Boys of Harrow School. (John Downing/Getty Images)

April 2, 2024   6 mins

When I was a student at Harrow a little over 20 years ago, the other boys and I would gather each autumn for “Churchill Songs”. Held amid stained glass and gilded pillars in the school’s main hall, and named after the most famous Old Harrovian, the event was a programme of hymns to Harrow legend. Most famous is “Forty Years On”, a premonition of nostalgia for long-lost school days. But the one I remember best is “Stet Fortuna Domus” (“May the fortune of the house endure”):

“Pray, charge your glasses, gentlemen
And drink to Harrow’s honour!
May fortune still attend the Hill
And glory rest upon her!
The world outside is wondrous wide
But here the world is narrow
One magic thrall unites us all:
The name and fame of HARROW.”

By the time I first heard those words I could already see that the “name and fame” of the school concealed a grimmer reality. Its boarding houses, in which 60 or 70 boys lived away from their parents with barely any adult supervision, seemed to me cauldrons of dysfunction. At the state comprehensives I’d attended before going to Harrow on a scholarship, its rigidly hierarchical culture — in which older boys were allowed to discipline (or, in practice, simply bully) younger boys — would have been unimaginable. Few ever sought official protection against their tormentors, either because they accepted their predicament as normal or feared the consequences of being branded a “grass”. In one case during my time at Harrow, a group of boys in my boarding house dared to report a particularly vicious senior pupil for acts of appalling abuse. Rather than involving the police, the school — possibly mindful of press attention — simply expelled him, leaving him free to find victims elsewhere.

And yet, if at 16 I had been capable of absolute self-honesty, I would have admitted to myself an awkward fact: that whenever I heard “Stet Fortuna Domus”, with its rousing tune like the anthem of a Right-wing military junta, a part of me felt precisely the “magic thrall” it invoked. I may have decided, shortly after arriving at Harrow, that I was a socialist who’d like nothing better than to see the whole place burn down. But when I considered that every day I walked the same cobbled pavestones as Byron, Churchill, Peel and Palmerston, I couldn’t quite suppress a throb of pride.

But then, one of the remarkable things about schools like Harrow is their ability to command the loyalty of students they make thoroughly miserable. Just ask Charles Spencer, whose new memoir A Very Private School details the chilling physical and sexual abuse he endured at an exclusive “prep” school called Maidwell in the Seventies. Spencer portrays Maidwell — overseen by a cane-wielding headmaster and staffed by a sinister crew of paedophiles and predators — as akin to something from the darkest tales of that other graduate of boarding school trauma, Roald Dahl. When Spencer says that he and his contemporaries were scarred for life, it’s not just a metaphor: one of them, he reports, can still see the wounds from his headmaster’s cane on his 50-something-year-old backside.

However, perhaps the most startling line in the book comes in the epilogue where — having spent 270 pages detailing his memories of flogging, sexual assault and other “unfathomable sadistic rituals” — Spencer admits that when Maidwell opened a co-ed pre-school in the early Nineties, he promptly enrolled his daughters there. True, this was before he had an “epiphany” about how his school experiences had affected him and decided to emigrate with his children to “spare [them] a classically English upbringing”. Still, it may seem puzzling that it took entering therapy for Spencer to see just how deeply his time at Maidwell had damaged him.

Then again, the 9th Earl Spencer was merely continuing a centuries-long English custom whereby members of the ruling class suffer bitterly through their education only later to expose their own children to similar experiences. He can trace his own lineage of “forced abandonment” all the way back to 1716, when an eight-year-old John Spencer was sent away to Eton. “These psychologically hobbled victims would invariably perpetuate the madness,” writes Spencer of his ancestors, “sending them to the same schools they had hated in their time.”

What can explain this endless recycling of generational trauma? A clue may lie in psychological studies of “hazing” rituals in US campus fraternities, which have shown that the more upsetting and degrading they are, the more group loyalty they inspire. Victims are forced to rationalise their experience as meaningful trials imposed by a benevolent community. In the context of English boarding schools such cognitive dissonance can become a powerful catalyst for class solidarity.

