FINEST HOUR 134, SPRING 2007
BY GEOFFREY J. FLETCHER • PART II
Mr. Fletcher ([email protected]) herein concludes his two-part article. Readers of Part I know that the “(p)” in Winston’s Harrow title stood for “Prizeman”: he won the Declamation Prize for reciting 1200 lines of Macaulay’s “Lays of Ancient Rome.”
“I WAS OFTEN UNCERTAIN whether the Ablative Absolute should end in ‘e’ or 1′ or ‘o’ or ‘is’ or ‘ibus’….Dr. Welldon seemed to be physically pained by a mistake being made in any of these letters. I remember that later on, Mr. Asquith used to have just the same sort of look on his face when I sometimes adorned a Cabinet discussion by bringing out one of my few but faithful Latin quotations.” —WSC, My Early Life, 1930
Winston was a keen member of the Harrow School Rifle Corps, which was a Company of the 18th Middlesex Volunteer Corps. The uniform was grey with blue facings, the badge being crossed arrows, which later became that of the School. He thoroughly enjoyed the field days against other schools, and the mock battles. He was part of a guard of honour for Princess Louise, Marchioness of Lome, who had come to open an exhibition. An outstanding fencer, Winston won the Public School Championship, beating Johnson of Bradfield and Ticehurst in Tonbridge. In addition he was an expert swimmer, representing his House in competitions. (He remained a swimmer all his life. See back cover! —Ed.)
Scholastically his main achievement was to pass the preliminary exam for Sandhurst which, he was the first to admit, was owed to a colossal piece of luck. He knew he would be required to draw a map. He put the names of principal countries into a hat, and pulled out “New Zealand” memorizing its topography. The first question in the exam paper was, “Draw a map of New Zealand”! He failed the main exam twice and after leaving Harrow he had to go to a “crammer” in London in order to satisfy the Civil Service Commissioners.
As Winston’s son wrote in the official biography, his father’s time at Harrow was not entirely wasted. He was compelled to stand on his own feet, and to make his way in the world by his own exertions. He acquired an intense power of concentration. And thanks to Mr. Somervell, he left Harrow with a deep love of the English language, and its command.
Even as a schoolboy, Winston’s talent was recognized by his peers. Possibly his dislike of Latin spurred his devotion to English. This led to his unusual partnership with a classics sixth former (believed to have been Leopold Amery). The latter reeled off the English translations of the Latin, while the former produced impeccable English essays. One essay was of such a high standard that it was passed up to the Head Master, who summoned Amery, or whoever it was, to his study, engaging the boy in lively discussion: “I was interested in this point you make here. You might I think have gone further. Tell me exactly what you had in mind.” Welldon continued in this manner for some time, receiving chilling and evasive comments. He concluded, “You seem to be better at written work.” Winston received instructions to write more mediocre essays in future.
Churchill’s passion against the classics disappeared in later life. Without occasional references to Latin quotations, his writings and speeches would lack lustre by the standards of his generation. And, by judicious use of Latin, his weak education could be camouflaged, except to his Harrow masters. Accordingly he immersed himself in a dictionary of Latin quotations which his superb memory was able to retain. His “few but faithful” Latin quotations were really more plentiful than he two-day debate on defence, there now being anxiety on both sides of the House. Baldwin agreed.
A Ministry for the Coordination of Defence had just been set up under Sir Thomas Inskip, previously the Attorney General. Inskip opened the debate on November 1 lth, during which he said that nothing could restore the years that were past. On the 12th Churchill moved an amendment that the country’s defences were inadequate. His speech was a sustained attack on the Government’s procrastination in the matter of rearmament. He resorted to Latin to upstage Inskip by quoting Horace’s Ode to his Roman friend Postumus: “Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume, labuntur anni” (Alas Postumus, Postumus the flying years fall past us), from Horace’s Odes II xiv 1. Churchill may have had in mind the epigram “eheu fugaces” in The Ingoldsby Legends.
Latin flowed even in wartime. On 30 April 1941 The Times reported: ” [Mr Churchill] gave them facile princeps and primus inter pares and with traditional Harrovian courtesy offered to translate the phrases ‘for the benefit of any Old Etonians present.’
The days of learning “Mensa” were long past. Winston’s first significant contribution to a periodical (Cohen G2, Woods Cl) was on 19 December 1891 in the Harrovian, concerning the state of the gymnasium, where he spent many hours fencing.
Great as the School undoubtedly is, it cannot afford to allow any of its mechanism to fall out of gear. When a public school possesses a Gymnasium, and especially one as fine as ours, it becomes the duty of every one of us to see that it does not go to rack and ruin. I am far from asserting that the Gymnasium has gone completely down the hill, but it is no secret that it is going that way. This being so, it is for each and all to see that it goes no further in that direction.
