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Spencer Churchill (p) at Harrow School 1888-1892

Finest Hour 133, Winter 2006-07

Page 30

By Geoffrey J. Fletcher • Part I

A FRESH LOOK at Winston Spencer Churchill’s career at Harrow, and the Headmaster, Masters and Harrow boys who influenced and inspired him.


Before going to public (private) school, a boy of Churchill’s class in the 1880s was sent to a suitable prep school. Young Churchill at the age of seven was sent in November 1882 to St. George’s at Ascot: expensive, modern with electric light, and a marked preference for Eton College, where men of the Marlborough family, including Winston’s father, had been educated since the 18th century.

The Head Master was the Reverend Herbert William Sneyd-Kinnersley (1848-1886), a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, who had founded St. George’s in 1877. Aged 34 when Winston entered, he was an unpleasant snob with two coats of arms, one each for his double-barreled name—and a cruel pervert. He flogged the boys with religious fervour, until blood was drawn, sometimes up to twenty strokes. An alumnus described him as “an unconscious sodomite.”

Winston was a high-spirited youngster with a precocious streak. When handed a Latin grammar on his first day, he was perplexed by the vocative tense of mensa (O table). When he was told he would use this tense to speak to a table, he replied “But I never do”—his first impertinence, which started his long path of corporal punishment. (Yet his remark was perfectly sensible.)

Winston was very talkative, and in consequence was made to run round the playground until he ran out of breath. The punishment failed to cow him, and his resistance was lion-hearted. After having been accused of a trifling offence and beaten, Winston kicked Sneyd-Kinnersley’s prized straw boater to smithereens. Revenge at a future date was uppermost in his heart, for the next decade. When a gentleman cadet at Sandhurst, aged nineteen, he felt fit enough to exact physical retribution and rode over to the hated place, only to discover that SneydKinnersley had died and the school had changed hands.

In the degrading conditions of St. Georges his health broke down at the age of nine and he was removed from the hated school. His mother and his nurse had been shocked by the wounds he had received from the frequent beatings. The family doctor, Robson Roose, who had come to prominence by his attendance on Lord Randolph Churchill and who invited his distinguished patients to elegant dinner parties, practised in London and Brighton. He recommended that in view of Winston’s weak state of health, the boy should go to school in the bracing sea air of Brighton, where his parents selected an establishment at 29 & 30 Brunswick Road run by maiden sisters, the Misses Thomson.

The Thomson sisters, Charlotte (1843-1901) and Catherine Amelia (1845-1906) were flattered by the Churchill choice, but Winston was becoming a handful and a trifle precocious. He had begun to sign his books “Winston Spencer Churchill, November 30” together with a quotation: “To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell, Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” {Paradise Lost, Book I, line 263.)

From Brighton in October 1884 he wrote his mother, “I am very happy here.” Perfecting his swimming and riding, he recovered his health. His taste in reading developed through being allowed to see Punch cartoons and was presented by his father with Bram Stoker’s bestseller, Dracula.

The time was approaching for the choice of a public school. Again the fashionable doctor’s advice was sought. Roose was against Eton College because of the fogs in its low-lying Thames valley; the alternative was Harrow, situated on a hill in Middlesex.

On 18 March 1888 Winston sat for the Harrow entrance exam, chaperoned by Charlotte Thomson. Although Harrow historians have not discovered the alleged exam paper containing only his name and an ink blot, which he recalled amusingly in My Early Life, he allegedly failed to answer a single question in the Latin paper. Charlotte reported to his mother that he had suffered from severe nervous excitement and had told her that he had never translated Latin into English. This was untrue as he had spent a full year translating Caesar and Virgil.

Perhaps his latent Latin was known to the Harrow Headmaster, Reverend Welldon, who decided to give Winston a chance. Welldon was subsequently credited with vision but at the time he was severely criticized and accused of gross favouritism. Perhaps the truth was that Lord Randolph being at the summit of national politics, Welldon preferred to avoid the embarrassment of rejecting his son. Yet Harrow historians have declared that not even Lord Randolph’s son could have been admitted at that time knowing no Latin.

The Thomsons were relieved when Winston left, for they were having difficulty controlling him. It was said facetiously at the time that to mark the occasion a half holiday was granted and the Union Flag was flown!

