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The Vaughan Library, Harrow School | by Robert Cutts
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The Vaughan Library, Harrow School

Harrow School was founded by John Lyon in 1572 to educate the sons of the yeomen of Harrow. But, by the time its present library was built in the early 1860s, its net had long been cast much wider. In fact it had become one of the most prestigious – and expensive – schools in the England.


Harrovians who have achieved fame are legion. Here are just a few of them:

• Monarchs including King Hussein of Jordan and Faisal II, the last King of Iraq.

• Prime ministers including Spencer Perceval (the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated), Robert Peel, Henry John Temple (3rd Viscount Palmerston), Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Jawaharlal Nehru.

• Lesser parliamentarians including Leopold Amery, Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, Eric Lubbock and Keith Joseph.

• Military men including Richard Saunders Dundas and Lord Alexander of Tunis.

• Writers including Anthony Trollope, Lord Byron, John Galsworthy, Terence Rattigan, John Mortimer and William Deedes the one-time Daily Telegraph editor and correspondent.

• The photographer Cecil Beaton and the actor Michael Denison.

For a more complete list see Old Harrovians.


The photo shows the school's library. It was designed by George Gilbert Scott and named after Charles John Vaughan, the headmaster of the school during the 1850s. It's located on the east side of the High Street, Harrow Hill, and has been designated a grade II listed building. A major refurbishment was carried out in the year 2000. A glance at Harrow School, the Vaughan Library shows that the facility is well funded and generously equipped so it's rather surprising to read elsewhere that, during 2010, it attracted an average of only 40 visitors per day from a school that lays claim to 820 pupils and 100 members of academic staff.


To quote from Harrow School, Yesterday and Today (1948) by Edward Dalrymple Laborde (1890-1962):


"On the resignation of Dr Vaughan in 1859 a resolution was passed at a meeting of Harrow Masters and his former Harrow pupils held at Spencer House, London, on March 13, 1860, that a fund should be raised to build as a memorial of his Headmastership a School Library to be known as the Vaughan Library. Difficulties were met in securing the chosen site, which was then occupied by three cottages and the stables of the Crown and Anchor Inn opposite ; but after some delay they were overcome by the energy of Dr. Vaughan's successor, Dr. H M Butler. Mr. George Gilbert Scott, RA, was selected as architect and Mr. Richard Chapman engaged as builder. The foundation stone was laid on Speech Day, July 4, 1861, by Lord Palmerston. The ceremony, which was performed in pouring rain after three and a half hours of "Speeches," began with a prayer by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Headmaster then presented a silver trowel to Lord Palmerston, who spoke to the gathering, comparing, "honourable exertion to a fertilizing shower, which, though it may, as you all know at the present moment, not be agreeable to those exposed to it, yet creates an ample and abundant harvest. He then laid the stone, while the Headmaster held an umbrella over him."


The Rev Charles John Vaughan (1816-1897) was the son of the vicar of St Martin's, Leicester.educated at Rugby School and Trinity College, Cambridge. While he was at Rugby, Thomas Arnold was appointed headmaster and was beginning to bring in the revolutionary methods for which he is famous. Vaughan was impressed and, after Arnold left Rugby in 1841, Vaughan was in the running to succeed him as headmaster. it was a close run thing between Vaughan and Archibald Tait. in fact, Tait got the job and ended up as Archbishop of Canterbury. However, it was only three years after his unsuccessful bid for the Rugby post that Vaughan was appointed headmaster of the even more prestigious establishment at Harrow. He had been very much influenced by Arnold and, during the five years he was at Harrow, he introduced many of Arnold's methods, including his monitorial system. he was also responsible for the restoration and extension of two or three buildings. However, in 1859, he was forced to resign under a cloud the full extent of which didn't emerge until the 1970s when the diaries of the Victorian poet John Addington Symonds were discovered. These revealed that Vaughan had been having an affair with a boy called Alfred Pretor, although it has been said that the relationship "had not involved coition but was limited to letters and caresses"¹. Symonds was a friend of Pretor. He knew – and disapproved – of the affair, but kept silent for a year. Finally, he informed the Latin master John Connington of what was going on. Ironically Connington condoned such relationships. Nevertheless, he encouraged Symonds to tell his father about Vaughan's affair with Pretor and it was Dr Symonds who forced Vaughan to resign.


