The Pageant of British Boys

Figure 1.--A Saxon boy. Image courtesy of the AM collection.

A HBC reader who collects old books writes, "A noteworthy article I've been wanting to send HBC for a long time but not sure how to approach it. It's from one of those wonderful 'boys own' annuals. It is undated, but looks to be published in the 1930s. It's titled Young South Africa Fifth Annual Volume' and distributed by The Central News Agency, Ltd. If it was not for the cover title, it is typically a British 'Boys Own' type publication. I should imagine during the grand days of the British Empire, editions like this were made for sale in the various overseas dominions and colonies such as South Africa. Despite the title, the articles appear to be largely from material that was published in Britain for British boys. There were probably similar books published with the names of other colonies published on the cover, although this is the only one in my collection. Looking through the index, it is interesting to note how the book is 'balanced' with articles and stories from other countries i.e. 'Australian Boy Scouts', 'The Black Ants of Tropical Africa', 'Chinese Boy Pets', 'Down a Rhodesian Goldmine' and 'Cottage Homes of England'.

The book has a most interesting article titled "The Pageant of British Boys", by Alfred Tresidder Sheppard. Like the aims of HBC, the author gives an overview of boyswear through the ages till it seems, to the Tudor times. The author encapsulates the origins of 'British Boys' in an all encompassing patriotic manner. It's parochial with tongue in cheek humour, at times condescending, and done obviously with national pride. It's not a long article and after much thought, I decided to send you the article for you to read. The article contains many noteworthy details as the author could describe best." The article is interesting. There seems to be some misunderstanding, however, about basic human evolution and the appearance of man in Britain. There were no "hairy monkey-like little fellows" in Britain as the author suggests. The article is unteresting, however, as it provides insights into the British outlook in the 1930s and as the author progresses into more modern times, his decriptions become more accurate. One interesting item that the author suggests is that the traditional peaked British school cap was shaped and named after Celtic huts. We have not yet been able to confirm this.

The Pagent of British Boys

By Alfred Tresidder Sheppard

Note: For ease of reference, HBC has added the headings.

I once had lessons in Italian history from a lady who knew no English. She taught me by means of Itlaian poertry and prose, in which the more difficult words had to be explained in French or by means of signs. One of our books was a classic of school life--"Il Cuore," which I find has appeared in an English translation under the title of "An Italian Schoolboy's Journal."

In it the author, Edmondo de Amicis, draws an unforgetable procession of scholars going daily to many schools. I sometimes think of the procession--the pageant, one may say, for dresses and equioment are always changing against changing backgrounds--of the generations of boys who have passed since the dawn of history across the stage of our island home.


We catch only dim glimpses of the eraliest boys who inhabited this country; those hairy monkey-like little fellows who knewno better implement than the keen-edged flint (they have left hardly ant traces) and the young cave-dwellers, who seem to have been more like Esquimaux than any boys of the present day in England. Their cavers were far less magnificent than Aladdin's or Monte Cristo's. Even Robinson Crusoe was better off.

All the instruments and weapons this boy knew were of unpollished chipped flint; he hunted savage beasts, long extinct at all events in our islands, with flint arrow-heads and hatchets; he wore bone amulets and rings made of the engraved teeth of the cave lion with which sometimes thaeremust have been terrific fights inn the dark; he trained and rode little horses withbstiff hogged manes.

After him came a boy of smaller build, very dark, with a longish head; a savage little beggar this, already ready for a combat; less clever than his predecessor, who was quite a good draughtsman, yet able to grind and polish, and to help the women make crude pottery, simply decorated. This Iberian boy seems to have looked something like the lads whose faces you may sometimes see on mummy-cases and Egyptian and Assyrian monuments. The war-like Silures who fought so gallantly under Caractacus seem to have been survivors of these people.

The Celts

Next arrived a boy of fairer complexion and taller build; the Celt. His langauge is still spoken in Wale; in Corwall some of the children's counting-out games still use his ancient numerals, "un, dew, tri, peswar," etc.; and you may still find traces of the tongue in the speech of Ayrshire fatm-hands and Cumberlamnd sheapards. Some dwelt in huts with doorways only three feet high, and from the early hut our modern schoolboy's cap is supposed to take both shape and name.

But sometimes one would find in the forrests a community dwelling within enclosures of pailings and hedges, with a common dwelling-house, granery, byres, a well and an oven for general use, pig-styes and stables, and patches of corn-land and orchard. Stitched skins were used for clothing, and sometimes garments of wool, and fringed shawls.