James Edward Cowell Welldon (1854-1937), Headmaster of Harrow from 1885 to 1898, was a champion of muscular Christianity. His shoulders were nearly as broad as his Church views. Educated at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, he was appointed to the headship at the age of thirty-one. He became consecutively Chaplain in Ordinary to the Queen, Bishop of Calcutta, Metropolitan of India, Canon of Westminster, Dean of Manchester and Dean of Durham.

Churchill held a lifelong respect and affection for Welldon. When serving as a cavalry subaltern in India, learning that Welldon, then Bishop of Calcutta, was dangerously ill, he undertook a long and hazardous journey in a period of civil strife to visit and succour his old Head Master. They met again in Calcutta when Churchill was staying with the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, and Welldon was Metropolitan of India. At dinner Welldon said to his former student, “I presume it will not be long before we hear you declaiming in the House of Commons.” Churchill did not demur. One wonders at the reaction of senior officers serving in India towards a twenty-five-year-old subaltern mixing at ease in such gilded circles.

When Winston arrived, Harrow was in the country. From the Head Master’s house to the southeast there was a view of the outskirts of London; from the churchyard to the southwest, Windsor could be seen. But the Metropolitan Railway from London was expanding, having reached Rickmansworth some ten miles to the north-west. Harrow-on-the Hill would be the next station.

New boys were placed in a Small House (usually about 15 students), before being passed on to larger Houses. In April 1888 Winston was placed in H.O.D. Davidson’s Small House, where he spent his first three terms. Davidson (1854-1915), an Old Harrovian, was a keen player of games and a kindly schoolmaster. He was Winston’s tutor for most of his time at Harrow, even after the boy had moved to the Head Master’s House. His second son, Donald, was Churchill’s Attorney General during the war years 1940-45, and ended his judicial career as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary.

Among the fifteen boarders in Davidson’s Small House was Winston’s cousin Dudley Marjoribanks, whose mother was the third daughter of the Duke of Marlborough. Marjoribanks joined the Royal Horse Guards in 1895. Winston also knew Francis William White, youngest son of Lord Annaly, who left Harrow after five terms to live in Argentina and South Africa. During the Great War he was Major, Superintendent Remount Services. A third family connection in the House was Henry Francis Stirling, whose mother was a close friend of Lady Randolph. Stirling joined the Army, serving in the Coldstream Guards from 1896 to 1909, and fought in the Boer War.

The 500 boys at Harrow were taught in twentyone separate divisions or classes grouped in three Forms: Fourth, Fifth and Sixth. Winston was placed in the Third Remove of the Fourth Form: the bottom class. The Fourth Form Room was built in 1611. Wooden panels round its walls contained signatures of Harrovians who became famous, including Robert Peel, Lord Palmerston, Spencer Perceval and Lord Byron.

Young Winston’s school career was depressing, Latin in particular; yet the classics in general were the key to success in the examinations set by the Civil Service Commissioners who controlled entry to the army or navy, the administration of the Empire, the Foreign Office and virtually all the government departments. Winston refused to tackle the niceties of a dead language, despite special tuition by Welldon. Although he managed to move up two divisions, he never left the Fourth Form. He did however achieve fame in his first term in winning the Declamation Prize by reciting without fault 1200 lines of Macaulay’s “Lays of Ancient Rome,” including its inspiring Stanza 27:

Then out spake brave Horatius
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man on this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his father,
And the temples of his Gods.”

Thus Winston became a “prizeman,” the letter “p” being placed after his name in the school lists. By the summer term, however, Davidson felt obliged to write to Winston’s mother:

I do not think that he is in any way wilfully troublesome but his forgetfulness, carelessness, unpunctuality and irregularity in every way, have really been so serious, that I write to ask you, when he is home to speak very gravely to him on the subject…if he is not able to conquer this slovenliness he will never make a success of a public school He is a remarkable boy in many ways and it would be a thousand pities if such good abilities were made useless by habitual negligence.