This may help explain why, even after what he survived, Spencer flirts with the notion that it is not the practice of sending children away from home to sink or swim at boarding school that is damaging, but certain badly run institutions. The culture of bullying I witnessed at Harrow in the early 2000s belies his breezy claim that the system “evolved significantly” after he left. Even George Orwell, who nobody can lightly call naïve, ended his classic account of boarding school horror — written some 30 years before Spencer went to Maidwell — by claiming that “the present-day attitude towards education is enormously more humane”. Both Spencer and Orwell succumb to a comforting thought: surely, surely things can no longer be allowed to go on the way they used to?

And of course, since your childhood defines your sense of what’s normal, it’s extraordinarily difficult to see clearly how it may have (to quote a certain poet) fucked you up — particularly if virtually everyone else in your social world had the same experience. Neither your own upbringing nor your child’s is an experiment that can be run twice. And if there are negative outcomes, who’s to say they wouldn’t have occurred in different circumstances? If they had gone to a different school, would the boys who were abused in my boarding house have suffered the ordeal they did? Would the boy from my year who, in a tragic case that became national news, picked up a knife during a psychotic episode still be in Broadmoor, and would the teacher’s daughter he attacked with it be dead?

I’m not aware of any similar stories concerning my former peers at Cedars Upper School in Leighton Buzzard, who by comparison to the boys at Harrow struck me as paragons of mental wellbeing. But neither did any of them go on to become a prime minister or canonised poet, or to achieve the kind of distinction (if that is the word) enjoyed by more recent Old Harrovians like disgraced financier Crispin Odey or culture wars influencer Laurence Fox.

And this points to the simplest reason for the perpetuation of a system that, generation after English generation, has succeeded in producing one emotionally stunted winner after another: by some very obvious measures, it works. Some psychiatrists have come to speak of “boarding-school syndrome”, but none seems to have considered that the problems with intimacy and vulnerability it involves are symptoms not of the system’s failure but of its success. The traumatic lesson taught by these schools — that the world is divided into the strong who dominate and the weak who are dominated — is part of the syllabus.

“By some very obvious measures, it works.”

One individual who came to feel nostalgic for school days he once hated was Winston Churchill, who during the Blitz in 1940 returned to Harrow, where the boys eulogised him with a specially composed verse of “Stet Fortuna Domus”:

“Nor less we praise in sterner days
The leader of our nation
And CHURCHILL’s name shall win acclaim
In each new generation
For in your fight to guard the Right
Your country you defend, Sir
Here grim and gay we mean to stay
And stick it to the end, Sir!”

I admit I am still moved by the story that, with the Luftwaffe circling overhead, the war leader wiped away a tear at those words. And I have always been impressed that, in a wonderfully Churchillian touch, the prime minister himself asked to amend the first line from “darker” to “sterner days”. What I didn’t notice until I looked up the words to quote them was the double meaning in that capitalised “Right”. It seems to me now that in these lines you can find the whole essence of the system Harrow belongs to. It’s all there: the stern spirit that impelled Churchill to stand firm against Hitler, and that has helped countless boarding school boys stick out their smaller ordeals; the identification of a new generation’s elite with the greatness of the past; and the elision of the school, the country, the “right” and the “Right”. Stet fortuna domus, indeed.

Harrovians still sing those words at the event that has been rechristened for Churchill every year, just as we did 20 years ago, and just as I have no doubt they will to the last syllable of recorded time. But can conditions in these schools possibly be as awful as they were in my day, or in Charles Spencer’s, or George Orwell’s? When, 40 years on, today’s pupils write their memoirs of boarding school, will they too reveal the scars the system imprinted on them? A part of me struggles to believe it. I am told that the top British private schools — booming, despite Labour’s plans to tax them, as the scions of a new global elite queue up to fill their places — now abhor bullying, competing with each other to recruit full-time counselling staff. Perhaps this makes sense: tomorrow’s ruling class will presumably need to wield power with a softer touch than those who ran the British Empire. And in any case: surely, surely things can no longer be allowed to go on the way they used to. Can they?

Matt Rowland Hill is the author of Original Sins and his Substack is Bibliopathology