I was surprised when Encyclopedia Britannica stated that William Gladstone became his brother’s “fag” while at Eton, but a quick Google search soon put any suspicions of homosexuality to rest.
The original meaning of the word fag was “weary.” An encyclopedia published in 1911 describes fagging as “in English public schools, a system under which, generally with the full approval of the authorities, a junior boy performs certain duties for a senior. In detail this custom varies slightly in the different schools, but its purpose — the maintenance of discipline among the boys themselves — is the same…. Fagging was a fully established system at Eton and Winchester in the 16th century, and is probably a good deal older.”
I’m sure the “duties” mentioned do not include sexual favours.
According to historian Vivian Ogilvie in his book, The English Public School, public schools of the higher rank (such as Eton and Harrow), were quite similar in that all
had developed a set of characteristics which were rapidly vested with an aura of antiquity. There was a system of boarding houses, run by masters. There was the system of prefects and fags. The headmaster and house masters ruled through their prefects and, by treating them as responsible semi-adults, gave them a useful preparation for manhood. The organization of a school’s corporate life and the maintenance of discipline outside school hours by the older boys, with a minimum of interference from the master, came to be regarded as an essential and differentiating characteristic of the Public School.
The “fagging” system, in which younger boys must do older boys’ bidding, was widely established and seen as a means of instilling group conformity and loyalty. Initiation rites, such as the “barreling” in the film, and the general bullying of weaker boys by older or stronger boys were seen as preparing boys for manhood and leadership. (A headmaster of this era at Winchester, the oldest English public school, once said about this system, “I hardly know which is most useful — the habit of obedience which it requires from the lower boys or the exercise of authority on the part of the higher ones. It appears to me to be admirable on both sides.”)
In short, public schools in England in the 19th century weren’t brothels. Though, that being said, I still find it hard not to snigger a bit when reading this:
[Gladstone’s] appearance at this time was recalled by one who had been his fag, ‘as a good-looking, rather delicate youth, with a pale face and brown curling hair, always tidy and well dressed.’
—The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, by Lord Morley (x)
Anyone who has read Tom Brown’s School Days would know this already.
William Gladstone goes undercover to catch a adulterer
William Ewalt Gladstone was a man with strict and high morals. The four time Prime Minister devoted his whole life to his lifelong enterprise of saving women from the dangers of vice and immorality.
The longest enduring endeavor in this respect was the “Reclamation of Fallen Women” as Gladstone called it. Since 1849, Gladstone visited prostitues working in the streets of London. While this caused a lot of rumors amongst Britain’s political establishment and the inhabitants of London – imagine: the Prime Minister leaving Parliament straight for red light district nearly every night –, Gladstone never had “business relationships” with the women he sought out. Instead, he invested much money (and a lot of prayer) to give these “fallen women” a new life. After every meeting with one of his protégés he flagellated himself with a whip or a stick to dispel the temptation.
But one of the most spectacular episodes in Gladstone’s life is his chase for the cheating wife of a good friend that went through half Europe and became one of the most dramatic society scandals of Victorian time. Henry Pelham-Clinton, Lord Lincoln and later 5th Duke of Newcastle, was a very close friend of Gladstone from their shared years of study. Lincoln’s father had sponsored Gladstone’s first seat in parliament and thereby made possible what can easily be called one of the greatest political careers in 19th century Britain. Lincoln was married to Susan and the two formed a temperamentally very different, but happy couple – at first, at least.
But the young love expired soon, and as early as in their fifth year of marriage, Susan caused a scandal by flirting openly with Henry’s younger brother William. From this moment on, the marriage was shattered, but it was William Gladstone who invested great amounts of time and effort in mediating between his closest friend and the woman Gladstone himself felt a romantic affection to. Over the years, Susan developed a habit of running away from her husband with other men, but always returned when she was sure to have everyone’s attention.
But in August 1848, Susan decided to end it once and for all. She left Britain and travelled to Germany, where she met with her newest lover, Horatio, Lord Walpole. While Lord Lincoln and Gladstone still maintained the illusion of an intact marriage, Susan and Horatio toured Europe for one year. Gladstone finally wrote a sixteen-page letter to Susan, trying to persuade her to come back as she had done before.
But it was to late. In June 1849, news reached Britain that Susan had been seen – pregnant. At this point, there was no way Lord Lincoln could save his reputation. He sent his trusted friend Gladstone on a mission to Naples, where Susan and Walpole were reported to be at this time, for either bringing her home or producing the evidence needed to win a divorce case. When Gladstone reached Naples he learnt that Susan and Horatio were passing themselves off as Mrs and Mr Lawrence – sister and brother, not lovers – and had left the city for Milan, and later Como. Gladstone immediately followed them and managed to arrive in Como while “Mr and Mrs Lawrence” were still in town.
In the evening of July 31, Gladstone disguised himself as a guitar-player and sneaked into the mansion he had tracked them down to. But all he could achieve by this masquerade was getting a glimpse of the couple fleeing in a carriage. After unsuccessfully chasing them across Lake Como, Gladstone gave up and returned to London.
In 1850, the divorce was brought to court by Lord Lincoln, and Gladstone testified that he had seen Susan pregnant and in company of Walpole. After a servant had additionally testified that he had, in fact, caught Susan and Walpole in flagrante, the case was clear. By this time, Susan had given birth to a son. Lord Walpole abandoned her soon after the divorce. All in all, this affair ended tragically for all persons involved in it. What remains is the story of William Gladstone, the “Grand Old Man” of British politics, going undercover to catch an adulterer.