Schools: Harrow School

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 1, Physique, Archaeology, Domesday, Ecclesiastical Organization, the Jews, Religious Houses, Education of Working Classes To 1870, Private Education From Sixteenth Century. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1969.

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'Schools: Harrow School', in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 1, Physique, Archaeology, Domesday, Ecclesiastical Organization, the Jews, Religious Houses, Education of Working Classes To 1870, Private Education From Sixteenth Century, (London, 1969) pp. 299-302. British History Online [accessed 11 April 2024]


Harrow School

Azure a lion rampant in dexter chief two arrows in saltire points downward tied in the centre with a bow and enfiled with a wreath laurel all argent[Granted 1929]

In February 1572 John Lyon, a yeoman of Preston in Harrow, secured from Elizabeth I a charter to re-found a free grammar school for the boys of the parish of Harrow, to send two scholars to Cambridge and two to Oxford, and to improve the highways between Edgware and London. (fn. 1) These intentions were amplified by Lyon's 'Orders, Statutes and Rules' (often called his will) drawn up in 1591. The schoolmaster was to be at least an M.A. and the usher a B.A., with salaries of £20 and £10 respectively, which were to be increased to 40 marks and 20 marks if Lyon left no heir. The schoolmaster might also teach fee-paying 'foreigners' provided that this did not adversely affect the children of the parish. Texts were prescribed for each of the five forms. There was to be no playtime except sometimes on fine Thursdays; church attendance was compulsory, but punishment with the rod was permitted only 'moderately' on pain of dismissal. No English was to be spoken above the First Form; two monitors were to be appointed to report (but not to punish) these and other faults, and a third was secretly to watch the other two. Parents were to provided paper, ink, pens, books, candles, and bows and arrows. (fn. 2)

On the death of Lyon's widow in 1608 the Governors elected Anthony Rate to be master, although he does not appear to have been a university graduate and did not draw the full salary. In 1615 a new school building (the west wing of the present Old Schools) was ready; the Revd. William Lance, was appointed master with his brother Thomas as usher, the son of the vicar became the first recorded pupil, and the school settled down to follow the pattern provided in the Statutes. (fn. 3) The first notable Harrovian was William Baxter (1650-1723), a nephew of Richard Baxter the nonconformist divine, and a Welsh speaker at the time of his admission. (fn. 4) William Horne, headmaster 1669-85, the first of several Etonians to hold office, appears to have been successful. A letter written by a boy's mother in 1682 reveals that there were then about 120 boys and many boarding houses; in the master's house the fee for board and schooling was £22, but in a dame's boarding house only £14. During Horne's time a playing field was purchased, the school yard levelled, and the Silver Arrow archery competition instituted. (fn. 5)

Under Thomas Brian (1691-1730), another Etonian, the school continued to flourish, although there was a period of depression towards the end of Anne's reign. With the accession of George I in 1714 Harrow became popular with the Whig aristocracy, since Tory Eton was suspected of Jacobitism. Harrow also enjoyed the patronage of James Brydges, later Duke of Chandos, a man of outstanding business capacity and a governor from 1713 to 1740, but the same period saw the number of free scholars decline to 14, while the Lyon exhibitions at the universities were often held by non-Harrovians or not at all. (fn. 6) The Revd. Dr. James Cox, usher under Brian, was appointed to succeed him, but according to the governors' minute he led a disorderly, drunken, idle life, and by 1746, when his debts forced him to abscond, numbers were down to 46. (fn. 7)

In this crisis the governors appointed Dr. Thomas Thackeray, an Etonian and former Eton master whose strong Whig sympathies had made him unwelcome there. Numbers rose, additional masters were appointed, a further playing field was secured, and there was some reform of the curriculum, although this last improvement was only made possible by allowing assistant masters and even independent tutors to charge fees for private lessons in nonclassical subjects. Naturally this widened the breach between the foreigners (boarders, who were not local boys) and the foundationers, since few of the latter could afford the fees. Moreover, Thackeray fostered his connexions with the Whig nobility by granting special privileges to aristocratic pupils, an indulgence which led to slack discipline and later to a decline in numbers. (fn. 8) Robert Sumner (1760-71), Thackeray's successor, incurred the wrath of some influential parents by curtailing these privileges, but discipline improved, the staff was increased to seven, some recognition was given to the private tutors, and numbers rose to over 230, partly as a result of the Eton rebellion of 1768. (fn. 9) In 1755 a boy paid £7 for half a year's board, or £12 8s. 7d. including all outgoings, and the total cost of his seven and a half years at Harrow was £206; but in 1770 another boy paid £21 and £40 six months later. (fn. 10)

