A CATHOLIC ETON?
Newman's Oratory School
By Paul Shrimpton
(Gracewing, 2005, 336pp, $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-85244-661-6. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Reviewed by Br Barry Coldrey
This definitive study of the pioneering years of Cardinal John Henry Newman's educational venture explores the thinking and influences which led to the establishment of the Oratory School at its first home at Edgebaston near Birmingham in 1859. The later chapters carry the story through until 1872 when Newman's closest friend, Fr Ambrose St John retired as headmaster.
A Catholic Eton? explores the challenges which the new venture experienced before its gradual acceptance by its sought upper class clientele with the passage of time and how the Oratory School proved its worth.
A major challenge for the 400 to 500 English upper-class converts who accompanied or followed John Henry Newman to the Catholic Church in the 1840s and 1850s was the few suitable Catholic schools to which their sons could be sent for their education.
In 1857, several parents began talking with Newman about their dilemma and in 1859 Newman's Birmingham Oratory (a community of seven priests) opened a new school to meet their needs. It is clear what the parents wanted: in Sir John Simeon's words, "Eton, minus its wickedness, plus the inculcation of the Catholic faith".
The venture was launched with just seven very young boys and for a time the Oratory School found progress sluggish. Even in 1872, there were still only sixty boys enrolled, with ages ranging from eight to eighteen.
Shrimpton has drawn not only on the edition of Newman's Letters and Diaries, begun by Fr Stephen Dessain in 1961 but also on a substantial holding of contemporary correspondence among the school's parents and original promoters.
The author brings out the motivation and ideals of Newman and the others involved in founding the school and explores the ultimatum as to their independent authority put forward by the first headmaster, Fr Nicholas Darnell, and four of his assistant masters, which led to their dismissal in December 1861. At this point, Newman and St John took control of the struggling school.
There is a detailed discussion as to whether the Oratory was a "public school" or not - as understood at its foundation and during the Victorian era. In fact, major Catholic colleges such as Ampleforth, Beaumont, Douai, Downside, and Stonyhurst all joined the Headmasters' Conference long before the Oratory School did so.
The Oratory was profoundly influenced by the background of its first staff members and its pioneer committee. Among the masters, Darnell had been at Winchester and Robert Moody at Eton; among parents, James Hope-Scott at Eton and Edward Bellasis at Christ's Hospital. Of those who took over after Darnell left, St John had been at Westminster.
A Catholic Eton? would provide illuminating reading for those promoting or seeking to establish new strongly Catholic education institutions, such as Campion College, Toongabbie, near Parramatta. Their challenges have resembled those faced by the founders of the Oratory School over a century and a half earlier.
The good news is that, in due course, the Oratory School survived and flourished - hopefully, a good omen for Campion College!