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School Days: Young Winston’s Mr. Somervell

Erica and Hilda Bingham
Finest Hour 86, Spring 1995

ROBERT Somervell M.A. (Cantab), the eldest of six sons and three daughters, was born at Kendal, Cumberland on 29 September 1851. He died at Sevenoaks, Kent in 1933, three years after being cited by his 56-year-old former student, Winston Churchill, as the man who taught him that most precious heritage, the English language.

His, mother, Anne Wilson, married Robert Miller Somervell in 1849. The elder Somervell, at the age of 21, started his own business as a leather merchant in Kendal in 1842, travelling many miles selling all over England to shoemakers. Before Robert, the eldest son, was born, his father joined with a brother to form a business. 

The partnership between the two brothers was the beginning of a most successful, world-renowned shoe business known as Somervell Brothers, which prospered until 1949 when it became K Shoes Ltd. It exported its products as far away as Virginia, U.S.A. (The business is still based in Kendal though the family now have no financial interest.) As the business grew, along with the family, they moved to a larger house in Windermere named “Hazelthwaite.”

Robert’s mother being the daughter of a very well known Quaker family of Kendal, it was inevitable that the children attended a Quaker school. Situated in the centre of the picturesque Lake District market town, stands a very impressive Friends Meeting House in an area called Stramongate. The original portion of this building was built in 1774; the rear extensions were added during 1855-1860, and these dates apply also to the school buildings, which, now much modernised, form part of the Cumberland education committee’s Stramongate primary school.

The provisional list of the Old Boys Association of Stramongate school contains the name R. Somervell with the year 1867, in the approximate date column, with a pencil note in the margin, “Harrow School.” Actually Robert left in 1865 to attend a school in St. John’s Wood, London. Robert joined the family shoe company in 1867, at the age of sixteen. During his short time with the company he made a vital contribution to its future prosperity.

In 1878, at 27, Robert left the company, entering King’s College Cambridge. In 1882 he was placed top of the first class in the History Tripos, a remarkable achievement for what would now be described as a mature student. He married Octavia Paulina Churchill (no relation), second daughter of Rev. John Churchill, at Shrewsbury in 1882.

The circumstances of Robert’s first teaching appointment are most interesting. The year was 1882, when a new Headmaster was appointed at Liverpool College, the Rev. Edward Carus Selwyn. Arriving in Liverpool to take up his duties, Selwyn found the staff at the college old and inefficient. He returned to Cambridge and promptly collected three of his contemporaries, including Robert Somervell, who he was so keen to have on his staff at Liverpool that he doubled Robert’s salary by paying him the income from his own fellowship at King’s.

Edward Selwyn married in 1884, losing his fellowship, which caused a reduction in Robert’s salary which the governors would not make up. After a short time Robert left Liverpool by invitation, to become a master at Harrow in 1887. He had an acute business brain which he used in Harrow’s interest as Bursar from 1888 to 1919.

In the year 1888, Winston Churchill burst upon the scene — one supposes “burst” is the right word — entering Harrow on April 17th for the start of the second term. He was initially placed in Mr. H.O.D. Davidson’s small boarding house called Garlands, on Peterborough Hill. After two or three terms in Garlands, Winston transferred to a large boarding house, the Headmaster’s, where he stayed for the rest of his years at Harrow.

During Winston’s first year at Harrow, as he wrote in My Early Life (1930, Woods A37) he remained in the bottom form: “Mr. Somervell — a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great — was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing, namely to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components.”

In 1935, Faber and Faber published a biography of Robert Somervell, written by one of his sons, who wrote, “One compliment deserves another … My father often spoke in after years of the remarkable English compositions Mr. Churchill showed to him, sometimes on subjects quite other than that which he had selected. Another example which survives today was an elaborate essay on the style of John Gilpin, on Rhampsinitus, the hero of one of the tales in J.S. Philpot’s Herodotus in Attic Greek, which was one of my father’s favourite school texts. Another was an elaborate essay complete with many maps describing an imaginary battle in Russia.”

This was a remarkable forecast of the Great War; although it predicted the wrong antagonists (England vs. Russia), it did foresee the coming strife at a level of ferocity undreamed of when Winston was a schoolboy. It accurately forecast the exact year of the war’s outbreak, 1914. The original, 1500 words with six battle plans, can be seen in the Harrow archives. Somervell was so impressed with the essay, written by Winston when he was fourteen, that he preserved it, and after the last war it was presented to the school by his son, Sir Donald Somervell, later Lord Somervell of Harrow.

Winston left Harrow in December at the end of the September term 1892. Thirty-eight years later he published his autobiography, My Early Life. “Mr. Churchill’s reviewer would require to be almost as skilled a writer as he is himself, or at least to have unlimited space for quotation, in order to give an adequate notion of the charm and briskness of his book, published to-day,” recorded The Times. “The material is, of course, splendid. Anyone who could write at all would be able to make a good show of the events in which he was concerned up to the age of eight-andtwenty. But there be few who could play on all the strings — humour, headlong excitement, quiet irony, melancholy regret for vanished customs and glories, love of sport, the pleasures of friendship — with so sure a hand.”

A number of weeks before publication Winston sent out over 100 personal copies to friends and colleagues. His inscription “To. R. Somervell” is dated 15 October, five days before formal publication. The typed note on the right is most likely the work of Mrs. Violet Pearman, Winston’s principal secretary at the time: “This book is confidential until its publication on Monday next.”

On the 20th Somervell replied (Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume V, Part 2, p. 209): “My dear Winston, A thousand thanks for the present of your book, with your name in it too, enhancing my pleasure in its possession. It reached us at Breakfast time, and I have but read a few pages as I have had a busy morning over my Hospital affairs. My wife seized upon it, & could talk of nothing else at lunch. Now I have taken my first dip, & find it so delightful that I think I shall have to ration myself to so many pages a day, to prolong the pleasure. It is most admirably done, and your kind mention of me touches me deeply. With our united thanks and kind remembrances of you and Mrs. Churchill, Yours sincerely admiringly and gratefully, R. Somervell.”

Robert Somervell left the teaching staff at Harrow in 1911, staying on until 1920 as Bursar. Upon his final retirement he sat for a portrait in oils by the artist Fred Yates of Windermere. Leaving Harrow, he resided at Sevenoaks, Kent, not far from Chartwell. For many years he was treasurer of the County Hospital at Sevenoaks. It was typical of Churchill, with his vivid memory and generosity of heart, to pay proper tribute to the man who taught him the joy of “the ordinary British sentence.”

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