1886-1890

Letter from Young Winston to Lady Randolph Featured Document from the Churchill Archives

Each month we feature a document from the Churchill Archives Centre at Cambridge University

Letter from a young Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill detailing his report from Harrow School

In 1888 the thirteen-year-old Winston Churchill was attending Harrow School, a prestigious boarding school in Middlesex, London. Although Churchill was an intelligent boy, his difficulty focusing on subjects he wasn’t interested in – such as Latin – meant he struggled with a poor academic record. He entered Harrow in the lowest class and with the lowest grades, much to the disappointment of his father. Churchill was, however, fascinated by geography and history and was considered one of the best history students in his division.

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Autumn 1890 (Age 16)

Lord and Lady Randolph were not confident that their son would pass the required examinations that could lead to his admission to Sandhurst. However, on 10 December Winston wrote and passed his “preliminary.” He had studied hard for it but he later attributed his success to a piece of good luck. “We knew that among other questions we should be asked to draw from memory a map of some country or other. The night before by way of final preparation I put the names of all the maps in the atlas into a hat and drew out New Zealand. I applied my good memory to the geography of that Dominion. Sure enough the first question in the paper was: ‘Draw a map of New Zealand.’ This was what is called at Monte Carlo an en plein, and I ought to have been paid thirty-five times my stake. However, I certainly got paid very high marks for my paper.”

He had other good luck: this was the last Sandhurst preliminary in which Latin was optional and the essay question was on the American Civil War, a topic he had discussed numerous times with his mother. Of twenty-nine Harrow candidates for this examination, only twelve passed all subjects. Winston enjoyed his success and knew that his parents would likewise be pleased, so he suggested to his mother that “a remittance would not be altogether misplaced.”
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Summer 1890 (Age 15)

Lord Randolph rented a summer place near Newmarket and the family enjoyed the success of the filly L’Abbesse de Jouarre. Family members gathered together but according to Shane Leslie, Winston’s cousin, “Winston had few admirers among adults except for his aunt Leonie, and his beloved old nurse Mrs. Everest. ” He simply refused to follow the usual rules of politeness to his elders.

But the children liked and followed him. The cousins spent their time digging out a fort in the garden called “The Den,” which was intended to protect them from the “enemies of their country.” Winston dominated the group and strictly enforcw two rules – he was always general and there were no promotions.

On returning to Harrow he received an admonition from his mother about his smoking and a promise that he would receive a gun and a pony if he ceased the habit. He did for a short time. He began work on his preliminary examinations for Sandhurst with the following “support” from his father: “I do hope you will work hard for yr ‘preliminary.’ It will be quite a disgrace to yourself and to Harrow if you were to fail.”
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Spring 1890 (Age 15)

Winston was pleased that his father’s racehorse, L’Abbesse de Jouarre, had won the Manchester Cup. He was not so pleased with the demands of the Army Class which required two hours of his time each day. As he put it: “Harrow is a charming place but Harrow and the Army Class don’t agree.” He would have preferred to take his military training in the militia. He received an admonishing letter from his mother. “You work in such a fitful in- harmonious way . . : 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 detemtined to do so – I am sure you could accomplish anything you wish.” Winston replied that his mother’s letter had “cut me up very much” and, once again, he promised to do his very best in what remained of the school term.
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Winter 1890 (Age 15)

Winston was ill much of the winter, first while visiting his parents for Christmas and then again back at Harrow. He gave the measles to his mother’s friend, Count Kinsky, who reminded him that the measles are much worse for grown-up people. His parents left for Monte Carlo from where they’sent their son some fresh oranges. He wrote his father that the Conservative Club had hopes of getting Lord Randolph to visit because the Liberal Club seemed to be so active. Although he was doing better in school a friend wrote that he had heard that Winston has having some difficulties and asked if he had yet had three canes broken over him.
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Autumn 1889 (Age 15)

Lord Randolph Churchill had decided that Winston should enter the Army. Mr. Welldon, the Headmaster, told Lord Randolph that Winston was not good enough to pass into Woolwich, the military academy for the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers, and that he should aim for Sandhurst, the school for infantry and cavalry.

In September Winston entered the Army Class at Harrow. Although his father visited him this term, the boy’s behaviour was not good. He was required to receive a weekly report from his teachers and show them to his tutor. He did not like this and asked his mother to “Jaw Welldon about keeping me on reports for such a long time.” She did but it did not provide him with the release he desired.

