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A Primer for Empire: Fletcher and Kipling’s School History of England

Charles Robert Leslie Fletcher (1857-1934) and Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) published A School History of England ...

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20th CenturyAround the WorldRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

A Primer for Empire: Fletcher and Kipling’s School History of England

Charles Robert Leslie Fletcher (1857-1934) and Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) published A School History of England ...

return to all posts

20th CenturyAround the WorldRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

Charles Robert Leslie Fletcher (1857-1934) and Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) published A School History of England in 1911, a book ‘written for all boys and girls who are interested in the story of Great Britain and her Empire.’ History textbooks, no less so today, are battlegrounds of ideology and partisan politics.

Charles Robert Leslie Fletcher (1857-1934) and Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) published A School History of England in 1911, a book ‘written for all boys and girls who are interested in the story of Great Britain and her Empire.’[1] A textbook for schoolchildren, designed to educate and appeal to young readers, it was embellished with Kipling’s verse, as well as vibrant tableaux by Henry Ford, famed for his illustration of Andrew Lang’s fairy books. Fletcher provided the historical material, while Kipling contributed 23 poems, ranging from the jingoistic to the riverine.

Kipling, Fletcher, and the Empire

Book cover showing the image of a knight with a shield
Cover of Fletcher’s and Kipling’s History of England

Kipling was then at the zenith of his fame. Having just won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907 — the first Englishman to do so — he was established in the literary firmament, and in popular hearts, with the turn of the century swathe of novels and poetry anthologies including Kim, The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, Puck of Pook’s Hill, and Rewards and Fairies, the latter two volumes providing simple re-tellings of English history. His imperialist persuasions, strengthened through the passage of time and his association with Cecil Rhodes — who gave him a house in South Africa — were ‘bound up with a genuine sense of a civilizing mission that required every Englishman, or, more broadly, every white man, to bring European culture to those he considered the heathen natives of the uncivilized world.’[4] In this conviction, if not in literary style, he and Fletcher were aligned.

Poesy, Democracy-scepticism, Racism, Victorious Empire

In ‘The River’s Tale’, the text’s opening poem, Kipling gives voice to the Thames. The ancient river recalls its eons of memories, stretching back to the ice age and Pangaea, with surprising attention to man’s (specifically, the Englishman’s) impact on nature:[5]

And I remember like yesterday

The earliest Cockney who came my way,

When he pushed through the forest that lined the Strand,

With paint on his face and a club in his hand.

He was death to feather and fin and fur,

He trapped my beavers at Westminster,

He netted my salmon, he hunted my deer,

He killed my herons off Lambeth Pier […]

Fletcher’s introduction then kicks in, announcing this ‘short history of all the people who have lived in the British Islands’, commencing with the hirsute, tree-dwelling first men of 50,000 years ago.[6] Spanning the ice ages, cave men, hunting, the advent of agriculture, foreign trade, and successive waves of invasions, Fletcher warns that ‘He who has the best tools will win in the fight with Nature; he who has the best weapons will beat his fellow men in battle.’[7] The entire School History continues in this vein, drawing deep from the survival-of-the-fittest rhetoric of Social Darwinism and the war-against-nature. The text is unremittingly, unapologetically anti-parliamentary and racist, with particular strains of anti-Irish sentiment, and deep commitment to the stratification of races.

Fletcher asserted that democracy, in the twentieth century, was still on trial in Britain.[8] His anti-democratic ire also surfaces in discussing the woeful response of Ethelred the Unready (979-1016) to the Danish raids at the turn of the century:[9]

‘The ‘wise men’ of unwise Ethelred were as useless as the House of Commons would be to-day if there were a big invasion. They talked, but did nothing. A country in such a plight wants a man to lead it to war; not thirty ‘wise men’ or six hundred members of Parliament … to discuss how to make peace.’