On 19 September, 1859, in a bottom corner of page 5 of The Times there appeared the following text in very small print:


Head-Mastership of Harrow school,— following circular has been addressed by Doctor Vaughan to the parents of boys now as Harrow:—

“Dear Sir,— The end of this to will bring with it the completion of the 15th year of my Head-Mastership. I have resolved, after much deliberation, to take that opportunity of relieving myself from the long pressure of those heavy duties and anxious responsibilities which are inseparable from such an office, even under the most favourable circumstance. With how much reluctance I form and announce such resolution, it is needless for me to say. I have no doubt that the Governors of the school will elect as my successor in this important charge some one in whose administration, aided by the exertions of my present able coadjutors, you will have reason to feel entire confidence. I earnestly hope that you will find yourself able to allow the education of your son to be completed where it has been begun. I shall ever retain a grateful remembrance of the confidence which you have reposed in me, and a lively interest in the continued welfare of prosperity of this beloved and honoured school.— I remain, dear Sir, your faithful servant, Chal. J. Vaughan.”


Dr Symonds stipulated that Vaughan should not accept any high clerical post in the future. On that basis, the whole thing was covered up and Vaughan became vicar of Doncaster. However, in 1863, he accepted Palmerston's offer of the Bishopric of Rochester. On hearing this, Symonds telegrammed Vaughan threatening public exposure unless he resigned immediately. Vaughan promptly informed Palmerston that, on further consideration, he would withdraw. Meanwhile, the recipient of Vaughan's attentions, Alfred Pretor, had became head boy. After leaving Harrow he followed in his headmaster's footsteps at Trinity. Later he became a writer and, for 35 years, a distinguished fellow of St Catherine's College, Cambridge.


Reproduced in the first comment is a sardonic cartoon of Vaughan published in the British Vanity Fair in 1872, ten years after the scandal. It includes the Latin words novo episcopari which, translated, mean I do not want to be a bishop. In those days the words were traditionally uttered twice by those nominated for such a post. Of course, their tongue would be firmly in their cheek but, in Vaughan's case the words have a somewhat ironic interpretation. He never did become a bishop.


John Addington Symonds was born in Clifton, Bristol, in 1840. His father – also John Addington Symonds – was an eminent physician with an enormous and lucrative practice whose fame extended over much of the West Country. The Symondses were a cultured family and Dr Symonds himself had interests extending to art, archaeology, science and literature. The younger Symonds started at Harrow in 1854 and went on to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1860. He had inherited many of his father's interests but, possibly as a result of experiencing the homosexuality rampant at Harrow during his time there, he also became a life-long advocate of male sexual relationships. Such practices were anathema to Victorian society and had to be kept secret. Nevertheless, although married and with a family, he wrote poetry inspired by his own homosexual affairs.


George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) was one of a family of architects. Among his many other designs are the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, the recently restored Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station, Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand (devastated by the 2011 earthquake) and St Nikolaikirche, Hamburg, which was the tallest building in the world from 1874 to 1876 but which was heavily bombed during WWII.


Lord Palmerston (1784-1865) was at Harrow from 1795-1800 and, when he laid the foundation stone of the Library in 1860, had recently started his second stint as Prime Minister. He was 76 at the time but vigorous and in good health. He was still in office five years later in 1865 when he developed a feverish chill. It is thought that, when his doctor suggested that he could die from the fever, his retort was "Die, my dear doctor. That is the last thing I would do". Whether or not those were his last words, the fever was certainly his nemesis. He is the most recent of the prime ministers who have died in office and on 11 May 2012 he became the only prime minister for 200 years to have done so.² If you're wondering why this should be so, read what is written here. And note that the subject of the article is amongst the Harrovian prime ministers and was also another scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge!


Charles Vaughan's successor as headmaster was another cleric, the Rev Henry Montagu Butler (1833-1918) – in those days headmasters of Harrow were invariably drawn from the Church of England priesthood. Montagu Butler, as he was known, was only 27 when appointed to the post and served for the ensuing 25 years. He was the son of the Rev George Butler (1774-1853) who had been headmaster of the School from 1805 to 1829. Thus the Butlers, father and son, served as headmasters of Harrow for half of the 19th century. Henry junior started as a pupil at the school in November 1846 and was head boy in 1850-51.


George Butler was a wealthy man and, throughout his time at Harrow School, he purchased land on the Hill and its northern slopes. In 1814 he had been made the Rector of Gayton in Northants and, on retiring from the headship, he took up his duties as parish priest of Gayton with the same zeal that he had given to his time at Harrow. His son, Henry, was born in Gayton when George was in his 60th year and it's no coincidence that there is a Gayton Road in central Harrow. Indeed there is another seat of learning along that road – although it's somewhat less exclusive than Harrow School itself. Harrow High School was founded as Harrow County School in 1911.


