Alan Turing, aged 16, in 1928.

In November 1928, a sixteen-year-old pupil at Sherborne School picked off the library shelf a copy of W.W. Rouse Ball’s Mathematical Recreations and Essays, and read:

‘The art of constructing cryptographs or ciphers – intelligible to those who know the key and unintelligible to others – has been studied for centuries.  Their usefulness on certain occasions, especially in time of war, is obvious, while it may be a matter of great importance to those from whom the key is concealed to discover it.  But the romance connected with the subject, the not uncommon desire to discover a secret, and the implied challenge to the ingenuity of all from whom the key is hidden, have attracted to the subject the attention of many to whom its utility is a matter of indifference.’

This boy’s early interest in cryptographs and ciphers, with their ‘challenge to the ingenuity’, would result in him just eleven years later cracking the German Enigma code.  The boy’s name was Alan Turing.

Alan Turing (1912-1954) attended Sherborne School from the age of 13 to 19.  But what impact did Sherborne School have on Alan during these formative years, and how did they shape the man who is today recognised as one of Britain’s greatest mathematicians and the father of the modern computer?

John Turing described his brother as ‘an eccentric of outsize proportions’ and even at the age of thirteen Alan’s behaviour was attracting attention with a mention in the local newspaper of his arrival by bicycle in Sherborne in May 1926.

Alan Turing in 1926, during his first term at Sherborne School.

By 1926, Alan’s parents were living in France and with Alan due to begin his first term at Sherborne School on 4 May 1926 he set off alone the preceding day, taking the Channel ferry from St Malo and arriving in Southampton only to discover that owing to the General Strike no trains were running.  Undeterred, Alan sent his housemaster a telegram informing him that he would not now be arriving until the following day and set out to cycle the 63 miles from Southampton to Sherborne across what was for him unknown territory.  He stopped overnight at the Crown Hotel in Blandford Forum and the following morning, he reported later in a letter to his parents, the hotel staff turned out to see him off on the remainder of his journey to Sherborne.

Alan’s brother did not enjoy his time at Marlborough College and advised his parents to send Alan to school elsewhere.  Through a family friend who knew one of the science masters at Sherborne School, they decided to send Alan to Sherborne, hoping that with his already proven interest in science the School might suit him.

At Sherborne School in the 1920s, as at many other public schools, the study of the Classics (Latin and Greek) and excellence on the games field were prioritised.  The curriculum gave little emphasis to the study of science, as revealed by a Board of Education inspection carried out at the School in October 1930:

‘There is no lecture room.  Lectures are given in one or other of the four laboratories: and a laboratory is ill adapted for lecture purposes even if it is fitted with a demonstration bench.  There is no room equipped and set apart for advanced work in physics.  A room designated the biological laboratory is put to other uses and is not suitably equipped for biological work.  The accommodation is below standard for a school of this type and the work suffers in consequence.’

‘Shor’ Gervis, physics master at Sherborne School 1921-1964.

The physics master at Sherborne was Henry Shorland Gervis.  ‘Shor’ Gervis, who had an MA from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge had joined the School staff in 1921 and remained for the next 43 years.  Despite the poor working conditions, Gervis was evidently an inspiring and inventive teacher who found in Alan a keen and able student, but one whose ideas and methods needed refining and tempering.  In one of Alan’s early school reports for Michaelmas term 1927, Gervis wrote ‘He shows considerable promise, but he must learn to express himself adequately’.

Alan’s methods of expressing himself were still causing Gervis problems in the Summer term of 1929 when he wrote ‘He has done some good work but generally sets it down badly.  He must remember that Cambridge will want sound knowledge rather than vague ideas’.

However, improvements in Alan’s work did finally appear and by Michaelmas term 1930 Gervis could report that ‘He has done some excellent work, mostly strict training for his scholarship examinations.  I can only hope Cambridge will think as well of him as I do’, and in Alan’s final school report of Summer term 1931 Gervis wrote with a sense of pride and satisfaction, ‘He has done well: I wish him success at Cambridge.’ 