We have lately been stattled by an imposing announcement that the “School Display” would take place in the Gymnasium on Saturday, 12th December. Whether those who went to see this “Display” were satisfied is more than I can say, but every one will assent when I state that the notice would have been much more correct, had it proclaimed that the Aldershot Staff would give a Display in the Gymnasium on Saturday, December 12th.
A School Assault-at-Arms* is intended to bring out our own talent. The Aldershot Staff can be seen elsewhere, but untold gold could not purchase the services of the School. Among the performers the School was conspicuous by its absence. The endeavour to prove that four equalled eight failed signally. Picture the “Display” without the assistance of the Aldershot Sergeants—it would indeed have been a “show.” Now what, I ask, and what the School ought to ask, and will ask—Why did so few boys do anything?….”The School,” it might be said, “were asked and wouldn’t, the boxer has been approached and has refused, the members of the Eight have been exhorted, but they have declined with thanks.”
If that is so, there must surely be some reason for this spontaneous refusal, and to find this reason I turn to the Editors of the Harrovian. There is another excuse that may be set forth. It may be urged that no one else was good enough to perform. In that case no further question is necessary. If, out of all who go to the Gymnasium, only five per annum are fit to perform before the School at Assault, there is obviously a hitch somewhere.
All these things I have enumerated serve to suggest diat there is “something rotten in the State of Denmark.” I have merely stated facts—it is not for me to offer an explanation of them. To you, sirs, as directors of public opinion, it belongs to lay bare the weakness. Could I not propose that some of your unemployed special correspondents might be set to work to unravel the mystery, and to collect material wherewith these questions may be answered?
The School itself has an ancient history; even the Gymnasium dates back to a Tudor. In those days they were not wont to “Risk”** the success of the School Assault-at-Armsin the manner in which it was done on Saturday last. For three years the Assaults have been getting worse and worse. First the Midgets, then the Board School, and, finally, the Aldershot Staff have been called in to supplement the scanty programme. It is time there should be a change, and I rely on your influential columns to work that change. Yours truly, JUNIUS JUNIOR”
The anonymity of Junius Junior was short-lived. Welldon said to Winston: “My boy, I have observed certain articles which have recently appeared in the Harrovian of character not calculated to increase the respect of the boys for the constituted authorities of the School. As the Harrovian is anonymous, I shall not dream of inquiring who wrote those articles, but if any more of the same sort appear, it might become my painful duty to swish you.”
In a 17 November 1892 letter to the Harrovian on the gym (Cohen G4, not in Woods), signed “Truth (The Philistine Correspondent of the Harrovian)” Winston resorted to superb understatement:
“i. The Room possesses two towels at present.
“ii. These are changed once a week.
“iii. They are used during that time by over 300 boys.
“iv. Gymnastics is conducive to warmth.”
Nor was this the last of it. Winston managed to avoid being swished, although his final comment, on 15 June 1893, must have provided a strong temptation if Welldon still recognised the author: “The appeals…with regard to the Dressing Room have at last taken effect. The number of towels has been increased to four per week. It is reported that the outlay and great expense of this improvement will be met in part by a grant from the School Funds and in part by voluntary subscription from the friends of the Gymnasium.” (Cohen G6.)
Winston’s father, Lord Randolph (the “Lord” was a courtesy title for the second son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough) was elected to Parliament in 1874 and known for his sometimes brilliant and sometimes impetuous speeches—and in some instances for lunatic decisions. His well-known quarrel with the Prince of Wales in 1876 (see FH 112:32, the official biography and Lord Randolph Churchill) earned him a period of exile in Ireland, but by 1885 he had made a comeback and was appointed Secretary of State for India. In the following year he became leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Then, suddenly, he resigned over a trivial matter, hoping to be invited back into the government, and never was. Soon afterward his health collapsed, leading to severe illness (see “Lord Randolph Churchill: Maladies et Mort,” FH 93: 23-28).
His father resigned two years before Winston went to Harrow, but its after-effects cast a shadow until Winston was 20 and his father died. To his son, Lord Randolph was remote, neglectful and uninterested. He used parental power to decide matters over his son’s head without reference to the boy, and kept him at a distance, which hurt Winston terribly. He visited Harrow only once, following a pointed suggestion from Welldon.
Winston wrote to his father nine times when at school, but, failing to get replies, he tired of the exercise. The first letter his father sent to Winston was three years after he had entered Harrow, on 27 June 1891. Randolph had gone to South Africa in search of health and wealth, though senior members of his family doubted he would recover either. Writing Winston from Johannesburg, he showed a trace of affection, while pointedly reminding Winston that he was an “expensive article” and minding him to keep his nose clean:
You cannot think how pleased I was to receive your interesting & well written letter & to learn that you were getting on well. I understand that Mr Welldon thinks you will be able to pass your examination into the army when the time comes. I hope it may be so, as it will be a tremendous pull for you ultimately….Here I have been examining gold mines & investing money in what I hope will be fortunate undertakings for I expect you and Jack will be a couple of expensive articles to keep as you grow older….I suppose this will just reach you as you are going home for the holidays. I hope you will have a good time at Banstead & that you and Jack will amuse yourself well. Give him my vy best love & tell him how glad I am to hear of his good place in the school. Perhaps he will write to me before long. Goodbye, take care of yourself and don’t give Mama any trouble. Ever yr most affte father RANDOLPH S. CHURCHILL
Lord Randolph made £7,000 from investments in South Africa, which he later spent touring the Far East.
