Churchill’s Headmaster: The ‘Sadist’ who Nearly Saved the British Empire
By Edward Dutton
Melbourne: Manticore Press, 2019
There will never be enough men of outstanding virtue to satisfy the human need for heroes, and one fertile source of the counterfeits necessary to make up the difference, as Ed Dutton points out, is wartime leaders:
There is a tendency to make sense of a devastated world by hero-worshipping the leader and also by finding some means of justifying all of the suffering, meaning that it was essential that the prosecutor of the war was beyond reproach. It has been found that the more people invest in something, the more they need to convince themselves that they have done the right thing. This is why people can react in such an irrational way if it is demonstrated to them that someone whom they admire — who is central, to some degree, to the way in which they structure the world — is simply not who they thought they were. They cannot cope with the fact that they have been duped.
In my youth, Winston Churchill regularly alternated with Jesus Christ as winner of an annual poll concerning the ‘greatest man who ever lived.’ We had a bust of him in our home. He is England’s national hero, and as Ed Dutton writes, many of the countless biographies of him ‘are nothing more than hagiographies that rehash and exaggerate the adulation for him in earlier hagiographies.’
Yet for those willing to listen, it is not hard to collect damning evidence against Churchill. As First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I, he was in charge of the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign, which led to 140,000 unnecessary allied deaths. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he kept Britain on the Gold Standard, making industry uncompetitive and prolonging the Depression. Most seriously, he did not ‘stand up to Nazi aggression’ in 1940 as the usual story goes, but did all he could to force Hitler into a war with Britain that Hitler wished to avoid. It was Churchill who ordered the bombing of nonmilitary targets in Germany—including Dresden—merely to kill as many German civilians as possible and demoralize the survivors. At war’s end, he agreed not only to hand Eastern Europe over to Stalin but also to the forcible repatriation of all Soviet citizens who managed to escape to the West: the shameful episode known as ‘Operation Keelhaul.’
Much of Churchill’s voluminous writing amounted to attempts to justify or downplay his mistakes, something he acknowledged himself with the famous quip: ‘History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.’ His personal shortcomings were also considerable, including alcoholism, chronic gambling and a constant tendency to live beyond his means and scrounge off others. Dutton writes of Churchill as having
a fantastic sense of entitlement, dishonesty, untrustworthiness, and not caring about the suffering of others. [He] took his country into an avoidable war, bankrupted it, and so lost that country its Empire and left it too exhausted to defend itself. This commenced the process of mass immigration from developing countries which … led to many difficulties, such as rising distrust, Islamic terrorism, and the destruction of other traditions vital to holding the country together.
In the present work, Dutton focuses on one relatively minor biographical myth about Churchill, but the result is a useful illustration of how such myths begin, spread, and are gradually embellished until they entirely overwhelm the historical reality.
Between the ages of seven and nine, Winston Churchill attended St. George’s School, Ascot, a preparatory school for children going on to England’s prestigious ‘public’ (i.e., private and exclusive) schools. In his 1930 autobiography My Life: A Roving Commission, Churchill left a highly negative account of his time there, exclaiming: ‘How I hated this school….’
As Churchill recounts it, on the day he arrived he was handed a page with the declension of the Latin word mensa, meaning table, and commanded to memorize it. He did so, but unluckily asked the teacher about the meaning of the vocative case. The teacher explained that it would be used when ‘speaking to a table.’ The seven-year-old Churchill protested: ‘But I never do!’ The humorless teacher then warned him: ‘If you are impertinent you will be punished, and punished, let me tell you, very severely.’ Millions are familiar with this little incident from its inclusion in Richard Attenborough’s film Young Winston (1972).
Churchill recalls that the teacher’s warning was very much to the point:
Flogging with the birch, in the Eton-fashion, was a great feature of the curriculum. But I am sure no Eton boy, and certainly no Harrow boy in my day, ever received such a cruel flogging as this headmaster was accustomed to inflict on little boys who were in his care and power. They exceeded in severity anything that would be tolerated in any of the Reformatories under the Home Office. Two or three times a month the whole school was marshalled into the Library and one or more delinquents was hauled off to an adjoining apartment by the two head boys, and there flogged until they bled freely, while the rest of us sat quaking, listening to their screams.
Churchill disliked the frequent High Church religious services in the chapel, but recalls that ‘I experienced the fullest applications of the secular arm’—in other words, was frequently subjected to flogging himself.
After two years, he relates, he was withdrawn from St. George’s due to poor health, but he does not connect this with the birchings he received.