The Celts tattooed themselves for battle. but it is quite a mistake to suppose thatour eralier ancestors were altogther uncivilized. If you visit the Early British galleries of the British museum--and I advise you to take advantage, if you can, of the admurablr free lectures on the relics of our primative forefathers--you will discover that the ancient Britons were very far indeed from being the naked savages of some of our school-books. We ow them a good deal, for, after all we enjoy freely to-day much that they had to find out with pain and difficulty. Even so simple a thing as counting had to be learnt (it is said) from the fear least neighbors might steal weapons and house-hold tools. The first "foot" was taken from the length of a big man's foot; the early yard was a stride; the fathom was the width of a man's extended arms, and weights and measures generally were fixed from actual experience.

The Romans

The Roman boy--the Roman occupation lasted nearly four centuries--in his yellow toga and leather sandals, set a fashion for a time.

Figure 2.--A Norman boy. Note the similarity in the clothing to the Saxon boym but the different hair cut. Image courtesy of the AM collection.

The Saxons

Then came the Saxons, with linen shirt, belted tunic of wool or linnen, short cloak, hose and stockings or buskins, and strips of cloth binding the legs. The Saxon boy wore his hair long, and it appdears that it was sometimes the fashion to paint the hair with a blue powder! Among the Celts the boys had been taught by the Druid "ovates," who wore bright green robes, but after the introduction of Christianity the monks gave such little learning has was to be had. King Alfred compalined that he suffered from kack of proper teachers.

The Vikings

For a time in our pagent we see Danish boys in black garments--the national colour, for a raven was their standard--but before long the Danes became noted for the gaiety of their dress. Boys of the better classes [HBC note: Notice that the author says "better" and not "upper" classes] among the Saxons were enjoined to keep their nails long in order to play the harp more efficiently.

The Normans

The Norman boy dressed in many respects like the Saxon, whose people he had conquered; but his hair was shaven closely behind, and he wore a cap something like the Scotch bonnet.

The Plantagenants

It is hopeless to attempt in a short article any description of the many changes of dress during the Middle Ages. We find jagged garments (in Henry the Second's time); hair curled with crimping irons (in the time of John); boys wearing doublets of silk, satin, and velvet, with turned up toes on thir shoes many inches long called "poulaines" or, when they broadened out "duck bills" (in the days of Edward the Fourth).

The jacket finds an interesting mention in Froissart, who tells us that the Duke of Lancaster entered London in a "courte jacques" of cloth of gold in the German fashion. From this old German garmengtthe schoolboy's jacket of today gets its name. Poor little Edward the Fifth wore a short gown of crimsom cloth of gold lined with black velvet, a stomacher, doublet, and purple velvet bonnet, among other things, at the coronatin of his uncle Richard the Third.

Figure 3.--An Elizabethan boy. Queen Elizabeth was of course as the daughter of Henry VIII a Tudor. Click on the image for information on apprectices and an image of a Tudor apprectice. Image courtesy of the AM collection.

The Tudors

Arthur, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Henry the Seventh, had a shirt which may still be in existence--it was until lately--made of lawn, with very full sleeves, and richly embroidered in blue. Sir Thomas Gresham gave Edward the Sixth a long pair of silk Spanish stockings.

The costume of the Blurcoat School still reminds us of the " prentices'" [appretices] dress of Tudor times. Yellow stockings were very popular then, and blue was the usual wear of those in any form of service. The tudor apprentice, notably a very mischevious and high-spirited lad, used to preced his master through London streets on dark nights, carrying a lattern, and having a long club on his shoulders ready for emergencies. He was fined twopence for lying in bed after six, or being up after ten.

But in thise days even boys in the higher ranks were under strict discipline. King Edward the Fourth wrote to Earl Rivers about the education of the Prince of Wales, urging him to see that the boy rose at a convinient time according to his age, and had the bedroom curtains drawn atveight o'clock. The greaterpart of the day was to be spent in prayers, sermolns, and "virtuous learning," though he was to be allowed some "honest disports" after supper, and was to be read nobelmstories fit for a prince.

An old schoolmaster in the times of the Tudors said of the birch that "it serveth for many good uses, and for mone better than for betyng of stubborne boys that ether lye or erl not learn." The schoolmaster himself, you notice, could not spell very well; and in an Oxford University deed we find one word with five different spellings. Curiously enough, in the earlier part of the Middle Ages parents were fined for sending children to school, instead of keeoung them away.