Winston was very lucky to be supervised by outstanding masters with kind hearts and infinite patience. Robert Somervell (1851-1933) was his English and first form master. His methods of teaching were outstanding. Thirty-eight years after leaving Harrow, in My Early Life, Churchill acknowledged his debt to him:

He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practised continually English analysis. Mr. Somervell had a system of his own. He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue and green inks. Subject, verb, object: Relative Clauses, Conditional Clauses, Conjunctive and Disjunctive Clauses! Each had its colour and its bracket. It was a kind of drill.

Charles Henry Powell Mayo (1859-1929) was the Mathematics master for Winston’s last year and in six months managed to teach him enough for exam purposes. At his first attempt, out of 2500 marks, Winston obtained 500. At his second he scored nearly 2000. He attributed this to the kindly interest and teaching of Mayo, who convinced him that mathematics was not a hopeless bog of nonsense.

Louis Martin Moriarty (1855-1930) was French, and brought a Parisian touch into the social life of Harrow. He had an English degree and was listed in consequence as “Esq MA.” (The names of Harrow French masters without English qualifications were preceded by “Mons.”) Moriarty probably had the greatest influence on Winston. They fenced together and Moriarty took over the Army Class, in which Winston was a member for two years. This class grouped those boys going into the Army for special lessons in order to satisfy the Commissioners but they remained in their statutory Forms, and poor Winston was buried in the Fourth. They kept in touch for many years after Winston left Harrow. When Churchill was appointed Colonial Secretary in 1905, Moriarty sent him his warmest congratulations. Churchill replied:

…Almost the only valuable and pleasant part of my instruction there was received at your hands, and though I fear I am sadly lacking in scholarly education the taste for history which I acquired or developed in your Army Class has been very pleasantly indulged by me in the years that are past…

On the death of Lady Randolph in 1921, Moriarty wrote a charming letter of condolence and added: “As you see, I am still lingering on the Hill, though retired, when…before I was old and half blind, we learnt together.”

Bernard Jules Minssens (1861-1924) came to Harrow as a French master during Winston’s last year. Welldon and Winston’s parents considered that the boy should spend a few weeks in France to improve his French. The Christmas holidays of 1891 were designated, but Winston wanted to spend most of December at home in England. A furious argument broke out, and Winston lost. He was duly packed off to Minssens, who had agreed to have him for a month at his home, 18 rue de Provence in Versailles. Winston spent a quiet Christmas. Mrs. Minssens was English so there was turkey and plum pudding. Minssens had good horses, and Winston enjoyed plenty of riding.

Winston remained independent at Harrow. He avoided team games, and had only one real friend, John Peniston Milbanke (1872-1915) later 10th Baronet, who joined the Army through the Militia and was commissioned in the 10th Hussars. In the Boer War he was awarded the Victoria Cross for saving the life of an injured trooper whilst being seriously wounded himself. He was killed in action in 1915, commanding the Sherwood Foresters at Suvla Bay during the Gallipoli campaign.

At Harrow, Churchill and Milbanke discovered an ancient school bye-law which forbade the playing of football games during exam week. The two boys in consequence lay on their bunks reading during games periods. The School expected them to be beaten but Welldon was obliged to rule that Winston’s argument was sound.

In November 1891 Lord Randolph came for the first and only time to visit his son—and then only after an entreaty from Welldon. He took both boys to lunch at the King’s Head Hotel. Winston was awkward and silent, listening to Milbanke conversing easily. He wished he could so converse with his brilliant father.

Although Winston did not fraternize with his other schoolmates, he did make his presence known. During his first term be was attracted to “Ducker,” Harrow’s huge swimming pool. He delighted in creeping up behind an unsuspecting boy and with a well aimed push sending the victim into the water. One of his victims turned out to be Leopold Amery (1873-1955) of the Sixth Form—Head of House, a champion at Gym and with football colours, described by the boys as a “pocket Hercules.” Retribution came as Winston was hurled into Ducker’s deep end. On the following day at roll call Winston went up to the great man to apologise: “I mistook you for a Fourth Form boy, you are so small. My father, who is a great man, is also small.” Amery sportingly said the matter was closed.