Dutton gives a fascinating account of how this basic story has been embroidered by Churchill’s worshipful biographers. The floggings which Churchill himself describes as having been administered to ‘one or more delinquents…two or three times a month’ become daily ordeals meted out to all pupils for the slightest infraction. The headmaster who administered the punishment, the Rev. Herbert William Sneyd-Kynnersley, gets turned into a sadistic pederast who beat the boys merely for his own sexual gratification. Churchill is said to have been removed from St. George’s because his nanny discovered horrifying wounds on his backside. There even exist entirely fanciful accounts of Churchill returning to Aston as a young adult to seek revenge on his tormenter.
As Dutton explains, the glorification of Churchill as a national hero has involved the demonizing of his enemies. The bulk of his book is concerned with setting the record straight—both on the Rev. Sneyd-Kinnersly and on the young Churchill himself.
Churchill’s school reports from St. George’s make clear that he was—in spite of natural gifts which his teachers recognized—a disgracefully behaved pupil. One summer term,
Churchill managed to be late for class 19 times and his report stated that he ‘Does not understand the meaning of hard work.’ In autumn 1883, H. Martin Cooke wrote on Churchill’s report card that Churchill ‘began well but latterly has been very naughty.’
There was a slight improvement in the first half term of 1884, when it became clear that Churchill was very good at Mathematics and other subjects which interested him. However, the headmaster remarked, ‘He is rather greedy at meals.’ In the second half term of 1884, Cooke wrote on Churchill’s report, under ‘Diligence’: ‘Conduct has been exceedingly bad. He is not to be trusted to do any one thing. He has however notwithstanding made decided progress.’ He had been late 20 times with Cooke noting it was ‘Very disgraceful’ and the headmaster interjecting to add ‘Very bad.’ Under ‘General Conduct,’ [Sneyd-Kynnersley adds] that Churchill is ‘a constant trouble to somebody and is always in some scrape or other.’ Under headmaster’s remarks, he has written: ‘He cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere. He has very good abilities.’ By the summer term, things had slightly improved, his conduct being ‘Fair on the whole but he still gives a great deal of trouble.’
Churchill excelled in history and geography as well as mathematics, but, as Dutton notes, ‘seems to have lacked the impulse control and future orientation to bother with subjects that didn’t interest him.’ There exists testimony that he started fights with other boys and stole food from them. His language has been described as ‘appalling . . . straight out of the stables of Blenheim Palace’—shocking to the fastidious Victorians.
One former classmate described him as a ‘quarrelsome’ boy who ‘got on everyone’s nerves.’ Churchill himself recalled the other boys’ ridiculing him, beating him and pelting him with cricket balls. There even exists some testimony regarding him from pupils who came to St. George after he had left: his misbehavior had become part of school lore. The distinguished scholar and writer Sir Maurice Baring, e.g., recalled:
Dreadful legends were told about Churchill, who had been taken away from the school. His naughtiness seemed to surpass anything. He had been flogged for taking sugar from the pantry and, so far from being penitent, he had taken the Headmaster’s sacred straw hat from where it hung over the door and kicked it to pieces. His sojourn at the school had been one long feud with authority. The boys did not seem to sympathize with him.
Dutton is skeptical of the straw hat episode, which might have been grounds for expulsion had it really occurred, but it is clear Churchill was the sort of pupil around whom such legends were woven. Dutton concludes that Churchill was ‘high on the psychopathic personality spectrum,’ involving such traits as
inability to sustain consistent work behavior, non-conformity, irritability and aggressiveness, failure to honour financial obligations, frequent lying, failure to plan ahead, and impulsivity, including addiction-proneness, reckless behavior, [and] lack of remorse.
Punishment by birching may be shocking to a generation which has even banned spanking from most European countries. It was, however, normal in the Victorian age, and there existed a rational for it:
It was understood at the time that schools such as Sneyd-Kynnersley’s aimed, as did public schools, to do more than simply teach children to read, write and do sums. Part of their purpose was to mould extremely privileged boys, who had materially never really wanted for anything, into suitable men to run the British Empire. In many respects, the schools were akin to the brutal rites of passage into adulthood that are undergone by boys as they turn into men in many tribal societies. These boys, like boys in such tribes, were their societies’ future warriors and had to be made into warriors: people who would obey authority, keep their emotions under control, endure physical pain, be mentally resilient, live for the future, make sacrifices for others and empathise with them, but have the ability to act lethally towards the enemy at the precisely appropriate moment.
St. George School’s motto, in fact, was Vincent Qui Se Vincunt – ‘They will conquer who conquer themselves.’ The gifted but lazy and impulsive Churchill—grandson of a Duke, son of an MP and raised amid luxury—was ‘precisely the kind of person which the public school system was developed to tame.’ Dutton surmises that it may well have been beneficial for both Churchill and the twentieth-century world he helped shape had he spent rather more time under a strict disciplinary regime like that of St. George’s.