On Sumner's early death in 1771 Benjamin Heath, another Eton master, was appointed. The governors passed over the claims of Samuel Parr, an Harrovian, Sumner's assistant and expected successor. Parr was young, without a degree, a supporter of Wilkes, and-perhaps worst of all-poor; but he had the enthusiastic support of the boys who, resenting the continued dependence on Eton, petitioned the governors in Parr's favour and destroyed one governor's carriage. The petitioners claimed that 'as we are most of us independent of the foundation we presume that our inclinations ought to have some weight in the determination of your choice'. Heath quickly restored order and in the following year instituted speech days to replace the archery contests which had attracted unruly crowds from London and disorganized the school. In 1775 the VI Form appeared in the school lists for the first time, but the number of free scholars fell to seven or eight. (fn. 11)

Heath was succeeded by his assistant and brotherin-law Joseph Drury (1785-1805), whose pupils momentarily outnumbered those of Eton and included five future prime ministers, the poet Byron, and many other aristocrats and men of letters. (fn. 12)

The appointment of George Butler (1805-29) to succeed Drury provoked another rebellion of which Byron, now a monitor, was a leader. It is said that a proposal to blow up the new headmaster was abandoned because it would have involved the destruction of panelling on which the boys' predecessors had carved their names. (fn. 13) In 1808 there was a third rebellion when Butler resisted the claims of the monitors to beat offenders with as much severity as they thought fit, confiscated their canes, and declared their claim to inflict corporal punishment a usurpation. (fn. 14) The rebels held the Fourth Form Room against the authorities and barricaded the London Road. Butler acted vigorously: he expelled the ringleaders, stopped blanket tossing and other ill-treatment, and restricted abuses of the fagging system. (fn. 15) He promoted scholarship, encouraged the writing and public speaking of Greek, Latin, and English verse, and introduced some science, French, and Italian as extras. He also extended the buildings, added the east wing to the Old Schools, erected the clock, enlarged the yard, and made a pool called Ducker the official bathing-place. Nevertheless he allowed the school routine to be repeatedly interrupted by holidays to celebrate victories in the Peninsula, saints' days, and political events. The boys seem to have spent this free time exploding gunpowder, firing cannon, and rambling in the surrounding countryside. (fn. 16) At this period a cricket match against Eton became a more or less annual event. (fn. 17)

In 1806 the parishioners attempted to reassert the rights of local boys against the foreigners; they complained of bullying and ill-treatment, of the expense of books and clothing, of the corrupting influence of the wealthy non-foundationers, and of the limited value of the classical education offered, but in 1810 judgement was delivered in Chancery in favour of the governors. (fn. 18) Anthony Trollope, a foundationer 1823-6 and 1831-4, suffered many humiliations, and Charles Merivale, later to become Dean of Ely, said he felt for years the 'social inferiority' impressed on him at Harrow. (fn. 19)

Dr. Longley (later Archbishop of Canterbury), the next headmaster, failed to stem the decline in both discipline and numbers which had begun under Butler and which continued under Dr. Christopher Wordsworth (1836-44), nephew of the poet. Wordsworth attempted to bring about reforms, but his impatience and tactlessness aroused widespread opposition. He legalized fagging by reducing its rules to writing, appointed J. W. Colenso to teach a widened mathematical curriculum, (fn. 20) and built the first school chapel, but his high church leanings offended the Evangelicals, including Peel, who sent his younger sons to Eton. Wordsworth's good intentions failed to restrain brutal practices; according to C. S. Roundell, head of the school 1845-6, 'we were extremely expert at stone-throwing; no dog could live in the street'. (fn. 21)

Dr. C. J. Vaughan (1845-59), a pupil of Arnold at Rugby, was appointed headmaster at the age of 28 and was welcomed by Robert Grimston, the embodiment of the Harrow tradition, as 'one who is able and willing to carry out the Arnold system of education'. (fn. 22) A scholar and administrator, he enforced discipline without friction, attracted a strong and able staff, and increased the number of boys from under 70 to over 460. He rebuilt the chapel, founded the rifle corps, improved Ducker, and extended the playing fields; (fn. 23) nevertheless, Augustus Hare, the artist and writer and a pupil in 1847-8, although denying that he himself was ill-treated, speaks of bullying, excessive fagging, and repeated beatings. The Platt-Stewart case, arising from an incident in a football match after which Stewart received 31 strokes from Platt, a prefect, resulted in a public controversy involving Palmerston, the Home Secretary and an Old Harrovian. (fn. 24)

