Though not without his controversies, Churchill, rightly or wrongly, is easily one of the most famous figures to have emerged from Harrow – if not the most famous – and with the introduction of the new five pound note last week, we have but another reminder of how pervasive his image remains. Yet with so much of the man that is Churchill – in many ways more an idea than a man now – defined by the war, often the years after, and especially before, are overlooked, the latter of which took place in our very borough.
Churchill’s time at our famous school offers an interesting, and different, insight into the person who continues to be seen as one of the most famous and impressive statesman that this country has ever produced.
Though born in Oxfordshire in November 1874, Churchill spent most of his early childhood in Dublin, Ireland, where his grandfather had been appointed Viceroy, and where his father had been employed as a private secretary. Churchill’s prestigious lineage was to prove a considerable influence over his years growing up – with the young Churchill often struggling in his education to live up to his already nationally-renown namesake, and in particular his father’s lofty yet distant shadow. Churchill’s first exposure to education of any kind, in which the seeds of his later struggles can perhaps be seen, occurred during his time in Dublin, where his governess attempted to teach him reading, writing and arithmetic. His first book perhaps tellingly bore the name Reading Without Tears.
In the years that followed, Churchill would attend two independent schools – in Berkshire and Brighton respectively – before arriving in Harrow in 1887. It should be stressed that Churchill was by all means a smart child, and in the years he spent at Harrow he grew in particular to love the English language, as well as history. Yet at the time, Harrow School placed much greater emphasis on the likes of Latin and mathematics, the former of which Churchill was considerably less competent in. In his initial Latin exams, the young Churchill found himself spending two hours staring at a paper, ultimately being able to answer only one question. As Churchill himself later reflected, ‘I should have liked to be asked to say what I knew. They always tried to ask what I did not know. When I would have willingly displayed my knowledge, they sought to expose my ignorance. This sort of treatment had only one result: I did not do well in examinations.’
Nevertheless, Churchill made it into the prestigious school – a feat to which he credited to the headmaster Mr. Welldon, who took well to Churchill’s ability beyond the field of Latin – doing so under the name Spencer-Churchill. Yet his time at the school was to prove challenging in many respects – least of all for the mockery he faced at the hands of other Harrow pupils, who, no doubt aware of Churchill’s lineage, often took delight in highlighting how Churchill was at the bottom end of classes like Latin. The phrase ‘Why, he’s last of all!’ became a common saying, according to Churchill, and throughout his time at the school, the young Churchill would often write letters to his mother begging her to either visit, which she rarely did, or allow him to come home.
That said, not all of Churchill’s time at the school was quite so taxing. One aspect of Harrowvian life that Churchill came to enjoy, at least in retrospect, was the traditional school songs – which Churchill made a point of attending when he returned to the school at the height of his career during the war. During this visit, Churchill asked the boys to sing a song that had fallen out of favour in the years since his schooling – a song by the name of “Giants,” which, perhaps rather appropriately, concerns the uncertainty of whether the boys can measure up to the people who came before. Considering Churchill specifically asked for this song, during the most tentative episode of his political career, it is likely this song was of importance to Churchill – and considering his distant yet intimidating relationship with his father during his time at Harrow, it is perhaps not difficult to see why.
‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’ is the Churchill quote which marks the new five pound note currently in circulation. Out of the hundreds of quotable things that Churchill said over his lifetime, it is significant that this was what was chosen – and it could not be more appropriate. As the famous statesman’s time at Harrow shows, from the start Churchill found himself struggling; struggling in a system that did not give proper appreciation to the intelligence that he undeniably displayed, struggling to both meet and escape the high expectations placed on him because of his lineage.
Winston Churchill’s life has a number of lessons undoubtedly, yet when it comes to Harrow there is perhaps only one that matters: that no matter what you can and cannot do, no matter what you have to do, there will always be something you excel at, whether the system you find yourself in acknowledges it or not.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: Harrow School