Probus School: Educating the Cornish (male) middle classes

We’re told that the British Empire was won on the playing fields of Eton and similar institutions. It’s true that the English aristocracy were, by the late Victorian period, being educated generally for governing and more specifically for the imperial mission. Those not involved in running the home country would carve out colonies, subdue the natives and then provide the administrators. However, the growing complexities of rule, whether at home or abroad, required not just Eton and similar grand public schools.

A host of minor public schools emerged across the UK in the 1840s and 1850s to educate more middle-class boys. Nevertheless, we should note that in the 1860s only around 7,500 boys were attending these boarding schools, a tiny proportion of the whole. These private boarding schools catered for a variety of boys from middle class homes, sons of professional men, clergymen, military officers and respectable tradesfolk. They slavishly copied the arcane practices of the older schools – masters in academic gowns, emphasis on the classics, chapels – but usually without the degree of violence, bullying, ferocious floggings and sexual scandals that were a feature of schools such as Harrow in the 1840s and 1850s and others before (and after) Thomas Arnold’s reforms were rolled out from Rugby.

In Cornwall, one of these privately run schools was found in the parish of Probus. Probus School had been founded in 1852 by Anglican clergymen. For 30 guineas (around £4,500-5,000 now) a year it took boys from the ages of seven to 18. Initially, the curriculum included land surveying, navigation and map drawing as well as the more usual Latin, reading, writing and algebra. The surveying and navigation were canny additions designed to appeal to the captains of mines and ships that made up a key component of the rising middle classes of Cornwall.

Probus School at the end of the nineteenth century

The golden years of the school were from the 1870s to the 1920s, although it lingered on until closure in 1960. In the early 1900s the school housed 60 boarders with another 20 boys who lived within travelling distance and came in daily. By all accounts, it was a spartan environment for the boarders. Old, draughty dormitories with no running water, outside toilets and classrooms heated only by open coal fires made for an ascetic life. But the school in 1861 provided two 11-year olds for our database, both of whom had interesting connections.

William Haslam

The first was John Haslam, born at Baldhu in 1851. John was the son of William Haslam, who was appointed the vicar of Baldhu in 1846, the first clergyman of this new parish. Haslam, born in Sumatra, left a striking account of the revivalism he encountered at his new church. At first a High Churchman, Haslam underwent a process of conversion in 1851 soon after taking over at Baldhu. This triggered evangelist preaching and greatly enhanced his reputation among a populace already attuned to the presence of the revivalist Billy Bray. His autobiography – From Death into Life – is full of shrieks and cries for mercy, shouts of joy and howls of misery. Haslam claimed he once preached to 3,000 people on the common near Mount Hawke in St Agnes. Inspired by his words, this particular revivalist meeting then continued uninterrupted indoors for eight days. Haslam visited now and again but reported that ‘the people were too absorbed to heed my presence’.

Haslam’s spiritual awakening did not prevent him packing his son off to a boarding school, despite financial difficulties after leaving Baldhu in the mid-1850s. As so often happened, John followed his father into the Anglican ministry, becoming the vicar of St Matthias at Birmingham in 1880 after serving as a curate in Essex and marrying Ellen Gorham from Tunbridge in Kent. After Birmingham John and Ellen lived in south-east England. He was the rector at Gravesend in 1887 and then vicar of St Saviours in Camberwell, London. John was a keen astronomer and it’s unlikely he shared his father’s enthusiasm for revivalism. But we can be certain that he would never have again experienced the revivalist excitement triggered by his father that he had witnessed as a boy back in Cornwall. He died in 1904 in Switzerland after a failed operation.

5 thoughts on “Probus School: Educating the Cornish (male) middle classes

  1. What a fascinating account, and I didn’t realise the school had been demolished. My father attended Probus primary school (I presume at the same place) for a few years during the 1940s and was incredibly unhappy there. He remembered the Latin lessons and the very rough boys and the overall grimness of the place.

    You have no doubt written widely about religious movements. My great grandmother from Manchester was an ardent Primitive Methodist and very active. She was originally a millworker before moving up in the world. This was a really different kind of religion and seemed to have been very inclusive of women, and everyone really.

    I know you select more unusual lives but I do find the links to the colonial enterprise really very interesting. If you go to St Pauls in London it is amazing to see all the statues of (deeply unwanted by the natives) white men who perished nobly trying to crush rebellions here and there. It is actually quite chilling.

    For a somewhat humorous take on India just after Independence it is worth reading the detective series by Vaseem Khan about Malabar House. These are amusing crime stories (see also crime fiction by Abir Mukherjee, at least the first two or three – whic take place prior to Independence) which give some insight, I think, filtered obviously through modern eyes, of those turbulent times.


      1. Most interested in your piece about Probus School. I attended that somewhat ‘ascetic’ institution in the late 1940’s and your comments about colds dormitories, outside toilets and classrooms heated by log fires ring true. My father farmed near St Issey and many of my fellow pupils in those days were farmers sons from all over the Duchy. I joined the RAF in 1955 and served in Libya, Fiji and Papua New Guinea and later became a teacher and House Master in one of England’s oldest schools. Perhaps some of my fellow ‘Probians’ are still alive?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks – fascinating to read the latest blog just now! There were signs all over India eg on clubs saying “no dogs, no Indians”. I guess you know that. Anyway, beyond these stories it is deeply interesting to learn about Cornish people who went to India and other countries, as they must have carried many a memory of the Cornish landscapes and people who once sustained them, and no doubt continued to do so in the mind.


  3. I attended Probus Boys Boarding School twixt 1943 and 1947, arriving at Probus Halt by train and being met and taken up Little Truk (!!) by cart together with assorted luggage.
    The images of the dormitories bring back mixed memories. The owner and headmaster was Mr Bastable and he was very proficient with the cane as I remember! I left after passing the Cambridge School Certificate and subsequently attended Harleigh School, Bodmin until 1949 when I took a job at Jago & Jago, Wadebridge and subsequently became an apprentice pharmacist there. Qualified from Plymouth Tec in 1954 and was promptly conscripted into HM Forces which turned out well since I was posted to Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising and ended up in Mauritius for over 2 years! Best holiday of my life!
    Happy days.


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