Article by Stephen Woodward. Edited by Ellie Veryard. Additional Research by Andrew Shepherdson.
1797, a year placed within the heart of the French revolutionary wars. On the continent great change was afoot; Napoleon Bonaparte had just conquered Venice ending 1,100 years of the most serene republic. Great Britain had so far remained relatively peaceful, untroubled by the revolutionary fervour sweeping the continent. That November however, Warwickshire was to become the site of a somewhat unexpected revolt.
In Rugby, site of the illustrious public school, a boy named Astley had been caught by the headmaster firing cork bullets at the windows of local houses. The Headmaster interrogated Astley to find out where he had attained the gunpowder for his popgun. The boy claimed that he had sourced it from the local grocer; the grocer, wary of being punished for selling gunpowder to schoolboys, had entered it into his books as sugar. Naturally the word of a local respected merchant was held in higher regard than a mere boy, so the Headmaster had Astley publicly flogged. A sense of injustice clearly burned strong in the hearts of the boy’s peers and in an act of solidarity the grocer’s windows were accordingly stoned. Unwilling to permit such misbehaviour the headmaster charged the Fifth and Sixth forms the cost of replacing the broken glass.
The boys of Rugby School, outraged at such continued injustice, would clearly not abide tyranny. Following lessons on the Friday afternoon, they blew open the doors of the headmaster’s study with a somehow acquired petard (a gunpowder based siege weapon used by armies for breaching gates, doors or walls). The school bell was rung defiantly in a declaration of war; flags were even distributed to the boarding houses as a way of uniting the entire school behind the act of rebellion. Now was the time for revolution. The corridors were barricaded and the Headmaster’s study was stripped bare; books, wainscoting and furniture all thrown upon a bonfire. Naturally the Headmaster panicked and sought a way to quell the revolt, but sadly all the teaching staff were absent, away fishing, shooting and enjoying other country pursuits as part of their much-deserved weekend. So the headmaster fell back on his only option; a British army recruiting party then barracked in the town.
The rebels retreated to atop a Bronze Age burial mound within the school grounds that was surrounded by a moat and hoisted up the drawbridge behind them. The rebellion however, was soon to fail. Whilst the Headmaster read aloud the Riot Act, distracting the boys’ attention, the soldiers accompanied by local horse dealers (armed with full length horse whips) waded across the moat at the rear of the mound. Thus ended the uprising, the ringleaders were expelled, including a future General of the British army and a Bishop, the rest caned in submission.
The Great Rebellion of Rugby School typifies the struggle of youth against the establishment; it is the perfect example of a revolt motivated in an attempt to triumph over injustice. It also exposed the need for such schools to find a way of tempering such emotions and rebellious desire. This led in part to the development of organised sport on weekday afternoons, to provide an outlet for pent up teenage testosterone. The sports enjoyed by millions today have their genesis in attempts to enforce respect of the establishment and control over the privileged few several centuries ago. It was only two decades after the Great Rebellion that William Webb Ellis picked up and ran with the ball during a school football match; I’ll leave you to guess which sport arose from that event. In a sense it was the British upper classes’ ability to crush revolutionary sentiment through such innovation, to reinforce the status quo even within its own ranks, that meant Britain was untouched by serious revolutionary fervour. Perhaps Rugby should be listed alongside Eton and Harrow on whose playing fields the battle of Waterloo was truly won?