Montagu Butler was one of the nine children of the Rev George Butler – four sons and five daughters. And amongst the grandchildren of Montagu himself and of his elder brother, Spencer Percival Butler, were at least two men who achieved fame in the 20th century. One of Montagu's grandsons was Guy Montagu Butler (1899-1981), an accomplished Olympic athlete and one of Spencer's many grandchildren was Richard Austen Butler. RAB, as he was usually known, was a distinguished British parliamentarian whose career spanned four decades in the mid 20th century. He was the pilot of the 1944 Education Act which laid the foundations for British education over the rest of the century. He later held a number of cabinet posts, including Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. His last post was Deputy Prime Minister after which he retired from politics and became Master of Trinity College, Cambridge – once the stamping ground of one Charles John Vaughan and his young friend, Alfred Pretor.


One of John Symonds' daughters Margaret – or Madge as she was better known – became a novelist. She married William Wyamar Vaughan (1865-1938), a cousin of Virginia Woolf. William Vaughan's father, Henry Halford Vaughan was, like Charles John Vaughan, educated at Rugby and Cambridge – and William himself was headmaster of Rugby School from 1921-1931. But the families were not related.


William and Madge's daughter, Janet Maria Vaughan (1899-1993), was a physiologist and academic who served as Principal of Somerville College, Oxford from 1945 until 1967. She was made a DBE in 1957 and an FRS in 1979.


In 1947, under Janet Vaughan's watch, a student of the college, Margaret Roberts, graduated with a second-class honours degree in chemistry. Four years later the said Miss Roberts married a British businessman named Denis Thatcher. And the rest is history!


Harrow School is not the only school in Harrow to be associated with John Lyon. Further down the hill – on its southwestern slopes – is a place of learning called The John Lyon School. It was founded in 1876 by the Governors of Harrow School with the intention of realizing anew the vision that John Lyon had aspired to when he started Harrow School in the first place – a vision that had somehow got forgotten over the years. John Lyon's aim was to provide an education for boys who lived in the vicinity of Harrow. In the years since it was set up, the school named after him has lived up well to its expectations. Interestingly, its four houses are named not after its own former headmasters but after those of the 'other place' further up the hill. They include both Butler and Vaughan – but it was not always so. In my time at the school in the early 1950s the houses were rather less pretentiously named after the points of the compass. My house was North which, I'm relieved to report, became Butler. It was the luckless West house that became Vaughan. Were the houses of John Lyon School to have been named after its own headmasters one of them would surely have been Oscar Alfred Le Beau who was in post during my first year at the school but who then retired. He had served as headmaster for 25 years and as science master for about ten years before that. Another obvious candidate would be Ernest Young who was first a master at the school and then, after a spell abroad, became headmaster from 1898 until 1910. After that he became the first headmaster of Harrow County School when it was founded in 1911. You can read all about him in Ernest Young – first headmaster of Harrow County School by Stephen Frost. To download it Google "ernest young" gayton (with the quotes). He should be first on the list. Click on the link to download the Word document.


Alumni of John Lyon's include bandleader Victor Silvester, lawyer Francis Bennion and actor Timothy West.


Former pupils of Harrow County School include comedian Cardew Robinson, broadcaster Clive Anderson and politicians Michael Portillo and Diane Abbott, though she attended Harrow County Grammar School for Girls.


For more about John Lyon and the schools associated with him, read John Lyon's Dream by by my late and very much lamented school-friend, Michael Burrell. The official price is £30 but you can get it for £12 from Amazon.³ There's also a Wikipedia article about him just over half way down the list of John Lyons. He's distantly related to some of the others, notably the earls of Glamis and John Bowes-Lyon, brother to Elizabeth Bowes Lyon (the Queen Mother) and uncle of the Queen.



¹ The road of danger, guilt, and shame: the lonely way of A.E. Housman by Carol Efrati, p287.


² The Wikipedia article is wrong to suggest that Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman died in office. He resigned on 3 April 1908 and died 19 days later on 22 April 1908 as is stated in the Henry Campbell-Bannerman article.


³ It was £12 in 2014 but, as at May 2017, the price is £175 and there's only one available! Two years later (July 2019) the price had tumbled to £4 including delivery.


Sourced principally from Harrow School, Yesterday and Today (1948) by Edward Dalrymple Laborde, A History of Harrow School, 1324-1991 by Christopher Tyerman (2000), John Addington Symond: a Biography by Phyllis Grosskurth (1975), Wikipedia and John Lyon's Dream by Michael Burrell.


Robert Cutts, January 2012, corrected and updated September 2014, December 2015, May 2017.




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Taken on December 3, 2011