He also remained in contact with his first form-master, Mr. Somervell. In My Early Life he paid tribute to the latter’s teaching of the English language. Because of Mr. Somervell he wrote: “I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence – which is a noble thing. And when in after years my schoolfellows who had won prizes and distinction for writing such beautiful Latin poetry and pithy Greek epigrams had to come, down again to common English, to earn their living or make their way, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage. Naturally I am biased in favour of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English; and Greek as a treat. But the only thing I would whip them for is not knowing English. I would whip them hard for that….”
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Summer 1889 (Age 14)

From the time of his resignation Lord Randolph had been a somewhat unenthusiastic supporter of the Government but now the breech arrived. He had gradually lost most of his friends and supporters but everyone was happy to hear him speak in favour of the Government’s position on allowances for the children of the Prince of Wales. However, on 26 July he spoke out against those mainstays of the Tory party, the brewers, and thus alienated most of his remaining friends within the party.

“Podsnappery is rampant and rife in London…”

This was followed by an attack on Tory policy in Ireland. He said that Dickens’s character Mr. Podsnap typified the Tory attitude on Ireland. “Mr. Podsnap was a person in easy circumstances, who was very content with himself and was extremely surprised that all the world was not equally contented like him; and if anyone suggested to Mr. Podsnap that there were possible causes of discontent among the people Mr. Podsnap was very much annoyed … Podsnappery is rampant and rife in London, and I think this Podsnappery we ought to make a great effort to put down.”

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Spring 1889 (Age 14)

Winston had entered Harrow in the hope that he would be taken into Headmaster Welldon’s House. His immaturity had resulted in a longer stay than planned in another House but Welldon was now ready to receive him because “he has some great gifts and is making progress in his work.”

Winston pleaded with his father to visit Harrow but this was not to happen for another six months, which would be a total of 18 months from the time the boy entered the school. Lord Randolph did send his son enough money to purchase a bicycle, which led to a fall and a stay in the sick-room to recover from a slight concussion.

In My Early Life, Churchill writes of an incident which occurred about this time during a visit home and which was to profoundly influence his future. “The day came when my father himself paid a formal visit of inspection [of his son’s collection of toy soldiers]. All the troops were arranged in the correct formation of attack. He spent 20 minutes studying the scene – which was really impressive – with a keen eye and captivating smile. At the end he asked me if I would like to go into the Army, so I said “yes” at once: and immediately I was taken at my word. For years I thought my father with his experience and flair had discerned in me the qualities of military genius. But I was told later that he had only come to the conclusion that I was not clever enough to go to the Bar. However that may be, the toy soldiers turned the current of my life. Henceforward all my education was directed to passing into Sandhurst.”
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Winter 1888-89 (Age 14)

When Winston returned home for Christmas he became quite ill. His father hoped it was “nothing but biliousness and indigestion” but he did not recover until mid- January. “It was an awful rot spending one’s holidays in bed.” He again became ill and spent much of this term in the sickroom at Harrow.
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Autumn 1888 (Age 14)

At Harrow, Winston was showing the advantages of his prodigious memory and his love for history and literature. He entered a competition with boys older than he (some were 17) which required him to “learn and work up the notes in Merchant of Venice, Henry VIII and Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He finished fourth out of 25.

He wrote his mother about a lecture on the phonograph by Col Gouraud, a tall Yankee who had met his father: “It was very amusing he astonished all sober-minded People by singing into the Phonograph: ‘John Brown’s Body lies Mouldy in the grave, And his soul goes marching on, Glory, glory, glory Halleluja.’ And the Phonograph spoke it back in a voice that was clearly audible in the Speech Room.” [WSC’s spelling apparently still left a lot to be desired.]

He continued to be positive about his work. “I feel ‘working trim’ and expect many rises in my position.”
His mother visited him this term, and that was always an occasion of great happiness for Winston. He promised her that he would “be specially got up for the occasion. Nails, teeth, clothes, hair, boots, and person well brushed.”

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Summer 1888 (Age 13)

Winston did not have a successful term at Harrow School. The Assistant Master wrote Lady Randolph in July that her son was not ‘willfully troublesome; but his forgetfulness, carelessness, unpunctuality, and irregularity in every way, have really been serious” and requested that the matter be discussed at home. Even then, Winston was exhibiting a life-long habit of being “…regular in his irregularity.”

The teachers were, however, impressed by his ability and suggested that he ought to be at the top of his classes, whereas he was often at the bottom.” He is a remarkable boy in many ways, and it would be a thousand pities if such abilities were made useless by habitual negligence.” Winston’s defence was that he was “not lazy and untidy but careless and forgetful.”

His teachers were particularly pleased with his work in history and be was memorizing Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, and Shakespeare. He loved singing and claimed that he was one of the most prominent trebles in the school: “Of course I am so young that my voice has not yet broke and as trebles are rare I am one of the few.”

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Spring 1888 (Age 13)

Lord and Lady Randolph returned to England from a tour of Russia. His loyalty to the Tory Party was fragile and he was still greatly feared by Salisbury, Balfour and the Queen.

