150 Years of Debating at Wellington

Sometimes, the subjects discussed paint a vivid picture of the events and concerns of a particular era.

150 years ago this year, in January 1869, Wellington College Debating Society held its first meeting. This makes it College’s oldest existing society. It is also one of the most well-documented, with a series of record books covering most of its history. Moreover, for many years detailed accounts of all debates were published in The Wellingtonian. This rich resource allows us to explore over 100 years of political, social and cultural history, via the topics and motions debated.

During the Victorian era, debates on specific current political issues were popular. Over the 20th century, these gradually declined in favour of more general moral topics. Military subjects reached a peak in the 1890s, at a time when over half of Wellington’s students came from army families and many wished to make it their career. Debates on historical figures were also popular at this time, as students argued over the merits or otherwise of individuals such as Hannibal, Cromwell and Elizabeth I.

Education has remained a perennial favourite topic throughout the society’s existence, since it’s one of which students have first-hand experience! At first, the debates focused on whether a classical education was superior to a modern scientific one, and whether the practice of fagging (younger boys acting as servants and errand-boys for older ones) was justified. During the 20th century, the arguments turned to private vs state education, and the desirability of admitting girls.

Debates on women’s rights reached a peak in the 1890s and 1900s, as Wellingtonians repeatedly failed to back votes for women, and lamented ‘the masculine tendency of the modern woman’. The 20th century saw several motions along the lines of ‘A woman’s place is in the home,’ although by 1964, this proposition was voted down. Oddly, once girls arrived at College in the 1970s and started to participate in debates, the topic was abandoned.

Sometimes, the subjects discussed paint a vivid picture of the events and concerns of a particular era. During the first decade of the 20th century we see an increasing preoccupation with national defence, with many debates on whether conscription would improve Britain’s Army, whether her Navy would keep her safe, and how she might prepare for a blockade. The 1930s seem to have provoked an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia, with many motions along the lines of ‘20th century progress is to be regretted’ and ‘This House would prefer to have lived in the good old times.’ Notable topics of the 1980s included nuclear weapons, capitalism, and the sex scandals of public figures.

From time to time ‘balloon debates’ in which students play the part of various well-known figures have been popular. The Society has also staged ‘mock trials’, and also mock elections, sometimes preceded by days of campaigning by the candidates.

In the 1970s, Wellington started taking part in debating competitions against other schools, culminating in winning a national championship in 1979. One member of this winning team was comedian and impressionist Rory Bremner. Nowadays, as highlighted last term, the College team is again successful in competitions, but perhaps it is sad that no permanent written record of their debates is kept for historians of the future.

By Caroline Jones, Archivist at Wellington College

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