Edward Thring (1821-1887), who founded the Headmasters’ Conference of prominent schools in Britain in 1869, was the best-known headmaster of his generation.
Formed by a nature-loving childhood in rural Somerset, survival in the notorious Long Chamber at Eton, a fellowship at King’s College Cambridge and a harrowing curacy in the slums of Gloucester, he developed the conviction that education was God’s work. This in turn led him to a passionate belief in the potential of every child.
During 34 years from 1853 he transformed a small grammar school in Uppingham into a widely-celebrated boarding school with an international clientele. He battled against intransigent governors, growing debts and the encroachment of government control over every type of school. After facing potential disaster from a series of typhoid outbreaks he relocated his staff and pupils to Borth in mid-Wales for an entire year, returning only after securing radical improvements in Uppingham’s drainage and water supply.
Although dismissively labelled ‘the enthusiast Mr Thring’ by the Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick and ‘King of Boys’ by other critics, his social conscience led to the founding of a mission in London’s East End, the first venture of its type. Through two books, Education and School (1864) and The Theory and Practice of Teaching (1883) he provided a blueprint for high-quality boarding schools, a broad curriculum and child-centred teaching methods at all age-groups in primary and secondary education. Teachers, educationalists and former pupils from home and abroad beat a path to his door. Late in life he became deeply interested in educational opportunities for women.
Despite his achievements Thring remained an establishment outsider, denied preferment by church, state and the academic world. His final years were marred by family sorrow and a bitter battle with his governors and the Charity Commission as, determined to remain his independence, he paid a high financial price for his principles.
This is the first modern biography of this multi-faceted and emotionally complex man.