Young Winston survives his preparatory schooling at Hove

Churchill at Hove 1885
Churchill at Hove 1885

His grandmother opined that “he was too clever and too much the boss at that Brighton school”.

He was a bumptious, precocious, moody child, and at his previous school, in Ascot, he had kicked the headmaster’s straw hat to pieces. So his parents removed him to a gentler, less pretentious (even unnamed) establishment, in Hove. This was run by two unmarried ladies, Kate and Charlotte Thomson, at 29-30 Brunswick Road.

Churchill's school report 1885

Churchill's school report 1885

Winston Churchill was nine when he arrived there in October 1884. Looking back, he recalled “an element of kindness and of sympathy which I had found conspicuously lacking in my first experiences. At this school I was allowed to learn things which interested me: French, history, lots of poetry by heart, and above all riding and swimming.”

All went well until mid-December, when there was an incident during a drawing exam, when the boy next to him stabbed him in the chest with a penknife, nearly ending prematurely the future prime minister’s life.

Although it was the other boy who was removed from the school, he was only reacting in self-defence to Winston’s gratuitous belligerence. Miss Charlotte wrote to Lady Churchill that it was “necessary to impress upon these young boys the necessity of their learning to govern their passionate impulses”.

Winston collected stamps, sold his father’s autograph to the other boys, went on the Volks Electric Railway - where the driver said Lord Randolph deserved to be prime minister - and when one of the other boys photographed him in a natty bowler hat, he ordered 24 copies. (The Thomsons usually supervised letters home, but in a private letter he demotically begged his mother to send “half a quid or 10 bob, if you know what that is”, to cover the cost.)

In March 1886 his life again nearly ended prematurely, when he caught pneumonia. Fortunately, the family’s doctor, Dr Robson Roose, practised locally (it was he who had  recommended the school in the first place; his son Bertie is the only other pupil named in Winston’s letters home), and his prompt care saved him.

Dr Roose stayed in the next room during the crisis, monitoring his patient: “Temp. 104.3, right lung generally involved, left lung of course feeling its extra work”, he informed the parents in his first bulletin. (In My Early Life, Churchill incorrectly recalls “double pneumonia”.)

Next day: “We are still fighting the battle for your boy. Your boy on his perilous path is holding his own well”. The next: “We have had very anxious night. The left lung still uninvolved. The delirium I hope may soon cease. Your boy is making a wonderful fight.”

Weeks of convalescence followed, but by November he came top of the school in gymnastics, and felt fitter than before the illness. He complained his parents rarely visited him - even when his father was in Brighton on business - but when Lord Randolph did call, in December 1887, the school was allowed a half-holiday. Intensely proud of his father, he was upset by a caricature of him at a Brighton pantomime, turning on a laughing spectator with “Stop that row, you snub-nosed radical!”  His father rewarded him with a sovereign.

The school attended service at the Chapel Royal, and when everyone else, sitting “in pews which ran north and south”, faced east for the creed, he refused to turn, as a matter of principle. No one commented, but next time they sat in pews facing east. “It was thoughtful and ingenious of these old ladies” (they were actually in their 30s or early 40s) “to have treated my scruples so tenderly.”

His grandmother opined in early 1888 that “he was too clever and too much the boss at that Brighton school”, and after one final term, aged 13, he graduated to Harrow.