Friday, August 4, 2017

The Rev. Sneyd-Kinnersley, played by Robert Hardy

We mourn the passing of the great English actor, Robert Hardy, at the age of 91. The obituaries written today most frequently mention his role as Cornelius Fudge, the professor of magic, in the Harry Potter films. But, for the purposes of this blog, we shall recall his portrayal of a real-life clergyman-professor, the Rev. Herbert W Sneyd Kinnersley.

After Cambridge, Sneyd Kinnersley was ordained by the Bishop of Oxford. He was a renowned classical scholar and his Latin schoolbooks are still in print. In 1880, he founded St. George's School in Ascot where his infamy was established. 

"Accounts of this horrible headmaster’s pitiless beatings are staggering.*" Every Monday morning, the student body - no more than fifty boys - was assembled to hear the reports of the previous week's scholarship. The names of those who had disappointed the headmaster were called out. The unfortunates came forward and were made to drop their trousers and bend over a large box to be birched. It was a "good sound flogging," survivors recalled. As many as 20 strokes were customary. or whatever it took to draw blood. 

The main source for the tales of Sneyd-Kinnersley's disciplinary mania was the Bloomsbury artist Roger Fry whose memoirs of his time at St. George's were reportedly censored by his biographers. 

Robert Hardy played Sneyd-Kinnersley in the 1972 film version of My Early Life, based on the memoirs of Winston Churchill who was sent to St. George's in the 1880's. Winston later recalled, "Flogging with the birch in accordance with the Eton fashion was a great feature of the curriculum." He, too, never forgot what Fry described as the "solemn ritual" of Mondays. Churchill, no shrinking schoolboy, felt the sting of the headmaster's birch more than once. He wrote how, in front of the whole school, he and other mates were "flogged until they bled freely." It was when Winston's nanny, Mrs. Everest, saw the scars from one such birching that she spoke up and Winston's parents removed him from the school.

The Rev. Sneyd-Kinnersley died at a young age, just 38.

It is ironic that an actor who, I believe, was the best ever to embody the role of Winston Churchill on screen, also played such a formative figure in Churchill's young life.



  1. The flogging brutality at St George’s school in the late 19th century was a manifestation of the dying embers of the inferno of corporal punishment that had pervaded English Public School culture throughout the previous 300 years.

    Flogging with the birch at Eton and similar public schools from the 17th to the mid 19th centuries was a brutal, disgusting and sexually violating punishment. It involved denuding the delinquent boy or young man (they were flogged up to the age of 18 or 19) of his breeches and underwear, making him kneel and bend almost double over a ‘flogging block’, and flogging his naked buttocks with a large birch. The Eton birch was a savage and grotesque instrument, being a 5 feet long thick heavy bundle of brine soaked birch branches and twigs. A severe flogging, which could consist of 5 or 6 dozen strokes, would leave the whole of the victim’s buttocks, from the small of his back to his thighs, including the anal and perineal sphere, a mass of raw, lacerated, mangled and mutilated flesh, covered and streaming with blood. A public school flogging was effectively tantamount to being violently anally raped.

    It has been documented in historic medical papers, notably of the renowned 18th century physician J H Meibomius, that school floggings caused, or induced, alarming side effects, most commonly erections, and in extreme cases seminal emissions. These were caused by the violent stimulation and irritation of the pudendal nerve branches which innervate the gluteal and anoperineal region, and the surge of blood causing vaso-congestion and inflammation of the whole pelvic floor. If the floggings at St George’s were anything like those at the great public schools, it is not surprising that Fry’s biographers censored his memoirs, especially if they contained any of the lurid details of what flogging with the birch actually entailed, or of the side effects it induced.

    1. Sorry, I just discovered your reply to my blog post. Thank you for the thoughtful comment.


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