Blog

Teenage Whitehead and the Sherborne School Debating Society

The Sherborne “Big School Room,” pictured here in 1879. This was one of two rooms where the Debating Society met. (Photo courtesy of Sherborne School Archives, with thanks to Archivist Rachel Hassall)

We recently received an email from our friend Rachel Hassall, the Archivist over at Sherborne School—Whitehead’s school from 1875–1880—who wanted to let us know about some of the records she’d discovered about a young Whitehead participating in the Debating Society.

In his A History of Sherborne School (1979), A. B. Gourlay described the Debating Society:

In the 1870s and 1880s debates were carried on in the following manner; a president was elected by vote, choosing as colleagues a vice-president and secretary. The trio constituted a “government” and produced all the subjects for debate, holding office until twice defeated, when a fresh election was held. No government would hold office for long; one occasion of defeat is recorded when the motion “that the franchise ought not to be extended to women” was lost by seven votes – advanced political opinions for the 1870s.

We read that on 13th December 1874, the members “got very merry and retired to their couches at 10.30 having passed the time away after dinner in singing songs and drinking wine, which the Headmaster [H.D. Harper], with his usual hospitality, had provided.”

The records of the debates, printed in the school magazine The Shirburnian (archived issues of which can be accessed here) consist of lists of speakers on either side of a proposal and the results of the final vote, and were sometimes accompanied by brief notes. The names of debaters are occasionally followed by a number in parentheses, ranging from 2 to 4. The meaning of these numbers is not explained in the magazine, but we believe they may indicate how many times a person rose to speak.

A sample of a debate record. This one is from the June 1878 issue of The Shirburnian. (Photo courtesy of Sherborne School Archives, with thanks to Archivist Rachel Hassall)

Somewhat amusingly, the notes on debates were sometimes used to disparage their quality. For instance, the record of a discussion on whether “promotion from the ranks would be beneficial to the service” contains this note: “This debate was much below the average; both the proposer and his seconder were unavoidably absent, and the speeches were short and did not display much knowledge of the subject.”

By all appearances, participants chose their own sides, which would explain why there were sometimes large differences in the number of people arguing for one side versus the other, as was the case for the the 18 November 1876 debate on the proposal “That the Arctic Expedition was not a useless waste of life and money,” which had seven people argue for it versus only three against.

A number of the subjects debated are curiously timely. For instance, in September 1879, with Whitehead then acting as Vice President, the Cabinet proposed “That further interference in the affairs of Afghanistan is undesirable.” Whitehead was one of five people arguing for the proposition, but they lost the vote 7–5.

Sometimes the Society would debate matters of school policy, but it is not clear that any of these votes actually affected any change in these matters. For instance, Whitehead at one point proposed that “The compulsion in games at Public Schools is inadvisable,” which was carried by a vote of 13–5, and yet there remain compulsory games at Sherborne School even today, more than a century later.

Whitehead took part in debates from 6 December 1876 to 22 November 1879. Ms. Hassall kindly provided us with a complete list of Whitehead’s participation in the Debating Society, which we are printing below for your perusal. Whitehead’s position on each matter under debate is listed at the end, either “for” or “against.”

The Sixth Form classroom (shown here in 1905), the other room in which the Debating Society held meetings. (Photo courtesy of Sherborne School Archives, with thanks to Archivist Rachel Hassall)

Debates in which A.N. Whitehead was involved:

  • 6 December 1876 – That ignorance and morality are preferable to wisdom and morality – against.
  • 3 February 1877 – That at the present crisis compulsory service would be beneficial to the country – against.
  • 24 February 1877- That a classical training develops the mind more than a mathematical – against.
  • 29 September 1877 – That a Spendthrift is more to be admired than a Miser – against.
  • 6 October 1877 – That England is to blame for her policy of non-intervention in the present war – against.
  • 27 October 1877 – That Vivisection is a disgrace to a civilised country – against.
  • 3 November 1877 – That captial punishment ought not to be abolished – against.
  • 17 November 1877 – That Charles II is unworthy of our admiration – against.
  • 24 November 1877 – That the murder of Julius Caesar was unjustifable – against.
  • 2 February 1878 – That it is to the interest of England to stop by force of arms the aggressive power of Russia – against.
  • 16 February 1878 – That this House would view with satisfaction the introduction of cremation into England – against.
  • 23 February, 1878 – New cabinet elected: C.E. English (President), A.N. Whitehead (Vice-President), E.W. Bastard (Secretary).
  • 2 March 1878 – That the ancient mode of warfare is superior to the modern – for. L.V. Lester elected Vice-President in place of A.N. Whitehead, who had resigned.
  • 12 March 1878 – That the character of William III is worthy of our admiration – against.
  • 30 March 1878 – That compulsory service would be beneficial to the country – for. New cabinet elected: A.J. Galpin (President), P.P. Phelps (Vice-President), A.N. Whitehead (Secretary).
  • 6 April 1878 – That in the opinion of this House the resignation of Lord Derby is worthy of our approval – for.
  • 21 September 1878 – That the annexation of Cyprus is beneficial to England – against.
  • 19 October 1878 – That James I of England is unworthy of our admiration – against.
  • 26 October 1878 – That an Advocate is justified in defending a Client whom he knows to be guilty – against. New cabinet elected: A.N. Whitehead (President), H. Broadmead (Vice-President), H. Sloman (Secretary).
  • 2 November 1878 – That the Greeks, as a nation, are superior to the Romans – against.
  • 9 November 1878 – That the conduct of the Indian Government with regard to the Afghan crisis is worthy of our admiration – against.
  • 16 November 1878 – Proposed by A.N. Whitehead – That Public Picture Galleries and Museums ought to be opened on Sundays – for.
  • 23 November 1878 – That the County Franchise ought to be extended – against.
  • 30 November 1878 – That the invitation of William III to England meets with our approval – against.
  • 7 December 1878 – That the character of Warren Hastings is worthy of our highest admiration and esteem – against.
  • 14 December 1878 – Proposed by A.N. Whitehead – That the employment of Indian troops in Europe without previous consent of Parliament is unconstitutional and unnecessary – for.
  • 1 February 1879 – Proposed by A.N. Whitehead – That the character of Cranmer meets with the detestation of this house – for.
  • 8 February 1879 – Proposed by A.N. Whitehead – That the system of Private Schools is superior to that of Public Schools – for.
  • 15 February 1879 – Proposed by A.N. Whitehead – That we ought not to oppose by force of arms the secession of any of our colonies – for. New cabinet elected: A.J. Galpin (President), A.N. Whitehead (Vice-President), G.M. Lester (Secretary).
  • 22 February 1879 – That the study of English Literature is not sufficiently encouraged in our schools – against.
  • 8 March 1879 – That the system of education pursued at Oxford is superior to that in use at Cambridge – for.
  • 15 March 1879 – That the expulsion of the Ottoman Empire from Europe would be beneficial to the world at large – against.
  • 1 April 1879 – That total abstinence would not be beneficial to the world at large – for.
  • 12 April 1879 – That the conduct of the Government in the South African question meets with the disapproval of this House – for.
  • 26 May 1879 – That the Russian Nihilists meets with the sympathy of this House – for.
  • 25 September 1879 – New cabinet elected: R.S. Ainslie (President), A.N. Whitehead (Vice-President), H.W. Laing (Secretary).
  • 27 September 1879 – That further interference in the affairs of Afghanistan is undesirable – for.
  • 4 October 1879 – That a country life is preferable to a town life – against.
  • 11 October 1879 – A.N. Whitehead proposed – That compulsion in games at Public Schools is inadvisable – for.
  • 18 October 1879 – That Napoleon I is quite worthy of our admiration – against.
  • 8 November 1879 – That the character Henry VIII merits our admiration – for.
  • 15 November 1879 – A.N. Whitehead proposed – That lying under certain circumstances is justifiable – A.N. Whitehead was absent from the debate.
  • 22 November 1879 – That this House would view with pleasure the return of the Liberals to power – for.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *