29th November 2021

Book in Focus

Edward Thring’s Theory, Practice and Legacy

Physical Education in Britain since 1800

By Malcolm Tozer

Edward Thring’s Legacy: A Bicentennial Appreciation

On 29 November 2021 Uppingham School will commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of its most celebrated headmaster, Edward Thring. The legacy of his 34-year reign continues to be felt far beyond his school in England’s smallest county and his fame as an educational revolutionary still commands respect in much of the English-speaking world.

There are three ways in which Thring’s contribution to education may be regarded as revolutionary —as being so out of step with the fashion of the time to be considered eccentric and so commonplace today to be thought the norm. Two are aims or principles, while the third is a method or system; all three are closely connected and all spring from a single-mindedness of purpose. Together, they form what Thring called ‘the great educational experiment’.

The first is his insistence that individual attention should be given to every pupil. It would be unthinkable today for a school to be based on any other foundation, but this was not the case in mid-Victorian England. John Keate was headmaster when Thring entered Eton, and, alone, he had charge of a class of 170 boys, while just nine assistants were responsible for the remaining 570. Only the clever and willing had the chance to learn. Life as a boarder was equally heartless: each evening all 70 King’s Scholars were locked in the Long Chamber without adult supervision. Boy government ruled with the youngest at the mercy of their elders. What was true for Eton was true for all public schools.

Before his appointment to Uppingham in 1853, Thring had taught at a church elementary school in Gloucester when curate at St James’s. The children inspired some of his pithiest axioms: ‘A mob of boys cannot be educated’; ‘The worse the material, the greater the skill of the worker’; ‘If these fellows don’t learn, it’s my fault’; and ‘Racing stables and a crack winner or two will not do’.

The question of numbers was crucial. Classes at Uppingham were limited to 24, boarding houses were restricted to 30, and the school should not exceed 300 so that the headmaster could know all his boys. Care had to be taken to match a master to his class; individual studies and cubicled dormitories promoted privacy; and masters and their wives had a pastoral role above and beyond classroom duties. Thring rejected mass-living, mass-teaching and mass-production.

Individual attention was the first point of principle; the second was that Uppingham should be directed towards the education of the whole man. This was partly a consequence of the first, with its insistence that education should not be limited to the academically gifted, and partly a belief that non-academic activities aided the formation of character. For Thring, character was at least as important as intellect.

Thring’s wife, Marie, was Prussian. Each summer of their early years at Uppingham saw the Thrings holidaying with her family in Bonn. There, the headmaster was introduced to educationalists, philosophers, musicians, and other like-minded intellectuals, and he learnt about the city’s model of holistic schooling that aimed to motivate all children to realise their full potential. Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussia’s minister for education, used the term Bildung to describe this innovative curriculum that was standard in all schools. Thring’s adoption of Bildung theory and practice added music, art, gymnastics, modern languages, and science to the Uppingham curriculum, and Marie’s brother-in-law, also a headmaster, recruited men from Rhineland towns to teach these new subjects at Uppingham.

Intellectual activity was at the heart of school work, but lessons could also aid moral education. Wordsworth, Tennyson and Scott fed the Romantic tradition through poetry and prose; classical studies and history were examined for their moral worth; and Thring would speak plainly in divinity lessons and chapel sermons to ensure that no boy was allowed to sin blindly. Physical activity had a vital role to play, but games were never allowed to become a muscular cult. Art, architecture, and classroom decorations taught boys to see with an appreciative eye, with Ruskin as their guide and Turner as their exemplar. Carpentry and metalwork gave honour to manual work. Music infiltrated every aspect of school life and built a sense of community. All these non-traditional aspects of the Uppingham curriculum were taught by specialist teachers, equipped with appropriate facilities, and given sufficient time to play their part. The aim was to produce a wholeness and harmony, within and beyond the classroom, in work and in play, and in body, intellect, and soul.

Education of the whole man and attention to the individual child are the central legacies that Thring bequeathed to English education, and they were integral to Thring’s theory and practice in physical education. When most public schools in the period of Thring’s headmastership—1853 to 1887—concentrated wholly or almost wholly on team games, usually cricket and one of the codes of football, Uppingham had a balanced programme of five activities: gymnastics, athletics, games, swimming, and country pursuits.

