Caps and Gowns – school uniforms

The Spyers brothers by RA Gilbert. The earliest portrait of Radley College pupils.

Frequently asked questions. So what is the school uniform? Or, is there a school uniform? Is it the same for all pupils? Do scholars wear a different uniform? Is there a different uniform for junior or senior boys? Has it ever changed?

Like all answers it depends … But there is one abiding feature and that is the academic gown. In 2023, all pupils wear their gowns during the winter months. For the last ten years this has included an embroidered badge with the colours of the individual Socials.

The gowns were there right from the start, and right from the start they have been used and abused by their wearers. At the 50th anniversary of the school in 1897 they were celebrated thus: ‘The gown serves many useful purposes. It hides the shortening jacket of the growing boy as the term advances. It may be spread over the head like an awning for a temporary run in a shower of rain. Used like a housemaid’s apron, it may convey a great quantity of books from one receptacle to another, when desks or studies have to be changed. The sleeve is serviceable if you have the misfortune to upset ink, or may serve to mitigate the hardness of the desk to your elbow, if you wish to take a little repose in school on a hot afternoon.’ (Raikes, 1897)

Alongside the gowns, all pupils originally wore ‘caps’ or mortar-boards. The first prefects were appointed in 1851 with George Melhuish (one of the first three boys to come to the school in 1847) as the first Senior Prefect. Mortar-boards for the prefects were distinguished by their silver tassels, with the Senior Prefect originally wearing silver, later changed to gold. It was recorded that William Sewell kept the tassels of each of his ex-Senior Prefects in a glass case in the Warden’s study. From 1862, the recipients of the major scholarships wore a scholar’s gown and a mortar-board with a black tassel: ‘It was a matter of pride and patriotism to some, to wear the same gown at the University as they had at school-but this could only be done by winning a Scholarship at both.’ (Raikes, 1897). The scholars’ gowns remained different in style to non-scholars until 1953. Then all boys were given the same basic gown, with the scholars distinguished by a small band of black velvet sewed on to the sleeve. Dons, too, wore full academic dress.

Warden William Wood with the prefects and scholars in 1867. The prefects can be identified by the silver tassels, while the scholars have black tassels on their mortar-boards.

The original, named scholarships were awarded by competitive examination. The James Prize (originally the James Scholarship for Classics) was founded by a parent, William James, afterwards 1st Lord Northbourne, for boys under 18, in 1862. The Heathcote Scholarship for Classics was established in 1863 in memory of William Heathcote, the second Warden of Radley, for boys under 14; in 1875 it was divided into two scholarships, for Classics and Mathematics. The Gibbs Scholarship for Classics was founded in 1862 by another parent, William Gibbs of Tyntesfield, whose son Anthony had attended Radley from 1855-1857, for boys under 15. The highest academic achievement for any Radley scholar was (and remains) the Richards Gold Medal, founded in 1859. Junior Entrance Scholarships began in 1867.

The carte-de-visite of Bernard Wilson as a scholar. He was awarded all three major scholarships and the Richards Gold Medal before becoming Senior Prefect in 1876.

By 1903, the mortar-board (cap) had become an object which was reserved for special occasions, such as some Chapel services.

By the 1890s, the uniform worn beneath the gown was defined by age: -‘there are three different kinds of collar: the Prefects and ‘first caps’ wear double collars like ordinary people; many of the others wear a single stick-up collar, which must have ‘tie retainers’ to keep the tie from slipping up; and the small boys wear Eton collars-but not only the small boys, because there are some ludicrous-looking giants of six foot similarly garbed; they are those who cannot get into the Upper School, and they wear their ‘dunce’s cap’ round their necks; but they make up by having their gowns in ribbons and shorter than their coats, to show they have been in the School three years.’ (Boyd, 1947)

Clothing shortages during WW2 meant that material for new gowns was in short supply. This was the only time in the school’s history that all attempt at a uniform was abandoned, particularly the demand that all boys have a gown. A few were still seen around, mostly inherited from fathers or elder brothers, but they were in poor condition ‘greenish in colour and tattered’ so worn as a mark of dynastic pride. In 1947, their return was seen as the outward sign of world peace: ‘Everything is back to normal; the boys are wearing gowns.’

