John Howard Whitehouse, John Ruskin and educational reform

The photographs of John Howard Whitehouse have been reproduced with the kind permission of the Ruskin Foundation (Ruskin Library, Lancaster University). The later photograph is by Howard Coster. John Howard Whitehouse, John Ruskin and educational reform. John Howard Whitehouse (1873-1955) is now remembered chiefly as a champion of John Ruskin – but he played a significant role in developing work with boys, was active in the settlement movement, served as an MP, and was an innovative educationalist and headmaster. Sara Atwood explores his contribution.

contents: introduction · john howard whitehouse and ruskin’s legacy · john howard whitehouse and educational reform · conclusion · further reading and references · about the writer · how to cite this piece

John Howard Whitehouse (1873-1955) was born in Birmingham, the son of George Whitehouse, a brass founder and plateworker, and Gladstonian Liberal. As Stewart (1968: 97) has noted, George Whitehouse became, after 1870, an inspector of schools in Birmingham. His son attended local board schools until he was fourteen, when he left to work in an accountant’s office and then with a saddler. Whitehouse also attended classes at the Birmingham and Midland Institute and Mason’s College (now a part of the University of Birmingham). It was at this time he was introduced to the works of John Ruskin.

John Howard Whitehouse’s reforming impulse showed itself as early as 1894, when he joined the Quaker chocolate-manufacturing firm Cadbury Brothers and subsequently established a youth club (in 1900) (Eagar 1953: 311). He also helped with the formation of a works magazine and pensions plan for Cadbury employees. He was influenced by, and remained sympathetic to, the Quakerism he encountered there. In 1903 Whitehouse became the first secretary of the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust, one of the fruits of which was his study of social problems in Dunfermline (Whitehouse 1905). However, he was only to stay there a short time becoming, in 1905, a resident and the first secretary of, Toynbee Hall.

At Toynbee Hall John Howard Whitehouse worked with such figures as William Beveridge, R. H. Tawney and T. Edmund Harvey. He also edited the Toynbee Record until he left the Hall in 1908. During this period he also founded the National League of Workers with Boys (in 1906), and worked with Robert Baden-Powell in the early years of the Boy Scout movement. An advocate for the cause of boys, John Howard Whitehouse’s dedication to improving their social and educational welfare became an abiding focus of his career and of the many books he was to publish, including The Boys Club (1906), Problems of Boy Life (1911), and Camping for Boys (1911). He was manager of East London Schools (1906-1908), temporary Sub-Warden of St. George’s School, Harpenden (1908), Warden of the University Settlement, Ancoats (1909) and in 1910 was elected Liberal MP for Mid-Lanark, serving as Parliamentary private secretary to C.F.G. Masterman (1910-13) and David Lloyd George (1913-15).

In his Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) entry for Whitehouse, James S. Dearden notes that “Whitehouse’s support for women’s suffrage, and his opposition to conscription, ruined his political career. Mid-Lanark, and his seat, disappeared with the election of 1919” (DNB). Whitehouse’s career as an educationalist, on the other hand, was just beginning. In 1913 he published A National System of Education, the first of several books about education and in 1919, he opened Bembridge School, a boys’ school located on land he had purchased in 1914 on the Isle of Wight, where he intended to put his educational ideals into practice.

John Howard Whitehouse and Ruskin’s legacy

Although Bembridge would become an admirable and progressive institution in its own right, both the school and Whitehouse are perhaps best remembered for their connection with John Ruskin, the nineteenth-century art critic, educator, and social reformer whose teachings on education and social reform inspired and helped shape John Howard Whitehouse’s career. As Stuart Eagles observes, Whitehouse “played a seminal role in shaping our modern understanding and appreciation not so much of Ruskin himself, or even of his work in general, but of his legacy. No study of Ruskin which is sensitive to the historiography can fail to acknowledge Whitehouse’s significance in this respect, and no engagement with Whitehouse can be complete without an understanding of the crucial role Ruskin’s work played in his life” (7-8). Whitehouse first encountered Ruskin’s work while studying at the Birmingham Midland Institute as a young man. In 1896 he founded the Ruskin Society of Birmingham and later became the publisher of the society’s journal, St. George. In 1899, in what was undoubtedly a defining moment, John Howard Whitehouse delivered a congratulatory address to Ruskin on the great man’s eightieth birthday. Whitehouse became a Companion of the Guild of St. George in 1902, a trustee from 1918 onward, and founded a national Ruskin Society that was active in the 1930s and 1940s. After Ruskin’s death and until his own, Whitehouse amassed an extensive collection of Ruskin’s books, manuscripts, drawings, letters, and other items, making his major purchases at the ‘Dispersal Sales’ held at Brantwood, Ruskin’s Lake District home, in 1930 and 1931 and storing his collection in the purpose-built Ruskin Galleries at Bembridge. In 1932 he purchased Brantwood itself, opening it to the public the following year as a national monument.