Dutton devotes most of his book to a study of the alleged ‘perverted sadist’ Herbert William Sneyd-Kinnersley, founder and headmaster of St. George’s School. He demonstrates that much of the man’s fearsome reputation comes from the least reliable sources of information about him, and is contradicted by more reliable testimony.
Sneyd-Kynnersley was born in 1848 of an aristocratic family like Churchill’s own. His father was a successful barrister. As a boy he did not attend any prep school himself, being privately tutored in the home of an Oxford-educated Scottish clergyman, the Ven. William Macdonald. He later married one of the Ven. MacDonald’s daughters.
At the age of 13, Sneyd-Kinnersley enrolled at Rugby, one of England’s most famous public schools. Unlike Churchill, he did quite well academically, winning a number of prizes. The headmaster of Rugby during his time there was the Rev. Frederick Temple, a future Archbishop of Canterbury. A biographer recounts of him:
Dr Temple hated flogging. There was very little of it in his day. When he did flog, he did, but there would not infrequently be tears in his eyes…. Mr Hart Davis writes: “…I was one of the Sixth Form boys on duty to see fair play. The Headmaster seemed to feel his position more acutely than the culprit. But in spite of the tears coursing down his cheeks, Temple inflicted on the boy a good sound licking”
Undoubtedly, those ‘good sound lickings’ were the original model for Sneyd-Kinnersley’s own.
He matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge in July 1867, at the age of 19, reading for a Law degree. There was vehement conflict within the Church of England at this time, and Sneyd-Kinnersley was an active partisan of High Church Conservatism. Dutton notes that in 1868, he was
one of three Trinity undergraduates to put his name to what might seem to us like a rather obscure petition to the master of the college. But this was a formal petition; something relatively rare and noteworthy. It demanded that communion should be celebrated every Sunday, as well as on Ascension Day, before the usual service in the college chapel. It further insisted that communicants should receive communion kneeling at the altar rail. In the context of 1868, Sneyd-Kynnersley was espousing what might be called ‘radical conservatism.’
Upon graduating from Trinity in 1871, Sneyd-Kynnersley took the post of assistant master at St Michael’s School, Slough, where he remained for six years. In 1877 he and another assistant master at St. Michael’s School decided to establish their own institution. They advertised for it in the Saturday Review and the Pall Mall Gazette, describing it as
a ‘high class prep school’ which would be opening on 19th September for children aged between 8 and 15. The advertisement described the luxurious facilities, the system of individual cubicles, and how it aimed to prepare boys for major public schools—listing Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Rugby and Charterhouse—as well as for Naval College.
Tuition was expensive: £150 per year, all inclusive. The list of referees, in the advert, prepared to vouch for Sneyd-Kynnerseley was very impressive; a veritable roll call of the great and the good in the late 1870s. The school was initially called Sunninghill House, but in 1880 the name was changed to St George’s, Ascot. Churchill recalled that:
It was supposed to be the very last thing in schools. Only ten boys in a class; electric light (then a wonder); a swimming pond; spacious football and cricket grounds, two or three school treats, or ‘expeditions’ every term; the masters all M.A.’s in gowns and mortar boards; a chapel of its own; everything provided by the authorities.
The small school was composed of the headmaster and three assistant masters. The swimming pond was fed by a waterfall and there was a forest and a garden in which boys could grow their own vegetables. St. George’s gardener, George Richards, actually won awards for his horticultural skills. Beyond the garden was ‘the Wilderness’ in which, according to Aubrey Jay, the boys ‘used to spend many happy hours helping the Head construct rockeries, tunnels, grottoes and other fascinating things.’ The food was said to be excellent.
In politics, Sneyd-Kinnersley was strongly conservative, and he made no attempt to hide this from his pupils. Dutton writes:
The degree to which Sneyd-Kynnersley attempted to inculcate his pupils to support the Conservative Party is almost amusing. [Maurice] Baring remembers that on Guy Fawkes Night they would burn Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone in effigy.
One day there was a parliamentary byelection in Ascot, so Sneyd-Kynnersley organised a school trip into town so that the boys — all wearing Tory rosettes — could campaign for the Conservative candidate. The 7 boys who had previously made it clear that they were Liberals had to stay behind and work! On another Bonfire Night, the pupils burnt Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914) in effigy, because the Head regarded him as a radical.