In 1849 the governors rejected an appeal by the parishioners for the foundation of a commercial school, but Vaughan established one at his own expense 'to meet the wants of a class of residents who may not desire for their sons a high classical education and who are reasonably unwilling to confound the mutual division of ranks by sending them to the National School'. This 'English Form', as it was called, was established in an old coach-house well away from the main school. Latin was both compulsory and free, but for other subjects parents had to pay a fee of £5 a year, provide books, and relinquish their sons' privileges as Lyon scholars; on no account were the boys to mix with those of the 'higher schools'. (fn. 25) At the same time well-to-do parents moved into the Harrow district to enable their sons to enjoy these same privileges-an attraction sometimes referred to in estate agents' advertisements. (fn. 26)

Vaughan thought it a mistake to stay too long and in 1859 he resigned, having in fifteen years restored the fortunes of Harrow. (fn. 27) The Vaughan Library, opened in 1863, is a permanent memorial of his headmastership. His successor was the Revd. Montagu Butler (1860-85), son of the former headmaster. At this period the public schools were subjected to a good deal of criticism and a Royal Commission was appointed under the chairmanship of Lord Clarendon. The evidence given by Butler and other members gives a detailed account of the school's organization, curriculum, and discipline. The governors apparently left the headmaster in complete control, paying him only his official salary of £50 a year, but capitation fees, the profits from his boarding-house, and other sources made his income up to about £10,000 gross or £6,000 net; from this he was expected to contribute to the maintenance and improvement of the school buildings. All the foundationers were sons of the 'higher classes', but there were 24 tradesmen's sons in the English Form. Mathematics and modern languages were compulsory, but the marks gained in these subjects counted for much less than those gained in the classics. History consisted mainly of holiday reading and physical science formed no part of the regular course. All compositions were looked over by the tutor before being shown to the form-master, and only classical masters could be tutors. One witness G. F. Harris, the Under Master, was unaware how or in whose presence punishments were inflicted in his own house, but he considered the accommodation 'infamous'-ventilation was bad and his house had no bathroom for the boys. No witnesses represented the parishioners of Harrow. (fn. 28) The Commission proposed that class distinction should be eliminated by abolishing the privilege of free education and the preference given to Harrowborn boys in the award of university scholarships; for local boys an entirely separate school was to be provided to accommodate the English Form. Despite the objections of the parishioners (fn. 29) the Public Schools Act became law in 1868. An enlarged and more authoritative governing body was set up, the old constitution was abrogated, new statutes were drawn up, and the Lower School of John Lyon, opened in June 1876, replaced the English Form. (fn. 30)

Butler encouraged higher standards of learning by introducing entrance scholarships, offering an increased number of prizes, and superannuating dullards. He also allowed E. E. Bowen to establish the Modern Side, but the abler boys were still persuaded to keep to the classics; Bowen himself resented the increasing regimentation of later Victorian public school education, and did not consider that the house, any more than the school, was a fitting altar on which the individual should be sacrificed. Bowen is best remembered for his songs which, set to music by John Farmer, the school organist, enshrined Harrow life and tradition. 'Willow the King' (1867), 'Forty Years On' (1872), and many others, to which later authors and composers have added, form a unique collection of school songs. (fn. 31) One of the changes of this period was the gradual transfer of the responsibilities for house and school government from boys who excelled in study to those who excelled in sport, especially cricket. This was partly the result of the enthusiasm of Robert Grimston and Frederick Ponsonby, Earl of Bessborough, who from 1829 to 1884 spent much of their spare time in summer coaching the Sixth Form Game. (fn. 32)

The Revd. J. E. C. Welldon (headmaster 1885-98, and later Bishop of Calcutta and Dean of Durham), a powerful preacher and stern disciplinarian, had a personal and individual interest in the boys, all of whom he knew by name. He reorganized the timetable to allow more specialization, made Greek optional, encouraged Sixth Formers to enter for Civil Service and other competitive examinations, and increased the amount of class teaching. These changes aroused some opposition among both boys and masters, and in 1893 Bowen resigned his position as head of the Modern Side. In 1885 the governors initiated an important change of policy when they began to acquire the boarding-houses which had hitherto been run as private ventures by their housemasters. (fn. 33) Dr. Joseph Wood (headmaster 1899-1910) introduced no great educational changes, but successfully maintained and developed a high standard of scholarship, although latterly discipline slackened and numbers fell. The periods of Welldon and Wood are contrasted in two novels by Old Harrovians-H. A. Vachell's The Hill (1905), which gives an idealized picture of school life, and Sir Arnold Lunn's The Harrovians, said to be based on his diary, in which the atmosphere is one of submission to the tyranny of athletes and bloods. (fn. 34) Wood's most enduring memorial is the 250 acres around the school which he preserved from the speculative builder, partly by generous contributions from his own salary. (fn. 35)

