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Near the beginning of CS Forester's novel Mr Midshipman Hornblower, which begins in 1793, the titular Hornblower arrives on board his first ship, where the captain asks about his schooling:

"How far did your education go?"

"I was a Grecian at school, sir."

"So you can construe Xenophon as well as Cicero?"

"Yes, sir. But not very well, sir."

"Better if you knew something about sines and cosines. Better if you could foresee a squall in time to get t'gallants in. We have no use for ablative absolutes in the Navy."

From the context it appears that to be a Grecian didn't only mean that he had learnt ancient Greek, but was also a shorthand for a specific level of educational attainment, in the same way as we might talk nowadays about people being a sixth form student.

Hornblower is only 17 at the time of this exchange, so it must be something pre-university, but I cannot find any more information to suggest what being a Grecian actually meant in the late 18th century in England.

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    Re being only 17, British (and other) universities were not so age-obsessed then as they are in the modern day. Apparently students could be admitted even younger than 14, per the answer to this question: history.stackexchange.com/questions/41469/… – jamesqf Apr 10 at 4:10
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    @jamesqf Cambridge, at least, still has policies and arrangements in place for students under 16. – user3482749 Apr 10 at 16:37
  • @user3482749: But how often are they used? Seldom enough, I think, that the occasional university student under 18 is newsworthy. – jamesqf Apr 11 at 3:48
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    @jamesqf Under 18? Certainly not. In particular, it is extremely common for students from Scotland to start university at 17. Under 16 is much rarer, but still by no means newsworthy, except perhaps in the local papers of some very small village that such a student might come from. – user3482749 Apr 11 at 5:04
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    Yes indeed, I appreciate that he could have gone to university at 17, but it seems extremely unlikely that he would have finished university and gone to sea by 17 without the novelist mentioning it. – walrus Apr 11 at 10:15
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From the 1928 OED:

Grecian:
....
2. One learned in the Greek language; a Greek scholar. [Attestations omitted]
b. A boy in the highest class of Christ's Hospital (the Blue-coat school).

Blue-Coat:

  1. Formerly the dress of servants and the lower orders; hence of almoners and charity children. [Attestations omitted]
  2. ....
  3. (More fully, Blue-coat boy): A scholar of a charity school wearing the almoners blue coat. Of these there are many in England; the most noted being Christ's Hospital in London, whose uniform is a long dark blue gown fastened at the waist with a belt, and bright yellow stockings.

So Hornblower has completed his grammar school education as a charity scholarship student. He seems to be dissembling slightly on his charity status, without making an outright deception.

Context

An 18th (and even 19th) Century liberal arts education revolved around the seven traditional liberal arts, composed of:

  • Trivium:
    -- Grammar (both Latin and Greek; reading, writing, and speaking);
    -- Logic
    -- Rhetoric;
  • Quadrivium:
    -- Geometry;
    -- Arithmetic (in the Euclidean sense - so Number Theory);
    -- Music;
    -- Astronomy.

The Trivium was taught in a grammar school and was typically required as prerequisite to university admittance. Completion of the Grammar requirement (at this time) meant the capability of not only reading and writing Latin and Greek, but also of conversing in both to a moderate fluency.

The sines and cosines might have been introduced earlier at a trade school; but would not have been seen formally by Hornblower until reaching university and studying the Geometry and Arithmetic (ie Number Theory) of Euclid's Elements, as well as their practical application in Astronomy (probably physics by this period).

Update

  1. It's not canon unless it's in the books.

  2. You think an education at Eton, or even a lesser English public school, is comparable in cost to purchasing a midshipman's commission in His Majesty's Royal Navy in 1793? Seriously? I doubt the cost of a midshipman's commission would have purchased even a single term at any public school half as notable as Christ's Hospital. Further, charity also includes scholarship and bursary students.


P.S.

If that Christ's Hospital uniform reminds you also of Harry Potter - I doubt that's just coincidence. Recall tha all wizard children in the United Kingdom were entitled to an education at Hogwart's - regardless of family financial means.

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    @Spencer: 1) It's not canon unless it's in the books. 2) You think an education at Eton, or even a lesser English public school, is comparable in cost to purchasing a midshipman's commission in His Majesty's Royal Navy in 1793? Seriously? I doubt the cost of a midshipman's commission would have purchased even a single term at any public school half as notable as Christ's Hospital. Further, charity also includes scholarship and bursary students. – Pieter Geerkens Apr 9 at 20:18
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    You edited your comment in verbatim? Seriously, I wouldn't know the first thing about what the cost of a commision would be, relative to a public school education. But it can't be trivial, or everyone would be a naval officer. You added useful clarifications, but it's probably a good idea to reduce that edit to just the bare facts and remove the ad hominem. – Spencer Apr 9 at 20:53
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    @Spencer: The Lieutenants' Exam made the Royal Navy a very strict meritocracy. Only those boys who were thought capable of passing it would have been commissioned as midshipmen - in point of fact there were more midshipmen from the professional classes than from the aristocracy for just that reason. The aristocratic dullards purchased commissions in the cavalry instead. – Pieter Geerkens Apr 9 at 23:05
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    Hornblower notes, I think in the same story, that his father was the local doctor, adn that he had to show deference to the local Squire's son. He was also, IIRC, a Kings Letter Boy, which means that he was, unusually for that time, appointed a midshipman without being chosen by his captain. Midshipmen were typically appointed (not commissioned) by the Captain. This was more likely to be a favor to a friend or patron than a straight purchase, but could be for whatever reason the Captain chose. Only when becomming a Lieutenant, after passing the exam, was an officer commissioned. – David Siegel Apr 10 at 23:10
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    It might be of interest to note that Christ's Hospital school still has its Tudor uniform as standard wear for students (although I think the Doc Martens a lot of students wear are probably a more recent development). Christ's Hospital also still has a naval connection even today. images.app.goo.gl/vYLzYrZTSbrRo1Bs8 – dbmag9 Apr 11 at 14:21

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