The Room Vandalised By 4 British Prime Ministers

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 13 months ago
The Room Vandalised By 4 British Prime Ministers

The 19th century prime minister Robert Peel was a vandal.

Maybe that's a bit harsh. When Peel was a pupil at Harrow School, he carved his name into the walls of the Fourth Form Room:

That's this building here. Which believe it or not, was built at two very different times. The left hand side — this part is the Fourth Form Room — was the original Harrow School, built in 1615. The right hand side of the building has only existed since 1820.

Peel wasn't the only boy to carve his name into the wall. Everyone was at it:

Back to Peel's graffiti, and something you probably missed from the first picture. Zoom into the second E of Peel and you can make out the modest graffiti of another future prime minister — Spencer Perceval. Famously, Perceval has the unenviable honour of being the only British PM to be assassinated.

H. Temple not ringing any bells? He later became known as Lord Palmerston, serving over nine years on and off as prime minister. He was a man of many names, also called Viscount Palmerston, 'the Mongoose' and, er, 'Pam'.

So who started this whole graffiti thing then? The name of the boy isn't recorded, but it is thought he was expelled for his misdemeanour. The earliest graffiti, dating back to the 17th century, features on and by the door that leads into the room:

It seems rather unjust that the first graffiti artist was treated the way he was; after all he'd started a tradition that would go on to cover every square inch of the room. Soon, boys weren't punished for carving their names into the walls, but rather encouraged to do so by their masters. Some spent weeks and months working on their initials.

That's not to say there was no punishment at all at Harrow. In the pre-bamboo cane days, boys who fell foul of their masters encountered a bundle of birch branches across the backside. To be fair, the masters allowed the the victim to choose the birch he'd be beaten with. Naive newbies (or 'Shells' as they're called at Harrow) would often go for the greener birch, thinking it looked less threatening than the older branches. Big mistake.  

And here's where your punishment would be doled out — across this custom-built stool:

Back to that graffiti though. By the 19th century, much of it was being carved professionally. Like this load of Gubbins here:

And this later addition for another Harrovian prime minister, as pointed out with a genuine bamboo cane:

Churchill himself was no stranger to the cane at Harrow. And it's no wonder when you see him pulling stunts like this one (he's the cheeky chappy on the left leaning over the stairs):

It's not just prime ministers who are etched into the fabric of Harrow's Fourth Form Room. Two great writers, Lord Byron and Richard Brinsley Sheridan share a panel:

And here's the incredibly neat graffiti of Anthony Trollope :

Trollope was by his own admission a rather pudgy, unhygienic and unpopular boy at Harrow, although his time at the school was a great inspiration for him. The unlikeable Obadiah Slope from Barchester Towers was based on Harrow's then-vicar Reverend J.W. Cunningham. And it's probable that Trollope's six Palliser novels owe their name to this graffiti close to his own:

Not only did Trollope write some of the great Victorian novels, he also invented the post box, as commemorated in his coat of arms in the nearby Speech Room:

Finally, if you think the Fourth Form Room looks a little Harry Potteresque, you're not wrong. It was used, with minimum set dressing, for the 'Wingardium Leviosa' scene in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:

All photos by Matt Brown. Apart from the one of Churchill, obviously.

Last Updated 27 October 2016