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News > Of Interest > The House System

The House System

The House System has long been an integral facet of the Public School régime.
8 Mar 2021
Written by Walter Murphy
Of Interest

The House System

The House System has long been an integral facet of the Public School régime. Its use at Malvern in the 1860s, for instance, indicates that it dates back the best part of 150 years. It proliferated in the late 19th century as a by-product of the concept of t “muscular Christianity” which pervaded the Public School ethos. It aspired to encourage a vigorous and healthy rivalry within an institution which, it was claimed, would mould the individual character in a positive fashion.

Whilst this competitive aspect, however, became an important trait, the Houses also existed to foster “godliness and good learning” amongst the pupils – in other words, the Housemaster’s role was essentially pastoral, directing the pupil’s personal development in a disciplined and Christian fashion.

These internal units within a school came to be known as Houses, because originally, that is precisely what they were! There were distinct properties – often substantial detached villas – owned by the individual Housemaster. Occasionally, as experienced by Corrie Chase (Staff 1905-1965), a member of staff actually built the property privately -  in the case of Chase’s Housemaster, Petergate at Blundell’s School in 1887 -  to accommodate his potentials charges.

Essentially, the House became a private business enterprise, which the owner hoped to runat a profit; to accomplish this, the needed good references from past pupils who appreciated and valued his pastoral talents. The disadvantage for the school was that the Housemaster acquired a proprietorial disposition towards his charges, and the school had to work hard to retain the wider loyalty of the pupils.

Although the House system had not yet been introduced at Campbell in the first years of the 20th century, the financial imperative which encompassed this loyalty was echoed in events close to Campbell. Effectively dismissed in 1896 following the rancorous dispute with the Headmaster, James Adams McNeill, Alistair McDonnel (Staff1894-1896) – an Irish rugby international – became Principal at Royal School Armagh in 1897. In 1904 he was appointed to Portora, and almost ruined Armagh by transferring all his boarding pupils to Enniskillen! He was succeeded in the cathedral city by another member of the Campbell staff, Henry Hirsch (Staff 1896-1904), which in turn resorted to encouraging many Campbell parents to fill the void at Armagh!

When Campbell opened in September 1894, McNeill did not adopt the House system. This was partly because it had never been a feature of the Irish education, and was something of which he had no experience. Many of the staff, who felt that it was invaluable in the exercise of discipline, believed that McNeill’s antipathy was a consequence of his reluctance to delegate authority. The closest he was prepared to compromise was to suggest in 1895 that a single boarding House should be established, and staff would have to take overall responsibility in rotation.

When the House system was introduced by the new Headmaster, Robert MacFarland, in 1908, many regarded it as an unwarranted intrusion of English public school ideas into an Irish school! MacFarland, an Ulsterman by birth, brought the concept from Repton, where he had been in charge of the Army class since 1889. William Henry Madden, who was later on the Campbell Staff (1912-1918) had been a pupil at Repton in Latham House. William Duff Gibbon, who succeeded MacFarland as Headmaster in 1922, had been a member of Ivyholme House whilst a pupil at Dulwich College. He was probably the most outstanding coach of schoolboy rugby of his generation, but rather perversely, in his 1922 publication “First Steps to Rugby Football” – an unlikely Mills & Boon title! – he opposed the use of the House system for teaching boys the sport.

MacFarland established five Houses at Campbell, four for Boarding and one Day-boy House. Seniority of service seems to have governed his choice – the only exception being Stephen Bennett (Staff 1898-1927), who seems to have been constitutionally incapable of exercising discipline! A further senior House was created in 1921, and there have been four others since the Second World War.

Brief notes will follow on the eponymous donors of the various House names. The authors only regret is that a House was never named after Campbell’s longest-serving employee, Albert Maxwell Staff 1929-1993). Maxwell House -  now that’s a refreshing idea!

Keith Haines

Hon OC

Extract from The Old Campbellian magazine 2005

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