Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/The English boy of the future




To all appearance, there is “a good time coming” for boys and girls. This year—an extraordinary one for many reasons—will be a marked one in the history of English education, for a fresh start in the training of the body, which cannot but cause a fresh start in the development of many of the faculties of the mind. The Prime Minister has listened and spoken on the subject of the physical training of the rising generation. So has parliament. So have the managers of popular education, and the guardians of the poor. Rifle matches between select boys from our public schools have been witnessed at Wimbledon; and drill has been introduced into various classes of schools. In my long life I have seen many changes and varieties in the treatment of human limbs in their growing state; but all that I have seen in half-a-century is less remarkable than the progress made this year towards giving the youth of the country a sound body in which to develop a sound mind.

Many a boy, in reading history, has sighed that he was not born in the ages when every child was practised in the use of the bow, and exercised in town and village games, and brought up to the chase, and to fitness for war. We were all fond, in our youth, of reading of the village butts, and the games on the green in the summer evenings, and on the ice in the wintry sunset. We have all wished that the wild animals had not perished out of the woods, and perhaps regretted that there was no real chance of invasion, with its risks, and its spirited preparations, and its openings for active heroism. I have seen those regrets most wistful in the generation which came between the national perils of the beginning of the century, and the revival of national soldiering within the last ten years. I trust that no future generation of English boys will undergo the privations of the one which is passing away.

Among my earliest recollections is that of troops of little boys playing at being volunteers. That was when Mr. Pitt and the country gentlemen were reported in the newspapers to be training their volunteers, in expectation of the landing of the French. In the streets of towns, troops of little boys were marching and halting, and scaring the horses with their drum and fife, under some ragamuffin who called himself Mr. Pitt, or King George, or the local lord. We who saw these things from the windows might not go out and join them; so we drilled in companies of three or four in a garden, and longed to go to school, that we might do it with more effect in the playground. It seems to me that boys found more scope for their physical energies then than since, though we certainly felt ourselves very small in comparison with our fathers, judging by what they told us of their early feats. An uncle of mine used to tell us about a schoolfellow of his,—Horatio Nelson,—who led in such enterprises as we dared not attempt. Nelson helped a set of boys out in the night, to rob an orchard, in a very daring way. We climbed apple-trees; but it was not in the night; and somehow we fancied it was tame work in comparison. An aunt of mine used to tell us of her frolics in country visits, when a whole village was filled with young people who came to one of the great balls of those days. The ball was all very well; but there was better fun when the girls jumped up behind the boys on any horse they could catch, and rode the country round, with or without hats and bonnets, astonishing the farmers, and mystifying the cottagers, and being lost sometimes for hours together. The practical jokes involved feats of activity which we knew ourselves to be unequal to; and we wished we had been born a generation earlier. One of the strangest things was to hear the precise old gentlemen and formal old ladies declare that those times were somehow better for young people, than the more staid and intellectual régime. under which we were growing up. They often told us how sensible we ought to be of advantages in the way of learning such as they never had; but now and then would come out an avowal that the boys had more spirit, and the girls more originality and more grace, when there were fewer books and more pranks. Those were still the days when mothers let their boys alone, or even encouraged them, about black eyes and swollen noses from school fights; and when there was as much pride at home about eminence at the wickets as about a prize for Latin or Algebra.

Boys were unchecked in defying “Bony” and the French, as Nelson had done. That time, degenerate as we thought it, was a stouter one than the period which succeeded. When our parents were looking after the waggons which were to carry the women and children away from the coast on the appearance of the French, the girls were carefully hardened against any helpless fear of “Bony,” and the boys were promised that they should stay and fight him, if circumstances permitted. That period seems to me now full of spirit, in comparison with that which followed.

After the idea of invasion died out, an enthusiasm for “education” burst forth. Little children, from the time they could speak, were to be made, by a new method, wiser than ever little children were before. They were puzzled with questions; they were crammed with knowledge; Dissenters’ schools expanded and multiplied; and rural labourers’ children were taken from the field and the dairy, and the cottage cradle and oven, to be shut up in school for nine years together, “getting learning,” as their parents supposed, but coming out as little able to read anything but “a chapter,” or to keep the weekly accounts, as to trim a hedge or make cheese. The young gentry were not much better off. Boys in our public schools had their races, and games, and fights; and they kept up the repute of English pluck and activity: but it was a dull time for the others. It was piteous to see homebred children take their daily constitutional walk. Happy those in the towns who knew of a place where timber was lying, where they might at least get some jumping! Happy those who knew of a green slope where they might roll, or who dared to trespass into a hayfield where they might get a tumble once a year! Happy those who could reach a heath, where they might play hide-and-seek among the furze! But for one such, there were hundreds of children who walked two-and-two along the high road, too many with lesson-books, moving their lips as they walked; and the rest driven to gossip, in the absence of any other interest. They were as unfortunate as so many Quakers, or nearly. They were not in infancy set on high stools for an hour at a time, to fit them for silent meetings; and they were not kept quite so tame in their boisterous years; but we saw in a whole generation of middle-class people the same tendency to inane play that we see in Quaker children, and incipient monks and premature Evangelicals, and Shakers, and Tünkers, and book-worms, and all the rest of the body-despisers;—the same helplessness in all emergencies, the same clumsiness of gait and sheepishness of manner. For a whole generation we have seen strong men walking with their arms as much as their legs, and young men shuffling along the street, and creeping up and down the outside of a coach, and cautiously climbing a gate, and closely studying a hedge or a ditch before trying to cross it. To see such young men amidst an alarm of thieves in the house was very sad. You could not ask them to rid you of a wasp in the window without the white feather coming out. They had as much courage in their own way as their fathers; but they had never been put in due possession of their own bodies, and thus were subject to the penalties of cowardice. They had played in a way at school, besides the regular walk. There were swings, perhaps; there was marbles; there was ball-play; there were races,—all good to a certain extent, but not enough. There was drill in some Quaker-schools, we must do them the justice to state; and in others there was dancing, more or less;—good too, but no great matter. The boys could not swim; they could not ride; they could not box; they could not fence; they did not know how to handle any weapon; they could not keep their own heads with their own right arms. It was a strange sensation to go from living in such a generation to the wilder parts of America. I say the wilder parts, because there was then nothing to be said for the physical education of the young people of the great cities, and of the eastern States generally. The practice of the country walk even did not exist; and there were no country walks for townspeople. But in the rural districts, in the woods, on the prairie, or the wild sea-shore, what a spectacle it was to one from the Old Country! There the boys ran up the trees like monkeys, and flitted about the face of the rocks like sea-birds. Little children would mark a wild bee in its flight, and follow it through bush and briar to its tree, and there circumvent the whole swarm, and bring home a prize of honey. Their swing was a tossing branch over a cataract; and mere infants would climb about a hole in a wooden bridge over a rapid. Girls could ride a bare-backed horse for miles in the night, to fetch the doctor. To swim, to ride, to shoot, was as much a matter of course as to sleep and wake. In such places the learning did not get on very well. The contrast was between the pedantry and bodily helplessness of the one mode of training, and the strong natural faculty (of body and mind), without intellectual discipline, of the other.

The most piteous sight was the communities in which both were wanting;—the Shakers, Rappites, and other religious communists living between these opposite methods of society. It was hard to help both laughing and crying when the Shakers were at their dancing rites. The young girls and boys were evidently making that exercise a safety-valve for their energies. The boys stamped and kicked vehemently: the girls almost cut capers; and there was no mistaking, in their faces, the longing for a game at romps. Just before I saw this, a poor little girl had been expelled for a prank which was irresistible. She was half-dead of the vapours when, one Sunday, when all but herself were supposed to be in chapel, she saw from the kitchen a pony scampering about the paddock. Off she went through the window, jumped on the pony’s bare back, and galloped round and round, coming in much relieved. But she had been seen; and she was expelled. A friend of mine took her in, and trained her for service,—much struck by this lesson about the mischief of repressing the animal spirits of youth.

What became of these animal spirits, it may be asked, during the English generation who had no proper physical training?

