Rugby School. Wikimedia Commons
Artillery Row

The great Rugby School library sale

As Rugby School prepares to auction off some of its most prized literary possessions, one must wonder what Dr Arnold would have to say

Rugby School in Warwickshire has one of the country’s finest pedigrees. Not only is it one of the original “public schools” (as defined by the Public Schools Act of 1868, a source of pride or consternation to its members ever since), but it has a famous literary heritage.

Not only has it educated writers as diverse as Rupert Brooke, Salman Rushdie (who loathed the school) and Charles “Lewis Carroll” Dodgson, but it also inspired one of the great works of Victorian children’s literature, Tom Brown’s Schoolboys, which eulogised the school as a haven of decency, Christian faith and moral probity under the benevolent tutelage of its headmaster “the Doctor”, or Thomas Arnold, whose poetic son Matthew was also a pupil there.

However, a scheme that might have been dreamt up by the novel’s notorious cad Flashman now seems to be in operation. Following a successful sale of artwork in 2018 that raised £15 million for the school, including a Lucas van Leyden drawing that made a world record £11.5 million, it has been quietly announced that this Wednesday will see the sale of hundreds of books from the Rugby School library at Forum Auctions in London.

The school has made it clear that the sale is not taking place out of any financial difficulty

The auction will largely feature the collection of Matthew Holbeche Bloxam, whose art proved to be so profitable for the school two years before, and will include everything from a first edition of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and a signed Winston Churchill history book to an early folio copy of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as many rare and interesting antiquarian titles, including – topically – a sermon ‘‘for preserving these kingdoms from the plague”.

As a keen, if relatively impecunious, book collector, there are several items that I would dearly love to own, not least a Siegfried Sassoon signed letter that offers candid impressions of his fellow war poets and would surely be of interest to any future biographer or critic. However, my own desire to bid on the treasure trove of books and documents for sale is lessened by a feeling of unease at the prospect of auctions such as this becoming the norm.

The school has made it clear that the sale is not taking place out of any financial difficulty on their part – a sudden boost of £15 million to their coffers will usually allay any such woes – but is instead arising from altruistic purposes, and that the money raised will go towards subsiding the fees of bright but impecunious pupils, something that, as the beneficiary of similar help, I have some sympathy for.

As Peter Green, the “executive headmaster of the Rugby School Group”, puts it:

Rugby School already operates a generous bursary system, with more than 40% of our students receiving some form of scholarship remission or bursary support. In addition, our Arnold Foundation fully funds places for talented children who would benefit from a boarding education but are without the means to fund it. Between the covers of these extraordinary books are examples of creative expression, tales of adventure and skill, passages of learning, reflection, and wonder at the world, written by men and women of enquiring minds. It is entirely fitting that the proceeds from the sale of this collection will go towards extending the benefit of a Rugby education, an education where boys and girls are encouraged to keep asking questions and challenging the answers.

While this sounds both convincing and plausible, it may not be the whole story. Just as Rugby pupils are taught to ask questions and regard the answers as inadequate, so it seems to be setting a dangerous and unfortunate precedent to start selling off the school’s prized possessions and not expect there to be some kind of reaction. The writer and critic AN Wilson, who was educated at the school, described the news of the sale as “terrible”, the governors as “vandals” and said, “I would never dream now of leaving anything to that school because they would just flog it.”

Once these books have disappeared, there is no chance of their being available for consultation by scholars

His words were echoed by the Shakespearean scholar Professor Michael Dobson, who was particularly vexed at the sale of the early Shakespeare folio. He commented, “From being living books, housed in an institution with a strong Shakespearean heritage, in Shakespeare’s home region, they are likely to dwindle now into being mere investments.” One stated purpose for the sale, which seems disingenuous, was that the books “deserve to be preserved, stored – and enjoyed – in specialist conditions”. Not only is there no way of knowing what will happen to a book sold in open auction conditions, but as Dobson points out, once these books have disappeared into private collections, there is no chance of their being available for consultation by scholars, whereas their presence in the school allowed for access by researchers, as well as by pupils.

