When I went to the King’s School I was exceedingly ignorant, no pains, at any former school, or at home, having been taken to assist me in understanding the few lessons I had learnt in books, so that I had not the slightest idea of grammar – what it meant, or of what use it was.
When therefore I began to learn Latin grammar, and from a Latin book, I was always as in deep water, and the only assistance I received from the master was through pulling my hair, wringing my ears, administering blows on the head with the back of a book, a taste of the birch, or detention at school from my breakfast or dinner.
It would appear that the rule of the school was “Let the child learn, but let not the master teach”. There was printed on the entrance door of the schoolroom the words “Aut disce, aut discede”. It would appear that the pupil was expected to understand Latin before he had learnt it. The English of the above sentence is “Either learn or depart”.
I have since thought there should be printed on the other, that is the inner, side of the door, for the master’s admonition, the words “Aut doce, aut discede”, i.e., either teach or depart.
I was going to say nothing was taught at this School but Latin or Greek; this, however, would be scarcely correct, for they were not taught but allowed to be learnt; there was nothing of what is now considered to be a very necessary part of education; no English reading, or grammar, or composition , no geography, or mathematics, though for one hour in the day, on five or six days of the week, generally only five, an English master came to give instruction in writing and arithmetic. But this was quite unconnected with the King’s School, and paid for separately.
And as for religion, it was entirely ignored, excepting that a form of prayers was read daily by one of the monitors; but no Scripture was read, nor was any religious instruction whatever given excepting once in four years when a Confirmation was about to take place at the Cathedral, when candidates for the rite were required to learn the Catechism and might possibly hear remarks on it; but I was not one of these.
The whole School, however, was required to attend service at the Cathedral every Saturday afternoon, twice on Sundays, and on the morning of every Saint’s day, and on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent, etc. When attending the Cathedral service, every boy on the foundation wore either a white surplice or a purple gown, according as it was a season of feasting or fasting.
I went to the King’s School about a year before I was admitted on the foundation, which admission is by an examination before the Dean, and some of the Chapter of the Cathedral, but fortunately for me, who was as ignorant of Latin as a child nine years old, who had received no assistance or instruction, either at home or at School, either from parent or master, could be expected to be – fortunately for me, I say, there were so few on the foundation, at that time (which admits fifty, but when I left School there were only about twenty), that the Dean and Chapter were, I suppose, more anxious to give admission than to refuse it to anyone, so that I had not the slightest difficulty in passing the examination.
The only thing I had to fear was, first, a bugbear, and secondly, a reality. The bugbear·was this: the elder boys, those on the foundation, made those about to be admitted believe that the Verger of the Cathedral, who always on these occasions accompanies the Dean to the School, brings irons with him with which he brands those who a readmitted on the soft part of their posteriors the letters K.S. and though not much credit is given to this, I felt somewhat relieved when the day had passed over, without my having been submitted to the operation.
The reality I have mentioned consists of the buffeting which each new scholar has to undergo for the first three times that he wears the surplice or the gown at the Cathedral. These are worn only by those on the foundation. The buffeting is after this manner. All the boys meet at the School before attending service, and return to the School after it is over, accompanied by the first or the second master who are always clergymen. After Cathedral service, and on arriving at the School, and when the master has retired to his house, the elder boys, i.e., those who have been admitted on the foundation in former years, enter the schoolroom, and having taken off their surplices, holding them by the skirt, the collar being farthest from them, form a circle, and being thus prepared, one of the younger boys, who has lately been ad mitted, is allowed, or rather compelled, to rush into the circle with his surplice on, which he is required to take off, and put into a bag suspended round his neck, whilst the boys of the circle are buffeting him with all their might. It frequently happens that when the poor little urchin has almost succeeded in bagging his surplice and only a corner remains out, one of his persecutors will seize the corner and pull a good part of the surplice out again, and the fresh boy has his difficult and painful task to go through again. When one boy has finished his work another is admitted. This buffeting has to be endured at six different times on the occasions of wearing the surplice and gown.
At this School, as I have already said, the boys were permitted to learn, but were not taught, and as I was not very bright, and as it was more easy for the master to administer chastisement than to give instruction, I got a large share of the former, being sometimes flogged two or three times in a day, and perhaps also not allowed to go home to get my breakfast or dinner. And I think I have sometimes been kept in the School the whole day, from six or seven in the morning till six in the evening, and being locked up when the School hours were finished and remaining a prisoner till my mother wrote a note and sent my sister Mary to beg that I might be released; I have no doubt she remembers the pleasure she felt when she could accompany the prisoner home.
I say prisoner for the schoolroom windows were all barred with thick iron bars, so that it was more like a prison than a school; and had they not been, though it was an upper room, I think in my misery, I should have attempted to escape at the risk of breaking my legs or bones.
Such was the discipline, and such the frequency of punishment administered, that it is not to be wondered at that I became reckless and willing to do anything, however wrong, that would lessen my suffering. I therefore not infrequently played the truant, and that not merely for a portion of a day, or for a whole day, but sometimes for a week, and at one time I think I was a fortnight without going to School; my mother the whole time supposing that I was in regular attendance.
I was driven by harsh treatment to this conduct, for I argued with myself thus, “If I go to school I am certain of almost daily punishment, and if I stay away for a time I can but be flogged when l return, and to be once punished is better than to be punished often.”
