The Story of Harrow’s Historic School

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With the summer term of the academic year coming to a close in the next few weeks, it seems an apt time to look into the school that, across the world, the borough is known for. Even if most of us have never attended the school in any formal fashion, its history in the local area is as expansive as it is interesting, and exceedingly wide-ranging in its impact.

Despite its status in the present, when Harrow School was founded in the sixteenth century, it was done so by a local farmer by the name of John Lyon (a name which is no doubt familiar to many – more on this shortly) who rather simply sought to provide classical education for the local boys. Of course, at this time formal education of any kind was in itself a privilege that scarce few enjoyed, but nonetheless, initially, for the thirty parish boys who gained entrance to the school, their tuition fees were made free by Lyon’s endowment.

Yet as part of the royal charter which gave Lyon permission to found the school, a proviso was included. This stated that Lyon would have to create a separate endowment to maintain two roads which led into London some ten miles away. In the early years of the school’s history, this would appear to have eaten up much of Lyon’s efforts – with the maintenance of the road getting the better share of Lyon’s assets when he passed away in 1592.  Following his death, the school continued to carry out this maintenance – even when the first school building was finally completed in 1615, almost half a century after the royal charter was first given – and today it commemorates this part of the school’s history with an annual run along the 10 mile road every November, called the “Long Ducker.”

The school continued to implement the policy of free education for local parish boys after Lyon’s death too – though this was increasingly offset by the pupils taken on from outside the parish. These “foreigners,” as they came to be called, began to pose a problem for the school as the years progressed, with more and more foreign pupils being taken on so as to generate more funds. By 1701, the ratio between foreign pupils and local ones was two to one, and this eventually prompted the establishment of the John Lyon School to fulfil what had been Lyon’s original intentions. This also saw the creation of the Harrow Foundation, which now provides an estimated £5 million a year to projects benefiting young people in nine boroughs across London, Harrow included among them.

In the years that followed, the school continued to grow, its reputation with it – and this reached its peak in the nineteenth century, when the school became a popular choice for the national, and sometimes global, aristocracy. It was in this period that the school began to produce some of its most famous and significant alumni. Some of these include those that we have looked at already in weeks’ passed – such as the now famous poet Lord Byron, who during his time at the school was implicated in a gunpowder plot against the headmaster at the time. Other famous alumni include figures known now practically mythical – such as Winston Churchill, who, though perhaps the school’s most famous alumni, would appear to have struggled during his time at the school. The young Churchill seemingly found little interest in the classical studies the school emphasised, leading to poor exam results that served only to anger his father and fuel a further divide between them.

However, there are other famous individuals to have come from the school too – such as Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the leaders of India’s independence movement in the twentieth century who came to serve as the country’s first Prime Minister. His time at Harrow can be seen to have been highly significant in formulating the ideas that would make him such a central figure to the independence movement, with he having been greatly influenced by G.M. Trevelyan’s Garibaldi books during his time at the school – Nehru having come to see Garibaldi as an inspiring, revolutionary hero who could be taken with him to India’s struggles – fuelling his political ambitions that would eventually help reshape a nation.

It’s more than fair to say, then, that though the school’s history is rooted in the local, its reach extends far beyond it. From the rather humble beginnings in the hands of a local wealthy farmer, Harrow School has grown over the centuries into a world-renown institution which has produced some of the most notable figures in history both recent and not-so-recent, and with which the borough as a whole has been made famous for. It’s something to perhaps be proud of, and something, certainly, to think on when you see the school looming on our famous hill.

 

Written by Harry Turner.

Image Credit: Building Panoramics            

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