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In England and Wales fee-paying schools are often misleadingly called "public" schools. They often attracted several generations of the same family. Six generations of the Bridgeman family were educated at Harrow, seven of Dolben at Westminster and eight of Scott at Eton. Their registers may only show the name and place of residence of the pupil's father but many public schools take considerable interest in their former pupils and have collected and published biographical material about them.


Voluntary Schools

The encouragement given by King Edward VI (1547-53), Mary Tudor (1553-8) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603) to charitable acts furthering education resulted in a fashion for founding schools. Indeed, some historians think that by the 17th century there were schools of some kind or another in perhaps twenty per cent of the larger English parishes, with more in the towns than in the country, and that in 1603 there were probably more schools per head of the population in England than there were in 1837. Many leading schools, such as those at Shrewsbury (founded in 1551), Repton (1559) and Rugby (1567), were founded in the 16th century and endowed with land, the rent from which paid the master's salary. A select few have a continuous history from medieval times. Most market towns seem to have had such schools by the middle of the 17th century.

Although these "voluntary" schools were often intended to provide a free education, or one for which only very small fees were charged, many masters were obliged, for financial reasons, to take additional pupils on a fee-paying basis. This division between the "free boys" or "foundation scholars", who were at a school under the terms of its foundation, and the rest of the pupils, often became a matter of dispute in the 18th and early 19th centuries. By then the free boys might be a distinct minority in what in many places had developed into fee-paying boarding schools or grammar schools. The standard of teaching varied greatly and in many other places the schools degenerated into little more than elementary schools of a basic nature, eventually to be taken over by local education authorities in the 19th century. See the general article England Schools.

Thomas Alleyne of Stevenage

A typical example is provided by the school founded in 1558 at Stevenage in Hertfordshire, by the Rector, Thomas Alleyne, to provide a Latin-based classical education for boys who were already reasonably well educated in English. He left land to Trinity College, Cambridge, on the condition that it pay £13 6s 8d a year to the headmaster. Education was to be given freely to the boys of the town but others might be educated for the master's "owne profitt and advantage". Conversation was to be in Latin at all times.

A few years later, further gifts were made to the school on the condition that the master teach also the town's younger boys or "pettits". The expectation was that the pettits would be taught to read and write in English and to cast accounts. The pettits were to pay 6d a quarter, but children whose parents were rated at less than two shillings could attend without charge, provided that they were sent to school "decent and clean and free from any infectious disorder". With aptitude, inclination and a little money it would be possible to pass from one school to the other and perhaps, even, to university.

However, there was no provision for any increase in the masters' salary over the years and they, rather naturally, concentrated on the fee-paying pupils and neglected the pettits who rapidly declined in number. The masters often had little inclination to teach both groups of pupils and few remained long. There were regular disputes with the townspeople about the subjects taught. In 1834 further schools were built in the town; these took away most of the younger children. In 1847 the headmaster took the private pupils to set up a separate boarding school (Grange School), almost causing the complete collapse of the original Thomas Alleyne school. It survived, however, to become a grammar school in 1869, though in 1902, when the first records commence, it had only 30 pupils. The original 16th century schoolroom was still in use in the 1950s. Many similar schools, founded without sufficient income, fell by the wayside.

Public Schools

In the 16th and 17th centuries the children who attended these schools were from a mix of local gentry, yeoman and tradesman families, whilst the sons of noblemen usually had private tutors. However, in the 16th century and particularly in the first half of the 17th century, the school at Eton (founded in 1441), began to attract the sons of the nobility from all over England, though it continued to serve the sons of local tradesmen until at least the end of the 18th century.

In the second half of the 17th century, under the headmastership of Dr Richard Busby, Westminster School (founded before 1339) also began to attract some of the sons of the nobility. By the 18th century Eton and Westminster, with the schools at Winchester (1382) and Harrow (1571), had a virtual monopoly. One in six of those men who became Members of Parliament between 1734 and 1832 had been to Eton, and of those sitting in 1830, some 144 had been educated there.

In the 19th century, when, as a direct result of the industrial revolution, some people rose to great wealth without education, its importance for those who wished their families to climb the social ladder became very great. Large numbers of small preparatory schools appeared, often of short duration and without leaving a record, their names being entered in the trade directories of the day as "private academies". Some establishments, run by elderly ladies with few, if any, qualifications, acted as little more than child-minders and were called, dismissively, "dame schools" by contemporaries.