From time to time, fashion-conscious Radleians have called for relaxation in the dress codes. Demands for more exciting ties, for waistcoats, or for coloured socks appear throughout the school magazine, but seldom any complaint about the gown. Even in the 1960s, the gown was seen as the distinguishing mark of Radley: ‘far from being a visible mark of an outwardly conservative view of life… it enables Radley to identify itself as having an individual personality.’ Indeed, the only downside to wearing gowns appeared to be the problem of riding a bicycle.

It is the head-gear which has undergone a more complicated history. As early as the 1850s head-gear now showed not academic status but sporting prowess as the football fez, cricket cap and rowing boater featured more often in group photos.

B Social in 1896. The juniors wear Eton collars, the seniors have turn-down collars and the mid-years upstanding collars. The photo was taken in the summer so the hats for summer sports are worn.

The sporting caps made their appearance from the 1850s, when the earliest boat crew were photographed in 1857 in boaters with a red/pink and white band. The cricket caps, originally pink with a white line, and football fezes appear in photos from 1866.

‘When Football was first played at Radley we used to wear knitted woollen caps of various colours, such as were worn in those days by draymen. Sometimes these caps were close-fitting, like skull-caps, and sometimes they hung down the back of the head with a tassel attached. In course of time this kind of head-gear was voted childish and gaudy, and sensible caps, similar to those used at Rugby or Marlborough, were adopted. I cannot remember the date, but probably it was soon after 1852; We chose red and white, as those colours had already been selected for the Eight.” On this latter point another Old Radleian writes :-” As to the caps, I should guess that they were started in 1858 or thereabouts but I am very hazy as to date, though I very well remember their first introduction. I have my old one still – red velvet with silver lines six of them-and a silver line running round the edge, and a silver. tassel.’ (Raikes, 1897)

The boat crew in boaters, 1857
The Football XII in their velvet and silver fez. An example is on display in the New Pavilion at Radley College
The cricket XI in their earliest caps, 1870

Sporting caps were awarded for particular prowess but there was from the first an actual school cap which was to be worn outside the grounds. It started under Sewell with a black and red check. In September, 1858, it was changed to a red cap with a white band round the edge, and a red peak also edged with white. In the early 1860s surprising variations of this pattern came in; ‘every combination of red and white that could be, shown on a play-cap was adopted by various members of the School, the most favourite device being a great white star on the top of a red flannel cap.’ These caps were worn for most games by most boys, who generally played in their day-wear. At one point, boys who were in mourning were allowed to wear a black cap, but this rapidly became a fashion accessory for the whole school. Bowler hats were worn by the seniors, again as a fashion statement rather than as school uniform. By the 1950s the school cap had become a virulent dark pink. It was compulsory to wear it outside school and several local neighbours still remember the derogatory term ‘Raspberries’ which they applied to Radley boys. This vanished sometime in the 1960s.

On giving up a gown for the last time

Farewell, at last, farewell, my dear old tattered gown!

No longer shall I hitch you up, when you are faIling down.

My mortar board and surplice, I soon shall haveforsook ’em,

And you must bid a sad adieu to tireless Messrs. Hookham.

For five long years I’ve worn you; you have a greenish hue:

Some parts of you have lasted out, some parts are almost new.

At times you’ve decked my ‘cuby,’ you’ve graced my study door,

You’ve helped to dry my tea things, you’ve even mopped the floor.

Sometimes you looked impressive, your smell was always rank tho’,

For I never could erase the stains of khaki blanco.

But all things now considered I could not be so cruel

As to be so very bitter to a partner in life’s duel.

And now your time is over, perhaps like Caesar’s clay,

You’ll stop a windy hole to keep the wind away. (The Radleian, 1929)

Clare Sargent, 2023