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Wednesday, September 2, 1998 Published at 01:50 GMT 02:50 UK


Eton - the establishment's choice

The hallowed halls of Eton, set in 350 acres of Berkshire countryside

Eton College is Britain's most famous boys' public school, having educated 19 prime ministers, several members of the Royal Family and high-profile countrymen.

Founded more than 600 years ago by King Henry VI, it is surrounded by history, tradition and story, much of which remain to this day and make up the school's character, and that of the pupils.

But Eton continues to raise the ire of people who believe a private education system is elitist and divisive.

Strange days

Its history is marked with bizarre tradition. For example, until 1844, there was a peculiar annual ceremony of Montem.

The whole school, dressed in ceremonial clothing and accompanied by a band, would proceed to a nearby mound called Salt Hill.

There they collected money, called salt, from the crowds who gathered for the occasion and from passers-by in Windsor and Buckingham, who were made to feel a civic duty to contribute when confronted by the collection sack.

The donations would go towards funding the head boy's expenses at Cambridge.

George III was a benefactor of the cause, and that might explain why the current uniform is said by some to represent mourning for the monarch.

The introduction of the tail coat, stiff collar, white tie, waistcoat, striped trousers and top hat (worn only on special occasions) in the 19th century also aimed to curb the eccentricities of individuals boys' attire. But its existence today says exactly that about its wearers.

A league of their own?

"The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton," the Duke of Wellington once said, and it would not be surprising if he were referring to the Wall Game.

Sport is a major part of school life, and although well-known for achievements in rowing, football and cricket, the boys used to lay a curious game, which is largely incomprehensible to most outsiders.

The Wall Game, the oldest surviving form of sport at the school, was in effect a cross between a group fist fight and football, which took place regularly at the school's southern wall.

Vicious and physically ruthless, the fights ended in 1825 following the death of one pupil in a game that lasted 60 rounds over three hours.

The second form of Eton football is the Field Game, unique to the school and is a bizarre combination of football and rugby.

But no sport in the school's history was more hated and protested against than the ram-hunt of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Every year until 1747, a ram was hunted and butchered by the scholars. One boy even wrote to his father for permission to stay at Eton another day so as to have "the satsifaction of seeing the ram die here according to custom".

A class of their own?

Described in the past as "the nursery of England's gentlemen" and "the chief nurse of England's statesmen", Eton has become to be equated with elitism and the British ruling classes.

In the 1960s student activists called for the abolition of public schools such as Eton, which they said perpetuated privilege in education and a class-structured society.

With fees now costing nearly £14,000 per year, entry is inevitably reserved for a select few, although there are 50 scholarships provided by the school each year.

But whatever Eton symbolises, those at its helm will always claim it provides the opportunity for academic success for its pupils, as important as any titles or wealth they may possess.

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