Eton College

Photographs and Text by Christopher Furlong

This feature was shot in 2007 & 2008. A full edit of 119 images available on request. The following text was written by photographer Christopher Furlong, and is available with the images.

Eton College is an icon amongst the world’s private educational establishments, where little appears to have changed in 500 years. Pupils still walk the streets in tail coats and starched collars, acres of lush playing fields surround its classical spires and cloistered courtyards. Everything about it exudes confidence and exclusivity, the very fabric of the place, steeped as it is in history gives an instant gravitas to those who belong.

So what is it, and what place does it have in 21st century Britain. Stereotypes and clichés abound - it is inapproachable, largely unattainable to all but the super-rich and an education there is a passport to a life of unfettered professional ease. The battle of Waterloo was won on its’ playing fields, and with Wellington amongst their number it has educated 19 former British Prime Ministers. Several members of current royal families around the world have all been nurtured within its confines. Characters both fictional and with back-stories that defy fiction have construed Latin within panelled classrooms there, James Bond, Bertie Wooster, Lord Lucan, Guy Burgess merely scratch the surface of the list.

An establishment that provides such a platform of confidence on which its pupils can go on to build their adult lives, would seem impregnable. This sense of impregnability is probably fostered by a reluctance on the part of the school, in a very English way, to trumpet its successes. Its nature is to keep the doors closed; without actually belonging you have little hope of ever penetrating beneath the surface. These defensive ramparts around the school help to foster the mystique but also serve to fan the flames of stereotype.

So it was no small act of trust for the school to allow me, a news and documentary photographer, to view it from within. Arriving from the industrial north with vivid memories of my own education in a state comprehensive school the contrasts could not have been greater. I arrived with a head full of preconception, but an open attitude.

As with any photographic undertaking at a school, swathes of permissions had to be sought to allow me to shoot amongst the pupils. To achieve this most effectively I attempted to document the life of the pupils in Wootton House at various stages throughout the school year. The school is made up of 25 boarding houses each containing 50 or so pupils aged between 13 and 18, and so each one represents a microcosm of the larger organisation. On the first day of my assignment I eagerly and slightly nervously joined the year’s new intake arriving for the first time with their parents and documented them awkwardly having to master their stiff collars on their first morning and then observed a gradual growth in confidence as they started to tackle the plethora of options available to pupils. Sports, varying from the mainstream to the unique, lessons, chapel, assemblies, drama, meals, even discipline – the range to which I was granted access was exceptional. I was witness to traditions that define the school and pastimes that define youth universally.

I was very aware of the trust the establishment was putting in me and happy to repay that trust. Because of this I was able to shoot as an insider. As friendships grew I gained the absolute confidence of the establishment and the individual boys themselves. I shared their jokes and boisterous joviality out of sight of the masters, admired their self discipline when work had to be done and positively beamed at their impeccable manners.

My instilled preconceptions of arrogance, snobbery and Tom Brown were dispelled as I wandered un-hindered around the school. Some boys are very privileged financially others are purely funded by the school’s scholarships but there is no doubt they all share intellect above the average. Earls, lords and even royalty still have to pass the strict entrance examination. By the schools own admission, to survive in the modern world, it cannot just accept pupils merely because of class or wealth. Success is expected equally by the boys and the establishment.

This set of images merely scratches the surface of life at Eton, but it gives an honest and uniquely intimate glimpse into the largely hidden world of the most famous of English boarding schools.