The country pursuits of running with hounds, rambling, skating, sledging, and so on are the timeless pursuits of the English countryside, and it was in this recreational light that they were encouraged by Thring. The country-born headmaster inevitably joined in. These activities were delightful, spontaneous, and uninhibited; they allowed time for conversation, and they led to studies in natural history and to a communion with nature.

Country pursuits were recreational, but classes in gymnastics were on the timetable. Uppingham led the first school gymnasium and was the first gymnastics master. The role of gymnastics was to ensure that ‘the body was exercised and trained’ for its own sake, ‘irrespective of ulterior motive’. The repertoire of skills learned in the gymnasium would ensure that the gymnast was ‘the master of strength, and trained movement’. Thring was sure that ‘it is also clear that as far as power goes, the less the training of the body was cramped by unduly exercising any one part, the better would be the result’.

The purpose of the athletic sports was to push the individual boy to the limits of speed, endurance, and strength. Numerous heats were arranged in the various events to provide measured competition for as many boys as possible, but, to realise Thring’s aim, the sports had to be voluntary. The object was to inculcate the ‘racer’s spirit’, so that the boys experienced victory without pride and defeat without depression. The prizes awarded in the sports were to be looked upon ‘as motives to work instead of records of having worked’.

‘Games are wondrous vital powers’, wrote Thring, ‘and a true school will deal with them as of the highest educational value’. Games fulfilled a threefold role. First, they presented a situation in which boys and their masters could mix. When the Schools Inquiry Commissioners interviewed Thring in the 1860s, they were surprised that he counted games as educational, and they were amazed that he and his colleagues joined the boys at their play. Secondly, games provided a healthy competitive environment: there was no choice between ‘manly games, or learning’; the choice was both. Success in these games enabled the less intelligent boys to ‘attain some position among their fellows’. Thirdly, character was trained in games; ‘Never cheat, never funk, never lose temper, never brag’ were the unwritten rules that promoted manliness.

Thring appreciated the recreational, life-preservation, and health-promoting benefits to be gained from swimming and an indoor pool had been on his wish-list since 1863. In 1883, his wish was granted, and no longer did boys have to trek two miles to a pool in a local river. All boys, ‘except those who claim exemption under medical advice’, were taught to swim and dive by the school’s swimming master and courses of instruction were given in lifesaving, with an annual examination for the Royal Humane Society’s medal.

Thring’s third revolutionary input was to devise a system so that his methods should work effectively. Once again, this sounds ordinary today but Thring’s experience more than a century ago had shown him that that other well-known schools depended for their success on the personality of great headmasters, and that, when they retired, such standards dropped. This was Thring’s criticism of Arnold’s Rugby, where he had served as an examiner: ‘What personal influence could do, he did. What wise and thoughtful application of means should have done, he did not’. Thring intended not to make the same mistake: ‘A man must build his ship, as well as be able to command her’ was his maxim. It cannot be claimed that Thring was entirely successful in this respect, for many of his cherished aims and methods were discarded at Uppingham on his death, but the principle that a school should have a sound organisational system was readily and widely accepted.

‘Machinery, machinery, machinery should be the motto of every good school’. By machinery, Thring meant all those factors that would promote excellence so that the system did not rest solely on the teacher: the right use of a teacher’s talents, the ratio of staff to boys, the arrangements in the boarding houses, the provision of educational equipment, and the school’s buildings and grounds.

The 300 Uppinghamians were accommodated in specially designed or suitably converted houses; the adjacent chapel and schoolroom made concrete a belief in godliness and good learning; the library, museum, workshops, and classrooms brought honour to lessons; pavilions, playing fields, fives courts, a gymnasium and an indoor swimming pool supported the physical education; and a sanatorium housed the sick and convalescing. All of these formed what Thring termed ‘the Almighty Wall’. He commanded through an administrative structure in which much day-to-day responsibility was delegated to his housemasters and senior teachers. This was greatly aided by the high quality of his team, whether classicists, gymnasts or musicians, for Thring was determined to appoint only ‘superior men’.