There was a great flocking into the army and navy on the part of all classes,—from the public school-boy, the prince of the field, to the troublesome cottage lad, who sooner or later “went for a soldier,” or “ran off to sea,” wept by his mother, and by no means regretted by the neighbours. There was a great deal of smuggling in those days, and much more poaching. There was a good deal of rioting occasionally,—breaking of threshing-machines in agricultural counties, and of power-looms in the manufacturing districts: but a commoner safety-valve was poaching. There was less netting and snaring of game than now, and more shooting. This was part of the temptation. It is now the great temptation to the slaughter of small birds of which we are complaining under our present plague of slugs, caterpillars and wire-worms. Not only boys but men like the excuse for popping off guns: and hence the extirpation of many useful birds which we may never see restored. If the village butts and universal archery of old England had existed now, or if we now had the general practice with weapons which another generation will see, our small birds would at this moment have been devouring the moderate quantity of caterpillars which would have made their appearance. As it is, the last eagle vanished many years ago from our mountain region; and the last pair of ravens is no longer seen; the hawks and owls are too few for the field vermin in the valleys; and their absence is not likely to give us the larks we long for; for the fowling-piece is as fatal to the small singing-birds as to their enemies. We witness a random and mischievous sport with fire-arms, because more legitimate sports and exercises are absent.

Far worse has been the effect of deficient physical education in encouraging vicious indulgence. Gaming, drinking, and profligacy of every sort flourish where the frame is not kept in vigour, and the mind in the cheerfulness which belongs to bodily health. I need not dwell on this. It is enough to hear the publicans, in their discontent with the Volunteer movement. Looking down into the valley, in these summer evenings, I see there the volunteers marching, or going through their evolutions; and the village population gathering to hear their music, or to watch their shooting. Meantime, the publicans are lounging at their own doors, or gossiping at a neighbour’s, complaining of the change of times since the notion of volunteering put it into people’s heads to spend their evenings in the open air, instead of the sociable inn parlour.

Ten years ago, we were at about the lowest point; or it looked as if we were. There was already some talk of “Muscular Christianity”: society was learning the importance of keeping the skin clean: and the cramming of children was widely denounced. But when the idea of invasion was revived, we were struck with terror at the spectacle of our middle-class young men, with their generally shambling gait, their mean carriage, their unpractised eye and hand, and their ignorance of the use of all weapons. Such bodily exercises as we had were under discredit, because they were ill managed. A man here had hurt himself by over-exertion at cricket; a boy there had been ill ever since a too hard race at school: one had strained his shoulder; another had exhausted his chest; a third had wrung his back, or some useful muscle or other. There was mischief in our exercises and in our deficiency of such exercises. The hearts and souls of Englishmen were all right towards their homes and the enemy; but what could we say of their right arms? The Volunteer movement retrieved us: and now it must be one of the most striking incidents to our Exhibition visitors that the physical bearing of Englishmen has become ennobled since 1851. Our young men have now a manly carriage of the head and limbs, a firm tread, an agile gait, and the proper use of their limbs and senses.

As a natural result of the change, it is extending to the children of the country. There is a deep and wide stir to get drill and gymnastic exercises introduced into our schools for all ranks and orders of children. Nobody wants to interfere with the good old games. The games are sacred; but the boys may as well be qualified to play them without injury by a proper training in the use of their limbs. We have seen Lord Elcho’s motion, on behalf of “systematised gymnastic training” respectfully discussed in the Commons; and we have heard Lord Clarendon tell Lord Stratheden in the other House that the Public Schools Commission will inquire into the practice of drill, and the use of the playgrounds. We have seen how Lord Palmerston was startled by the facts exhibited to him by a deputation of Health officers, about the ill health and mortality caused in schools by want of air and exercise, and about the reduction of the death-rate wherever such mistakes were repaired. We have learned from that deputation that in large schools where the children study half time, and are employed in industrial occupation, and subjected to military drill, the sickness and mortality have been reduced to one-ninth of what they were before. We have seen the London school-teachers meeting to hear Dr. Roth lecture on the physical part of the education they were bound to administer, and have learned from that lecture that whole classes of what are called “children’s diseases” have been got rid of where the body was properly trained. We learn that school-keeping is rendered so much easier wherever drill and systematic exercises are established, that the teachers cannot now conceive how they should get on without them. Not only are the children bright and cheerful, but they are obedient to command, orderly, punctual, apt, wide awake, neat in appearance, and self-respecting in manners. Finally, we have seen the spirited lads from our four great public schools shooting at Wimbledon, and honoured at the Crystal Palace, among cheers from a vast multitude of citizens and their wives, who will henceforth need no convincing of the benefit of military drill and exercise.

