Winston Churchill did not enjoy a particularly close bond with his parents in his early life. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was a radical Tory politician, and served for a short period as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1886. His mother was a very active socialite. They led busy lives and spent very little time with their first son.
Indeed, Winston Churchill’s nanny and boarding school upbringing verged on abandonment, and he wrote many pining letters to his parents begging them to visit him. He was also not a particularly high achiever at school. Many of his reports make it quite clear that he really was a very naughty boy.
Lord Randolph agreed to let Winston join the British Army after he completed his education at Harrow. In June 1893, Churchill took the exam for the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. He only passed on his third attempt, and failed to get into the infantry. He would have to join the cavalry.
Lord Randolph already felt his son was not bright enough to become a barrister or follow himself into a political career. But his failure to reach the infantry was met with fiery vitriol in an astonishing letter:
“There are two ways of winning an examination, one creditable and the other the reverse. You have unfortunately chosen the latter method, and appear to be much pleased with your success.
The first extremely discreditable failure of your performance was missing the infantry, for in that failure is demonstrated beyond refutation your slovenly happy-go-lucky harum scarum style of work for which you have been distinguished at your different schools.
Never have I received a really good report of your conduct in your work from any master or tutor … Always behind hand, never advancing in your class, incessant complaints of total want of application …
With all the advantages you had, with all the abilities which you foolishly think yourself to possess … this is the grand result that you come up among the second rate and third rate who are only good for commissions in a cavalry regiment … You imposed on me an extra charge of some £200 a year.
Do not think that I am going to take the trouble of writing you long letters after every failure and folly you commit and undergo … because I no longer attach the slightest weight to anything you may say about your own accomplishments and exploits.
Make this position indelibly impressed on your mind, that if your conduct and action is similar to what it has been in the other establishments … then … my responsibility for you is over.
I shall leave you to depend on yourself giving you merely such assistance as may be necessary to permit of a respectable life.
Because I am certain that if you cannot prevent yourself from leading the idle useless unprofitable life that you have had during your schooldays and latter months, you will become a mere social wastrel, one of the hundreds of the public school failures, and you will degenerate into a shabby, unhappy and futile existence. If that is so you will have to bear all the blame for such misfortunes yourself.”
You affectionate father, Randolph SC
Andrew Roberts notes in his 2018 biography Churchill: Walking With Destiny that “by then, Lord Randolph’s judgement was badly clouded by mental degeneration.” But the young Winston was evidently seared by the letter’s contempt. He was able to quote parts of it from memory thirty seven years later.
Despite the clear contempt, and that he never really got to know his father on a personal level, Winston Churchill wrote a two volume biography of Lord Randolph – published in 1906.
The letter was sourced from Andrew Roberts’ biography Churchill: Walking With Destiny published by Penguin.