Educating Winston Churchill

As a schoolboy, Winston Churchill was clever enough but his downfall was that he had particular interests such as geography and history, which he excelled at, while other subjects, Latin and mathematics in particular, held no interest for him whatsoever.  His apparent lack of drive and his poor results angered his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, greatly and set them further apart.

Boarding school

Young Winston ChurchillIn 1882, Winston was sent to a boarding school at the age of seven years and eleven months – quite normal in upper class families of the time.  However, the forbidding and hostile atmosphere he encountered came as a severe shock to the boy.  He instantly detested the severity – the birch flogging brutality, the dreadful lessons and the utter strangeness of his new life.

He became extremely unhappy and lonely.  The lonelier he became the more troublesome and moody he was; to him the school was a cruel, vile, hostile world he did not wish to be part of.  His health deteriorated drastically, so much so that the family doctor advised that he should be removed from the school.

Winston’s second school was in the seaside town of Brighton, run by two sisters.  They were much kinder, sympathetic, and the school was smaller, less pretentious and much less expensive.  During the three years he spent there Winston almost died of double pneumonia, but he gradually regained his strength and enjoyed studying the subjects he was really interested in.


At the age of twelve, Winston encountered his first examinations.  Unfortunately, the examiners were less accommodating and chose subjects he found dull, resulting in poor results.  His attempted entrance into Harrow was a complete disaster.  After writing his name and depositing a few blotches and smudges, he could only stare at the otherwise empty paper since Latin was totally alien to him.  Whether the name Spencer Churchill was enough to gain admittance we shall never know for sure, but admitted he was.  Much to Lord Randolph’s disgust his son entered the lowest class possible at Harrow and stayed there three times as long as any other boys had.

However, there were advantages; he bypassed Latin and Greek and did treble studies in English, which helped enable him to earn a living in adulthood.  Also, where other boys failed their preliminary examinations for the army, Winston passed.  One of the tasks was to draw the map of a chosen country.  Being interested in geography, Winston, choosing New Zealand, found the task relatively easy.  For the first time he gained quite high marks.

However, it took three attempts to gain entrance into Sandhurst, the British Army’s military academy.  After his second failure, Winston left Harrow and turned to Captain James and partners, who were crammers specialising in assisting students to get into the army.  The entrance examination had three obligatory subjects: Latin, mathematics and English, plus two options; Winston chose French and chemistry.

The accident

However, during a winter holiday on (their aunt) Lady Wimborne’s estate in Bournemouth with his mother and twelve-year-old brother Jack, the eighteen-year-old Winston had a horrific accident.

One afternoon, Jack and their cousin decided to chase Winston into the estate’s vast forty-fifty acre pine forest.  After a while he wearied and spotting a bridge over a deep cleft, he thought he had found his escape but on reaching the middle of the bridge he realized his chasers had split up and positioned themselves on either ends of the bridge.  He climbed over the balustrade and lunged off the twenty-nine foot high bridge towards the nearest pine tree.  Alas, he completely misjudged the distance between bridge and tree and hurtled downwards and landed on hard ground.

Randolph ChurchillThe telling of this episode is to negate another myth.  Lord Randolph (pictured) immediately raced from Dublin and brought from London the most eminent specialists to attend Winston who was very gravely ill; amongst his injuries was a ruptured kidney.  Lord Randolph’s concern and disregard of cost is evident and provides a completely different perspective on his relationship with his eldest son; whether it was English reserve or upper-class-ism that prevented a father-son relationship we will never know.

Winston was unconscious for three days; bed-ridden for three months and his complete recovery took over a year.  During that time he acquired an interest in national affairs and politics, and went to the House of Commons at every opportunity.  Consequently, Captain James scarcely had the chance to prepare Winston for his third attempt for Sandhurst, yet this time he passed with a modicum of success; qualifying for a cavalry cadetship which delighted Winston enormously.

Once again his father was utterly dissatisfied and disappointed by his son’s lack of examination success.  Lord Randolph had his sights set on his eldest son joining the 60th Rifles and in a strongly-worded letter told him so.  Winston was surprised by his father’s vehemence, but that was over-ridden by his delight to be working with horses and spending his last two years of schooling at Sandhurst.

Cavalry officer

Winston Churchill HussarsIndeed, Winston had a love of animals throughout his life and reveled in the horse training and thoroughly enjoyed everything about Sandhurst.  He made many friendships and therefore was not so alone.  The change in his whole being was all too evident in his final examination because it was his first real success.  Indeed, he passed out of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst with honours – out of his group of 150 cadets Winston achieved a very respectable eighth.  Thus, in December 1894 at the age of 20, Winston left Sandhurst as a cavalry officer in the 4th Hussars (pictured).  For once his father was fairly pleased with his eldest son, but did not have long to enjoy the moment – he died the following month, on 24 January 1895, aged 45, after a long illness. (Churchill also died 24 January – seventy years later).

Stella Milner

See also articles on Churchill the family man, Churchill’s dream, his pets, and Churchill during World War One.