Silence in the dormitory / Sileatur in dormitorio

dormitory026aSileatur in dormitorio was to prove one of the greatest and most far-reaching of Sewell’s school reforms. Dormitory, now F Social, was built in 1849. It contained 70 cubicles in Upper and 43 in Lower. Each boy had his own cubicle with a curtained entrance. This was to be regarded as a sacred place, where privacy and silence were the order of the day. Recent research by Tony Money has shown the influence of ‘the Radley system’ on other public schools of the day, particularly Arnold’s Rugby. A review of the preface to the sixth edition of Tom Brown’s school days, which was issued as a separate pamphlet in 1858, appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine:

We have heard sad stories, some of which we know to be only too true, of most barbarous savage cruelty being tolerated, and of amiable, clever, well-disposed boys, but of timid and sensitive temperament, being worried and bullied almost to death; and no ingenuity can make us believe that when the system is allowed to be carried to excess, it can be right.The new system established at Radley, has, perhaps, hardly yet had a fair trial. It has many obvious advantages, and seems in many respects better suited for the sons of gentlemen who are wished to be brought up as gentlemen, than the coarse, vulgar slang, the roughness and brutality of Westminster or Winchester. Those who have been brought up under the old system will of course abuse the new one, and be honestly prejudiced against it, on the ground that it is calculated to make the boys milk-sops; but this remains to be proved; hitherto, we have not observed any symptoms of it. We cannot see that allowing each boy a separate bedroom, or cell, to sleep in unmolested, is more likely to make him a milk-sop than putting him into the same bed-room with twenty other boys, two or three of whom are notorious bullies, who will allow him no peace, and will treat him as their slave. Nor can we see that a poor innocent child, fresh from home, is likely to turn out the better man or even the more hardy boy, from the certainty of having something thrown at his head if he dares to kneel down to say his prayers, as he has always been accustomed to do. We trust that the authorities of our public schools will read and carefully digest Tom Brown’s school days, and will see whether judicious reform may not be introduced without destroying the manly independence of our boys; especially whether the long rooms, or galleries, may not be converted into decent dormitories by introducing wooden partitions between the beds, after the fashion of the medieval dormitories, as has been adopted at Radley.

Did it work at Radley? Lewis Carroll recorded a visit on March 18, 1857 (the year Tom Brown’s school days was first published):

I was particularly struck by the healthy happy look of the boys and their gentlemanly appearance. The dormitory is the most unique feature of the whole: in two large rooms, by a trifling expense in woodwork, every boy has a snug little bedroom secured to himself, where he is free from interruption and annoyance. This to little boys must be a very great addition to their happiness, as being of a kind of counterbalance to any bullying they may suffer during the day. From my own experience of school life at Rugby, I can say that if I could have been thus secure from annoyance at night, the hardships of the daily life would have been comparative trifles to bear.

William Sewell referred to the rule as one of the most important aspects of Radley. In a chapel sermon in 1853, his first year as Warden, he exhorted the boys:

Silence, privacy separation – these are the securities here planned for you – planned with a tender solicitude and at vast expense … If silence, if privacy, and if separation cannot be maintained in your dormitory, first I will close your Chapel, and then I will close the College

He returned to this theme in his only visit to the school after his resignation as Warden, at the Old Radleian Dinner in 1872

On the rule ‘Sileatur in dormitorio‘: not a word was to be spoken … under the heaviest punishment that could be inflicted. And yet I left you to yourselves … in those long galleries detached from the House … I never went to the Dormitory after you had gone to bed, except (what repeatedly occurred), a mother was staying with me, and I offered to give her the luxury of seeing her young boy in his sleep, and leaving her alone a few minutes by his bedside.

Tony Money