And other alumni are distressed by the news, too. An Old Rugbeian writer of my acquaintance told me that,

It’s incredibly sad. Obviously, the intention to provide additional support for talented children is very laudable indeed, but was there no better way to do this than to sell off these books? They will have a market-defined value in hard cash, but reading through the titles, they are in many ways genuinely priceless.

For my friend, like many, it feels like a sanctuary has been somehow desecrated. As he puts it,

The library was a really central point of the school for me, an absolute refuge, and played a vital role in encouraging a lifelong love of books and literature. Admittedly I didn’t spend much time with the delicate first editions and mediaeval manuscripts, but part of the august beauty of the place was knowing that such treasures were there – you can study Shakespeare on an iPad in a coffeeshop, but it’s not the same, is it?

I contacted for the school for comment on the news, and their responses, delivered as if through gritted teeth, hinted at a bewildered irritation that many had misinterpreted their actions. While some of their answers were simply monosyllabic dismissals of my enquiries (Q: “Was the sale discussed at all with present or former members of the school, whether staff or pupils? If so, was there any feedback, negative or positive?” A: “No.”), their central argument was that there were two main reasons for the sale.

[Firstly] in order for them to be preserved, stored and enjoyed by bibliophiles, whether individuals or institutions, rather than be kept at the school and requiring specialist conditions. Rugby is a school not a museum. And [secondly] because, as a charity, the School is committed to using its resources to benefit current and future students. The Governing Body believes that in order to do that it was desirable to sell the books and increase the School’s bursary provision.

While, like Professor Dobson, I have my doubts as to the accuracy of the first point, there is no doubt that a school is a living and evolving organisation, and that while fees are becoming ever-higher for institutions like Rugby, it is inevitable that some financial provision for the bright but less well-off has to be found, and that only so much of this can be obtained through appeals to alumni for fundraising donations. Yet a recent sale of art that raised £15 million would surely go a long, even indefinite, way to filling this particular gap.

It is hard not to view this as another example of a desire for cash

Therefore, one imagines that an emboldened governing body have been casting about ever since in the hope that financial lightning can strike twice, and that this is the result. That many of the books that would originally have been included in the sale have subsequently been withdrawn (Rugby: “the School took the opportunity to review the catalogue and decided to keep some of the books, especially those that had a close connection with the School in terms of subject matter or authorship.”) has indicated that someone, somewhere has had second thoughts about the intelligence of the wholesale disposal of this collection of books, but as the sale is still slated to proceed this Wednesday, an accommodation has clearly been made. And, as the spokesman told me, “The books do not fall within the scope of the archive collection as they are not related to the history of the school.” Literary or historical interest for its own sake is clearly not a factor.

Weighing up the school’s decision and its motives with the consequences, I find it hard not to agree with the Rugby alumnus, who told me that,

I would hope that these books can be preserved somewhere that pupils – or anyone, frankly – can have access to them, and be inspired anew. But let’s face it, they’re probably going to be bought as investment assets by private collectors, and whilst I wish them joy of them, it’s hard not to see it as a tremendous – and once done, irretrievable – loss.

He concluded that “I can only hope the school is able to demonstrate exactly how it devotes the proceeds to helping a new generation of young people, who might not otherwise have afforded it, discover literature, ideas and creativity. But it’s hard not to see this as an essential piece of heritage slipping away, for good.” In an era where financial value is prized above spiritual, intellectual or literary concerns, it is hard not to view this as another example of a desire for cash – even for impeccable motives – trumping other, less immediately tangible, considerations.

One cannot imagine that Dr Arnold would have approved. As one schoolmaster notes in Tom Brown’s Schooldays,

You talk of ‘working to get your living,’ and ‘doing some real good in the world,’ in the same breath. Now, you may be getting a very good living in a profession, and yet doing no good at all in the world, but quite the contrary, at the same time. Keep the latter before you as your one object, and you will be right, whether you make a living or not; but if you dwell on the other, you’ll very likely drop into mere money-making, and let the world take care of itself for good or evil.

It would have been useful for Rugby’s governing body to have borne this in mind before making this decision.

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