Amery and Churchill were destined to cross each other’s paths for more than half a century. Amery was editor of the school magazine, The Harrovian, and blue-penciled many of Winston’s submissions. He was in South Africa as The Times correspondent during the Boer War, and the two shared a tent at Estcourt. Amery was to have accompanied Churchill in the famous armoured train but overslept, thus avoiding capture or even death. He subsequently held such high offices as First Lord of the Admiralty, Secretary of State for the Colonies, Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs. And it was Leo Amery who delivered the fatal Cromwellian words to Neville Chamberlain in 1940: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.” As Prime Minister, Churchill appointed Leopold Amery Secretary of State for India.

Richard Meinertzhagen (1878-1967) was four years younger than Winston and had the misfortune to dispute the pavement with him when walking in opposite directions. He was bounced into the gutter and subjected to a glance from Winston’s cold blue eyes which he never forgot. It was a warning to keep off. Later when in the Army and out shooting in Burma he was reminded of the look in the eyes of a wild boar about to charge.

After Harrow, Meinertzhagen went into the Army and became a Middle East specialist. He was Colonel in charge of the Field Intelligence Section of General Allenby’s army. When Churchill was Colonial Secretary in 1920, he created a special Middle East Department and appointed Meinertzhagen as military adviser to it in April 1921.

When Winston was in the Head Master’s House he fagged for Nugent Hicks, the House Head. Following a major transgression he was duly beaten, but said to Hicks: “I will rise above you later on.” Hicks replied, “You shall have two more,” which he duly delivered. Winston replied, “I am leaving now, but what I said stands.” Hicks later became Bishop of Lincoln.

The three Trevelyan brothers were at Harrow. George, the historian, entered in September 1889, a year after Winston. He went straight into the Fifth Form, Third Remove, well ahead of Winston. Trevelyan became the leading social historian of the age; his Garibaldi series, history of Queen Anne, and book on the Stuarts will long endure. For many years after Harrow, Churchill sought Trevelyn’s advice on his own historical researches. In 1940 the mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge—a Royal appointment vested in the Prime Minister—fell vacant. At the height of the Battle of Britain, Churchill took time off to appoint Trevelyan. After the war Churchill resumed work on A History of the English Speaking Peoples, which had been interrupted by the war. Wishing to consult Trevelyan, he was invited to the College where he spent some weeks as a guest in the Master’s Lodge.*

A year after Winston’s entry to Harrow a youngster by the name of H.S. McCorquodale was placed in W.G. Guillemard’s Small House. The two boys had a nodding acquaintance. During the Boer War, the day before the attack on Spion Kop, Churchill rode across the pontoon bridge. He heard his name called out and saw McCorquodale’s cheery face: his old schoolmate had just joined Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry that evening.

In the morning Churchill was asked to identify a body which was not recognised. It was leaning on a rifle. A broken pair of field glasses, shattered by the same shell which had killed their owner, lay nearby. They bore the name of McCorquodale. As Churchill put it: “Joined in the evening, shot at dawn The great sacrifice had been required of the Queen’s latest recruit.”

In 1890 Winston, whilst in the Head Master’s house, turned his hand to writing poetry:

INFLUENZA

O’er miles of bleak Siberia’s plains
When Russian exiles toil in chains
It moved with noiseless tread
And as it glided slowly by
There followed it across the sky
The spirits of the dead.
[Stanza 2: A knock at the Russians.]

Fair Alsace and forlorn Lorraine,
The cause of bitterness and pain
In many a Gallic breast,
Receive the vile, insatiate scourge,
And from their towns with it emerge
And never stay nor rest.
[Stanza 6: French political geography.]

In Calais port the illness stays,
As did the French informer days,
To threaten Freedom’s isle;
But now no Nelson could o’erthrow
This cruel unconquerable foe,
Nor save us from its guile.
[Stanza 9: Jingoism.]

God shield our Empire from the might
Of war or famine, plague or blight,
And all the power of Hell,
And keep it ever in the hands
Of those who fought ‘gainst other lands,
Who fought and conquered well.
[Stanza 12: Voice of a future Prime Minister?]

Insight into Churchill’s innate decency, evident even in those early days when many schoolmates regarded him as a prig, was evidenced by the famous experience of his old nurse when she came to visit him at Harrow.

