10 Fascinating Rituals and Traditions of English Schools
Britain is home to some of the world’s most famous, beautiful and historic schools, which have educated some of the country’s most successful people – from great war leaders such as Winston Churchill to popular actors such as Damian Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Given the British love of ancient rituals and traditions, it will come as no surprise to you to learn that many of our schools also have their own interesting and quirky traditions for pupils to look forward to when they join, many of which have been established for centuries, their origins veiled in myth. In this article, we explore some of the most unusual customs kept alive at Britain’s best schools.
1. The Eton Wall Game – Eton College
First recorded in 1766 (the year Mozart turned ten!), Eton College’s ‘Wall Game’ is one of the more famous public school traditions. It’s played on a five metre wide strip of land, known as “The Furrow”, in the college grounds, next to the brick wall that gives the game its name. The two teams are made up of King’s Scholars on one side (known as “Collegers”) and the rest of the school (known as “Oppidans”) on the other. The object of the game is to get the ball down to the far end of the wall to score, without either handling the ball or touching the ground with any part of their bodies except their hands and feet. Apparently goals are so unusual that the last one was in 1909. The biggest match of the year takes place on St Andrew’s Day, an open day for parents that happens in late November; at the start of this match, Oppidans throw their caps over the wall and then climb over it, while their opponents march arm in arm towards them. Described on the college website as “exceptionally exhausting” and “far more skilful than might appear to the uninitiated”, the game operates to rules too complicated to discuss here. However, rumour has it that Prince Harry was a participant during his time at Eton!
2. Illumina – Winchester College
The autumn term at Winchester College, known as ‘Short Half’, comes to an enchanting close with a tradition known as ‘Illumina’. When pupils finish their lessons at quarter to five in the afternoon, they’re met with the sight of scores of candles illuminating the wall enclosing the school playing fields. The festivities are a chance for parents, staff and pupils to celebrate the end of term and enjoy some early Christmas merriment, including a bonfire, carol singing, mince pies and punch. This ceremony wasn’t actually originally intended to be a Christmas celebration; it began in 1862 as a celebration of the removal of the wall that had originally separated the Scholars and the Commoners. When the tradition first started, old candle stubs accumulated throughout the year were used, but they’re now bought especially to keep the tradition alive.
3. Singing at Harrow
Many schools in the UK have their own songs, but Harrow is particularly noted for its enthusiasm for singing. It’s been 150 years since the first Harrow song was written, but the students of Harrow evidently took to singing because the tradition of songs at this school is alive and well today. Songs are sung at Harrow on numerous occasions throughout the year, both within each of the Houses and as a whole school; barbecues, dinners, and occasions of any degree of formality all involve singing. The Harrow boys love singing so much that they can’t even stop after they leave; they sing at reunions, and the Harrow Old Boys Society, the Harrow Association, hosts an event called “Songs in Speech Room”, to which it invites Old Harrovians from a different year group each time. The school has many songs, but it’s one called Forty Years On that is best known as “The Harrow Song”. It’s not one that would be widely known outside the Harrow community, though; the school website explicitly says that public performances of Forty Years On are not permitted.
4. House Apostles – Charterhouse
The House Apostles are an elite group of Charterhouse pupils who are deemed to be those with the highest intellect in the school. Also known as “The Headmaster’s Essay Society”, the House Apostles gather together with the Headmaster (in his house) on Monday evenings and present papers they’ve written on chosen subjects. Its members are permitted to wear academic ‘Cambridge Blue’ ties or scarves as a mark of this distinction. The existence of such a club reflects the high academic standards expected of pupils at such schools; intellectual curiosity is encouraged to a greater extent than at many state schools in the UK, which is one of the reasons why public schools are able to send so many of their pupils to Oxford and Cambridge.
5. The Greaze – Westminster School
A Westminster School tradition known as “The Greaze” began in 1753 and continues to be celebrated on Shrove Tuesday each year. It involves the cook tossing a pancake (which has been reinforced with horse hair) over a high bar, and the pupils then fight over the pancake for one minute. This activity is presided over by the Dean of Westminster Abbey, the Head Master and the rest of the school – sometimes even by distinguished Royal guests. The pupil who manages to get the biggest bit of the pancake is awarded the prize of a gold sovereign, and the Dean requests a half-day holiday for the whole school. Thankfully, one aspect of this tradition has now died out: in the old days, if the poor cook failed to toss the pancake over the bar, the pupils would throw their Latin books at him. Modern employees of Westminster School are no doubt glad that this practice is now no longer a feature of Shrove Tuesday!
