The British Empire Library

The Elixir of Empire: The English Public Schools, Ritualism, Freemasonry, and Imperialism

by P. J. Rich

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
It is the sub-title of this short enquiry (less than one hundred generously printed small pages, if one sets aside the copiously cited footnotes, bibliography, index, and the engaging illustrations) into the British public school ideology of - so it seems - "self-confidence and deference" that tells us more about its topic than does the title: "The English Public School, Ritualism, Freemasonry and Imperialism The burden, we are assured, relates to the "secret curriculum" which enabled the public schools to "keep company with British Imperialism for as long as the Empire" by means of "an elaborate system of totems and talismans". For Mr. Rich, who became a Qatar government adviser in the Gulf, "the rich symbolism of school-days prepared colonial administrators for staging the imperial drama: the British rulers recreated their adolescent triumphs to the discomfort of their helpless subjects in Bahrain and Burma".

Given an excess of exaggerations and granted a handful of hyperboles (at least Paul Rich, unlike some American would-be interpreters of the pre-war public school system, knows his milieu: Tonbridge, O.T.C., and all that), he has a point. Not that the connection between Eton (more likely Marlborough, Cheltenham and Edinburgh Academy) and Empire is an original one, at least not since J. A. Mangan's masterly analyses. Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian Public School ( 1981) and The Games Ethic and Imperialism (1985), or, eighty years earlier yet. Stalky & Co rather than Tom Brown's Schooldays, for all George Macdonald Fraser's infamous exploits of Empire along, of course, with all the public school verse exhortations to "Play up, Play up, and Play the Game". The literature - indeed, the Literature - is as extensive in quality and as variable in quality as the schools of the Headmasters' Conference themselves.

With one exception, then. Rich's argument is less than original, though his wide reading often makes his views freshly informative if not markedly insightful. For me, the real contribution that Elixir of Empire makes to the study of colonial service lies in drawing attention to what Rich calls "Imperial Freemasonry" and the associated creation of rituals in the reinforcement of imperialism. While many of us might hesitate to go along with his case for a public school-cum-Masonic conspiracy generated by zealous 'old boy' cabals, I do believe historians could profitably follow up Mr. Rich's lead and look more closely at who were - and who were not - Freemasons in the Colonial Service. Despite Rich's assertion that "membership meant admission to the elite in any of Britain's colonies", what I feel he misses is the effect of class and chronology on this conspiracy theory; the link between public school and freemasonry in the higher echelons of the Colonial Service was arguably more popular and more pronounced between 1880 and 1930 than it was between 1930 and 1960. What, I wonder, can members add to the story of Freemasonry in the Colonial Service? A lot, lot more than I yet know, and greatly should like to learn.

British Empire Book
P. J. Rich
Westphalia Press


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