Elizabeth Ann Everest (1833-1895) was born in Chatham and entered service with the Churchill family in 1875, where she remained for eighteen years. Winston acquired the terms “black dog” to denote a foul mood, and “garden of England” to describe Kent, from Mrs. Everest. The “Mrs.” was honorary as was the fashion in those days for women in such employment. Winston was devoted to her, and immortalized her as the housekeeper in his only novel, Savrola:

She had nursed him from his birth up with a devotion and care which knew no break. It is a strange thing, the love of these women. Perhaps it is the only disinterested affection in the world. The mother loves her child; that is maternal nature. The youth loves his sweetheart; that too may be explained. The dog loves his master; he feeds him. A man loves his friend; he has stood by him perhaps at doubtful moments. In all there are reasons but the love of a foster-mother for her charge appears absolutely irrational. It is one of the few proofs, not to be explained even by the association of ideas, that the nature of mankind is superior to mere utilitarianism, and that his destinies are high.

One day Winston invited Everest to Harrow. Boys were very nervous of being laughed at because of the appearance and clothes of the distaff side of their families: no form of endearment was expected to be shown. Winston of course did not give a damn. Mrs Everest arrived in an old poke bonnet, her figure of ample proportions. He threw his arms around her and kissed her in full view of all and sundry. After showing her round the school, they walked down the High Street arm in arm to a tuck shop for tea. As the years passed and Churchill became famous, one contemporary went into print to say it was the nicest thing that a Harrow boy had ever done. Another, a military man, said it was the bravest.

When Mrs. Everest fell mortally ill in 1895, Churchill rushed up from Aldershot to be with her at the end. Only 62, she was dying of diphtheria. It had been raining heavily and his coat was soaking wet. The old nurse insisted on it being taken off and dried. Winston and his brother Jack paid for her tombstone, maintained today at the City of London Cemetery by the International Churchill Society (UK).

Winston’s inquiring mind often led him into various scrapes. He was beaten with other boys for exploring a disused factory and causing damage. On another occasion he became interested in an ancient manse, Roxteth House, abandoned since 1861, which stood amid extensive grounds at the bottom of West Street. There was an old well in the garden at the bottom of which, according to rumour, there was a secret passage leading to the parish church. The bottom was filled with accumulated rubbish.

Winston planned to clear it with a bomb, which he duly constructed. He placed it in an open haversack and walked to the house. On the way a local detective, whom he had befriended to look after his dog, asked him if it was a bomb. Winston did not deny this.

He dropped the bomb down the well and lit the fuse. Nothing happened for some minutes. He stuck his head down the opening at the precise moment the bomb went off. Winston was spattered with debris and his face was cut and bruised. A kindly neighbour who was hanging out her washing took him in and cleaned him up. “I expect this will get me the bag,” he said. The lady had by then recognised him. She never said a word except to her nephew, Harry Woodbridge, who divulged the story after his aunt’s death.

During his four and half years at Harrow, Winston became quite well known in the town. Apart from the detective who cared for his dog, he was a frequent visitor to the book shop and the tuck shops. The boys were not very well fed in the Houses. Bread and butter, tea and coffee and meat (only for the mid-day meal) were served. Hance’s Tuck Shop’s menu included enticing choices: mutton cutlets and peas, ham and eggs, steak and onions, fried plaice and chips, cold ham and tongue, sausages, mushrooms on toast, and devilled kidneys. The price was sixpence per dish.

Continued next issue.


Mr. Fletcher ([email protected]) is a member of ICS (UK) living in Belgium, and is a member of the ICS (UK) committee). For the meaning of the “(p)” in our title, see page 32.

*The author matriculated at Trinity College in 1947. Once I entered through the Great Gate into Great Court. Deep in thought, I looked up to see two elderly figures leaving the Master’s Lodge: Trevelyan and Churchill. There was no escape; luckily I was correctly dressed and gowned. With great courtesy they inquired about what I was reading and what sport I had taken up. Churchill recognised my ex-service tie, and to my surprise, Trevelyan knew my name, though I had only met him once. For reasons I never discovered, Churchill used frequently to enter Great Court through a small passage from New Court, used mainly by kitchen staff, bedders (servants) and undergraduates from the nearby law library. One evening a crowd mainly of College staff lay in wait: “Good old Winnie,” they roared.

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