John Howard Whitehouse played a pivotal role in keeping Ruskin’s ideas alive and in forwarding his work. As Eagles points out, “For Whitehouse, the significance of his enthusiasm for Ruskin was that his was a private passion made public, a personal commitment which grew into something approaching a national campaign . . . . to champion Ruskin as an influence in the modern reform of social and educational policy” (2005: 9). In addition to his own books on education, he edited or compiled many Ruskin-related volumes, including The Solitary Warrior: New Letters by Ruskin, To The Memory of Ruskin, Ruskin the Painter and his Works at Bembridge, and Vindication of Ruskin. In 1919 Whitehouse organized the Ruskin Centenary Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts and subsequently edited a collection of the lectures delivered as part of the celebrations by Ruskinians such as John Masefield, Laurence Binyon, and Dean Inge. In his introduction to the volume, Whitehouse emphasizes the enduring influence of Ruskin’s work in social reform, identifying him as the “definite pioneer” (1920: 11) of “policies relating to land and reform, the methods of dealing with slums, modern methods of taxation, the scientific treatment of such problems as unemployment, sweating, the care of the aged poor, the hours and conditions of labour, the reform of our educational system, the planning of cities, and many others . . . . which have since been carried out in the letter and the spirit, affecting almost every aspect of the social change and reconstruction which we have witnessed during the past four or five decades” (op. cit.).

John Howard Whitehouse and educational reform

Whitehouse set out to implement Ruskin’s educational ideals at Bembridge, where he adopted many of Ruskin’s most fundamental principles. In Creative Education at an English School (1928), John Howard Whitehouse’s account of the Bembridge program, the Ruskinian influence is evident in the organization of the school as well as in its curriculum, which in many ways resembles the projected curriculum of Ruskin’s St. George’s Schools. “Creative education,” as Whitehouse defines it, consists in “attempting to enable a child to develop his own personality, to find out through activities the things he can do, and that interest him, and that are going to give him a fuller and richer life” (1928: 2). Like Ruskin, Whitehouse was concerned with providing an education that would be “both spiritual and intellectual” (op. cit.), moral as well as mental. To this end, John Howard Whitehouse placed considerable emphasis on arts and crafts—drawing, engraving, woodworking, pottery, and illumination. The school possessed a printing press and a woodworking shop intended to encourage students’ industry and creativity and to develop their skill and appreciation of fine work, as well as an Art Society and sketching club. Whitehouse maintained that the discipline required by the study of the arts resulted “in not only greater facility of hand and eye but enlarged powers of appreciation of nature, architecture, and the poetry of the world around us” (op. cit.:12). According to John Howard Whitehouse, such study also developed taste—that Ruskinian measure of morality—and judgment. Respect for the land and an appreciation of nature were encouraged by making gardening a school subject, while in the school’s Scientific Society pupils studied their natural surroundings in greater detail by creating scale models of the island, the school grounds, and hillside springs. Students also conducted experiments dealing, among other things, with the “spectroscope, vacuum and spectrum analysis tubes and fluorescence, the composition of white light, silver, nickel and copper plating, anaglyphs, siphon and fountain showing the principle of the hydraulic ram, Roget’s spiral, gas mantle photography” (op. cit.: 24). The productions of both the Scientific Society and the Art Society were regularly exhibited in the school museum and art gallery. Students benefited further from an early version of today’s popular “Study Abroad” programs, enjoying the opportunity to travel to France, Italy, Holland, Norway, and other countries in order to see “galleries, museums, and other places and buildings of interest” (Whitehouse 1928: 68). In nearly every aspect, the Bembridge program reflected Ruskin’s belief in the importance of active, hands-on learning as well as in the involution of studies.

The study of literature and language also formed an important part of the Bembridge curriculum and John Howard Whitehouse tells of a method “tried in connection with the school library which has led to good results in connection with reading” (op. cit.: 30). According to this method, “each boy in the school has a period allotted to him each week for reading in the school library a serious book of literature. The choice is his own, but it is approved. In this way many boys are taught the habit of reading and continue it in their leisure hours” (op. cit.: 30). In addition, students were urged to keep commonplace books, and to collaborate in the composition and publication of books of their own. Whitehouse describes two such projects, examples of “true co-operation” (op. cit.:28), which resulted in the publication (through the school-operated printing press, Yellowsands Press) of Bembridge, an Historical and General Survey, and Prose, Poetry and Pictures. The study of literature at Bembridge embraced drama as well; students regularly put on performances of plays studied in class and wrote and performed works of their own.

