Great Men at Bad Moments centres on the indignities and brutalities inflicted on young pupils during the reigns of some twenty-five headmasters, many of them Church of England clergymen. A major source for the book is the revelations of individual pupils who suffered under the cruel regimes. Many of these boys were later to achieve literary and other fame. So, for example, Leigh Hunt and Coleridge remember the unbridled behaviour of their headmaster, the Reverend Boyer of Christ's Hospital School, described by De Quincey as 'this horrid incarnation of whips and scourges'. Winston Churchill and the art critic, Roger Fry, provide vivid accounts of the atrocities committed by their prep school headmaster, the Revered Sneyd-Kynnersley. Roald Dahl ponders on the mix of sadism and Christianity which cast a shadow over his days at Repton. And A.N. Wilson tells how the brutality of his paedophile headmaster and his sadistic wife scarred him forever.
Great Men at Bad Moments takes its form from John Aubrey's Brief Lives, mingling the anecdotal with the analytical.