Thomas Arnold

This article is about the 19th century educator. For other people of the same name, see Thomas Arnold (disambiguation).
Thomas Arnold

Thomas Arnold, 1840
Born (1795-06-13)13 June 1795
West Cowes, Isle of Wight, England
Died 12 June 1842(1842-06-12) (aged 46)
Rugby, Warwickshire, England
Cause of death Heart attack
Resting place Rugby School Chapel
Nationality British
Education Lord Weymouth's Grammar School; Winchester College
Alma mater Corpus Christi College, Oxford
Occupation Educator and historian
Known for Reforms to Rugby School (immortalised in Tom Brown's Schooldays)
Title Regius Professor of Modern History, Oxford
Term 1841–1842
Predecessor Edward Nares
Successor John Antony Cramer
Children Matthew Arnold, Tom Arnold, William Delafield Arnold

Thomas Arnold (13 June 1795 – 12 June 1842) was an English educator and historian. Arnold was an early supporter of the Broad Church Anglican movement. He was the headmaster of Rugby School from 1828 to 1841, where he introduced a number of reforms.

Early life and education

Arnold was born on the Isle of Wight, the son of William Arnold, a Customs officer, and his wife Martha Delafield. William Arnold was related to the Arnold family of gentry from Lowestoft.[1] Thomas was educated at Lord Weymouth's Grammar School, Warminster, Winchester, and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. There he excelled at Classics and was made a fellow of Oriel in 1815. He was headmaster of a school in Laleham before moving to Rugby.

Career as an educator

Rugby School

Arnold's appointment to the headship of Rugby School in 1828, after some years as a private tutor, turned the school's fortunes around, and his force of character and religious zeal enabled him to turn it into a model followed by the other public schools, exercising an unprecedented influence on the educational system of England. Though he introduced history, mathematics and modern languages, he based his teaching on the classical languages. "I assume it as the foundation of all my view of the case, that boys at a public school never will learn to speak or pronounce French well, under any circumstances", so it would be enough if they could "learn it grammatically as a dead language". Physical science was not taught because, in Arnold's view, "it must either take the chief place in the school curriculum, or it must be left out altogether".[2] Arnold was also opposed to the materialistic tendency of physical science, a view deriving from his Christian idealism. He wrote that "rather than have [physical science] the principal thing in my son's mind, I would gladly have him think that the sun went round the earth, and that the stars were so many spangles set in the bright blue firmament. Surely the one thing needful for a Christian and an Englishman to study is Christian and moral and political philosophy".[3]

Arnold developed the Praepostor (prefect) system in which the Sixth form students were given powers over every part of the school (carefully managed by himself) keeping order in the establishment. The 1857 novel by Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown's School Days portrays a generation of boys "who feared the Doctor with all our hearts, and very little besides in heaven or earth; who thought more of our sets in the School than of the Church of Christ, and put the traditions of Rugby and the public opinion of boys in our daily life above the laws of God".[4]

Arnold was not a great enthusiast for sport, which was permitted as an alternative to poaching or fighting with local boys and which did not become part of Rugby's curriculum until 1850. He described his educational aims as being the cure of souls first, moral development the second and intellectual development the third. However, this did not prevent Baron de Coubertin from considering him the father of the organized sport he admired when he visited English public schools, including Rugby in 1886. When looking at Arnold's tomb in the school chapel he recalled he felt, suddenly, as if he were looking upon "the very cornerstone of the British empire".[5] Coubertin is thought to have exaggerated the importance of sport to Thomas Arnold, whom he viewed as “one of the founders of athletic chivalry”. The character-reforming influence of sport with which Coubertin was so impressed is more likely to have originated in the novel Tom Brown's School Days rather than exclusively in the ideas of Arnold himself.[6] “Thomas Arnold, the leader and classic model of English educators,” wrote Coubertin, “gave the precise formula for the role of athletics in education. The cause was quickly won. Playing fields sprang up all over England”.[7]

Oxford University

Arnold was involved in many controversies, educational and religious. As a churchman he was a decided Erastian, and strongly opposed to the High Church party. His 1833 Principles of Church Reform is associated with the beginnings of the Broad Church movement.[8] In 1841, he was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford.


Arnold's chief literary works are his unfinished History of Rome (three volumes 1838-42), and his Lectures on Modern History. Far more often read were his five books of sermons, which were admired by a wide circle of pious readers including Queen Victoria.[2]


Arnold married Mary Penrose, daughter of the Rev. John Penrose of Penryn, Cornwall. They had five daughters and five sons, including the poet Matthew Arnold, the literary scholar Tom, the author William Delafield Arnold and Edward Penrose Arnold, the inspector of schools.[9] One daughter died in infancy. The eldest daughter Jane Martha married William Edward Forster, and when William Arnold died in 1859, leaving four orphans, the Forsters adopted them as their own, adding their name to the children's surname. One of these children was Hugh Oakeley Arnold-Forster, a Liberal Unionist MP, who eventually became a member of Balfour's cabinet. Another of the children was Florence Vere O'Brien, a diarist, philanthropist, and craftswoman who lived in Ireland. Frances Bunsen Trevenen Whateley Arnold, the youngest daughter, never married and died at Fox How in 1923.[10]

Arnold had bought the small estate of Fox How, near Ambleside in the Lake District in 1832, and spent many of his holidays there. On the 12 June 1842 he died there suddenly of a heart attack "at the height of his powers".[9] He is buried at Rugby chapel.