Lionel Ford (1910-25) insisted on hard work; after the innovation of a Board of Education inspection he reorganized the timetable and abandoned the traditional pupil-room system. He introduced Spanish and Economics, and in 1917 abolished the distinction between the Classical and Modern Sides, introducing a number of specialized sixth forms. He erected the War Memorial Building and began the demolition of the shops on the west side of the High Street to the south of the School Yard, completely transforming the central area of the school and creating the present vista. (fn. 36)

His successor, Dr. (afterwards Sir) Cyril Norwood (1926-34), already a leading educationalist, strengthened the classical teaching, but at the same time widened the curriculum. He also completed the gradual process by which houses and their housemasters came under the direct control of the school. Another innovation was the introduction of rugby football as the official game for the Christmas term and the relegation of Harrow football to the Easter term, a change confirmed by the majority in a ballot of the whole school. Norwood was succeeded by P. C. Vellacott (1934-9), afterwards Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge. During the difficult period 1940-2 A. P. Boissier, an assistant master, was appointed head. Numbers declined because of the dangers of air attack and four houses were closed; these were occupied from 1942 to 1945 by Malvern College, whose own building had been requisitioned. A clock on the school stores commemorates this association. Dr. R. W. Moore was headmaster from 1942 until his death in 1953, and was succeeded by Dr. R. L. James. (fn. 37) In 1962 there were about 660 boys in the school, of whom about half were pursuing post-Ordinary-Level G.C.E. courses; in the Sixth Form the classicists and historians still outnumbered the scientists and mathematicians.

Seven Old Harrovians have become prime ministers, the most famous of them Sir Winston Churchill. (fn. 38) Nineteen have been awarded the Victoria Cross, and six the Order of Merit. (fn. 39)


