The Eton College Riot, 1818

More about the tough side of Regency Britain. More details here


Britain had a ruling elite in the Regency period, and it was educated at Eton College. In November 1818, the College contained 530 boys of the ruling class and it was widely regarded as the premier educational institution in England. The “Morning Advertiser” called it   “The First Public School”

So  all the national press were alarmed in November 1818, when many of the boys rose in rebellion against the Head Teacher , Dr John Keate  on three separate occasions.

These rich young men had money at their disposal, and this was a time before the Public Schools gained their reputation for any sort of academic excellence. It seems that the boys spent their time hunting, shooting and driving. The press at the time was probably too deferential to add “drinking”

Dr Keate knew that his charges were causing havoc in Eton and Windsor, but was finding it very hard to do anything. The boys stuck together   and Keate was unable to pin an evil deed on a named person. One newspaper described this as the “honourable tenacity “of the students.

Keate’s   first tactic may seem odd. Students were normally told to go back to their Dames (boarding houses) at 6pm and stay there for the night.  The Head teacher changed the time to 5pm. It is hard to see how this would reduce hunting or shooting, especially in November. It seems that Dr Keate was simply looking for a form of provocation, and two of the boys refused to take any notice of the new curfew. One was the son of Justice Holroyd and another was a nephew of an MP called Marriot. They were not expelled; their parents were told to take them home. Perhaps Dr Keate though this was enough.

The outbreak of desk smashing and window breaking the same night showed him that was not true. Once again, the authorities could not pin the crime on the right people so the Head seemed to have blamed somebody at random, knowing that the person would confess the guilty parties rather than be expelled from College. There would be no place for anybody expelled in Oxford or Cambridge, nor would they be allowed into the military and the church. It perhaps shows the sense of the entitlement of the young gentlemen that they knew this perfectly well.   Messieurs   White. Pitt, May and Jackson were expelled.

Keate called an assembly to press home his advantage. He told the boys that obedience must be their watchword from now on; one boy John Palk, muttered the word “Never” in too loud a voice and was expelled as well. There followed another night of rioting. Dr Keate was pelted with eggs, windows were broken and the local militia called.Two companies of foot soldiers and fixed bayonets were required. By the time the authorities had gained control, two more- the brothers Elton- had been expelled

The London papers did not name the seven   boys who had cut themselves off from the establishment. One, according to the press “was going to Kings College, and then the Church..he must know choose some other path in life”.  The further from London, the less likely the boys were to have anonymity. The Taunton Courier and the Exeter Flying Post named them. By late November, parents were being blamed as well. Too many of these young men received too much pocket money. The Worcester Chronicle and other papers reported that one young man was spending £400 a year. In an eerie premonition of the Bullingdon Club, many papers bemoaned those privileged young men   “whose inclinations led themselves to seek pleasure from some other sources than their books”