Melding his pro-imperialism and virulent racism, Fletcher wrote that it was ‘a misfortune for Britain that Rome never conquered the whole island’, for this meant that ‘Ireland never went to school and has been a spoilt child ever since’. Thus, Ireland was uncivilized and fundamentally unsuited for Home Rule. Although conceding that Eire is a charming, valorous, and poetic child, Fletcher deems her ‘incapable of ruling herself, and impatient of all rule by others.’[10] The School History was thus condemned by a Scottish member in the House of Commons, J. Cathcart Watson, who sought a ban ‘in view of the very distinct libel on the Irish race contained in the book.’[11]

Fletcher’s analysis of the colonial project is simple: ‘Spain, Portugal, Holland, and France had all been ahead of us in the race of discovery; but we were going to beat them all in the long run.’ This was through the creation of “plantations” of English men in distant lands, who would buy all their products from England, thereby lifting the English manufacturing industry and creating ‘a piece of “England-beyond-the-sea”, a piece … of an English Empire.’[12] Fletcher also decreed that the King would be obliged to dismiss any government that tried to reduce the size of the Royal Navy (sea power being the front of England’s world domination) or surrendered India or the other colonies.[13] The School History thus offers a chauvinistic, laudatory account of British Empire, focusing predictably on the monopolies, wealth-generation and territorial acquisitions of Britain, not on the despoliation and destruction of the environment and Indigenous peoples.

Unsurprisingly, Fletcher sets out a textbook example of the racial hierarchy which became popular in the Victorian era, listing the various opponents of empire: ‘In Australia we had nothing to fear but a few miserable blacks who could hardly even use bows and arrows in fight’, while in New Zealand ‘we had a more warlike race, the Maoris, to deal with’. In South Africa, Britain faced ‘really fierce savages like Zulus and Kaffirs’ as well as a large Dutch population, the Boers.[14] Further, Fletcher wrote that the territory of Rhodesia ‘in the centre of the dark continent of Africa, and the British “Protectorates” of Uganda, British East Africa and British Central Africa’ remained ‘undeveloped; but great things may be expected of all of them, both as agricultural, commercial and mining colonies. The natives everywhere welcome the mercy and justice of our rule’.[15] Fletcher referred to the West Indies population as ‘lazy, vicious and incapable of any serious improvement, or of work except under compulsion. In such a climate a few bananas will sustain the life of a negro quite sufficiently; why should he work to get more than this? He is quite happy and quite useless’.[16] After referring to Britain having ‘gradually swallowed the whole country’, Fletcher states—ignoring the general and specific atrocities the British imposed on India (including some occurring not long after publication)—that ‘our rule has been infinitely to the good of the different races who inhabit that richly peopled land.’[17]

We cannot expect a Mike Davis-calibre analysis of the Industrial Revolution and the Empire from 1911, especially from the heart of the heart of the British Empire.[18] However, the merger of High Imperialism and capitalist modernization meant rather more than Fletcher asserted. And this was well known at the time Fletcher was writing.

Although Fletcher veers between hagiography and character assassination, he is even-handed (if still misogynistic) in his scorn: women are treated just as savagely as men. Richard III, James I and Charles I are scolded just as much as ‘Bloody Mary’, Mary Queen of Scots, and Queen Anne (‘almost the stupidest woman in her dominions’). One exception is ‘Victoria the Great’, against whom no sour words are written.

Commercial Success and Reception

Sketch drawing of a seated man's profile, arms crossed.
Kipling by William Strang © National Portrait Gallery, London

In some ways the original Horrible Histories (although with less blood, gore, and dark, scatological humour), this imperial history for schoolchildren was a huge popular and commercial success. Selling 134,000 copies, the School History was reprinted ten times and remained in print until 1954.[19] The book was reissued in 1983, with its more famous contributor added to the title, as Kipling’s Pocket History of England.[20]

A didactic, belligerent text, the School History was hailed as ‘the chief literary event of the coronation year’ by the Church Family Times, but slated by the Manchester Guardian as a ‘nearly worthless’ historical text and ‘a most pernicious influence’ on the minds and morals of children.[21] The Revue Historique identified gratuitous poetic, cartographic and geographic licence throughout the text, with Fletcher and Kipling attempting to inculcate patriotism and imperialist impulses in their young readers by any and all means necessary.[22]