Sneyd-Kinnersley’s floggings were, indeed, severe. One student recalls that they were ‘given with the master’s full strength and it took only two or three strokes for drops of blood to form everywhere and it continued for 15 or 20 strokes when the wretched boy’s bottom was a mass of blood.’ Around that time, birchings were giving way to canings, which drew less blood, but Sneyd-Kinnersley was decidedly ‘old school.’ His floggings were certainly within the law of the time, however, and there is no evidence that he sexually abused any of his students, which is more than can be said for some other Victorian schoolmasters.
Sneyd-Kynnersley was also fair and consistent in his discipline. He had ‘favourites,’ but when one of them did something for which other pupils would be flogged, he got flogged. Dutton comments:
It has been demonstrated empirically that children have a particularly strong sense of justice. Research has found that where corporal punishment, such as spanking, is the norm and children have transgressed the rules they often accept that they deserve the punishment and regard it as just. However, they find unjust punishment, or unjust absence of punishment, acutely intolerable.
Even as headmaster of St. George’s, Sneyd-Kinnersley continued his own education. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1879 and made a Doctor of Jurisprudence in 1885: ‘This would have been awarded,’ writes Dutton, ‘upon the presentation of an acceptable portfolio of advanced research in English Law.’ He also published three educational books in the field of Classical languages: Greek Verbs for Beginners, A Parallel Syntax: Greek and Latin for Beginners, and Latin Prose Composition. In November 1886, only a couple years after Churchill was withdrawn from St. George’s, Sneyd-Kinnersley unexpectedly died of a heart attack at the age of 38. He left no children of his own.
Dutton, an anthropologist of religion, sees in Sneyd-Kinnersley’s High Church Toryism an important clue to his character. During their most vigorous historical phases, he writes,
societies are characterised by a form of religiousness which binds the society together and is highly ritualistic in nature. This form of religiousness promotes positive and negative ethnocentrism; these qualities themselves being central to societies which triumph over other societies. Ritual is, therefore, vital for such a society. Engaging in a religious ritual shows that whatever you might believe, you want to be part of the community; you are prepared to be in ‘communion’ with it. This is why, for example, Elizabeth I made clear that she had no interest in what people actually believed, so long as they attended Anglican communion on Sundays.
The Victorian evangelicals whom Sneyd-Kynnersley opposed stood in opposition to the Cult which was so central to the British Empire. They were latter-day Puritans, mainly middle-class people playing for social status through virtue-signaling behaviour such as not swearing, shunning alcohol, maintaining sexual constancy, dressing modestly, [and] expressing moral outrage when people deviated from this code.
Modern liberalism has managed to retain all the sanctimony of nineteenth-century liberalism while dispensing with its devotion to clean living. But then as now, liberal sanctimony was tied to
the political advocacy of equality: better prison conditions, fairer labour laws, extension of the voting franchise to working class men, the promotion of contraception, and the restriction of the influence of the Cult, with non-members being permitted to enter Oxford, Cambridge and Durham Universities by law as of 1871. This led to the usual arms race, with the result that by the end of the Victorian Era society was immensely puritanical. Evangelical influence had pushed the so-called ‘Overton Window’ — the range of opinions that are acceptable in public — further and further away from the traditions that were normal during the summer of civilization.
Sneyd-Kinnersley attempted to preserve civilization from degeneration by reviving earlier traditions, which he regarded as vital and which were already on the wane. At a time when schools were beginning to embrace science, Sneyd-Kynnersley wrote a number of books on how best to teach Latin and Ancient Greek. At a time when public schools were moving towards using the cane, Sneyd-Kynnersley used the birch. At a time when evangelicalism had strongly permeated society, Sneyd-Kynnersley’s religious services were firmly High Church, and his pupils—the potential future leaders of the country—were inculcated with a deep loathing for the Liberal Party, a party which pushed acceptable opinion ever-leftwards, further and further away from the opinions held when English civilization had borne fruit.
The public school system was supposed to turn ‘barbarous young men’ into responsible ‘gentlemen’—capable of running the Empire—through a system of pronounced but controlled violence and other forms of discipline. A high functioning psychopath, like Churchill, with little natural care for the feelings of others and a low desire to follow the rules, would have required a particularly harsh and constant regime in order to be ‘broken’ into an English gentleman. The headmaster got the balance slightly wrong, with incalculable consequences for the British Empire and its motherland.
Had Sneyd-Kynnersley’s birchings been slightly less severe, Dutton speculates, perhaps Churchill
could have been fully broken down; reducing his psychopathic tendencies to the minimum and likely sparing Britain World War II and all that has followed on from that. Never in the history of human civilization has so much rested on what one headmaster did or didn’t do to one boy’s arse.