It was Easter in 1805, and Doctor Joseph Drury, aged fifty-five was stepping down from his position as Head Master of Harrow School. It was a post that he had held for some twenty years, and to great success – having gained much popularity amongst the students of the school. But his retirement meant a vacuum, one that had to be filled, and one that three hopefuls felt they were suited to do so.
The first and foremost candidate was Doctor Drury’s own son – Henry Drury. Of the three, Henry was the most popular – having enjoyed his father’s influential endorsement – and in the election race that followed, Henry’s support only continued to grow. His competition though, was Benjamin Evans, a tutor at the school, and Doctor George Butler – a tutor of Sidney College Cambridge.
With all capable, the board of governors was split in their support, and with their voting yielding no clear winner, the decision was left to the Archbishop of Canterbury – who, despite Drury’s popularity amongst the students of the boys’ of the school, chose Butler. What followed was a mutiny.
This was not the first of such mutinies to have taken place over the appointment of a Head Master at Harrow School, but, by and large, it remains perhaps the most explosive in the stories which emerged. Indeed, in the case of one such story, it was explosive in a rather literal sense. It is said that, in the wake of Butler’s success, some of the students plotted to sprinkle gunpowder along the path which Butler took to reach the Fourth Form Room so as to obliterate the newly appointed Head Master.
The individual seen as having been behind this plot was one George Gordon Byron – later Lord Byron, famous British poet and by many regarded as one of the greatest. Byron had not, initially, been involved in the election – at least not actively, anyway, possibly because of his ‘unhappy’ interactions with Mark Drury, Henry’s uncle.
But when the chief of the Drury faction stepped down, the young Byron found himself leading the campaign for Henry Drury’s headmastership. When Drury’s defeat in the elections became apparent, it is said that Byron was enraged, and – incentivised by Butler’s humane reforms, such as the confiscation of monitors’ canes (older students enjoyed beating their juniors with these) – plotted to have him removed.
However, much like the Guy Fawkes and company’s gunpowder plot two hundred years prior, Byron’s own scheme never came to fruition. The names which were carved into the panelling of the route to the Fourth Form Room – names carved by the boys’ revered forefathers – proved too great a price, as these too would be lost in any explosion that followed.
Yet, in a fit of anger, Byron is said to have ripped the iron gratings from Butler’s house, later claiming that he had done so because they had darkened the hall. Nonetheless, the plot was never carried through – and in the years that followed, Butler slowly gained support from those that had sought to oppose him, eventually even Byron himself, and went on to lead a highly successful headmastership until his retirement in 1829.
Though many have questioned the story’s truthfulness – it has been pointed out that the Harrow village chancery records, which are usually good for naming participants in local disturbances, says nothing of any rebellion at the school during this time, let alone any gunpowder plot – it remains an interesting story all the same. A rowdy, almost lethal political episode in the history of Harrow school and the borough itself, and an indicator for the sometimes violent passion that nineteenth century Harrow school students had for their prestigious institution.
It may be worth thinking about next time you walk down any one of the many local roads named after Harrow School teachers, some of which you may well have heard of, if not walked, before – be it Drury or Byron or Butler or otherwise.
However, if you would like to know more about Lord Byron, the story of his gunpowder plot, or the history of Harrow School, there are a number of books which you can check out. In particular, there is Paul Elledge’s Lord Byron at Harrow School: Speaking Out, Talking Back, Acting Up, Bowing Out, of which much of this article is indebted to.
However, there is also A History of Harrow School, 1324-1991 by Christopher Tyerman, Harold Bloom’s biography of Lord Byron, and Jason Thompson’s Sir Gardner Wilkinson and His Circle. All can be found online, and all offer intriguing insights into Harrow’s local history, shedding light on a number of Harrowvian stories – least of all the young George Byron’s fabled gunpowder plot of 1805, and the planned assassination of a Harrow School Head Master.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: ‘The Cardinal Manning Society’