Thring made Uppingham by his own indomitable spirit: it is, thus, remarkable that he rated so highly the importance of teamwork and administration.


“Malcolm Tozer’s latest publication on former Uppingham headmaster Edward Thring’s influence in English education provides a welcome continuation of the work found in his The Ideal of Manliness (Portscatho, 2015). Where Manliness concerned itself with the institutionalisation of strict moral codes in English public schools, Edward Thring’s Theory instead focuses on the domestic, international and interpersonal trends underpinning physical education in schools. […] As is to be expected of Tozer, the book is well researched, thoroughly engaged and well written. For historians of education, its benefit lies in its focus on the inner machinations of the school and how school policy is guided by a variety of individual and societal concerns. […] Using Uppingham as the case study, Tozer reminds us of the demands and dreams brought to bear on schools by parents, administrators, politicians and students. It would be remiss not to commend Tozer’s use of school pamphlets, songs, speeches, images and schoolboy reminisces within the work. […] For historians interested in the institutional underpinnings of physical education in Britain, for those interested in the transnational elements of British education and for those interested in the inner workings of the English public school across time, Tozer’s work will not only prove of interest but will act as a motivator to continue research in this field. For the sheer depth of research alone, his latest study has the potential to act as both a reference guide and a stepping stone for more work in this field. As Tozer has shown, there is much to be gleaned from the history of physical education.”
Conor Heffernan
University of Texas at Austin; History of Education, 49:5, 2020

“Tozer relishes sharing with his readers that Thring went about his work by advocating an holistic education. […] What marked Thring out from others who looked to use sport to drive their schools forward was the breadth of his PE programme. It encompassed recreational country pursuits, as well as gymnastics, swimming, athletics and games. […] In this, as in his promotion of music and art in the curriculum and in his consistent belief that every child matters, Thring is strikingly modern. The blurb on the back cover suggests Directors of Sport, trainee teachers and historians of education, gender, society and sport should read it. In fact, it has much to say to headteachers and senior leaders too, about the balanced curriculum, about creative pupil leadership and about sport as just one of the co-curricular enterprises that deserve their support. Reading Tozer is stimulating. Like all good authors, when he doesn’t have the answer, he sets the reader the right question.”
Dr Joseph Spence
Master of Dulwich College, UK; Conference & Common Room

“The public school has often been written about in institutional terms but Tozer uses evidence to allow the reader to glimpse personalities and attitudes both within its walls (staff and pupils) and beyond (parents, politicians and observers). He illustrates his arguments with an appropriate use of reminiscences, school magazines, songs, and speeches. Unlike much academic writing on public schools, Tozer takes us past the First World War and into the twenty-first century. This allows him to comment on some broader issues such as the expansion of physical education for women and the reinvention of the wheel as educationalists accepted Thring’s ideas that physical education was a development tool rather than one of discipline. Although he was not acknowledged by the instigators, Tozer postulates that the National Curriculum for Physical Education owed much to Thring’s legacy from Uppingham. As always Tozer writes an entertaining, informative and readable narrative which makes a significant contribution to sports, physical education and educational history.”
Wray Vamplew
Global Professorial Fellow, Academy of Sport; University of Edinburgh

“Edward Thring’s Theory, Practice and Legacy is a valuable and much-needed contribution to historical study of physical education. Tozer’s grasp of his historical material is always assured as he leads us through the highs and lows of Thring’s mission to establish his vision of physical education at the centre of school life. […] Moreover, he provides a masterclass on how to tell a good story while presenting a balanced, evidence-based account of the development of educational ideas and the people who made them. Tozer provides an important counter-point to traditional assumptions about the historical influence and legacy of the independent school sector. […] He argues that recent modern ideas about physical education, from the 1970s to the present, owe more to Thring’s theory and practice than to the much vaunted ‘cult of athleticism’ commonly associated with Thomas Arnold. Thring’s emphasis on what we would now call ‘inclusion’, for example, is very much a preoccupation of contemporary scholars and practitioners of physical education around the world as we are faced with increasing diversity in schools.”
Professor David Kirk
University of Strathclyde, UK; Physical Education Matters

