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What do Winston Churchill, Lord Byron, and Benedict Cumberbatch have in common? They’re all Old Harrovians, alumni of Harrow School in Harrow-on-the-Hill, north-west London. Between inventing sports, using funny words and churning out prime ministers, this prestigious private boarding school, founded in 1572, also has some rather bizarre traditions.
Any non-Harrovians walking into Harrow School could be forgiven for seeking out a translator in the belief they had wandered into a foreign country. Harrow has its very own distinct vocabulary which has developed over the years. First-year boys are ‘shells’, ‘bums’ are prefects and teachers are called ‘beaks’, while ‘greyers’ are the boys’ trousers and ‘bluers’ refers to their dark blue woollen uniform jackets.
One long-standing Harrow School tradition involves supplying prime ministers to the British government. In total, seven were educated at Harrow, including war-leader Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Robert Peel, the father of British policing, and Spencer Perceval, the only UK prime minister ever to have been assassinated. Harrow is second only to Eton College, which has produced 19 UK prime ministers. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was also educated at Harrow, as was Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the current Emir of Qatar, and former rulers of Jordan, Iraq and Zanzibar.
Harrovians roving the streets of Harrow can be quickly identified by their uniforms. The most common is the ‘day’ uniform, which boys wear to classes. It consists of a white shirt, black tie, ‘greyers’, black shoes, a ‘bluer’ and the classic Harrow hat. Optional additions include a blue jumper, a dark blue woollen overcoat and the school blue-and-white scarf. Boys are required to doff their hats when they see a ‘beak’, and anyone spotted not wearing theirs in the streets faces punishment.
While the day uniform is smart, the ‘best’ uniform is smarter. The black shoes, black tie and white shirt still feature, but they are accompanied by striped trousers, black waistcoat, black tailcoat, a top hat and a cane – yes, that’s right, a cane. Along with the ill-fitting, ragged clothes of some working-class children, the ‘best’ uniform became the subject of a dichotomous photo, taken in 1937 at Lord’s Cricket Ground, that illustrated the class division that existed in 20th-century British society.
Harrow School has a strong sporting tradition. Squash, or ‘squasher’ as it was originally called, was invented at Harrow in the first half of the 19th century. It developed from another sport called rackets and quickly spread to other schools before becoming an international sport.
An ancestor of the modern game, Harrow football shares some similarities with football – but there are plenty of differences, too. These include the use of a ball 18 inches in diameter instead of nine, corner throws instead of corner kicks, ‘bases’ instead of goals and base posts, like rugby posts with the crossbar removed, instead of goal posts. Oh, and players can use their hands and arms in certain circumstances, too.
Just like Oxford and Cambridge compete in the annual Boat Race along the River Thames, Harrow School and Eton College go head-to-head every year in a match at Lord’s Cricket Ground. This annual scholastic sporting battle has been taking place since 1805, predating the Boat Race, an encounter which first occurred in 1829 and only became an annual event in 1856.