The elite of Eton

The elite of Eton

With Old Etonians still dominating British politics, Jill Morris explores the history of this famous public school and the records available online

Header Image: Martin Kraft

Jill Morris, is a regular writer for Discover Your Ancestors Periodical.

Jill Morris

is a regular writer for Discover Your Ancestors Periodical.

Eton College, near Windsor in Berkshire, has a long, distinguished history and an equally extensive list of alumni. Founded in 1440 by Henry VI as ‘Kynge’s College of Our Ladye of Eton besyde Windesore’, it was, however, originally set up to provide education to 70 poor boys, known as King’s Scholars. It is properly one of England’s ‘public’ rather than ‘private’ schools, the difference being that the former have their roots in earlier charity schools, which were set up to educate poorer boys (‘public’ meaning not restricted by religion, family status or where they lived). Bearing this in mind, it’s more probable than you may have thought to have had an ancestor who attended Eton.

Eton College in 1690
Eton College in 1690

School records themselves go back to the 1500s. Days were long – they began at 5am and did not end until 8pm; lessons were taught, in Latin, by older students. From the 1760s, the school’s popularity grew, thanks to George III taking up residence in nearby Windsor and becoming its main patron. It was to be another century until the school began to take on its modern, recognisable form, however, due to the educational sea-changes of the 1800s, in particular those ordered by the 1861 Clarendon Commission.

This was set up in response to complaints about the finances, buildings and management of Eton, which investigated boarding schools and led to better teaching, qualified teachers and a wider range of subjects being studied.

Nineteen British Prime Ministers have been Old Etonians, including William Pitt the Elder, William Gladstone, Harold Macmillan and David Cameron, as have members of royal families worldwide. In 1906 students were joined by Somdet Chaofa Prajadhipok Sakdidej (1893–1941), the second-youngest child (out of 77!) of the King of Siam. Despite the unlikeliness, he was later to succeed his father as King Rama VII, the last absolute monarch and the first constitutional monarch of Siam, his reign bridging the time of the 1932 Revolution.

Other, more modern public figures who attended Eton include David Cameron’s Brexit-driving rival Boris Johnson, the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, adventurer Bear Grylls and actors Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddlestone. There’s also quite a list of fictional alumni, including Bertie Wooster, James Bond (whose creator, Ian Fleming, did attend), Lord Peter Wimsey and Evelyn Waugh’s Sebastian Flyte.

If you’re researching Etonian ancestors, a variety of records are available online at These include Eton School Registers from 1791-1850 and 1853-1909, plus a 1933 Who’s Who for Eton (see box below).

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