Some boarding schools in Yorkshire, advertising "no vacations", became notorious as a place in which to deposit unwanted and illegitimate children. Many boys did not survive the experience and, in 1838-39, Charles Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby gave damning publicity to the situation and caused the closure of many schools. The brutal and rapacious character of Wackford Squeers, master at Dotheboys Hall, was based on that of William Shaw who kept a school at Bowes near Barnard Castle in County Durham. The burials of 69 boys from schools in the parish, 1759-1831, were printed in The Genealogist's Magazine, vol. 14, no. 4 (December 1962) pages 101-107 [FHL book B2gm v.14].

However, the school at Rugby, under Thomas Arnold from 1828 onwards, developed a model education that was copied by many other schools. In the course of that century, with the development of a standard form of English speech, a gentleman came to be thought of as someone who had received a classical education at what had come to be called, a "public" school. As Anthony Wagner said in English Genealogy, the point at which a family member is first educated at a public school is a clear indicator of a major rise in its status.

Public School Records

Although these schools kept records of the properties that they owned and occasionally of their administration, they did not consistently record details of the scholars until relatively late dates. The foundation scholars at Winchester were a major exception, their names, ages and birthplaces being recorded in accordance with the school's statutes from the early 15th century.

Separate records of foundation scholars and of other pupils were usually maintained. The old school at Westminster was, until the 19th century, under the control of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster but there are no regular lists of foundation scholars until 1663. Those who were "in commons" and needed to be fed and clothed, appear in quarterly or annual lists from 1540. The boys themselves were originally nominated to the school by members of the Chapter of Westminster and, indeed, boarded with them (this nomination by the trustees was common to many schools). As the number of applicants grew, a system of "election" developed and lists of elections, showing parentage and date of birth, exist from 1708, but election was only a qualification and actual admission to the school depended on the vacancies available. Quite separate were the "Town boys" who lived in the town and paid fees to the headmaster. Lists of these, regarded as the private records of the masters, have survived only from 1715.

Eton College, on the other hand, has a register of the foundation "Collegers" who went through the annual election process from 1661 onwards (that shows their names, ages, and places of birth). They brought evidence of age in the form of a baptismal certificate and these survive from 1714. Entry was by nomination and it was not until 1844 that any examination of entrants took place.

Until 1647 Eton also had a class of Gentlemen Commoners, called "Commensals", of whom twenty, the Upper Commensals, the sons of noblemen and of special friends of the College, were boarders. The rest had free instruction and sat in hall with the collegers and scholars. In later years there was a growing class of "Oppidans" (oppidani means 'town dwellers') who did not dine in hall, but lived with "Dames" or boarding house keepers in the town, and later (contrary to the statutes) paid for their instruction. Some lists of these survive from the 18th century.

The 17th century practice at Eton, mentioned by Samuel Pepys, of the boys cutting their names in the shutters and pillars of the original schoolroom, or employing craftsmen to do so, which was followed in other public schools, has provided a link between many boys and their schools that would not otherwise be known.

Eton had no early admission registers as such, but they survive at Merchant Taylor's School and at Shrewsbury from 1562, at Rugby from 1675 and at St Paul's School from 1748. School lists, giving just the surnames of the boys each term, exist at Winchester from 1653 but are not found in a regular series at Westminster until 1728, at Eton until 1753, and at Harrow until 1770. These lists were printed annually at Eton from 1791, at Winchester from 1813, at Harrow from 1845 and at Westminster from 1851.

Examples of schools without early records include the celebrated private school for small boys founded at Cheam in 1665, which changed hands several times, and the old school at Taunton, in existence under various names since the late 13th century, which has no records of pupils until 1864. In 1938, when H.J.W. Stone began to collect material about the history of Brentwood School, founded in 1558, the names of only twelve scholars prior to 1852 were known.

The boys, who often travelled long distances to these schools, many from overseas, were recruited through the parents of existing pupils and their friends, through the family connections of masters, their wives and of school patrons, and by advertisement. If the pupils came from the same area it made end-of-term transport somewhat easier. In the 1790s Mr Emblin's Academy at Leytonstone used to advertise that, "New pupils will be met at Raymond's Snuff Shop, 125 Cheapside, and at the Saracen's Head Inn, Oldgate".

Afterwards the pupils frequently went into the church (often via the universities of Oxford or Cambridge), the East India Company, the Army or farming. Only a few records show the school at which a person was educated. The admission registers of some colleges at Cambridge give that information (Caius College did so from 1560) and it appears in the registers of Trinity College, Dublin, in the unpublished Cadet Papers and Writer's Petitions of the East India Company, in applications to the 18th century Naval College at Portsmouth and, but very rarely, in letters filed with the Commander-in-Chief's Memoranda.

