Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Arnold, Thomas (1795-1842)

ARNOLD, THOMAS (1795–1842), head master of Rugby, was born on 13 June 1795, at East Cowes, in the Isle of Wight, where his family, originally from Suffolk, had been settled for two generations, and where his father was collector of customs. There, as a child, he learned to delight in the sea, to know the flags of half Europe that floated on the Solent during the great war, and to feel something of its stir. When he was hardly six years old his father died suddenly of spasm of the heart, and his education for the next two years was committed by his mother to her sister. Miss Delafield. In 1803 he went to a school at Warminster, and thence in 1807 to Winchester. He appears to have been a shy and retiring boy, somewhat stiff and angular in character and manners, but high-principled and warm-hearted; with remarkable powers of memory; devoted to history, geography, and poetry, especially ballad poetry.

In 1811, at the early age of sixteen, he was elected scholar of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where a small society of picked students, under an easy rule, were left in great measure to educate themselves and one another, the two most prominent members of it at the time being John Keble, the author of the 'Christian Year,' and John Taylor Coleridge, afterwards one of the judges of the court, of Queen's Bench, the lifelong friend to whom Arnold loved to say that he 'owed more than to any living man.' Here, in a little Oxford within Oxford, he spent the next three years, his whole nature expanding in an atmosphere of venerable institutions and youthful friendships, of keen study of the great classical authors, especially Thucydides and Aristotle, varied by 'skirmishings' over the surrounding country and discussions in the undergraduates' common room on every variety of subject — political, literary', and philosophical. In these he is said to have been eager and vehement, but always candid and ingenuous, and 'never showing, even then, a grain of vanity or conceit.' In 1814 he obtained a first class in classics, and the next year a fellowship at Oriel, and he gained the chancellor's prizes for the Latin and English essays in 1815 and 1817. For four years he resided on his fellowship, amidst a group of the ablest men then in the university — Copleston, Davison, Whately, Keble, Hawkins, and Hampden; using this 'golden time' to store his mind and fill many manuscript volumes with the results of wide and independent reading, chiefly of original authorities, in the libraries of the place. In 1818 he was ordained deacon, and in the following year he settled at Laleham, a quiet village on the broad Thames, to take as private pupils a small number of young men preparing for the universities. In 1820 he married Mary Penrose, daughter of the Rev. John Penrose, and sister of one of his earliest friends.

The eight years of active growth at Oxford had traced the general lines of character and opinion which were to be his through life; and these were deepened and developed during the eight quiet years which followed, spent chiefly in continued study, in working and playing with the pupils whom he made part of his peaceful and industrious home, and in assisting in the care of the parish. Here he learned to know the poor, and to feel that sympathy with the humbler classes which afterwards so strongly marked his views of duty, both individual and social. It was during this time that his mind came under an influence by which it was powerfully affected, that of Niebuhr's 'History of Rome,' which not only inspired him with new views of historical criticism, but, by introducing him to German literature, opened to him new realms of thought. And it was now that, under the elevating influence of a happy marriage and increased responsibilities, his religious convictions and feelings were brought, so to speak, to a focus, and he came to be possessed with that vivid sense of the reality of the invisible world, and that personal devotion to Jesus Christ, which formed henceforth the basis of his spiritual life. From this time he became more and more remarkable for that close interpenetration of all parts of his being — spiritual, moral, intellectual, and emotional — which was the key to his character, and reflected itself in all his opinions and habits of thought. Thus — to give a few characteristic instances — the central truth of life to him, not as a dogma accepted from without, but as the satisfaction of a craving within, was the union of the divine and the human in the person of Jesus Christ; to speak of a Christian's body as the temple of the Holy Spirit was hardly a metaphor; the church and the state were one; the natural and the supernatural, things secular and religious, were inextricably blended; every act of a Christian's life was at once secular as done on this earth, and religious as done in the presence of God; and every act was of importance, as affecting the great struggle everywhere and at all times going on between good and evil. This solidarity of the whole nature, 'moving altogether if it move at all,' is not without its drawbacks. There must be a danger that the lower parts, instead of adding strength to the higher, may usurp their place; that sympathies or antipathies may be mistaken for moral judgments, and a hasty temper for righteous indignation. The uncompromising earnestness which belongs to it is apt to give offence; but if it provokes opposition it gives the force necessary for overcoming it: and in Arnold's case, being absolutely free from all taint of self-seeking, it won for him, in a singular degree, the confidence of all with whom he was brought into close contact.

