A Dr Goddard, headmaster of Winchester College, pops into Harry Steer’s life at a climactic moment in Coldharbour Gentlemen. His appearance is so fortuitous, and so consequential for Harry in his time of crisis, that a reader might understandably assume him to be a fictional character invented to advance the story. Not so—he was very real, though I have no evidence suggesting he ever visited Darking Hundred to assist a prospective student. This is why I think he might have.
Dr William Stanley Goddard (1757–1845) was a student at Winchester College and returned there after his university education to serve as tutor and later second master, becoming the school’s headmaster in 1796. A clergyman, after leaving Winchester in 1809 he served in various ecclesiastical posts, including canon of Salisbury. As a student he excelled in Latin and during his teaching years he earned the students’ respect for his erudition.
Winchester College was founded in the late fourteenth century by William of Wykeham (which is why its alumni are called Old Wykehamists). For the American reader, Winchester is not a university but a private prep school—what in Britain is called a public school. It is not as famous as Eton or Harrow but enjoys an excellent reputation.
Its students were divided into three groups: Scholars, Choristers (Quiristers in the particular argot of the school), and Commoners. In Harry’s day, Choristers were selected for their singing ability, and as their voices changed they moved to one of the other categories. Scholars tended to be awarded that title based on connections; the title Commoner was not a marker of social status but simply meant an ordinary type of student. Harry may have been lucky not to have been selected to be a Scholar, in fact: Scholars lived in the heart of the school’s campus in large and spartan dormitories; their meals were meager and their classroom virtually unheated. The only cause he might have to repine is that Scholars had more frequent and less supervised opportunities for exercise.
As a Commoner, Harry would have lived in a more house-like setting. Commoners’ boarding houses also enjoyed a less rigorous social hierarchy: the junior students still had to wait on the senior students, but the senior students had fewer rights and privileges. Among the Scholars, the elder students who were prefects had absolute authority and often abused it, with regular beatings and other hazing. For the Commoners, there was greater supervision by teachers and therefore less scope for cruelty.
A Winchester College boy’s daily routine was demanding. Up at 5:30, they washed outdoors in cold water at a pump before attending chapel, followed by an hour’s study and then (for the Scholars) playtime until breakfast was served at 10:00. Then came an hour of instruction followed by more playtime for all and then dinner. The afternoons were devoted to study except on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the Scholars were allowed to play unsupervised on the downs close to town. Supper was at 6:00, followed by an hour of study known as ‘toytime’ in the dormitories, prayers in the chapel at 8:30, and bed at 9:00. The Commoners had their recreation only in the courtyard of their lodgings or in nearby meadows but were not allowed the freer playtime on the downs. The relatively liberal allowances for unsupervised recreation were an unusual feature of educational life at Winchester; most elite schools were more regimented.
At mealtimes the food was plain: bread-and-butter for breakfast; roast beef for Sunday dinner, and then the same beef boiled and served for the next three days and plum pudding for the remainder; and mutton and potatoes for supper. The younger boys were not given utensils and ate off dirty wooden plates, cutting their meat with their own penknives.
The principal focus of instruction was the Latin and Greek classics. Students were expected to be able to memorise and translate these works, analyse them grammatically, and compose verse in both languages. Aside from this core curriculum, they were taught basic arithmetic, writing of verse and essays in English, history, geography, and religious doctrine. There was no teaching of science or modern languages, though in Harry’s day some were beginning to question the utility of this educational model. Older students were supposed to supervise the younger’s studies, so academic success was largely a matter of chance or motivation.
Many Winchester students nevertheless went on to renown at university and in politics and the church, so regardless of academic achievement Harry could have formed connections with people who might be useful to him in later life. The spirit at the school was egalitarian, so he was unlikely to suffer as a result of not being wealthy or an aristocrat.
Dr Goddard took charge of the school in 1796, after a period in which its standards and reputation had been in decline. A student revolt three years earlier had led to the expulsion of nearly forty pupils. At the time of Harry’s admission, Dr Goddard was working hard to expand the numbers of students, which may have made him more inclined to admit Harry and even to intervene when Harry’s arrest called into question his ability to attend.
There exist various recollections of Dr Goddard written by those who attended or taught at Winchester in his day. One account, by Thomas Collins, says that his students ‘knew that he governed as much by appeals to their better feelings, as by the fear of punishment. He acted frequently on that assumption of a boy’s truthfulness and honour, which has always been found a successful principle of government in judicious hands’; a former pupil, Lord Eversley, wrote, ‘We knew him to be a just, honorable, and perfectly impartial master, on whose good opinion and kind assistance every well-conducted boy might confidently rely’ (both quoted in Adams, Wykehamica, p. 163).
He was also noted as a man of strong ethics, who sacrificed personal gain to serve his principles. It had long been a practice at the school to add a £10 ‘gratuity’ to the tuition fee to help defray the cost of paying the masters. Dr Goddard opposed this coercive practice, so he saved up his share of the money and, shortly before his death, presented it to the college.
One dissenting voice comes from Sydney Smith, a noted writer and witty man-about-town who eventually settled in Darking Hundred. Smith was a student when Goddard was the second master, during the difficult days of the student rebellion. He hated his school years and held Dr Goddard partly responsible for triggering the rebellion. But most accounts do not support his view, and he was known for his fondness for embroidering a good story.
Dr Goddard was of a conservative temperament and deplored the Whiggish inclinations of some of his students. This tendency also crept into his dress: one person remembered him appearing for the afternoon class sessions with ‘his wig perfectly powdered, his cassock, black silk stockings, and the buckles in his shoes, all in the trimmest order’ (Wykehamica, p. 163). When he meets Harry in the gaol at Darking, I retain the wig and shoe-buckles from this description but decided he wouldn’t wear the cassock or silk stockings to travel.
The last nugget of description of the real Dr Goddard is one I have tried to reflect in my fictional portrait: ‘In society he was remarkably pleasant and affable, always setting his guests at their ease by the suavity of his manner’ (Wykehamica, p. 170). While holding Harry to a rigorous ethical standard and insisting that he reason his way carefully through his dilemma, Dr Goddard treats Harry with kindness and doesn’t punish or humiliate him. I can’t help but feel that Dr Goddard was the ideal person to tame and civilise a wild young Harry Steer.
10 October 2021
H. C. Adams, Wykehamica: A History of Winchester College and Commoners, from the Foundation to the Present Day (Winchester, 1878).
‘Goddard, William Stanley, D.D.’, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885–1900, en.wikisource.org/wiki/Dictionary_of_National_Biography,_1885–1900/Goddard,_William_Stanley.
Arthur F. Leach, A History of Winchester College (London, 1899).
Peter Virgin, Sydney Smith (London, 1994).