On 25 April Lord Randolph’s opposition to his own party came into the open. When Balfour spoke in favour of a Private Member’s Bill to extend Local Government in Ireland, Churchill was strongly critical of him. He thought he had the support of Joseph Chamberlain to oppose the Government but Chamberlain found the criticisms a little too sharp. Lord Randolph deeply resented what he considered a betrayal by his friend. When they made up, Chamberlain suggested that Lord Randolph must overcome his habit of making things so difficult for his friends.

In the main, Churchill remained silent in the House but it was apparent that he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with politics. When he was greeted by a supporter in St. James’s Park with the wish that he hoped to see him again in the Cabinet, Lord Randolph replied: “I sincerely hope that you will not.”

“I never write myself Spencer Churchill but always Winston S Churchill.”

Lord Salisbury remarked that among Churchill’s other problems, “his pecuniary position is very bad.” This assessment certainly did not inhibit young Winston Churchill from making frequent requests for money from his parents. On April 17 he entered Harrow School as a member of H.O.D. Davidson’s House. Within a week of arriving he wrote his mother for more money. “Most boys say they usually bring back £3 and write for more. . . Please send the money as soon as possible you promised me I should not be different to others.”

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Winter 1887-88 (Age 13)

With his parents on a tour of Russia, Winston spent Christmas at Connaught Place with Jack and Mrs. Everest. The Duchess of Marlborough invited him to Blenheim and was “much aggrieved” when he showed a reluctance to go. When Mrs. Everest came down with diphtheria the boys were taken to Dr. Roose’s house.

After they moved to the Duchess’ London home in January, their grandmother wrote their parents, “I keep Winston in good order as I know you like it. He is a clever Boy and really not naughty but he wants a firm hand.”

On 23 January he returned to his last term at Brighton. His grandmother looked forward to his eventual entrance to Harrow, “…for I fancy he was too clever and too much the Boss at that Brighton school.”

During February Winston claimed to be working hard for his forthcoming entrance exam for Harrow. On 15 March he took the examination. His own dramatic account of the event is found in My Early Life (Woods A37). He claimed that he was accepted only because the headmaster, Dr. Welldon, was a man “capable of looking beneath the surface of things: a man not dependent upon paper manifestations.”

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Autumn 1887 (Age 13)

The Headmaster of Harrow, the Rev. J.E.C. Welldon, promised to find a room for the boy “somewhere.” Although six generations of Marlboroughs had attended Eton, it was decided that Harrow-on-the-Hill would be a healthier environment for Winston after his recent bout of pneumonia. Winchester had also been considered but Winston was happy that Harrow had been selected because he anticipated that the entrance examination would be less demanding. He was also pleased that he would be near the top of his History class and his “Conduct Marks” were the best he had ever had.

Winston hoped that his parents would come down for his birthday, but Lord and Lady Randolph were busy preparing for a seven-week visit to Russia. This journey caused some anxiety in both Court and Cabinet circles. The Queen informed Lord Salisbury, “Think it of great importance that the Foreign Government and the country should know that Lord Randolph is going simply on a private journey in no way charged with any message or mission from the Government.” The Prime Minister assured Her Majesty that the “Charge d’Affaires at St. Petersburg has been instructed to let it be known that Lord R. Churchill does not represent opinions of either the Government or the country.”

Young Winston had his own concerns about his parents’ journey. Noting that he must now spend the holiday without them, he wrote that he would make the “Best of a bad job.”
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Summer1887 (Age 12)

London was adorned for the 50th anniversary of the reign of Queen Victoria. Young Winston wrote his mother that he hoped that she had not been looking for a letter from him because “I try to and think of sensible sentences for my letter but they are very hard to think of.” He had no trouble thinking of a subject. He was so excited at the prospect of seeing the Jubilee that he implored his mother to request permission from the school for him to journey to London. “I am looking forward to seeing Buffalow [sic] Bill, yourself, Jack, Everest, and home. I would sooner come home for the Jubilee and have no amusement at all than stay down here and have tremendous fun.”

He was particularly pleased to learn that his father had made tentative contacts regarding his admission to Harrow in the autumn. Lord Randolph was also attempting to form a new Centre party in alliance with disaffected Liberal, Joseph Chamberlain, and the Whig leader, Lord Hartington. The plans floundered on the lack of enthusiasm of Hartington, the refusal of Randolph’s close friend, Lord Rosebery, to join them, and the public disagreement between Chamberlain and Churchill. While the latter two continued their close personal friendship, they agreed to terminate their political alliance. When told that Randolph was attempting to start a new Centre party, one wit commented: “Yes, all centre and no circumference.”
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