Printed School Registers

The records of the majority of public schools remain with the schools themselves. Their current addresses can be found in the Independent Schools Yearbook [not in FHL] published by A.& C. Black (see From their records and other sources many schools have published lists of pupils. These may range from a copy of an admission register to details of the better known scholars or biographies of all known pupils, based partly on admission registers and lists, but expanded by research in a variety of sources and supplemented by information derived from the boys themselves through an old boys' association.

Many early lists are thus not complete and the quality of the additional material may vary, false identifications occasionally being made. When expanded in this way it may be difficult to see what the admission register actually says about the father of a child and what has been added from other sources.

As early as about 1710 the booksellers at Eton printed some lists of the college's alumni, or former pupils. About fifty per cent of the Collegers later went to King's College, Cambridge (where the scholarships were reserved for Eton men), and a list of them was printed as Alumni Etonenses in 1797 [not in FHL]. Many Commoners also went to King's but were not included in the book. Such lists were good publicity when seeking new pupils and were also published by other schools but are, of course, far from being complete lists of scholars.

Eton's first attempt at a fully annotated list, covering pupils in the years 1791-1850, was published in 1863 when many were still alive. Harrow had printed its first annotated list, for 1770-1826, in 1849. In the late 19th and 20th century many schools followed suit, publishing lists for various, often overlapping, dates. Some have now gone through eight or nine editions.

A number of schools also published lists of those scholars who served in the Boer War and the two world wars and rolls of honour or memorial volumes of those who were killed. Occasionally printed school magazines, providing a wide variety of detail, commence at dates before the original records.


Oxford and Cambridge were the only universities in England and Wales until London University was founded in 1826 and Durham University in 1836. Many others were founded later.

Lists of those who were enrolled as students or "matriculated" at Cambridge University commence in 1544, and at Oxford in 1564. Printed lists of students at the two universities (including those who did not take degrees) based on the records of the universities, their colleges, and on private material assembled at a later date, have been published for Oxford as Joseph Foster, Alumni Oxonienses 1500-1886 (8 volumes, 1887-92) [FHL 942 57/O1 J2ox] and for Cambridge as J. and J.A. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses from the earliest times to 1900 (10 volumes, 1922-54) [FHL 942 49/C1 J2c]. Some additional works that may give greater detail are described in John Titford's four articles mentioned below. The registers of admissions to the various colleges within the universities begin at various dates and contain differing amounts of information.

Published lists of university students are described in John Titford's four articles 'University registers' in Family Tree Magazine (UK): for Oxford, vol. 14, no. 3 (January 1998) pages 8-9; for Cambridge, vol. 14, no. 6 (April 1998) pages 11-12; for the other later universities in England and Wales, vol. 14, no. 10 (August 1998) pages 25-26; and for Scotland (which has four ancient universities), vol. 14, no. 12 (October 1998) pages 8-9.

A growing database of Cambridge Alumni that will eventually contain biographical details of everyone who has been identified as being academically associated with the University of Cambridge, 1200-1900, is available at

School Records in FHL

The school and university records held by the Family History Library are found in the Place Search of the Library Catalog under one of the following:


See also Lance Jacob, Register of English school, college, and university registers housed in the collection of the Genealogical Society of Utah as of April 1981 [FHL typescript 942 J24c].


P.M. Jacobs, Registers of the universities, colleges and schools of Great Britain and Ireland (Institute of Historical Research, 1964) [FHL book 942 J2h].
P.J. Wallis, Histories of old schools: a revised list for England and Wales (1966) [not in FHL].
School, university and college registers and histories in the library of the Society of Genealogists (2nd edition, 1996) [FHL book 942 J23s]. This has a useful index by county.

Pamela Horn, The Victorian and Edwardian Schoolchild (Alan Sutton, 1989) [not in FHL].
Colin R. Chapman, The growth of British education and its records (Dursley: Lochin Publishing, 2nd edn. 1996) [FHL book 942 J2cr].
Colin R. Chapman,Using Education Records (Federation of Family History Societies, 1999) [FHL book 942 J27c].
Dorothy De Salis & Richard Stephens, 'An innings well played': the story of Alleyne's School, Stevenage, 1558-1989 (1989) [not in FHL].
John Titford, '[Printed] School Registers' in Family Tree Magazine (UK), vol. 13, no. 11 (September 1997) pages 17-19, and vol. 13, no. 12 (October 1997), pages 47-48.

[Adapted from Anthony Camp's article 'Schools and their records: Part 1' in Practical Family History (UK), no. 67 (July 2003) pages 7-9.


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