The School History has been largely ignored by critics and biographers. The fault was chiefly Fletcher’s, as the prose was often bigoted, chauvinistic, and condescending to its readers. And yet Kipling cannot escape blame for the tenor of the text, as he proofread and approved Fletcher’s draft and was undeterred by attacks on the book.[23]

With both authors subscribing to Rhode’s cry, ‘I would annex the planets if I could!’, this is a candid primer of imperialism, nationalism, and chauvinism.[24] Analyses of contemporary and current schoolchildren’s responses would be fascinating. History textbooks, no less so today, are battlegrounds of ideology and partisan politics. But for now, we can only wonder at this frank, ostensibly scholarly, dissemination of violent, oppressive ideals and practices to young minds.

Written by Emma Gattey

Further Sources:

Incredibly, the version of this book available for free on the Internet Archive belonged to Dame Frances Yates, English historian, long-time teacher at the Warburg Institute, and the doyen of memory, Giordano Bruno, and the imperial theme/‘phantom of empire’, amongst other things. Perhaps a reminder that not all minds were irreparably tainted by this particular horrible history.

Notes and references:

[1] C.R.L. Fletcher and R. Kipling, A School History of England (London, 1911), p. 2.

[2] W.R. Louis et al (eds.), The History of Oxford University Press. Volume III, 1896 to 1970 (Oxford, 2013), p. 369.

[3] C.H.K. Marten, ‘Fletcher, Charles Robert Leslie (1857–1934)’, rev. Richard Symonds, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 17 May 2020.

[4] J.I.M. Stewart, ‘Rudyard Kipling’,

[5] Fletcher and Kipling, School History, pp. 9-10.

[6] Fletcher and Kipling, School History, p. 10.

[7] Fletcher and Kipling, School History, p. 16.

[8] Fletcher and Kipling, School History, p. 220.

[9] Fletcher and Kipling, School History, p. 39.

[10] Fletcher and Kipling, School History, p 21.

[11] Hansard, 20 November 1911, quoted in The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, vol. 4: 1911-19, ed. T. Pinney (Basingstoke, 1999), p. 80.

[12] Fletcher and Kipling, School History, p. 166.

[13] Fletcher and Kipling, School History, pp. 195-6.

[14] Fletcher and Kipling, School History, p. 239.

[15] Fletcher and Kipling, School History, p. 240.

[16] Fletcher and Kipling, School History, p. 240.

[17] Fletcher and Kipling, School History, p. 241.

[18] A. Burton, At the Heart of the Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain (London, 1998), pp. 114, 127-30. Burton situates her studies of the workings of imperialism in ‘the heart of the empire’, i.e. in Britain rather than the colonies. In this world of empire-making, Oxford was the nucleus: the hub of training for colonial administration and imperial sciences. Oxford was thus a key node of the ‘empire of scholars’: an extensive network of academics and ideas, especially active from the 1910s, which shaped academic practice and knowledge by intersecting with other transnational academic networks: see T. Pietsch, Empire of Scholars: Universities, Networks and the British Academic World 1850–1939 (Manchester, 2013).

[19] R. Symonds, Oxford and Empire: The Last Lost Cause? (London, 1991), p. 60; Louis, History of Oxford University Press, p. 370.

[20] C.R.L. Fletcher and R. Kipling, Kipling’s Pocket History of England (New York, 1983).

[21] Marten, ‘Fletcher, Charles Robert Leslie (1857–1934)’; Symonds, Oxford and Empire, pp. 57-8.

[22] C. Bermont, ‘Review’, Revue Historique, 109/2 (1912), pp. 392-3.

[23] H. Brogan, ‘Kipling and History’,, accessed 19 April 2020.

[24] See H. Arendt, ‘Imperialism, Nationalism, Chauvinism’, The Review of Politics, 7/4 (1945), p. 441.