Then, when I returned to School again a lie was told to account for my absence. The cause of absence stated was that I had been ill. And very probably my fear of being detected made me look pale. But though in these seasons of truant-playing I escaped punishment at School, I was very miserable from the fear of detection, and I knew not where to go. Three times every day I had to wander about where I thought I was least likely to be seen or met by any of my relatives; for I had many in Canterbury who, if they should meet me anywhere in school hours would make such enquiries as would lead to my detection, and apart from my own relatives and connections, the masters themselves might be about in the town and meet me, for they were in the School but for a short time that the scholars were.
The constant dread of meeting with someone who knew me and who might detect me, made my truant-playing but a small degree more tolerable than school discipline. I went to School at six in the morning in summer and at seven in winter, taking when dark a small tin candlestick, and a candle in a tin tube in my pocket, for no lights were provided by the School, and at about 9 a.m. we were let out, if our lessons were done, and went home to breakfast. By half past nine we were required to be in school again, till 12.0 when we went home to dinner and to School again at 1 p.m.
If a Saint’s day occurred in the week, we attended School before breakfast, and went to the Cathedral from the School at 10 o’clock and had a holiday in the afternoon. And not infrequently if there were no Saint’s day in the week, we had a whole holiday on Wednesday; but this depended on the good humour or otherwise of the Headmaster. But this was not enjoyed by me as a holiday, for my mother required me to go to an English school; yet it was a great relief, for at that school I feared no punishment.
I can not remember that I was ever punished at other than the King’s School, except as I have stated, by a whipping from old Mrs. Davage when an infant, and once a box on the ear by Mr. Clark. And this almost absolute freedom from punishment at other schools shows, I think, that the frequency of punishment I underwent at the King’s School was more through the fault of the School or the masters than of myself. Though I should have preferred a day’s relaxation when there was a holiday at the King’s School, to going to an English school, I had no dread of going there, and it was a comparatively happy day, and would have been quite a happy day were it not for the continual sad feeling hanging over me that on the morrow I must go to the hated School again.
Though whilst at the King’s School I acquired a very small a mount of useful knowledge, just sufficient of the rudiments of Latin to enable me with a little study, when articled to Dr. Scudamore to pass the Latin examination at Apothecaries’ Hall, I learnt and practised all manner of wickedness. There I learnt to swear. Before going there I feared an oath, and I do not remember that I used profane or improper language; but now I had entered a sink of iniquity and soon learnt from the other boys to lie, and curse, and swear with the best, or rather the worst of them. And I became such an adept at profane language that I seemed to think a sentence without an oath attached to it incomplete; but yet I avoided this in the presence of my family and relatives. Nor had I any principle of honesty in me, for although my mother was left with the care of, and had by her own unaided efforts to support, four children, I did not scruple to rob her of pence when I had an opportunity of doing so.
I entertained also at this time an aversion to those who were strictly religious, or at least to those who dissented from the Established Church, and I mocked and ridiculed Methodists, as I did all persons who made a profession of religion.
I had plenty of church-going; it was not however from choice but from necessity, and the formal services at the Cathedral, and the mere moral preaching I heard there, were unattended with any good influence.
I should have preferred playing or pleasure-taking on the Sabbath to Services, or to anything that was connected with real religion. But, as it may be supposed, I was not happy; no, very far from it, yea so miserable was I that I almost wished myself out of existence, and had it not been from a latent fear of the consequences (for I did not doubt a state of future retribution), I might have committed self-destruction; but God’s grace restrained me.
I am sure that my dear children will be surprised to learn that their father was ever such a wicked boy, and well they may be. And I do not know that I should have told them, but that they know how deeply he is indebted to the riches of Divine grace in bringing him out of such a state of sin and iniquity.
They have seen in him a brand plucked from the burning, an example of Divine clemency, and of electing grace. That he was ever brought to true repentance, enabled to trust in the gracious Saviour, to renounce the ways of sin, and to walk in newness and holiness of life, was certainly through nothing that was good in him, through nothing that deserved Divine favour, but through the sovereign grace of that God who hath mercy upon whom he will have mercy, who saves and calls with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his whole purpose and grace, which is given us in Christ Jesus before the world was. (II Timothy i, and see also Ephesians i, 4 to 7.)
Often have I wondered why I was called, and brought out of the depths of iniquity, when so many of my sinful schoolfellows were left to go on in them. I never heard of any one of my schoolfellows as being truly converted to God, though I heard of one who died, before, or soon after I left home, of whom it was said that he repented before his death, but whether the person who stated the circumstance was a judge of true repentance I cannot say; and there may have been others; I trust there were many, brought to true repentance and saving faith, but I never heard of them.
In the height of my wickedness I retained the belief of retribution in an other world, and I was at times the subject of fear and alarm, which induced me occasionally to pray, and to wish I had lived and could live differently; but there was no permanency in these seasons of inward struggle, and yet I had so far a desire to get out of this horrible pit and the miry clay that I have some interesting remembrance of expressing a wish that when the monitors heard me swear they would inform against me and get me punished.
Sin had become irksome, and though it was some years after this before I was brought to a saving knowledge of the truth, I believe the God of all grace and mercy was beginning very gently to work on my heart. I believe it was decided that I should leave School at the close of the year, 1814.
George Conibere Trimnell (1800-80) was at the King’s School from 1809 to 1814. After apprenticeship to Dr Scudamore and a spell at St George’s Hospital, London, he joined the Church Missionary Society and was ordained in 1825. He was a missionary in Ceylon as well as a curate in England. His reminiscences, in six volumes, were written for his children, and covered his life up till the time of writing in 1876. These extracts were published in The Cantuarian in December 1956.