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“Well, it’s not exactly Greek choral metre!”


“Verily will our Don think the old order changeth when hydraulics and hydrostatics are prized above choriambics and catalectic tetrameters…”

victorian greek chorus

Hear the Greek tragic chorus as symbol of the elitist class connotations of the classical curriculum.  For Victorians, the chorus symbolised esoteric intellectual matters, as people today talk about ‘rocket science’ or ’brain surgery’. In the polemics of educational reformers, such as those who established the College of Physical Science at Newcastle in 1871, the metres of the Greek chorus becomes the emblem of ‘useless’ education for its own sake.

In 1871 a Yorkshire advocate of reformed, utilitarian and science-based education wrote an article in  The Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser entitled ‘Useful versus Ornamental Learning’:  he said, ‘Many men brought up in the strict traditions of academical learning will look with eyes of scorn upon the new College of Physical Science, just opened in Newcastle-upon-Tyne… How can a nation prosper, will old college Dons think, whose sons let their wits go wool-gathering after chemistry and natural philosophy, when they ought to be hard at work unravelling the intricacies of a Greek chorus, which sounds remarkably well in the sonorous rhythms of Eurypides [sic], but which is found to be a trifle vague, not to say idiotic, when translated. Verily will our Don think the old order changeth when hydraulics and hydrostatics are prized above choriambics and catalectic tetrameters…’


In fact, the new college itself grew out of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers (NEIMME), a response to the horrendous number and scale of mining catastrophes in the earlier 19th century. The College of Physical Science was physically established in the cellars of Wood Memorial Hall, (pictured left), named after the engineer and first president of the NEIMME, Nicholas Wood. The first session, in 1871-72, entailed 8 teaching staff, 173 students and the four subjects of Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Geology. But the antithesis between practical science which could save miners’ lives and  ‘useless’ classical scholarship was curiously subverted  in the figure of Professor John Herman Merivale, the first student at the new college, who became its first Professor of Mining.


He was warmly supported in his desire to alleviate mining conditions by his father the Very Revd. Charles Merivale, Dean of Ely Cathedral, classical scholar, translator of Homer into English and author of A History of the Romans under the Empire (1850-1862). Merivale Senior (pictured above) also translated Keats’ Hyperion into Latin verse.

For more on this subject please read this groundwork article.


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