Winston Churchill bombarded with letters about electing Eton provost

Winston Churchill was bombarded with letters and memos on the pressing issue of electing a new provost of Eton as he tried to plot Britain’s advance across Europe  to liberate it from the Nazis

  • Former prime minister inundated with letters about electing Eton provost
  • Position traditionally appointed by monarch on recommendation of PM 

As 1944 ended and 1945 began, Winston Churchill was busy leading Britain to victory in the Second World War.

But as the Allies advanced through Europe after D-Day, it may come as a surprise to learn that the then-prime minister was being bombarded in No 10 – by letters and memos about electing a new provost of Eton.

A Cabinet Office file released by the National Archives contains more than 110 pages of papers generated over four months by the rather arcane issue.

The deluge of documents was caused because the provost, or chairman of the governors, is appointed by the monarch on the recommendation of the prime minister. The procedure is down to a quirk of history dating back to the school’s foundation in 1440 by Henry VI. Churchill’s involvement began when 75-year-old Hugh Cecil, 1st Baron Quickswood, wrote to him on September 26, 1944, to say he was resigning as provost because of his age, worsening hearing and eyesight.

Churchill may have been a little preoccupied. It was the day that the Battle of Arnhem ended in defeat for the Allies.

While in the midst of World War II, Winston Churchill was deluged with letters about electing a new provost at Eton

Eton’s provost, or chairman of the governors, is appointed by the monarch on the recommendation of the prime minister

Lord Quickswood, who was appointed provost in 1936, left the date he was leaving unfixed as it was ‘convenient to the college’ for there not to be a long interval before his successor took office – and also convenient to himself as the house in Bournemouth to which he was retiring was not quite ready ‘under the rather difficult conditions of wartime’.

Churchill replied to Lord Quickswood – best man at his wedding in 1908 – saying he was sorry to hear he was resigning, hoped he was not leaving public life entirely, and that he was seeking the necessary approval for his resignation from George VI.

Churchill then gave aides instructions to consult about the new provost.

The files also contain memos on potential successors, on ‘Old Etonian gossip’ about who the new provost should be, and discussion of proposed amendments to Eton’s statutes.

Eventually Henry Marten, who was vice provost and had been a private tutor to the then Princess Elizabeth, was appointed in January 1945. He held the post until he died aged 76 in 1948.

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