11 Famous British Schools in Fiction

24 August, 2014

Image shows a drawing of Clifton School.The way of life at British schools – in particular boarding schools – has such wide appeal that it’s spawned a distinct genre of fiction of its own.

School novels are enormously popular and have been since they were first developed in the 19th century, with depictions ranging from the grim Victorian institutions of Dickens and Brontë to the enchanting world of Hogwarts in Harry Potter. In this article, we look at some of the most famous fictional British schools and see how they compare with the real-life boarding school experience.

1. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Image shows Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Harry Potter has reignited interest in boarding school fiction.

The most recent and arguably most famous example of a fictional boarding school is Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, attended by Harry Potter and his friends (and foes). Though it’s clearly not based on a particular real-life boarding school, it’s closely modelled on the concept of a British boarding school, and we see many parallels with them – which don’t include the moving staircases, enchanted ceilings and talking paintings! Hogwarts is divided up into ‘houses’ – Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin. These houses form four distinct communities, and provide a social hub for their members, as there are common rooms for each house, and this is also where students’ dormitories are located. This system is also true of real-life boarding schools, which also get divided into houses; though real-life boarding school pupils aren’t sorted into their houses using a Sorting Hat! Another similarity is the uniforms; though real-life schools don’t make their pupils wear robes (though that of Christ’s Hospital comes close), the colour scheme of those depicted in the films is surprisingly similar to real-life schools. And just like real-life boarders, pupils at Hogwarts are allowed to go on organised outings – in their case to the nearby village of Hogsmeade – with parental permission, of course.

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2. Malory Towers

Created by Enid Blyton – the author responsible for such classics as the Famous Five and Secret Seven novels, not to mention the children’s character Noddy – Malory Towers is a fictional girls’ boarding school located by the sea in Cornwall. It looks like a castle, with four round towers named after points of the compass (North, South, East, West) around a central courtyard. There’s even a seawater swimming pool out on the rocks. The plot of the six novels centres on the main character, Darrell Williams, and her efforts to succeed in spite of her fiery temper and the bad influence of her friend Alicia, who encourages her to participate in mischief and pranks. Though the school isn’t thought to be based on any real-life boarding school, at the end of the series the protagonist is heading for a place at the real-life St Andrew’s University, a reflection of the fact that boarding schools tend to offer extremely good preparation for life at the country’s top universities.

3. St Trinian’s

Image shows a film still from the 2007 St Trinian's film, showing the students walking in a row.

Ronald Searle was also the illustrator of the Molesworth series, about a schoolboy at the fictional St Custard’s prep school. Film still from St Trinian’s (B. Thompson and O. Parker, 2007)

St Trinian’s is a girls’ boarding school dreamt up by the cartoonist Ronald Searle. It started life as a cartoon series and was later adapted into a number of very popular films. The twist with St Trinian’s is that it’s populated by girls who are essentially juvenile delinquents, presided over by disreputable teachers. Vice and mayhem rule the day at St Trinian’s; its team sports particularly violent, and murder is by no means unheard of. Though clearly a work of fiction, Searle was inspired to create St Trinian’s by two real-life independent schools: Perse School for Girls, and St Mary’s School, both in the cartoonist’s hometown of Cambridge and the latter a boarding school. It’s also said that the uniforms were inspired by those of his daughter’s school, James Alleyn’s Girls’ School in Dulwich. However, despite any superficial similarities with real-life schools, parents will be reassured to learn that the antics of the St Trinian’s girls would not be permissible in real-life boarding schools.

4. Dotheboys Hall

Another cruel fictional Victorian school, Dotheboys Hall features in the Charles Dickens novel Nicholas Nickleby. It’s based on an infamous school in Yorkshire called the Bowes Academy, and its pupils live a life of extreme hardship under its vicious headmaster, Wackford Squeers. The eponymous protagonist, Nicholas, is sent to teach at the school, where he attempts to defend its pupils from the cruelty of the headmaster. The novel features an advert for the school, which provides an interesting insight into boarding schools of this period:

“Youth are boarded, clothed, booked, furnished with pocket-money, provided with all necessaries, instructed in all languages living and dead, mathematics, orthography, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry, the use of the globes, algebra, single stick (if required), writing, arithmetic, fortification, and every other branch of classical literature. Terms, twenty guineas per annum. No extras, no vacations, and diet unparalleled.”

As this extract shows, boarding schools have changed a lot since Dickens’ day, not least the fact that modern-day boarding schools aren’t places with “no vacations” where parents can leave their children and forget about them.

5. The Lowood Institution

Image shows a young Jane Eyre, standing outside in the rain, with a sign around her neck that reads "Rebellious."

Jane’s experiences at Lowood cause her to prioritise kindness when she comes to found her own school. Film still from Jane Eyre (R. Stevenson, 1943).

The grim boarding school attended by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in the novel that bears her name is, very fortunately, not representative of the modern boarding school experience. Lowood, led by the cruel Mr. Brocklehurst, is a boarding school for poor or orphaned girls. It’s very cold, the food is awful and there are no creature comforts; Jane’s only sources of comfort there are a caring teacher, Miss Temple, and her friend Helen Burns, who later dies of tuberculosis. Conditions at the school greatly improve after Mr. Brocklehurst’s cruelty is discovered by benefactors, who replace him with kinder management; Jane ends up becoming a teacher at the school herself before moving on to a governess position at Thornfield. Luckily, schools like Lowood are very much a thing of the past in Britain; modern English boarding schools are warm and welcoming, with excellent food, and sympathetic staff who provide superb pastoral support for their pupils.