His father wrote only four other letters: One refused Winston’s request for an extra week’s holiday; one to congratulate him on winning the fencing championship, and enclosed £2 to buy a present for his fencing instructor; one responded to a request for cash, £1 being grudgingly granted against an admonition to avoid bankruptcy through extravagance; and one advised of Lady Randolph’s recovery from peritonitis.
Winston’s mother, the second daughter of Leonard Jerome of New York, married Randolph in Paris on 15 April 1874. Churchill was probably thinking of his mother when he described Lucile, the wife of President Molara, in his only novel, Savrola:
…her life was a busy one. Receptions, balls and parties had filled the winter season with the unremitting labour of entertaining. Foreign princes had paid her homage, not only as the loveliest woman in Europe, but as a great political figure. Her salon was crowded with the most famous men from every country.
The marriage started off happily but the couple became estranged in the 1880s. Jennie probably had several lovers, but their numbers have been exaggerated and no historian really knows how many there were. The greatest was certainly Count Kinsky, an Austro-Hungarian diplomat who arrived in London in 1881. He rode to victory in the Grand National of 1883 on his own horse, Zoedone. (See “Becoming Winston Churchill,” page 26; also Finest Hour 98, “Lady Randolph in Winston’s Boyhood.” —Ed.)
In July 1891, Winston had an exeat from Harrow for the traditional cricket match against Eton. At his mother’s request he arrived at 18 Aldford Street, the house of his aunt Clara Frewen, to find Lady Randolph having breakfast with Kinsky, who then took him to a reception for Germany’s Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, at the Crystal Palace.
Winston had the time of his life. No grown-up except Mrs. Everest had ever taken him out for a treat. All the fire brigades in London paraded and drilled before the Emperor. There was a huge firework display. Winston was most impressed by the Count’s driving of his phaeton, which passed everything on the road. The Crystal Palace outing was very special; Winston kept a photograph of Zoedone on his wall at Sandhurst.
Jenny and the Count had intended to marry but he became impatient, and was finally engaged to a 23-year-old, Elisabeth, Countess Wolff Metternich. In November 1894, accompanying Randolph on his forlorn, illness-ridden tour of the East, she received a telegram from the Count, announcing his engagement. “I hate it,” she wrote to her sister Clara from the Bay of Bengal. “I shall return without a friend in the world & too old to make any more now….”
Winston’s Harrow career was second rate. Success at recitals and sport aside, his scholastic ability was rudimentary: he was uninterested in the subjects taught, except for English. It took him three attempts to enter Sandhurst, the final success owed to being coached by a “crammer.” The “Army Class,” at Harrow and at other public schools, was for the “thick ones.” Winston did not have a learning disability, nor was he obtuse. He simply refused to study what did not interest him.
In later life he began to appreciate his Harrow connection. Welldon, Amery, Trevelyan, Hicks,Meinerzhagen, Moore-Brabazon, Margesson and Lloyd, to name a few, were important at later stages of his career. He was fond of the School Songs, which he sang heartily during his visit to the School on 18 December 1940, and he returned for these into the 1960s.
Winston had little support from home. His father, until the Johannesburg letter, ignored him except for one visit. His mother was engrossed in a hectic social life and did not become his ardent ally until after he left Sandhurst. Her sons were not unloved, but not first in her priorities. If Lord and Lady Randolph had acted as traditional parents, making regular visits and showing interest in Winston’s progress, it is doubtful that much would have changed. He was a loner, intent only on his own convictions, and even at that young age very much the master of his destiny. Winston withstood private unhappiness, homesickness, reverses and repeated failures with courage, giving no outward signs of distress and maintaining a stiff upper lip. Perhaps this grounding at a tender age forged his legendary courage, enabling him to survive Gallipoli, Dunkirk, Singapore, and other disasters and disappointments.
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* An attack made upon each other by two fencers as an exercise or trial of skill.
**Tudor Risk was the First Superintendent of Gymnasium (1874-87).
***”The Letters of Junius,” published in the Public Advertiser between 1769 and 1822, attacked the government of George III with merciless invective and had a far-reaching effect and influence on the style and manner of English polemics. The author’s identity was never divulged but there were grounds to suspect Sir Philip Francis. Dublin-born and educated at St. Pauls School in London, he was a government employee at the War Office and in other State departments.
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