girls, entry still largely restricted to the seriously wealthy, of each student having a separate room and the head start in the competitive World after just 5 years. Perhaps we thought about the burden of expectations those who studied there have to live with. We had learned of the College’s efforts to engage with and share resources with local schools, of the opportunities provided by holiday courses for students from all over the World. . It is easy to be critical but the anachronism is there, without Eton College would our nation’s history have been the same without men of the calibre of Wellington, Walpole, Gladstone, Keynes and of course Sir Joseph Banks.