Creative Education at an English School includes a chapter devoted to “Holiday Occupations for Boys,” complete with lists of suggested exercises and projects in each branch of study. The projects demand active researches, requiring students to draw on the knowledge and skills they have acquired, and encouraging them to make connections between various branches of learning. Under the heading “History,” for example, students may choose to “Compile an historical atlas illustrating the European history you are studying” (op. cit.: 54); under “Literature,” students are directed to “Obtain a copy of the local sheet of the 1-in. ordnance survey map. Visit interesting places shown on this map and describe them” (op. cit.: 50); to satisfy the requirements of “Social Investigation,” one might “write a description of the town you stay at during the holidays. Find out something of its history, churches, buildings, etc. Illustrate by photographs, drawings, or picture post-cards” (op. cit.: 57); and the list goes on, providing suggestions for various endeavours in music, architecture, photography, art, handicrafts, gardening, etc. The aim of such holiday work, Whitehouse explains, is to encourage students “to develop real interests in life and to continue at home activities fostered at school” (op. cit.: 49-50). While games provide recreation and enjoyment, John Howard Whitehouse cautions that “there is no happiness like that which comes to you from living a full life, doing real things . . . . a life in which games were the only interest would be a barren life and would ultimately be left stranded before that court of the Kings of the world through the ages which all may enter who care for the expression of human activity in any of its many beautiful forms—books, pictures, craftsmanship, music” (op. cit.: 50). One hears in this passage a distinctly Ruskinian echo.

The photographs of John Howard Whitehouse have been reproduced with the kind permission of the Ruskin Foundation (Ruskin Library, Lancaster University). The later photograph is by Howard CosterIn the final chapter of his book, “Some Reflections and Suggestions,” Whitehouse insists upon the need of a broader, “much more elastic, much more experimental” (op. cit.: 75) curriculum, including manual exercises, drawing, and physical fitness. He also urges educators to work to prevent “a stereotyped system of examinations from controlling the curriculum of schools” (op. cit.: 77), thereby eliminating cramming and enabling teachers to “give full play to the potential capacities of their students”. Schools, John Howard Whitehouse declares in closing, should instil in their pupils “standards of true values in a world which listens contentedly either to the broadcasting of the raucous voices of the race course or the singing of the nightingale” (op. cit.: 78) and should nurture young men and women who will “realise the need of service, the call to share [their] gifts with others” (op. cit.: 79). Following these principles will not be easy, Whitehouse acknowledges, but although those who do so will find themselves answering “a call to the strenuous life in all its aspects” (op. cit.: 79), they will also find happiness. These words, like the scheme of education at Bembridge, recall Ruskin’s directive in The Crown of Wild Olive, repeated emphatically in Letter 94 of Fors:

Educate, or govern, they are one and the same word. Education does not mean teaching people to know what they do not know. It means teaching them to behave as they do not behave . . . . It is not teaching the youth of England the shapes of letters and the tricks of numbers; and then leaving them to turn their arithmetic to roguery, and their literature to lust. It is, on the contrary, training them into the perfect exercise and kingly continence of their bodies and souls. It is painful, continual, and difficult work; to be done by kindness and by watching, by warning, by precept, and by praise,—but above all—by example (18:502; 29:485).

Bembridge School and its Ruskin Galleries closed only in 1996, having provided scores of boys with a wide-ranging and well-grounded education. James S. Dearden, respected Ruskin scholar and Companion of the Guild of Saint George, was a student at Bembridge from 1945-1949, during the last years of the Whitehouse era. Dearden, who later became director of Yellowsands Press and the first curator of the Whitehouse Collection, writes that “The average old Bembridgian, thanks to Whitehouse’s Ruskinian inspiration, received a very broad education and there were comparatively few subjects on which he couldn’t hold his own in conversation in the wider world” (2005: 19).


John Howard Whitehouse, familiarly known as “Warden,” died in 1955, having made his last purchase of a Ruskin drawing a year earlier. Yet his work lives on and continues to inspire new generations of educators and Ruskinians. At Bembridge Whitehouse put his belief in the relevance of Ruskin’s ideas into action, successfully demonstrating the practicality of a Ruskinian pedagogy and leaving an admirable blueprint for those educationalists interested in an alternative to the educational status quo. He also left a considerable legacy to students of Ruskin. After his death, Whitehouse’s extensive collection of Ruskin’s books, manuscripts, drawings, pphotographs, and other items was divided between the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University and Brantwood, ensuring that both specialists and the general public might have access to this great store of valuable material. A 2005 exhibition at the Ruskin Library dedicated to Whitehouse aptly identified him as “Keeper of the Flame.” Indeed, in light of his many and enduring contributions to education and to Ruskin Studies, Whitehouse’s description of Ruskin as “the guardian of the things that are lovely and good” (1938: 45) might also be used of the Warden himself.