6. Brookfield Grammar School

Brookfield Grammar School is the school at the centre of Goodbye Mr Chips, a novella adapted many times for the screen and stage, which tells the tale of a much-loved schoolteacher and his 43-year long teaching career at this school. The school is believed to be modelled on The Leys School in Cambridge, the day and boarding school attended by James Hilton, author of the story; the central character is an amalgamation of many people known to the author, including his father. Hilton published his first essays and short stories in his school newspaper, the Leys Fortnightly, a reminder of the fact that boarding schools can provide excellent opportunities for preparing pupils for their future careers.

7. Hailsham

Image shows students outside Hailsham in the film of Never Let Me Go.

In many ways Hailsham is an idealised picture of a traditional boarding school, were it not for its dark secrets. Film still from Never Let Me Go (M. Romanek, 2010).

It’s apparent from very early on that Hailsham in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go (and its film adaptation) is different from other boarding schools. The teachers are referred to as “guardians”, and the curriculum focuses primarily on art. Pupils are taught that it’s vitally important that they keep themselves as healthy as possible. Behind all this lies a sinister secret: Hailsham’s pupils are all clones, who will one day be harvested for their organs. After leaving the school, the central character, Kathy, has no idea where the school is, and is unable to track it down again. It’s safe to say that this school is purely a work of (science) fiction, and not based on a real school, but it’s certainly one of the most unusual and upsetting boarding schools in English literature.

8. Abbey Mount

Abbey Mount is the name of the boarding school in the film 2008 Wild Child. It’s a quintessentially English boarding school, and the film’s tagline – “A new term for trouble” – gives you an indication of the antics that go on in this school. It’s nowhere near as bad as St Trinian’s, but the film’s American protagonist, Poppy, certainly gets herself into a few scrapes. Poppy is sent to Abbey Mount by her father, who believes that the experience will teach the spoilt teenager some discipline. At the centre of the story is her rivalry with Head Girl Harriet, along with Poppy’s efforts to get herself expelled so that she can return to her glamorous life in California. The climax of the film is an action-packed game of lacrosse, in which Poppy leads her school to victory – a reflection of the fact that real-life boarding schools are noted for their strong participation in such team sports. The real-life girls’ boarding school Cobham Hall in Kent stands in for Abbey Mount on screen.

9. Rugby School

Image shows a painting of Rugby School in 1859.

Lewis Carroll, Rupert Brooke and Matthew Arnold all attended Rugby School.

The first and only real-life school on this list, the prestigious Rugby School is the setting for Tom Brown’s School Days, and much of what happens in this novel is inspired by author Thomas Hughes’ own experiences of being a Rugby pupil. The book deals initially with Tom’s experiences of bullying at the hands of Flashman (a name that has since come to be used to describe bullies who come from wealthy backgrounds), whom he defeats with the help of an older boy named Diggs. This victory results in Tom becoming badly behaved, but, having been put in charge of looking after another boy, George Arthur, he develops into a well-behaved model pupil. Rugby School’s traditions form a major theme in the novel, including the playing of rugby football; Rugby School was famously the place where the game of rugby was first invented. Modern-day Rugby is rather different from how it’s described in the novel – it’s even in a different county these days – so if you’re thinking of applying for this school, it’s best to visit rather than basing your opinions on the novel.

10. Greyfriar’s School

Greyfriar’s School is the fictional boys’ boarding school at the centre of a series of stories by Charles Hamilton, who wrote under the pseudonym of Frank Richards and was a contemporary of the Jeeves and Wooster creator P.G. Wodehouse (whose style is similar). The unusual thing about Greyfriars is its lack of a House system, which is often used in this genre to provide rivalries around which to base plots (such as the rivalry between Gryffindor and Slytherin in the Harry Potter series). Instead, the rivalries exist between individual characters and between year-groups of a similar age. As in many real-life boarding schools, a high value is placed on sporting prowess, and boys are more concerned with this than with educational achievements. Of course, the top boarding schools in real life ensure that the balance between scholarly studies and sports is maintained.

11. Roslyn School

Image shows Marlborough College.

Marlborough College, on which Roslyn School is partly based, is now better known as the alma mater of Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge.

Roslyn School is the fictional English boys’ school depicted in Eric, or, Little by Little, by Frederic W. Farrar. The school is based on a cross between two real-life schools: King William’s College, on the Isle of Man, where Farrar went himself; and Marlborough College, the prestigious independent school in Wiltshire where Farrar was later the Master. The book’s plot is based around the descent of the protagonist – the son of a British couple based in British-ruled India – into vice, with the end result that he loses everything. It was very popular moral tale in Victorian Britain, though it’s less widely read now because of its religious overtones.

As these fictional schools show, there’s clearly something about life at British boarding schools that captures the imagination. It’s a setting that gives more modern authors plentiful opportunities for plots centred around mischief-making, while for the Victorian writers who first developed the idea of school novels, the boarding school environment was a place of hardship in which characters could be developed. The modern boarding school bears some similarities with fictional depictions, particularly in the way in which they’re structured and the rivalries and bonds that form within them. But any parents concerned about the experiences to which their children will be subjected at a boarding school need not be worried: unlike in the stories, real-life boarding schools are incredibly well-regulated and monitored, with brutal discipline a thing of the past, and first-class facilities coupled with superb pastoral care. If you’re thinking about applying for a boarding school, be sure to read our guide to getting into the best British boarding schools.






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Image credits: banner; Hogwarts; St Trinian’s; Jane Eyre; Hailsham; Rugby School; Marlborough.

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