Thomas the Younger's daughter Mary Augusta Arnold, became a well known novelist under her married name of Mrs Humphry Ward, whilst Tom's other daughter, Julia, married Leonard Huxley, the son of Thomas Huxley and their sons were Julian and Aldous Huxley. Julia Arnold founded in 1902 Prior's Field School for girls, in Godalming, Surrey.[11]


The biography, Life of Arnold, published two years after his early death by one of Arnold's former pupils Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, is considered one of the best works of its class in the language and added to his growing reputation. A popular life of him by the novelist Emma Jane Guyton also appeared.[12] In 1896 his bust was unveiled in Westminster Abbey alongside that of his son, Matthew and The Times asserted that "As much as any who could be named, Arnold helped to form the standard of manly worth by which Englishmen judge and submit to be judged".[13] However, his reputation suffered as one of the Eminent Victorians in Lytton Strachey's book of that name published in 1918.

A more recent public-school headmaster, Michael McCrum of Tonbridge School and Eton College in the 1960s through 1980s, and also a churchman and Oxbridge academic (Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and Vice-Chancellor), wrote a biography and reappraisal of Arnold in 1991. McCrum was steeped in the significance of Rugby and other public schools; he too had briefly been a master at Rugby and was married to the daughter of another former headmaster.

More recently, a biography entitled Black Tom has been written by Terence Copley. Both McCrum and Copley have sought to restore some of the lustre to the Arnold legacy which has been heavily under attack since Strachey's sardonic appraisal. In 2015, Ian Cameron, published 'Learning from the Master', a compilation of forty thoughts drawn from Arnold's writings, as an aid to teachers and other educators in their work (particularly those who share Arnold's belief that education should be Christ-centred). Cameron's volume continues in the same vein as McCrum and Copley, seeking to recover some of Arnold's legacy.

A. C. Benson once observed of Arnold, "A man who could burst into tears at his own dinner-table on hearing a comparison made between St. Paul and St. John to the detriment of the latter, and beg that the subject might never be mentioned again in his presence, could never have been an easy companion."[14] Posthumously, Thomas Arnold was an influence on Baron Coubertin who started the modern Olympic movement.

Depictions on screen

Arnold has been played several times in adaptations of Tom Brown's School Days, including by Sir Cedric Hardwicke in the 1940 film version, Robert Newton in the 1951 film version, Iain Cuthbertson in the 1971 television version and Stephen Fry in the 2005 television version.



  1. Muskett, J. J.: "The Arnold Family of Lowestoft". In: Suffolk Manorial Families, being the County Visitations and other Pedigrees from The Manorial Families of Suffolk (Exeter, 1900–1914).
  2. 1 2 Strachey, Lytton (1918), Eminent Victorians, p. 173
  3. J. J. Findlay (ed.), Arnold of Rugby: His School Life and Contributions to Education (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1897), p. xvii.
  4. Thomas Hughes (1857), "7", Tom Brown's Schooldays
  5. Beale, Catherine (2011). Born out of Wenlock, William Penny Brookes and the British origins of the Olympics. DB Publishing. pp. 118–119. ISBN 978-1-85983-967-6.Coubertin would be better known for promoting the first International Olympic Games of 1896.
  6. Muddied Oafs, The Soul of Rugby, Richard Beard, Yellow Jersey Press, 2004, ISBN 0224063944
  7. Physical exercises in the modern world. Lecture given at the Sorbonne, November 1892.
  8. Timothy Hands, Thomas Hardy: Distracted Preacher? London: Macmillan Press, 1989, p. 3.
  9. 1 2 Hopkinson, David (1981) Edward Penrose Arnold, A Victorian Family Portrait
  11. Prior's Field School – A Century Remembered 1902–2002 by Margaret Elliott, published by Prior's Field School Trust Ltd, ISBN 978-0-9541195-0-8
  12. Worboise [Guyton], Emma Jane: The Life of Thomas Arnold D. D. (London, 1859).
  13. Sir Joshua Fitch (1897), Thomas and Matthew Arnold and their influence on English education, London, Heinemann, pp. 1, 56
  14. J.A.Gere and John Sparrow (ed.), Geoffrey Madan's Notebooks, Oxford University Press, 1981

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