It was possibly Gervis who instigated Alan’s invitation back to Sherborne School on 9 March 1953 to give a paper on ‘The Electronic Brain’ to The Alchemists (a society for those interested in the progress of science).  Unfortunately, no transcript of Alan’s paper survives but the event was reported in the School magazine and, despite the initial reservations of his young audience as to whether they would understand the subject matter, Alan had obviously lost none of the skills he had learnt at Sherborne in putting across his ideas:

‘The Society met for the first time this term on Monday, March 9th [1953], at the Green when a paper on the Electronic Brain was read by Mr Turing.  Several members of the audience had foreseen the possibility that they might not understand a word of what was said, but they could not have been more mistaken.  Mr Turing made a very clear analogy between a stupid clerk, with his mechanical calculating device paper to write his workings on and his instructions, and the Electronic Brain which combined all these in one.  All that was necessary was to put the instructions into a tape machine and the mass of wires, valves, resistors, condensers and chokes did the rest, the answer appearing on another tape.  The Brain was, however, liable to make mistakes and subtle checking devices were included to detect them.  As yet it cannot do anything of its own accord, nor is it able to rectify its own mistakes.  Slides were shown of the general layout of the machine and also of some previous ones made in the last century.  The questions at the end of the meeting showed how much the Society had grasped the principles underlying the workings of the Electronic Brain.’  The Shirburnian, Lent 1953.

Mathematics was the other area where Alan excelled at Sherborne.  According to the Board of Education’s inspection report of October 1930 the School’s Mathematics department was then flourishing under the direction of Dr Edwin Davis:

‘The School is fortunate in possessing a Mathematical staff whose academic qualifications and teaching capacity are well above the average.  The same Master is in charge of the subject as at all the two previous Inspections.  He is a highly qualified and capable teacher of considerable experience, and he has organised his department most efficiently.’

A mathematics classroom at Sherborne School.

Known to everyone as ‘Ben’, Davis was then the only member of the School staff to hold a Ph.D.  He had joined the School staff in 1903 and died, still in service, in 1933 aged just 53.  In his obituary a fellow master described Davis as having ‘a wonderful power of letting light into the understanding and unremitting energy and patience in doing so’.

Davis was also a tutor at Westcott House, where Alan boarded, and they would have known each other well.  Davis also accompanied boys from Westcott House when their housemaster, Geoffrey O’Hanlon, took them on holidays to Sark and Cornwall.  Alan went on several of these holidays and O’Hanlon’s holiday snaps reveal a relaxed and happy boy seated comfortably beside a smiling Ben Davis.

Alan Turing (seated, second from left) next to Ben Davis and other boys from Westcott House at Rock in Cornwall, April 1930.

The care and affection that Davis had for the boys in his care is demonstrated in a letter written by Alan to his parents shortly after the death in 1930 of his school friend Christopher Morcom from bovine tuberculosis.  In the letter Alan writes that prior to Morcom’s death ‘Ben very kindly sent me a note on Thursday saying he had heard there was bad news & to be prepared for the worst.’

Another member of the mathematics department who played an important role in Alan’s development at Sherborne was Donald Eperson.  Eperson held an MA from Christ Church, Oxford and taught at Sherborne from 1927 to 1938.  He was a great advocate of the value of ‘Recreational Mathematics’ in the classroom, believing that it allowed boys to investigate problems and puzzles on their own.  Eperson introduced his pupils to the literary works of Lewis Carroll which contained many arithmetical and logical allusions.  Undoubtedly inspired by Eperson, Alan borrowed three books by Lewis Carroll from the School library in November 1930 – The Game of Logic, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  This love of puzzles and ciphers fostered at Sherborne would eventually lead Alan in 1939 to the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park.

Sherborne School library loans register showing Alan Turing taking out three books by Lewis Carroll on 4 November 1930.

Alan was always keen to share his enthusiasm for mathematics and puzzles with others.  At Sherborne he became the ‘Mathematician-in-ordinary’, helping boys with their homework which his housemaster recognised in Alan’s school report, writing ‘He takes a fatherly interest in his dormitory, and no doubt imparts his learning and curiosity to them.’

Eperson later recalled teaching Alan in the sixth form at Sherborne School:

‘In one sense he was difficult to teach, as he preferred his own independent methods, and was less interested in learning “book-work” and developing a good style of written work.  On the other hand he was an industrious member of the class, who needed no stimulus to exert himself mentally, and could readily appreciate the solution that I showed him to any problem that he could not solve “by the light of nature”, i.e. by discovering alternative methods of his own devising that are sometimes “clumsy and cumbersome” and sometimes brilliant but unsound.   All that I can claim is that my deliberate policy of leaving him largely to his own devices and standing by to assist when necessary, allowed his natural mathematical genius to progress uninhibited.’

