Harrow County School for Boys


By Richard Mogg

A deeply unhappy childhood and youth are best forgotten, maybe. But accidental discovery of Harrow Countyís Internet web-site has reawakened turbulent memories that must be assuaged. The past has a tendency to catch up with one. What happened at school radically motivated me in life to examine options outside the accepted parameters. I had trouble at home as well as school, and didnít know how to handle either situation. Dr Simpson, Swanny Amos and Major Bigham exemplified institutional feeling at that time. To Dr Simpson, Oxbridge was the only goal. An irony resides in that he himself was not an alumnus of Oxford or of Cambridge.

Simpson, Amos and Bingham were downright nasty to anyone they did not consider prime material for the senior universities, or who could not participate actively in competitive sport, or military affairs. Small, ungainly, timid and confused, I was a prime target for their nastiness. I believe an environment of kindness and understanding would have endowed many boys with a more satisfactory start in life. Winston Churchill would have been kicked out of Harrow for being a dunce, remember, if his father had not been the politically powerful Lord Randolph. Many youngsters are late-starters but bloom later. Early conditioning that they are useless inflicts pain and irreparable damage.

Most of my life has been a journey of escape from an upbringing that still gives me the occasional nightmare. On the other hand I am grateful that somewhere along the way I picked up an appreciation of music and literature that became a vital defence mechanism in times of loneliness and despair. Harrow County played an important role for me in this respect. Special daytime concerts organised for schools at the Harrow Granada were a superb introduction to the classical music repertoire. I recall musical luminaries such as Sir Malcolm Sargeant and Muir Matheson conducted the London Symphony Orchestra at several of them in Harrow.

Richard Buckleyís vitriolic diatribe on Dr Simpson probably goes a bit too far. Identical attitudes prevailed, then, in commerce and industry, and maybe to a lesser extent still do. Social stratification of this nature, founded on snobbery in education, has done more to harm progress than any other social factor in Britainís postwar development. Repeated reorganisation of the education system has only resulted in disaster after disaster. The struggle to turn the technical colleges into universities was almost lost to prevarication by the tradition-bound Establishment.

Compared to similar leading economies such as France and Germany, Britain has failed miserably to generate a modern system of education that provides effective, practical results. The grammar school system was designed to provide the countryís professional backbone. Harrow County was supposed to be north Londonís new exemplar in this respect, in the aftermath of World War 2. Focus on the classics as the bedrock of formal education has gone, but what has replaced it? Dr Simpson and colleagues could only formulate pedagogical policy on the prewar guidelines they new and understood. They did not have the imagination for anything original or different. The new thinking was not yet even a blip on Britainís educational horizon. Simpson, Amos and Bingham, in retrospect, seem men possessed by a bitter legacy that blinded them to the future.

Toward the end of my time at Harrow County I was lined up in School Hall with several other failures. Seniors successful in the Oxbridge examinations were grouped separately. Simpson then gave us all long lecture comparing their fate to ours. While doing this he strode up and down between the two groups, swishing the academic gown he always wore. I can picture him there now. He made no bones about the boys in my group being worthless. I remember feeling frightened. The whole atmosphere of Harrow County, in my memory, was overcast by fear. For the life of me I cannot imagine what could possess any man to brutally humiliate children given into his care, whatever the cause. For a teacher to do such a thing is insane. But there was a bitter element in that eraís Harrow County, shared by several of the teaching staff.

Crude rudeness was also suffered from Amos. My inability to play the more rugged games was an anathema to him. He made it plain that he did not even want me to attend regular physical education classes. I could do what I liked, as long as I kept away. This helped me to develop an acrid inferiority complex about my body and mind. Bingham, completely captivated by his military ambitions, wrote me off when I joined the 4th Harrow scout troop. Later, the Rover Crew became a sort of substitute family when things got too rough at home. At Harrow County, meanwhile, there was an atmosphere that you were either in, or very, very out. Today, I cannot understand why we stood for such awful treatment, even in that era of obedience and deference.

Yet I recall with gratitude much kind support and careful tutelage from members of the teaching staff in my struggle to make-up an academic year lost through sickness and hearing loss. Several went out of their way to give me help and encouragement. There were other good things too. I escaped to Putney once a week, to row shells and eights and generally fool about in boats. Harrow, too, was a nice place to live, a well-planned suburban environment, close to the Chilterns hills and Thames valley. Half an hour away in the other direction lay London, with its superlative world of theatre, music, art and learning. Escape I did, whenever the means were available, into those enchanting realms.

An interesting and fruitful career brought me luck and understanding. Retired now, I seem to work even harder on family affairs and other interests. I hold no grudge, nor bear malice. What happened then at Harrow County is history. Yet throughout life indelible traces remain of that early trauma. As far as I am concerned, the jury is out on the rights or wrongs of the case. Memory goes back to war years in Berkshire and my familyís subsequent removal to Harrow. On admission, I clearly remember thinking Harrow County a rough urban joint indeed, compared to the bucolic grammar school I had tearfully quit in Berkshire. Be that as it may, I am indubitably a child of my time.

So my interest is reawakened in Dr Alexander Russell Simpson; what precisely was the nature of the man? I have to know more. There is precious little biographical data or personal background on him in the Internet web-site. Is there a mystery? What was his personal background and early career in Scotland, and why did he become so obsessed with the classics? Was he a happy family man; and what did he entertain himself with in his spare time? Could someone please fill in the blank spaces in the picture?

Richard Mogg


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