6. Rugby Football – Rugby College
Ever wondered where the sport of rugby originated? If you’re a sporty type you might enjoy being part of Rugby College, which is said to have begun the sport in 1823 when a boy named William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it during a game of football. A plaque installed at Rugby College in 1895 commemorates this momentous occasion, and to this day, the Rugby World Cup trophy is named after Webb Ellis. The sport became popular as it spread to universities via former Rugby pupils. To this day, the sport of rugby has retained its reputation for being a game played by the upper classes thanks to its origins; “football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, and rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen”, or so the saying goes.
7. The Fourth of June – Eton College
Eton’s “Fourth of June” celebrations mark the birthday of King George III (1760 – 1820), its greatest patron. This monarch devoted a lot of time during his reign to helping Eton College to grow, and often visited the college and had its pupils visit him at nearby Windsor Castle. To quote the official history of Eton College:
“No monarch other than the Founder showed more interest in the school, nor became more Etonian at heart than George III…In return the college deeply respected and loved the King, whose birthday, the fourth of June, was made a holiday.”
Despite the name of this celebration, it’s not actually celebrated on the fourth of June anymore; it now falls on the Wednesday before the first weekend of June. The festivities include the Procession of Boats, which involves the most successful rowing crews (of all ages) from the past four years rowing by in vintage wooden rowing boats. They wear naval uniforms from the nineteenth century, and salute the spectators by raising their oars as they pass. This perilous move sometimes causes the boats to capsize, much to the amusement of onlookers. Speeches are also given, along with several exhibitions and other sporting events including cricket, and pupils’ friends and family are invited to enjoy a picnic on “Agar’s Plough”, Eton’s famous playing fields.
8. Morning Hills – Winchester College
If you’re an early riser and partial to a country walk, this next tradition will be right up your street. Morning Hills takes place at Winchester College twice a year, in the summer and autumn terms. It involves the whole school getting up early and walking, in their school uniforms, to the top of St Catherine’s Hill, a nearby hill owned by the college. Prayers are said at the top, and the ceremony was originally started as a way of reinforcing the school’s historic right to the land. It’s been going since 1884, but we infer from the fact that the school website says that the event “theoretically” takes place twice a year that the good old English weather sometimes puts a stop to the tradition.
9. “Send Up For Good” – Eton College
To encourage its pupils to produce the best work they can, Eton College has a long-standing tradition of rewards for good work – a system that has been in place since the 18th century. A “Show Up” is awarded when a boy produces an excellent piece of work, and this will be shown to the boy’s tutor to show his progress. (The opposite of this is called a “Rip”, given to work that is considered to be below the required standard; accumulated Rips result in a “White Ticket”, which may involve punishments such as writing lines or domestic chores.) If the boy produces consistently good work throughout the term in a particular subject, he may be lucky enough to be “Commended for Good Effort” to the Head Master or Lower Master. The highest accolade, however, awarded to an outstanding piece of work (and only very occasionally), is for the piece of work to be “Sent Up For Good”. This means that the work will have the honour of being preserved for posterity, by being stored in the college archives. There’s a strict approval procedure in place for a boy’s work being Sent Up For Good, and the pupil receives a card signed by the House Master, tutor and division master as a record of his achievement.
10. Weird and wonderful term names
The academic year is traditionally divided into three terms, and, like Oxford, Cambridge and many other universities, many top schools have their own delightful names for each term. At Eton, terms are called “Halves”, and they’re known as “Michaelmas”, “Lent” and “Summer”. At Charterhouse, they’re called “Quarters”, even though there are only three of them, and they have more evocative names: “Oration”, “Long” and “Cricket”. Contrary to its name, the “Long” Quarter is in fact the shortest of the three terms; we couldn’t find any reference to why the “Oration” Quarter is so called, but the “Cricket” Quarter is easier to understand! At Rugby the term names are religious in origin, with the names “Advent”, “Lent” and “Trinity”; at Winchester College, they’re perplexingly called “Cloister Time”, “Short Half” and “Common Time”. Such term names go back hundreds of years and are just one of many aspects about modern school life that contribute to the sense of history and scholarship at these prestigious colleges. We’re sure you’ll agree that these names are rather more interesting than Westminster’s numbered “Term 1”, “Term 2” and “Term 3”!
So there we have it – ten of the most delightful British public school traditions, which just go to show that British schools are about as close as you can get to going to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. If you like the sound of taking part in any of these quirky traditions, you might be interested in our previous article on how to get into Britain’s best schools, which gives you more information about many of the schools mentioned here, along with advice on the admissions procedures at these schools and tips for a successful application. They may be harder to get into, but as these traditions show, the rewards for lucky applicants are substantial.
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