Figure 4.--The caption read, "In the days of George III, an truant schoolboy's punishment." Note his cap on the floor. The outfit appears to be a skeleton suit, but with knee breaches rather than long trousers. Image courtesy of the AM collection.

The Hannovarians

Down to comparitively recent times, the boy was a mixture of his father in dress and appearance, except, of course, when beards were worn. The periwig came to England from France, where wigs were worn by boys in the sixteenth century. We find an advertisement for the capture of an English gentleman's son who has run away from school, which refers to thde lad's "fair old wig". In Queen Anne's day, boys carried pipes and metal tobacco boxes in their satchels, and the masters gave them intervals in which to have a quiet smoke!

At the end of George the Third's reign chalk lines werec marked ?? schoolroom floors to separate the "dradts" or classes. Queer punish ?? were inflicted, an idle boy being rocked in a cradel by a girl (b??? boys and girls were taught in company far more often than now), ??? truant was tied to his desk, and a lazy boy put in a basket and drawn uo to the ceiling by a rope.

Victorian era

It was not until the passage of the Education Act in 1870 that serious attention was paid to teaching among the poorer classes; anyone had been allowed to teach, even the paralyzed, illiterate, and stupid. Boys were packed together in mean garrets under a master, perhaps, who could not teach them the meaning of the simplest phrase. We hear that in a class of 44 boys in 1869, only two could do a simple addition sum.

The public [private fee paying schools] schools were better, though these were incredibly rough. Of course, there have always been masters in advance of their time; the great, wise and kindly Ascham was one. But, generally, as someone said quite seriously, "the best master was the best beater." Here are some lines written by a pupil of Nicholas Udal, the famous master of Eton some centuries ago: "Droim Faud??'s I went, to Eton sent; Tom learn starightways the Latin phrase; Where fifty-three stripes given to me; At once I had. For faults but small or none at all; It came to pass thus beat I was. See, Udal, see the mercy of thee; To me, poor lad."


But in every age the boy has had his games to console himself with. In the Middle Ages there were football matches at Smithfiekd at Shrivetide; just as Tom Brown and his schollfellows played, in white ducks, at Rugby when they were not spending their half-holidays in the milder amusements of picking flowers; and just as to-day our schools turn out for rugger or soccer when books are put away.

In the Middle Ages boys and girls played far more together than they do to-day; they shot together, and went hunting together, and were on curiously equal terms. In Henry the eight's reign all boys between the age of seven and seventeen had to learn to shoot with the bow and arrow.


If the schoolboy of today could go back to those older times he would mark some very curious changes. Do you know, for instance, that the beef you eat for dinner was once regarded as medicine? The Romans, though they loved pork and game and poultry, only took beef when they were ill. Four hunded years ago, you would not have had cabbage, lettuce, carrots, or currants. [HBC note: More importantly the author could have added potatos.] There would have been no rhubarb tart, andonly wild strawberries. There was no mignonette in the garden; you would not have known what a tulip meant; and fireworks, at least as weknow them today, had not been invented. You would have mikssed your handkerchief, and as for your collars, the laundress would not have been able to stiffen them with starch. Go back just a little further--until about the thirteenth century there was no sugar, and a modern writer tells us that, "all the two thousand cooks of Richard the Second could not make a plum pudding or mince ies." But the Romans seem to have had some kind of Yorkshire pudding.

All things considered, the British boy "creeping like snail unwillingly to school" (one wonders if they have really found Shakespeare's horn-book poked away in Anne Hathaway's cottage) has suffered many strange chances and changes through the centuries. Butv in himself, underneath the clothes, he has orobably altered very littlein tasres and habits.

Five hundred years ago John Lydgate, educated in all liklihood by the Benedictine monks of Bury St. Edmund's, loved "jangling and japing" with his school fellow; stole apples; and preferred games with cherry-stones to going to church. Lydgate, by the way, was one of the greatest poes of his age, and was proud to be thougt Chaucer's successor.

One Peter Carew, was punished for playing ruant and getting up to mad escapades--he climed an old tower in Exeter and defied his schoolmaster--by being leashed to one of his father's hounds. A favorite Tudor punishment was to tie a board round a boy's neck inviting any one toi strike him. And here, just over three centuries old, is a pathetic little letter from a small boy proud of his attainments:--"Sweet, sweet Father, i learn to decline substantives and adjetives. Give me yiur blessing."


Young South Africa Fifth Annual Volume (The Central News Agency, Ltd.).


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Created: April 30, 2003
Last updated: April 30, 2003