Secrets Of Harrow School

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 17 months ago

Last Updated 16 December 2022

Secrets Of Harrow School
Call these straw hats 'boaters' at your own peril. Boys have to lacquer their own hats with varnish. Some boys wear hats passed down by their fathers and even grandfathers

Harrow School is one of the oldest and most famous all-boys schools in the world. Yes Eton is older, and yes Eton invented Eton Mess. But Harrow invented Harrow football, which is far messier than any Eton Mess. See:

Image: Simon Berry

The school was founded by childless farmer John Lyon in 1572. But it wasn't completed until 1615, by a builder called Mr Sly, who we can't help but picture with a creepy smirk on his face. By this time Lyon was dead, so he never got to see his legacy.

Still, Lyon's name is commemorated in the school's crest (essentially a pun on his name), not to mention a veritable pride of lion motifs dotted around the school:

Originally, Harrow School was just one room — the Fourth Form Room. Four classes went on in the four corners of the room simultaneously. You can imagine the melee of Latin and Greek (in the early days boys were forbidden to speak English) punctuated with the occasional whoosh of birch followed by a yelp.

As we've already covered in another article, the Fourth Form Room is plastered in graffiti carved into the walls by pupils including Anthony Trollope, and four boys who'd go on to become British PMs.

The inscription of another boy who went on to great things can be found here; that of Henry Fox Talbot.

Talbot set up his own laboratory in the school for experiments, with the explosions becoming louder and louder. One day the explosion was SO loud it deafened a master for an entire day. Talbot was banned from any further experiments and the Sun Insurance Company announced that it would no longer cover any building that had Talbot working in it.

Another Harrovian is most famous FOR his graffiti. A boy named Warde, who obviously had a bit of an ego on him, carved his named FAR too big. By the time he'd got to 'WAR' his master gave him a warning. Make the next two letters smaller, Warde was told. Warde made the D even bigger. He was expelled. But Warde wasn't finished. One night he crept back into the school, and by candlelight, added the E — even bigger than the D. Then he disappeared into the night and never returned to Harrow School again. Legend.

Harrow boys, as you'd hope, aren't whipped or caned today for their misdemeanours. But they still face some pretty strict punishments. If you're caught with so much as your shirt untucked, you must go and report to this chap at 7am, three days on the trot:

He's former Welsh Guard Kevin Sincock, who now holds the title of custos (it means 'keeper of the keys'). If a boy fails to report to the custos, he'll find himself litter picking along the high street (so THAT'S why it's so tidy). Kevin was also once offered a job as a Beefeater.   

Another job the custos used to have was pulling this cord, which rang the bell to announce the beginning of lessons:

Kevin Sincock's predecessor Tim Wilkinson remembers one former custos who often took this opportunity to have a crafty ciggy.

But while smoking one day, he dropped his fag down a small hole in the floor (you can just about make it out in the photo), through which smoke started to appear. Afraid he'd burn Harrow to the ground, the custos quenched the fire by emptying 'the only liquid available to him' down the hole.

Speaking of liquid: boys in the early days would work from 6am-6pm with a two-hour lunch for break. Lunch would usually be a pork chop from the chop house across the street, and a mug or two of this stuff:

One of those boys was George Gordon Byron. He loved nothing more than spending his spare time perched on this tomb in the ground of St Mary's, writing poetry:

He wanted to be buried in this graveyard himself. Unfortunately for Byron, his wishes were ignored and he's now in a place called Hucknall, of all things.

Still, Byron's daughter Allegra IS buried at Harrow. She died from either typhus or malaria in Bagna Cavallo, Italy, aged five. Byron had her body transported to Harrow in a lead-lined coffin. But when he got to the church, the Reverend J.W. Cunningham didn't want Allegra cluttering up his holy ground. Finally, after days of argument, she was buried here, albeit in an unmarked grave.

This plaque was later added by the Byron Society:

The Old Speech Room Gallery is open to the public, with permanent exhibits including the school's charter stamped with Elizabeth I's seal, silver arrows awarded to boys for archery, original Turners and Constables and Winston Churchill memorabilia:

Just outside Harrow's museum, a life-defining moment took place for one pupil.

In the early 1800s a young Harrow schoolboy called Anthony Ashley-Cooper was standing on Church Hill, the steep incline leading up to St Mary's church, when he witnessed two drunken men lugging a coffin in the most disrespectful way he could imagine — staggering around, laughing and occasionally dropping it on the ground.

There and then, the boy vowed to himself that when he grew up, he'd do all he could to stop such disgraces. That boy went on to become the great philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury. It's recorded in this plaque on the side of the old schools:

And before you ask, yes, he is the same man who gives his name to this place:

Photo by James Beard in the Londonist Flickr pool

Next: to the Speech Room, designed by William Burges and completed in 1877. Burges designed it to look like a Greek theatre, and as well as being used for speeches and assemblies, many a play has been staged here. An aspiring actor called Benedict Cumberbatch once trod these boards.

The wall behind the stage is decorated with the coat of arms of famous Harrovians, including its seven prime ministers, and Anthony Trollope:

One Harrow student has an entire room dedicated to him: Alex Fitch.

Fitch died aged 19, and within a hair's breadth of surviving the first world war. His picture is illuminated by an 'eternal flame'. The only time it was ever switched off was during the blackouts in the second world war.

The room is quite the historical composite: the oak panelling is taken from the Elizabethan Brooke House in Hackney. The teak floorboards are made from parts of the the ship St Vincent, which saw service during the reign of George III.

The windows of the Alex Fitch Room are more modern, created between 1900 and 1929. This stained glass also tells porkies. For one thing, Charles I never visited Harrow; he merely stopped here to water his horses while fleeing the Roundheads.

That said, Harrow Hill would have provided Charlie with one of his final glimpses of London as king — rather poignant really.

Another window that's telling white lies: John Lyon never helped build the school as this window suggests, because, as we know, he was dead before the foundations were laid:

George Gilbert Scott designed two buildings at Harrow, one next door to the other. Here's the church-like Vaughan Library:

And here's the chapel-like Harrow School Chapel. Gilbert Scott had to get sign-off for his design from all the members of staff. Everyone gave his chapel the thumbs-up except for one master, William Oxenham. He said the spire was ugly. The chapel, therefore, was built sans spire.

When Oxenham died in 1865, the staff at the school decided it'd be nice to build a memorial for him. What was the most fitting thing they could come up with? They added the spire onto the church, of course:

There's an opportunity to tour the Fourth Form Room, Old Speech Art Room Gallery, Speech Room, Museum of Harrow Life and Vaughan Library three times a year. Visit the website for more information and to book.

Photos courtesy of Harrow School and Matt Brown