In 1827 the mastership of Rugby fell vacant, and he was urged to be a candidate for it. He hesitated, chiefly from doubt whether he should be free to make such changes as he might find necessary. This doubt removed, at the eleventh hour he sent in his name, and he was elected, chiefly on the strength of a letter from Dr. Hawkins, prophesying that if Mr. Arnold were appointed 'he would change the face of education all through the public schools of England.' In August 1828 he removed to Rugby, where he remained till his death in 1842. He became B.D, and D.D. in 1828.

The humble grammar school of Lawrence Sheriff had before this expanded into a prosperous public school, with ample funds and commodious buildings, including (what was not then usual) a chapel; but it was still, as compared with such foundations as Eton or Winchester, limited in numbers, without marked character or time-honoured traditions, and therefore all the better fitted for the hand of the reformer. And it was no doubt a time when reforms were needed in public schools; but, viewed by the light of the present day, there was nothing startling in those which were introduced by Dr. Arnold, nor was there anything recondite in his system. If, as is now acknowledged, he verified his friend's prediction by regenerating public school education in England, it was mainly by very simple means — by treating the boys with confidence, and by impressing upon them his own sense of the value of knowledge and the sacredness of duty: in short, it was by the force of his personal character, touched, according to his habitual prayer, by the 'spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.'

As a teacher his aim was not so much to impart information as to awaken thought and stimulate industry. While insisting, somewhat sternly, on a careful preparation of the prescribed lesson, if any difficulty arose in connection with it, instead of giving the explanation at once, he would place himself, so to speak, by the side of his pupils and help them to find it for themselves. Though not what is called a finished scholar, he had a strong turn for philology in its wider aspects, and a rare power of terse and spirited translation; and the ever fresh delight which he took in his favourite authors, such as Homer and Thucydides, Cicero and Virgil, was in itself a lesson to his scholars. While maintaining the old pre-eminence of the classics its the best vehicle for the study of language — a study which seemed to him as if 'given for the very purpose of forming the human mind in youth' — he was the first to add mathematics, modern history, and modern languages to the ordinary school course. Into the classical lessons he put fresh life by constantly directing attention to the general questions, literary, moral, or historical, which they opened up; and perhaps nothing in his method of teaching was more remarkable than the manner in which he habitually made different parts of knowledge illustrate one another. The 'Divinity' lessons, apt in those days to be few and meagre, were with him very frequent, and always marked by special fulness of interest and a pecidiar reverence of tone and manner. In these, as well as in the lessons on modern history, it was impossible but that his own views should find some expression; but he made it quite clear to his hearers that they were not desired to accept those views, but to examine and think for themselves.

In his government of the school he was undoubtedly aided by a natural sternness of aspect and manner, which, making all his relations with his pupils rest on a background of awe, gave the greater effect to his perfect frankness and simplicity, his entire freedom alike from 'donnishness' and from suspicion. The quick insight of boys soon discovered that his anger, if easily roused, had nothing in it of personal resentment, and that the severest sense of the sinfulness of an act did not exclude the most fatherly tenderness towards the offender. Sensitively alive to the peculiar evils incident to the free life of public schools, where a low tone may so easily be set by a few bad boys, he felt also their unique advantages if only a good tone could be infused into them. This he sought to do mainly through the medium of the sixth-form boys, with whom he was in hourly contact, and who were entrusted with much authority over the rest; and wherever he saw an evil influence at work — a boy, and still more a knot of boys, doing harm to themselves and others — it was his practice to require their parents to remove them quietly from the school. But as in intellectual so in moral matters, it was to promise rather than to attainment that he looked, and it was by stimulating to good, rather than by repression of evil, that he acted. He made boys feel that each individual was an object of personal interest to him, and they learned to think that he had an insight almost supernatural into their thoughts and feelings. At the same time the manliness, the independence, the buoyant cheerfulness of his own temperament, his hearty interest in the school games, which he looked upon as an integral part of education, put him in sympathy with all that was good, even in the least intellectual of his scholars.

As a moral and religious teacher, the special engine of his influence was the weekly sermon. Written generally with great rapidity, but expressing what was habitually in his mind, and delivered with singular earnestness and feeling, these discourses conveyed to his hearers, with a power exceeding that of the most finished compositions, the spirit that was in him. But more potent perhaps than any sermon was the impression habitually conveyed, with all the force of his powerful character, that in everything that he said or did, whether in the pulpit or out of it, he was seeking to do all to the glory of God.