“As ever with a Malcolm Tozer volume, it has been wonderfully and dutifully researched, well written and has a cover design which just begs to sit on the shelves of everyone already steeped in the subject […] or those who are studying the subject at A or Degree level. This is a superb read - and I commend it most highly.”
Paul Jackson
Prep School Magazine

“Those familiar with Malcolm Tozer’s previous works on Thring will not be surprised to know that this very readable, elegantly produced and delightfully illustrated book fully meets its author’s goal of furthering our understanding of Thring, his practice and his legacy. [T]his refreshed and refreshing account of Thring, Uppingham, and the history of physical education in Britain since 1800 provides an important and timely re-evaluation of the role of physical education at Thring’s Uppingham, while further examining the legacy of that role in the present practice of physical education. […] As a bonus, Tozer’s new analysis offers some further intriguing questions: could physical education really have a more secure future within the National Curriculum if its history were better understood and the importance of Thring’s legacy more fully appreciated by current physical educators and educational policy makers? [W]hen physical education’s place in the school curriculum is under increasing scrutiny and pressure, Tozer sensibly reminds us that Thring’s insistence upon nurturing the talents of each individual pupil is central to any purposeful curriculum; and that physical education is a central component of that curriculum. As such, I echo Tozer’s hope that this book will indeed inform teacher trainers, trainee teachers and practicing teachers about the men and women who have striven since 1800 to sustain a foothold for physical education in the curriculum for every pupil in British schools; and chief amongst them, Edward Thring.”
Professor Timothy Chandler
Towson University, USA; Sport in History

“Tozer details through a meticulously researched and eminently readable case study Thring’s influence not only on Uppingham School, but on physical education more widely since. What Tozer does so effectively is to locate the history of Uppingham and Thring within the context of the history of education in England, melding a rare level of detail with a broader picture of how education has unfolded over time. For those interested in the history of education and an understanding of physical education today, Edward Thring’s Theory, Practice and Legacy offers a valuable, new perspective.”
Dr Adam Morton
Loughborough University, UK; History of Education Researcher

“For anyone with an interest in physical education or education more widely in England, English public schools or even English history in the Victorian era, there is much to recommend in this book. For those studying physical education or sport at the undergraduate or postgraduate level, this moves from recommended reading to required reading. There is enough here in terms of research alone, that the book can be seen concomitantly as both an invaluable source for locating works and for exploring other areas worthy of academic inquiry.”
Dr Alexander Roper
International College of Management, Sydney; The International Journal of the History of Sport

“While the aim of Malcolm Tozer’s meticulously researched, balanced and beautifully written book is clearly to explore Thring’s contribution to modern PE, in doing so he successfully deconstructs some of the generally held truths about public schools and the institution’s role in the development of the subject. … [He] makes clear the contrast that some historians failed to grasp: ‘Thring’s Uppingham was an Athens surrounded by Spartan strongholds’. He … transports the reader to that time and place through vivid descriptions, colourful anecdotes, and a wealth of other first-hand accounts and primary sources. I highly recommend this book for … PE undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. Many students are misinformed about the impact of the public school in relation to PE. … The ideal antidote to this is Malcolm Tozer’s balanced historical account of the life, work and legacy of Edward Thring at Uppingham. … If we cannot learn from the remarkable 34 years that Thring gave to Uppingham School and the legacy he gave to PE more generally, I contend that the PE community will fail to make an effective and reasoned case for the future of the subject.”
Ruan Jones
Senior Lecturer, Leeds Beckett University; Sport Education and Society

Malcolm Tozer taught at Uppingham School from 1966 until 1989, and served as a housemaster for fourteen years. For six years from 1989, he was Northamptonshire Grammar School’s first Headmaster and then Headmaster of Wellow House School for a further ten years. Since retiring in 2004, he has led inspections for the Independent Schools Inspectorate, served as a governor at Repton School and Foremarke Hall, and promoted partnerships in physical education and sport between state and independent schools. He is the author of The Ideal of Manliness: the Legacy of Thring’s Uppingham (2015) and editor of Physical Education and Sport in Independent Schools (2012).

Edward Thring’s Theory, Practice and Legacy: Physical Education in Britain since 1800 is available now in Hardback and Paperback at a 25% discount. Enter the code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem. 

Read Extract