Youth

The Young Writer – War Correspondent Churchill had early promise as a writer

Contrary to popular opinion (an opinion encouraged by Churchill himself in his autobiography, My Early Life), he was actually quite good at some subjects at school. He was particularly good at English and history, both subjects in which he showed considerable promise. This early promise was borne out when he became a war correspondent, sending dispatches back to London from far-flung parts of the Empire for newspapers. He was determined to get himself noticed and to get himself into politics – and, for an adventurous, reckless young man on a mission, this seemed as good a way as any. Between 1897 and 1900, with the help of his mother’s lobbying, he fought in three of Queen Victoria’s wars while doubling up as a war correspondent. He quickly turned all three experiences into books. His literary career was off to a flying start.

Launch of 16 Reports and Next Generation Leaders Panel Debate Churchill War Rooms, London, 13 October 2015

The Next Generation Leaders Panel Debate at the launch of the panel reports from the Global Leadership Programme. The launch took place at the Churchill War Rooms in London on 13 October 2015.

Panel includes: Manveen Rana, Aurelie Buytaert, Emmeline Carr, Georgia Baker, Shreya Das, Olly Rees, Matt Smith, James Everson, Lilidh Matthews, Georgia Snyder, Ben Ryan, and James Dolan.

School Years Churchill, like many children, excelled at the subjects that interested him

Young Winston Churchill

© Churchill Archives, Broadwater Collection

A few weeks before his eighth birthday, in 1882, Churchill – like many other children of his class and background – was sent away to boarding school. The school was St George’s, near Ascot, Berkshire. Like lots of schoolchildren, Churchill didn’t like school. Churchill later wrote about his schooldays: ‘It appeared that I was to go away from home for many weeks at a stretch in order to do lessons under masters… After all I was only seven, and I had been so happy in my nursery with all my toys. I had such wonderful toys … Now it was to be all lessons …’

He was unhappy from the start, initially probably no unhappier than many children sent away to school at the time, although ‘floggings’ (beatings) were common. But the discipline of school life didn’t suit his independent spirit.

After only two years at St George’s, he was sent to a school in Brighton, run by the two Misses Thomson (The Misses Thomson’s Preparatory School), where he learned things that interested him such as French, history, poetry, riding a horse and swimming.

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Leaving Harrow

Churchill in the dress uniform of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars

Churchill in the dress uniform of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, c. 1895. © Churchill Archives, Broadwater Collection

In 1892, when Churchill was 17, he won the Public Schools fencing championship, presaging his future career as a fighting man. Generally, however, his other achievements at school didn’t seem to suggest an academic future. His parents decided that he wasn’t university material and instead they wanted him to try to enter the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and the military career for which he had already shown an inclination.

He left Harrow in 1892 and went to a ‘crammer’ to help him pass the entrance exam, which he eventually did on the third attempt in 1893. Churchill’s poor maths meant he couldn’t join the artillery and engineers, and he didn’t do well enough in the final exam to qualify for the infantry, much to his father’s disappointment. Against his father’s wishes, he qualified for a cavalry cadetship (the cavalry was more expensive than the infantry; the family would need to buy one or two costly ‘hunters’, polo ponies).

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Harrow School Churchill began at Harrow School in April 1888

On 17 April 1888, Churchill went to Harrow School, an independent boarding school for boys founded in 1572 under a Royal Charter granted by Elizabeth I, in London.

He joined Head Master’s Boarding House, said to date from 1650.

Here, he wasn’t particularly happy and he didn’t particularly excel. However, Churchill’s ability to memorise lines, which he later used when he first made public speeches, was already apparent. While at Harrow, he entered a competition and won a school prize for reciting from memory 1,200 lines from Macaulay’s long poem, Lays of Ancient Rome – a quite remarkable achievement.

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The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.

At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.