Sunday, December 16, 2018

DAY 37: Winston's School Days

Winston Churchill in the Dress Uniform of the 4th Queen's Own Hussars

Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was a duke's grandson raised during the height of Victoria's reign. His father was a younger son, however, which meant Lord Randolph held a courtesy title. Winston was technically a commoner, not a member of the English nobility. In practice, however, the distinction was meaningless; Winston was a born aristocrat forced to endure a gentleman's education. By the unspoken rules of his time and place, he was turned over at birth to a nanny--Mrs. Everest--who over saw his toddler years and was as dear, or dearer to him, than his mother Jennie.

Mrs. Everest, Winston Churchill's nanny

Winston called Everest "Woom," or "Woomany," which was apparently a child's lisping version of woman (although some Freudianists have a more involved explanation.) She ruled his early life until he was subjected to the next ritual experience of Victorian childhood--being sent away to school. 

For Winston, this occurred a few months before he turned eight, when he was enrolled at St. George's School in Ascot. It had only been open for five years at that point, and specialized in the instruction of boys in Latin and Greek. In his memoir, My Early Life, Winston describes it as “one of the most fashionable and expensive in the country. It modelled itself upon Eton and aimed at being preparatory for that Public School. It was supposed to be the very latest thing in schools; only ten boys in a class; electric light; a swimming pond; spacious football and cricket grounds; a chapel of its own.”

St. George's School, Ascot, now a school for girls.
Winston's father, Lord Randolph; his uncle, the Marquis of Blandford; and six generations of Spencer-Churchills before Winston were Old Etonians. They had then gone up to Oxford--in Randolph's case, Merton College. Starting life at St. George's seemed like a natural and inevitable prelude to the Marlborough way of life.

But Winston hated St. George's, and St. George's had no love for him. The headmaster, The Reverend Herbert William Sneyd-Kynnersley, was a sadist who delighted in caning and whipping boys. Winston disliked being forced to learn. He was poor at mathemathics and miserable at Latin. The combination of sadist and rebel was incendiary. Everest discovered scores of healing weals and scars on Winston's back from the boy's daily floggings. When Jennie saw them, she withdrew Winston from the school.

Win went to a much gentler establishment from 1883-1885--the Misses Thompson School in Brighton. Here, he was spared Latin for instruction in poetry and French. A pattern began to emerge--Winston excelled at writing, recitation, and history; he fared poorly at everything else. His father, Lord Randolph, believed firmly that Winston was dull-witted; he barely knew the boy, but failure in Latin was indication enough. The vast majority of Members of Parliament at the time were, like Randolph, products of elite public schools and privileged families; Latin was in frequent use in Parliamentary debate. It was a necessary prerequisite to Oxford or Cambridge. Randolph could not conceive of his son succeeding at University or having a career in politics without mastery of the dead language. He decided Winston should pursue a military career instead--and refused to "put him down," or register him, for Eton.

Harrow School

Winston in the Harrow Rifle Corps, 1890
Accordingly, Winston went to the next best alternative, in Jennie Churchill's mind--Harrow. He enrolled in the Spring Term of 1888, at the age of thirteen, and fared no better in his Latin or French. In fact, Winston was the lowest ranked boy in the lowest term--and as the boys queued for everything at Harrow in order of rank, he was last in line throughout his first term. 

"You work in such a fitful in-harmonious way," Jennie wrote to Winston at Harrow. "...your work is an insult to your intelligence. If you would only trace out a plan of action for yourself and carry it out and be determined to do so – I am sure you could accomplish anything you wish." Jennie's criticism always wounded Win; he wrote back that her letter had "cut him up very much," and promised to work harder. Over the course of four and half years at Harrow, he won prizes for recitation, became the Public School Champion of England in Fencing, joined the Rifle Corps, and enrolled in the Army Class--which was intended to prepare him for Sandhurst, the Royal Military College. Army Class boys were relieved of the chore of learning Latin. In My Early Life, Winston credits his constant work in English--the Army Class's Latin alternative--for his lifelong mastery of the written and spoken word.

Royal Military College, Sandhurst

Winston got lucky on his first "preliminary" exam to qualify for Sandhurst, which he took at Harrow in 1890--the essay was on the American Civil War, which Jennie had lived through as a child and had often discussed with her son. He passed out of Harrow in 1892 and spent the following months "cramming" for the Sandhurst entrance exam, which he succeeded in passing on his third attempt. 

Winston Churchill 1898, South Africa
He arrived at the Royal Military College in 1893, near the bottom of his class of 150 men, but he left Sandhurst in December 1894 ranked eighth in his class--the first time in his life he was an unqualified success at school. It turned out that Randolph Churchill was not far wrong: his rebel son loved everything about military life, was a formidable cavalry officer with his sabre skills, and had a natural sense of command. All of that would carry him forward through several skirmishes on various continents, escape from a prison camp in South Africa, and two world wars. 

What would have astonished Lord Randolph, had he lived to witness it, was Winston success in Parliament despite his lack of Latin and an Oxbridge degree. He remains the only graduate of Sandhurst to have served as Prime Minister of Great Britain--something his father never achieved.

For more images from THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN, visit the  Pinterest board behind the novel. 

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