  • 1. The phrase de novo erigere is ambiguous, but there is evidence for the existence of an earlier school. The foundation date of 1571 arose from a misunderstanding in the early 19th cent.: E. D. Laborde, Harrow School Yesterday and Today, 20-24, 216-25.
  • 2. Ibid. 226-40.
  • 3. Ibid. 27-28.
  • 4. P. M. Thornton, Harrow School and its Surroundings, 92; D.N.B.
  • 5. Laborde, Harrow Sch. 34-35.
  • 6. Ibid. 36; Thornton, Harrow Sch. 108-13; P. H. M. Bryant, Harrow, 22.
  • 7. Laborde, Harrow Sch. 37; Thornton, Harrow Sch. 115-26; E. W. Howson and G. T. Warner, Harrow Sch. 36.
  • 8. Laborde, Harrow Sch. 38-40; Thornton, Harrow Sch. 121-30.
  • 9. Laborde, Harrow Sch. 40-43; Thornton, Harrow Sch. 152; V. Ogilvie, English Public Schools, 107; Bryant, Harrow, 28; V.C.H. Bucks. ii. 200.
  • 10. G. E. Eland, Shardeloes Papers, 76; M. E. Ingram, Leaves from a Family Tree, 87.
  • 11. Laborde, Harrow Sch. 43; Thornton, Harrow Sch. 124, 165-78; Works of Samuel Parr, ed. J. Johnstone, 11-12, 59-60; eyewitness accounts of rebellion and ending of archery competition in Ingram, Leaves from a Family Tree, 90-93, 97-98.
  • 12. Thornton, Harrow Sch. 196-208, 434-5. Byron called Drury 'the best and worthiest friend I ever possessed' (Childe Harold, canto iv, stanza 75, note); Byron played in the first cricket match against Eton in 1805 (Works, ed. Protheroe, i. 70-71) and the Peachey Stone is in Harrow churchyard.
  • 13. Laborde, Harrow Sch. 46; T. Moore, Life of Byron, 29.
  • 14. Parr supported Butler in this view: letter in Vaughan Libr.
  • 15. Laborde, Harrow Sch. 40, 46, 179; Howson and Warner, Harrow Sch. 66; Bryant, Harrow, 28-29.
  • 16. G. T. Warner, Harrow in Prose and Verse, 93-111; Thornton, Harrow Sch. 229-31.
  • 17. Laborde, Harrow Sch. 192; Howson and Warner, Harrow Sch. 69; Thornton, Harrow Sch. 239, 319-20; C. Wordsworth, Annals of My Early Life, 10; V.C.H. Bucks. ii. 202.
  • 18. R. Ackerman, History of the Colleges . . . with the Schools of . . . Harrow, 12; Thornton, Harrow Sch. 230, 327; F. Vesey, Chancery Cases, xvii. 498-507; T. F. May, 'Relations Between Harrow School and the Parishioners in the Nineteenth Century' (Exeter Univ. Dissertation, 1962), 10-24.
  • 19. A. Trollope, Autobiography, i. 16; C. Merivale, Autobiography, 36.
  • 20. Afterwards, as Bishop of Natal, the centre of religious controversy.
  • 21. Howson and Warner, Harrow Sch. 82-100; Laborde, Harrow Sch. 50, 91-92; Thornton, Harrow Sch. 280; J. G. C. Minchin, Old Harrow Days, 94-98; J. H. Overton and E. Wordsworth, Christopher Wordsworth, 80-86. There was still some stone-throwing towards the end of Vaughan's headmastership: P. M. Thornton, Some Things We Have Remembered, 131-3.
  • 22. The Times, 3 Mar. 1845.
  • 23. Howson and Warner, Harrow Sch. 108-14; Laborde, Harrow Sch. 52-54; Thornton, Harrow Sch. 286.
  • 24. Augustus J. C. Hare, Story of My Life, 215-28, 241-2; Thornton, Harrow Sch. 290, 448-50; Randolph Stewart, Earl of Galloway, Observations on the Monitorial System at Harrow; Anon., Monitorial System at Harrow by One Who Was Once a Monitor; Anon., Reply to preceding; The Times, 14 Dec. 1853, 13, 19 Apr. 1854. Intellectual discipline was also lacking: H. R. F. Brown, John Addington Symonds, i. 218.
  • 25. Rep. Com. on Revenues and Management of Certain Schs. and Colls. [3288] H.C., p. 274 (1864), xx (2); Laborde, Harrow Sch. 52-54; Ogilvie, Eng. Pub. Schs. 162-3; May, 'Relations between Harrow Sch. and Parishioners', 31-36.
  • 26. e.g. advts. in The Times, 13 Apr. 1854, 17 Apr. 1855. Matthew Arnold is said to have moved to Harrow for this reason.
  • 27. See also Phyllis Grosskurth, John Addington Symonds, 32-37.
  • 28. Rep. Com. Certain Schs. and Colls. xx (1), 208-13; xx (2), 277-84, 359-62, 428-39, 475-9, 494-7; xx (4), 200-3. In some classes the rate of progress was one sum a term and cribs were unnecessary: Minchin, Old Harrow Days, 24, 31.
  • 29. May, 'Relations between Harrow Sch. and Parishioners', 40-68.
  • 30. Laborde, Harrow Sch. 56-58.
  • 31. E. Graham, Harrow Life of H. M. Butler, 171-8; W. E. Bowen, Edward Bowen, 58, 207-8; Laborde, Harrow Sch. 55, 59; E. Graham, Notes on Harrow Songs.
  • 32. Howson and Warner, Harrow Sch. 280; Laborde, Harrow Sch. 59, 165; H. Staunton, Great Schools of Eng. 330. The game of squash rackets was invented at Harrow: Enc. Brit. (11th edn.), xxii. 783.
  • 33. Laborde, Harrow Sch. 60-62; J. Fischer Williams, Harrow, App. C; W. S. Churchill, My Early Life, 36.
  • 34. Bryant, Harrow, 94.
  • 35. Laborde, Harrow Sch. 198-200.
  • 36. Ibid. 63-64; Bryant, Harrow, 96-98.
  • 37. Laborde, Harrow Sch. 65-66, 176-7; Harrow School -A Brief History, 5.
  • 38. Goderich, Perceval, Peel, Aberdeen, Palmerston, Baldwin, Churchill. Baldwin, determined that his government should be one 'of which Harrow should not be ashamed', included six Harrovians in his Cabinet: S. Baldwin, On England, 283. Jawaharlal Nehru, another Harrovian, was first prime minister of India.
  • 39. Lord Rayleigh, Sir George Otto Trevelyan, John Galsworthy, Dr. G. M. Trevelyan, Sir Winston Churchill, Field Marshall Lord Alexander of Tunis. For this information and several other references the author is indebted to Mr. L. J. Verney.