The result of the new influence at work in the school soon began to attract attention. At the universities many of its scholars attained distinction, while very few (a point to which the head master himself attached even greater importance failed to pass their examinations. Not in the universities only, but in the army and elsewhere, it came more and more to be observed that Arnold's pupils were, to a degree unusual at that time, 'thoughtful, manly-minded, and conscious of duty and obligation.' For some years, however, the increase in the numbers of the school did not keep pace with the rise in its reputation, being checked by the unpopularity of the headmaster's utterances on public matters. In 1829 he published a pamphlet on the ' Christian Duty of conceding the Roman Catholic Claims,' in the course of which he ruthlessly, exposed the incompetence of the clergy as a body to deal with such questions. In 1831 he started a newspaper, chiefly to plead for more generous treatment of the lower classes; and though this paper failed, he continued to write on similar subjects in the same outspoken style, almost to the end of his life. In 1833, when the very existence of the national church seemed to be in peril, he issued, in the 'Principles of Church Reform,' a powerful appeal for comprehension, as at once right in itself, and the only escape from the 'calamity' of disestablishment. And when, in 1836, the dominant party in Oxford attempted to keep Dr. Hampden out of a professorship on the ground of alleged heresy, he assailed them with unmeasured vehemence in the 'Edinburgh Review.'

The first of these publications so irritated the clergy that some years afterwards the Archbishop of Canterbury objected to Arnold's preaching Bishop Stanley's consecration sermon, on the ground of the offence that it would give them. For years his principles, tenets, and proceedings at Rugby were the subject, in certain tory papers, of abuse little short of libellous. The article in the 'Edinburgh Review' nearly led to the abrupt termination of his mastership. Disturbed by the stir which it created, the trustees wrote formally to ask whether he was the author; and when he declined to give any answer to the question a motion of censure, which would have led to his resignation, was all but carried. To these annoyances was often added the worse pain of feeling that as to many of the objects nearest to his heart he stood practically alone. With the exception perhaps of Chevalier Bunsen, the eminent Prussian minister, whose friendship, made at Rome in 1827, he counted as one of the chief blessings of his life, he knew no man altogether like-minded. Many who admired his freedom of thought could not understand his firm adherence to the old faith; many who shared his reverent spirit were shocked by his liberal opinions. Thus in labouring to liberalise the national church he displeased alike his liberal friends who wished to destroy it, and his church friends who wished to keep it narrow. Thus, having joined the new university of London, chiefly in the hope of making it an engine of education at once religious and unsectarian, he found that he could get no support in this design, and withdrew in bitter disappointment.

But for all this he found ample solace in his school duties and his literary labours in connection with them, in frank and friendly intercourse with old pupils, in his own happy family circle, and especially in the seclusion of the home which he had made for himself at Fox How, in a beautiful nook among the Westmoreland hills.

At length, about the year 1840, the tide turned. The merits of the schoolmaster, the high character of the man, came to be generally recognised, even where his opinions could find no acceptance. The numbers of the school rose beyond the limit within which he had wished to keep. Nowhere was the change of feeling towards him more marked than at Oxford; and when, in 18-41, he was appointed regius professor of history at that university, the delight with which he returned to his old haunts to deliver his inaugural lecture was greatly enhanced by his finding himself treated with cordial respect by those whose alienation he had most deeply regretted. At the same time a change came over his own spirit. Not that he bated one jot of his devotion to 'that great work,' the extension of Christ's church, or of his hostility to everything which seemed to retard it, whether toryism or jacobinism, sectarianism or indifferentism, superstition or unbelief; while to the last he continued to denounce tractarianism as a revival of the very judaizing spirit against which St. Paul fought. But the impatient fervour passed away. It was not only that some of his views on particular subjects underwent modification, but there came a general relaxation of tension, a disposition to trust more to time, and to bring his own immediate efforts and aspirations more within the bounds of what was practicable.

