Churchill giving the V sign to students at Harrow, his alma mater.
A Year at Harrow School
By Paul Hicks
In September 1954, I was one of about thirty high school graduates who sailed out of New York Harbor on the Cunard liner, Queen Elizabeth, bound for England. We were all going to spend a year at various British “public” schools as part of the English Speaking Union’s exchange scholars program.
Many well-known schools were involved in the program, including Rugby, where the sport of rugby was invented, and Wellington, named for the British general whose troops won the Battle of Waterloo. I was fortunate to attend Harrow School, not only because of its history and fame but also because of its proximity to London.
A good friend on the ESU program, who was at Westminster School in London, arranged for us to attend the ceremonial opening of Parliament by Queen Elizabeth II. As described in the annual event’s official website:
“The Queen arrives at Sovereign’s Entrance and proceeds to the Robing Room. Wearing the Imperial State Crown and the Robe of State, she leads the Royal Procession through the Royal Gallery, packed with 600 guests, to the chamber of the House of Lords.
The House of Lords’ official known as Black Rod is sent to summon the Commons. The doors to the Commons chamber are shut in his or her face: a practice dating back to the Civil War, symbolizing the Commons’ independence from the monarchy. Black Rod strikes the door three times before it is opened. Members of the House of Commons then follow Black Rod and the Commons Speaker to the Lords chamber, to listen to the Queen’s speech.”
On another occasion, my Harrow housemaster invited me to join him in a visit to the House of Commons, where we sat in the visitors’ gallery as guests of John Profumo, who was a member of Parliament and an Old Harrovian. It was fascinating to watch the proceedings and observe the Speaker of the House keep order from his chair, seated behind the royal mace.
In 1963, nearly ten years later, the name of John Profumo made international headlines. He was then the Secretary of State for War in the cabinet of Harold Macmillan and resigned because of his sex scandal with a young woman, Christine Keeler, who was also sleeping with a Russian diplomat. Years later, I met John Profumo, who had done charitable work for decades, and thanked him for my chance to see the House of Commons in session.
In the fall of 1954, Winston Churchill, who was in his final months as Prime Minister, made his annual visit to Harrow. The New York Times reported that it was the fifteenth consecutive year he had returned for the traditional program of songs he loved to hear. In honor of his 80th birthday, a verse had been added to the school song:
“Blazoned in honour for each generation
You kindled courage to stand and to stay;
You led our fathers to fight for the nation,
Called ‘Follow up’, and yourself showed the way.
We who were born in the calm after thunder
Cherish our freedom to think and to do;
If in our turn we forgetfully wonder
Yet we’ll remember we owe it to you.”
Churchill then spoke briefly to us about his visit to the school in 1940, and, quoting from one of his famous wartime speeches, said: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few,” referring to the Royal Air Force crews, who were then fighting the Battle of Britain. It was an unforgettable experience for all who were there to hear him.