Harrow School at Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex (now a part of London), is one of the oldest and most respected public schools in England. It was founded in 1572 by the yeoman-farmer John Lyon, who is buried nearby at the parish church of St Mary. There is a fine memorial to him there by John Flaxman; like many other Flaxman memorials, this tells the story of a life well spent. One of the three pupils in the sculptured relief looks up at the still youthful Lyon in wide-eyed reverence, while the two boys beside him are preoccupied with (probably) construing their Greek or Latin text.

Inside the original Harrow School building, known as "Old Schools," is the old Fourth Form. Here, like Lyon in the memorial, the headmaster would have been enthroned at one end of the form while the usher would have sat in an armchair at the other. The most interesting part of this room now is the black panelling, on which many famous Old Harrovians, including Sheridan and Byron, etched their names (Stevenson 70). On an outside wall is a plaque to the future Lord Shaftesbury, commemorating the time in his schooldays when he encountered a pauper's drunken funeral and burned with "shame and indignation" at the sight. His biographer G. F. A. Best is somewhat sceptical (114), but apparently Shaftesbury himself felt that this incident "helped to waken his life-long devotion to the service of the poor and the oppressed," as the inscription says. Harrow School is most famous, though, for having produced seven British prime ministers, including Lord Palmerston, who was there from 1795-1800, and Churchill, who was there from 1888-1893. Early in the Edwardian period, the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was educated there as well.

A number of the most impressive school buildings date from the Victorian era. These include the School Chapel and the Vaughan Library, both the work of George Gilbert Scott, who had only recently (1846-49) drastically restored St Mary's Church (Gardner 7). The School Chapel was completed in 1855, and the Vaughan Library in 1863. Amongst the many memorial plaques in the chapel are two to Matthew Arnold's sons, who both died while they were at Harrow. The library was named after Dr Charles John Vaughan, the reforming headmaster of 1845-59, who had been one of Thomas Arnold's leading pupils at Rugby, and who had "raised pupil numbers from 69 to 469 and reformed a school of whose violent pupils the local inhabitants had been in considerable fear" (Copley 178). Vaughan had been forced to resign when a pupil alleged that he had written inappropriate letters to another pupil. The allegations were not widely credited; perhaps naming the library after him was a way of restoring Vaughan's reputation. Another important Victorian building is the school's New Speech Room, designed for its tercentenary in an unusual and space-saving D shape by William Burges, and opened in 1877.

Not surprisingly, in view of its state before 1845, some accounts of Harrow School in Victorian times are worse than bleak. Shaftesbury may have "quite enjoyed" it there (Best 18), but Anthony Trollope, who started as a day-boy when he was only seven, was famously miserable there: "I was never spared," he recalled bitterly in his autobiography, "and was not even allowed to run to and fro between our house and the school without a daily purgatory." He adds that he was targeted not only by the boys but also by the headmaster of the time, who flogged him "constantly." Returning later after periods at a smaller private school in Sunbury, and at Winchester, the teenage Trollope fared even worse. His father's fortunes having suffered a further decline, he was treated as an outcast: "I had not only no friends, but was despised by all my companions.... I was allowed to join in no plays. Nor did I learn anything, — for I was taught nothing" (Ch. I). The fictional Clarence in Charlotte Yonge's Chantry House (1886), who is weak by nature and given to lying and sneaking, is also a pariah and target for bullying whilst at Harrow (see "The Public School Experience in Victorian Literature.") Clarence's more prepossessing brother, Griff, is unsympathetic: "[I]t is only what all fellows have to bear if there's no pluck in them," he says off-handedly. Note that, despite the date of this novel's publication, Yonge is still talking about "pre-Arnoldian times" (Ch. III).

The atmosphere of the school is utterly different now, but the distinctive Victorian buildings, chimneypots, post-box and so on still give the flavour of bygone days. So too do the sight of Harrow boys wearing their often battered straw boaters, and glimpses of masters striding past in billowing academic gowns — the latter rarely seen on English streets now.


Best, G. F. A. Shaftesbury. London: Batsford, 1964.

Copley, Terence. Black Tom: Arnold of Rugby, The Myth and the Man. London and New York: Continuum, 2002.

Gardner, Samuel. A Detailed Guide to St Mary's: The Parish and Borough Church of St Mary, Harrow-on-the-Hill (available in the church).

Stevenson, Bruce. Middlesex. London: Batsford, 1972. (NB Stevenson finds the chapel "hideous," 70. A matter of taste/debate?)

Trollope, Anthony. An Autobiography(1883). Text available here, at Project Gutenberg.

Weinreb, Ben and Christopher Hibbert, eds. The London Encyclopaedia. London: Macmillan, rev. ed. 1992.

Yonge, Charlotte. Chantry House (1886). Text available here, at Project Gutenberg.

Last modified 30 November 2007