Further reading

Dearden, James S. (1994) Ruskin, Bembridge and Brantwood: the Growth of the Whitehouse Collection. Keele: Keele University Press.

Whitehouse, John Howard. (1913) A National System of Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Works cited

Dearden, James S. (2005) “Whitehouse, Ruskin, and Bembridge.” Keeper of the Flame: John Howard Whitehouse 1873-1955 an exhibition catalogue accompanying an exhibition at the Ruskin Library, Lancaster University 30 April-2 October 2005. 16-19.

Dearden, James S. (2004) John Howard Whitehouse. Entry in the National Dictionary of Biography. Oxford Biography Index Number 101052644.

Eagar, Waldo Mc. G. (1953) Making Men. The history of boys’ clubs and related movements in Great Britain, London: University of London Press.

Eagles, Stuart (2005) “Keeper of the Flame: John Howard Whitehouse (1873-1955).” Keeper of the Flame: John Howard Whitehouse 1873-1955 an exhibition catalogue accompanying an exhibition at the Ruskin Library, Lancaster University 30 April-2 October 2005. 7-15.

Evans, Joan and John Howard Whitehouse (eds.) (1956) The Diaries of John Ruskin Volume 1 1835-1847; Volume 2 1848-1873; Volume 3 1874-1889. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ruskin, John (1903-1912) The Works of John Ruskin (Library Edition). 39 vols. Eds. E.T. Cook & Alexander Wedderburn. London: George Allen.

Stewart, W. A. C. (1968) The Educational Innovators. Volume II: Progressive schools 1881-1967.London: Macmillan.

Whitehouse, John Howard (1905) Problems of a Scottish Provincial Town (Dunfermline). London: George Allen.

Whitehouse, John Howard (1906) The Boys’ Club. Its place in social progress. London: David Nutt.

Whitehouse, John Howard (1911) Camping for Boys. London: King and Son.

Whitehouse, John Howard (ed) (1912) Problems of Boy Life. With an introduction by … John Percival, Bishop of Hereford. London: King and Son.

Whitehouse, John Howard (1913) A National System of Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Whitehouse, John Howard (ed.) (1920) Introduction. Ruskin the Prophet. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 9-12.

Whitehouse, John Howard (1928) Creative Education at an English School. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press .

Whitehouse, John Howard (1929) The Solitary Warrior: New Letters by Ruskin. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Whitehouse, John Howard (1934) To The Memory of Ruskin [Addresses by various authors]. Cambridge: Ruskin Society.

Whitehouse, John Howard (1938) Ruskin the Painter and his works at Bembridge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitehouse, John Howard (1950) Vindication of Ruskin. [On Ruskin’s marriage and its annulment. An answer to “The Order of Release,” by Sir William M. James. With portraits.]. London: George Allen and Unwin.

John Howard Whitehouse – a selection of his other work

Whitehouse, John Howard (1908) Report of an Enquiry into Working Boys’ Homes in London. By J. H. Whitehouse … Geoffrey Gordon … and N. Malcolmson … With an introduction by E. J. Urwick. Issued under the auspices of the Toynbee Trust and of the National League of Workers with Boys. London: Andrew Fairbairns.

Whitehouse, John Howard (1913) Essays on Social and Political Questions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Whitehouse, John Howard (1916) Educational and Social Experiments, conducted under the auspices of the Reform Trust. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.

Whitehouse, John Howard (ed.) (1919) The English Public School: a symposium. London: Grant Richards.

Whitehouse, John Howard (ed.) (1930) Nansen. A book of homage. Edited by J. H. Whitehouse. [With plates, including portraits.] London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Whitehouse, John Howard (1932) A Boy’s Symposium [and two other lectures]. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Whitehouse, John Howard (1933) The Boy of Today. A defence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whitehouse, John Howard (1943) The School Base, etc. [Suggestions for the location and expansion of elementary and secondary schools.]. London: Oxford University Press.

Acknowledgement: The photographs of John Howard Whitehouse have been reproduced with the kind permission of the Ruskin Foundation (Ruskin Library, Lancaster University). The later photograph is by Howard Coster.

Dr. Sara Atwood, whose primary area of interest and research is the work of John Ruskin, received her M.A. at Queens College, City University of New York in 1999 and her Ph.D at the Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York in 2006. Her book manuscript is a study of Ruskin’s educational philosophies and an examination of his importance as an educator. Dr. Atwood’s essays on Ruskin have appeared in such publications as Nineteenth-Century Prose and The Ruskin Review and Bulletin.


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How to cite this piece: Atwood, Sara (2008) ‘John Howard Whitehouse, John Ruskin and educational reform’ The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [].

© Sara Atwood 2008