On this more tranquil phase of life he had hardly entered when, in the fulness of life and activity, on 12 June 1842, the last day of his forty-seventh year, he was suddenly cut off by an attack of angina pectoris. A slight previous illness had passed away without causing any alarm; but those nearest and dearest to him remembered afterwards to have observed a 'visible ripening for heaven;' and a touching entry in his private diary, written late on the night of the 11th, seems to indicate something of a foreboding that his work on earth was drawing to a close. He left a widow, who survived him for thirty-one years, and nine children, of whom the eldest son, Matthew, is the distinguished poet and critic, and the eldest daughter is the wife of Mr. W. E. Forster.

Dr. Arnold's chief published works are as follows:—

  1. An edition of Thucydides, especially valuable for its geographical notes, and for the light thrown on the constitutional history of the period of the Peloponnesian war. The first volume of the first edition

was printed in 1830, and the third and last in 1835; two volumes of the second edition, which was left incomplete, appeared in 1841. (Professor Jowett, in his translation of Thucydides (i. ix.), gives a general estimate of the value of Arnold's edition.)

  1. The early history of Home, in three volumes, of which the two first were mainly based on Niebuhr (London, 1838-43).
  2. A history of the later period of the Roman commonwealth, from the end of the second Punic war to the reign of Augustus, with a life of Trajan, published posthumously in 1845, and consisting of reprints of articles that had appeared in the 'Encyclopedia Metropolitana.'
  3. Lectures on the study of modern history, delivered at Oxford in 1841 and 1842 (Oxford, 1842).
  4. A collection of sermons in three volumes published between 1829 and 1834. The third volume was republished separately in 1876, and the whole series, together with other sermons printed separately in Dr. Arnold's lifetime, was issued again in 1878 in six volumes, under the editorship of Mrs. W. E. Forster.

Arnold's biographer, Dean Stanley, collected and republished his 'Miscellaneous Works' in 1845, and his 'Travelling Journals, with Extracts from his Life and Letters,' in 1852. But it is chiefly through Stanley's 'Life and Correspondence,' first pubished in two volumes in 1844, and reaching its twelfth edition in 1881, that the 'hero of schoolmasters,' the champion alike of reverent faith and of independent thought, is and will be known to the world.

In person he was a little above the middle height; spare, but vigorous, and healthy without being robust. A slightly projecting under-lip, and eyes deep set beneath strongly marked eyebrows, gave to his countenance when at rest a somewhat stern expression, which became formidable when he was moved to anger; but the effect was all the greater when, in the playful or tender moods which were frequent with him, or on meeting in a book or in conversation with a noble sentiment or a striking thought, his eye gleamed, and his whole face lighted up. Simple in his tastes and habits, never idle and never hurried, he made his home a 'temple of industrious peace;' and he rarely left it except to travel occasionally on the continent, with an eye enlightened by lifelong studies in history and geography, he had an intense delight in beautiful scenery, and took pleasure in the fine arts and in some of the natural sciences, but chiefly as bearing on the life and history of man. For science as such, for art as such, he cared comparatively little; for music not at all. 'Flowers,' he used to say, 'are my music,' and his love for them was like that of a child. Walking by the side of his wife's pony—his daily habit during term time—he halt forgot the dulness of the flat and featureless country about Rugby in spying them out along the hedgerows and in the copses; and they added to the enjoyment of the rambles over hill and dale which were a marked feature in his life at Fox How. Nothing, perhaps, gives a better idea of the man than the description of 'his delight in those long mountain walks when they would start with their provisions for the day, himself the guide and life of the party, always on the look-out how best to break the ascent by gentle stages, comforting the little ones in their falls, and helping forward those who were tired, himself always keeping with the laggers, that none might strain their strength by trying to be in front with him; and then, when his assistance was not wanted, the liveliest of all—his step so light, his eye so quick in finding flowers to take home to those who were not of the party.' It is by the aid of imagery taken from these walks that the lesson of his life is summed up for us and for posterity by his son in the lines on 'Rugby Chapel,' where he has drawn the striking picture of a strong, hopeful, helpful soul, cheering and supporting his weaker comrades on their upward and onward way.

[Arnold's Life and Correspondence by Stanley; personal knowledge.]

T. W.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.8
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
113 ii 24 Arnold, Thomas (1795-1842): after his father insert William Arnold
30 after the heart insert on 3 March 1801. (There is a tablet to his memory in Whippingham church.)
117 i 22-23 for other sermons . . . . lifetime read ‘Christian Life’ (1841) and two posthumously published volumes of sermons (edited by Mrs. Arnold in 1842 and 1845)