Alan’s ‘independent methods’ of learning took him to the School library from where as a sixth former he was allowed to borrow books.  In 1930, the School library held between 8,000 to 10,000 volumes and the Board of Education report stated that it played ‘an important part in the intellectual life of the School’.  The library loans registers reveal that between October 1928 and May 1931 Alan borrowed 33 titles.  However, he was evidently not a great reader of fiction with only three of the titles coming from that category, these being Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and A.J. Evans’s The Escaping Club.  The remainder of the titles were for the subjects of mathematics, chemistry, physics and astronomy, some of which Alan borrowed on several occasions, including Thomas Preston’s The Theory Heat which he borrowed five times between February 1930 and June 1931.  Other titles, such as J.H. Jean’s The Universe Around Us and T.W. Webb’s Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes he took away in December 1929 for the Christmas holidays.

The School library also played an important role in Alan’s friendship with fellow pupil, Christopher Morcom (1911-1930), a friendship that would be instrumental in defining Alan’s future life and career.  Alan and Christopher were members of different houses and, according to the norms of the time, were not supposed to fraternise with each other.  However, Alan discovered that Christopher studied in the School library on Wednesday afternoons and so it became a place where the two boys could meet and discuss their shared interests in mathematics, science and astronomy.

Christopher Morcom, c.1926-1927.

Christopher’s sudden death in February 1930 ended for Turing a period of intellectual companionship and friendship.  On the night of Christopher’s death his house master spoke to the boys saying, ‘We cannot tell why Chris Morcom should have suffered a death like this, but there is a reason.  Maybe it was to save him from a life of pain or illness; maybe to help some of you in some way, for a friend like that can often by his death do more to influence others even than by his life.’  This message was critical in helping Alan deal with his profound sense of loss following Christopher’s death, which became the catalyst for all he went on to achieve.

A few days after Christopher’s death Alan wrote to his mother saying, ‘I feel sure that I shall meet Morcom again somewhere and that there will be some work for us to do together, as I believed there was for us to do here.  Now that I am left to do it alone I must not let him down but put as much energy into it, if not as much interest, as if he were still here.  If I succeed I shall be more fit to enjoy his company than I am now.’

With this new sense of focus, Alan set about applying himself seriously to his school work and on securing an Open Scholarship at King’s College, Cambridge.  He was made a School Prefect and won many School prizes, including in 1931 the School’s Mathematics Medal.  His mother asked him what all the prizes were for to which he replied, in his typically self-effacing manner, ‘Oh!  I don’t know: but I think when you’ve been a couple of years in the sixth they start pensioning you off.’

The Morcom prize for Science.

There was, however, one particular prize that Alan was determined to win the first year that it was announced: the Christopher Morcom Prize for Science.  Christopher’s family had set up the prize in 1930 in his memory and Alan succeeded in winning it in 1930 and 1931.  The Morcom prize is still awarded by the School today, embodying the original hope that ‘the competition shall accomplish its end of encouraging the true pursuit of Science among Shirburnians.’

Following Alan’s death in June 1954, his mother wanted to ensure that her son’s achievements were not forgotten and set about donating material to places with which he had been associated.  It is for this reason that amongst the archives held at Sherborne School is a collection of unique material relating to the life of Alan Turing.  This material includes Alan’s school reports, the School Mathematics Medal awarded in 1931, the OBE awarded in 1945 for war service in the Foreign Office and at Bletchley Park, the official photograph taken when he was elected to a fellowship of the Royal Society in 1951, and copies of eighty-six letters written by Alan to his parents and others between 1924 and 1954.

Mathematics prize book and medal won by Alan Turing at Sherborne School in 1931.

On 10 September 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a posthumous apology to Alan Turing for the sentence he received following his conviction in 1952 for having a sexual relationship with a young man.  The apology ended with the following paragraph:

 ‘It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.  So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say: we’re sorry.  You deserved so much better.’

 Alan Turing OBE, PhD, FRS is indeed an Old Shirburnian of whom we can be very proud.

Rachel Hassall
School Archivist
14 February 2019

See also:
Alan Turing at Sherborne School

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