The only question in most minds is about the expense. The answer is so satisfactory that, if that be all, there is certainly “a good time coming” for our young generation: for the good economy of a due training of the body may be proved in many ways.

The expense is exceedingly small, to begin with. In our national schools, the drill,—all that is necessary of it,—may be given at the cost of a penny a head, per week. It is pointed out that the saving in shoe-leather would more than cover this in each case. People who learn how to stand and walk properly, cease to wear their shoes down on one side, or at the heel. Then, there are the trowsers. Most of us know some clumsy fellow who kicks his ancles, and who so shambles in his gait as to have all the mud or dust that he can kick up hanging about his trowsers. Another man comes out of the very same path without a speck above his shoe-soles. These savings in dress would cover much instruction in the use of the limbs, and in the art of defence. Perhaps, in fairness, we should set against some of this saving the increased quantity of material required for coat and waistcoat, from the expansion of the chest. In a few weeks under Mr. McLaren, the pupils find that their garments will not meet by many inches: so there must be new clothes, or letting out; and some good many more inches of cloth required in the making. This cost, again, must be more than compensated by the absence of doctors’ and druggists’ charges. An expanded chest, a brisk and true circulation, and a calm nervous system, save many doctors’ bills. Speaking seriously, the reduction of juvenile disease and mortality by nine-tenths alters the whole life of the working-class in which the change occurs. Prosperity comes to the homes where all the members are lively, and active, and strong, fit to make their way in life; and the lowest misery is found where sickness and death are at once the effect and the cause of poverty, and where the survivors struggle in vain under their languor and depression. In the competition of life, they must go to the wall. If, as Mr. Chadwick tells us, fifty out of sixty of the doomed of that class may be saved and reinstated by sensible physical training, is not the economy,—social and individual,—so great as to become sublime?

There is more still. It appears that working people turn out more work in proportion to their command of their own powers of limb and sense. We all understand very well that it answers better to pay high wages to a well-fed labourer, than half the amount to an ill-fed one. There is no less difference in the quality of labourers in regard to their use of their eyes, their hands, and their muscles generally. First, we heard that four men who have undergone drill turn out as much work as five undrilled; and now the proportion is declared to be three to five. For some time past it has been known that engineers were particular in picking and choosing their men, and glad to obtain any who had undergone military discipline. Now it appears that the same preference is shown by employers in most occupations. The bodily aptitude is an advantage in almost every kind of task; but there is much more. There is an alertness, a presence of mind, an orderliness and neatness, a punctuality and obedience about persons systematically and specially trained, in body and mind, which incalculably improves their quality in co-operation as well as in mere industry. If a ploughman is likely to work better for having full command of his limbs and use of his eyes, what must be the difference in the case of the miner, of the fisherman, and all who live in the presence of danger, of having minds awake, nerves and spirits strong, and all powers at ready call? Some work on housetops,—some in coal pits; some at the mast head,—some under water; some need more strength and some more skill; but all are alike benefited by a good education of the body, and will command a place in the labour-market corresponding with their improved ability.

In the face of such facts, we shall not leave our rising generation without these advantages for the sake of five shillings a year per head. While spending hundreds of thousands annually on popular education, we shall not withhold that trifle, knowing that consequent invalidism and funerals will consume ten times as much, and that the additional work done would pay for ten times as many instructors and gymnastic instruments. One must speak in this way when the objection of cost is brought; but it jars upon the feelings. When the question is of the manliness,—to say nothing of the life and health,—of the youth of England, it seems as if the clearest proof of profitableness were something beside the mark. As the profitableness is proved, we may step over and beyond it to contemplate “the good time coming” of the renovated manliness of the English citizen, as a common quality of men of high and low degree.

From the Mountain.