Alan Mathison Turing (1912-1954) was a pupil at Sherborne School from May 1926 to July 1931. This tour identifies locations in Sherborne associated with Alan Turing’s time here.
When Alan Turing was a pupil at Sherborne there was no actual School uniform, instead there was a dress code. The School Rules for 1929 state that:
‘All coats and waistcoats must be black, or plain dark grey or dark blue. Pullovers, if worn, must be plain and inconspicuous. Grey flannel suits, not lighter than the regulation colour, are allowed on week days. Black ties only are allowed with ordinary clothes.’
The Gate tower entrance to Sherborne School was completed in 1923. It would have still looked very new when Alan Turing arrived at Sherborne three years later in May 1926.
Displayed above the entrance on the north side are the Coat of Arms of Edward VI, who re-founded the School in 1550. Underneath is the School motto, ‘Dieu et mon Droit’ (‘God and my right’).
Above the entrance on the south side are displayed the initials of Alan Turing’s Headmaster ‘NS’ (Nowell Smith) and of the architect ‘RB’ (Reginald Blomfield). In the centre of the panel is the coat of arms of the then Chairman of the Governors, Colonel J.R.P. Goodden. Beneath are the words ‘Nisi Dominus Frustra’, a contraction of the first line of Psalm 127, ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.’
The Board of Education’s inspection report of October 1930 stated that Sherborne 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.’
The Courts is the name given to the large gravelled courtyard in the centre of the School. In 1910, the School adopted the ‘Swedish Drill’ system of Physical Training which was believed to promote health through the performance of a series of prescribed movement patterns and regimented drills. Attendance at these daily ten minute drills was compulsory and therefore not popular with the boys. Every year at the School’s Commemoration Day the boys put on a PT demonstration (rain or shine) in the Courts for the benefit of parents and guests.
The Officers Training Corps (OTC), which was also compulsory, would also drill and parade in The Courts. Alan Turing, who was never very tidy, frequently turned out with his puttees around his ankles and once, for a dare, appeared on parade wearing an overcoat and no tunic. But despite this in Trinity term 1931, Alan was promoted to the rank of Sergeant.
The Courts have appeared in many films, including The Imitation Game (2014), Far From the Madding Crowd (2015), The Browning Version (1994) and Goodbye, Mr Chips (1969), and also the TV series Wolf Hall (2015).
The Big School Room was built in 1879. An organ and raised dais were later added at the north end of the room. In 1956, when the building was extended to the south, the dais was removed and a stage was built at the south end.
Alan Turing won many prizes at Sherborne which were presented to him in the BSR by the Headmaster. The prizes Alan won include the Kirby Mathematical Prize (1926), the Lyon Prize (1927), the Plumptre Mathematical Prize (1928), the Morcom Prize for Science (1930, 1931), the Digby Prize for Mathematics and Science (1930, 1931), and the King’s Medal for Mathematics (1931).
In 1950, the School launched its Quatercentenary Appeal to secure the funds to extend the BSR as a War Memorial to those who died in the Second World War. Alan Turing subscribed to the appeal and the BSR extension was finally declared open by Brigadier C.E. Hudson, V.C. (OS) on 10 November 1956, two years after Turing’s death.
The Cloisters run along the south and west sides of The Courts and were built in 1877 and 1879. Traces of the original monastic cloisters can still be seen on the east wall of the school library and the north wall of the Abbey.
Scenes for The Imitation Game (2014) were filmed in the Cloisters.
In 1851, the School acquired the former monastic buildings from Lord Digby. The School chapel was originally the Abbot’s House. It was lengthened eastward in 1853 and twice westward in 1865 and 1922. The north aisle was added in 1879. The chapel was consecrated on 17 February 1855.
The War Memorial Staircase and ante-chapel (designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield) were added in 1922. Incised on the walls are the names of 221 Old Shirburnians killed in the First World War. Alan Turing would have passed these names every day on the way to chapel. The names of the 242 Old Shirburnians killed in the Second World War were added in 1947. In the ante-chapel stand two oak lecterns displaying the Books of Remembrance.
During his first three terms at Sherborne, Alan was a treble in the chapel choir. In a letter he wrote to his parents on 5 May 1926 he informed them, ‘I am in a choir of sorts’.
The pews in the chapel were added in the 1930s, most in memory of someone associated with the School. Pew no.57 is dedicated to the memory of Alan Turing’s friend, Christopher Collan Morcom (1911-1930).
In 1851, the School acquired the former monastic buildings from Lord Digby. The Lower Library (Westcott Room) was originally the cellarer’s store, and the Upper Library was probably the monks’ Guest Hall. Until the 1970s, when an internal staircase was installed, the Upper Library could only be reached via the outside staircase. The undercroft was converted to form part of the library in the 1980s.
As a Sixth former, Alan Turing was allowed to borrow books from the School library and between October 1928 and May 1931 he borrowed 33 titles, but only three works of fiction. In November 1928, Alan borrowed W.W. Rouse Ball’s , Mathematical Recreations and Essays. This book contains information about the art of constructing cryptographs and ciphers and reveals Alan’s early interest in the subject.
Alan Turing and Christopher Morcom used to meet in the School library on Wednesday afternoons to discuss their shared interests in mathematics, science and astronomy.
In 1860, a private house for the Headmaster was completed and remained the residence of the Headmaster and his family until 1950. Prior to 1860 the Headmaster had lived in the east end of the Abbey (you can still see ‘the Headmaster’s eye’ in the east wall of the Abbey from where he kept an eye on the then playground in front of the Old School Room).
The Headmaster’s study scene in The Imitation Game (2014) was filmed in what would have been the Headmaster’s study in Turing’s time. Today, it is the study of the housemaster of School House.
The Old School Room was purpose-built in 1606 and may have been designed by Inigo Jones. All boys were taught here until 1670. The oak windowsills were once desktops and over the years boys carved their names into them (the earliest dates from 1698). In 1860, the room became the School House dining room and remained so until central dining was introduced in 1975.
Alan Turing would have returned to Westcott House, where he boarded, for all of his meals. However, a meal scene was filmed in the Old School Room for The Imitation Game (2014).
The entrance from Church Lane was the original entrance to the School site. The inscription above the door states that:
‘EDVARDI impensis patet hic Schola publica SEXTI Grammaticae cupidis nobile REGIS opus’ (‘This public school, the noble work of King Edward the Sixth, is at the disposal of those who desire learning’).
As a member of the sixth form, Alan Turing would have been entitled to use the Sixth Form Door to enter and exit the School premises.
The Carrington Building was opened in 1910. Originally, it included the Westcott Art School and two science laboratories.
In May 1926, Alan Turing wrote to his parents: ‘We do Chemistry 2 hrs a week. We have only got to about the stages of “Properties of Matter”, “Physical & Chemical Change” etc. the master was quite amused by my Iodine making.’
The Pilkington Laboratories (opened in 2000) were built on the site of the School’s outdoor swimming pool. The pool had been opened in 1873 by the Headmaster, the Rev. H.D. Harper, taking the first ‘header’.
The pool was replaced in 1976 by an indoor pool in the new Sports Centre.
A single storey science laboratory was built in 1958. In 1966 a second storey was added and the building was renamed the Alan Turing Laboratories.
The plaque by the door was presented by Alan’s mother, Mrs Sara Turing. The Alan Turing Prize for Science was founded at Sherborne School by the Turing family in memory of Alan Turing. The prize was first awarded in 1956 and is still awarded at Sherborne School today.
The Grove was built in 1990. Today it houses the Modern Languages department and is also home to the School’s Turing machines (i.e. computers!).
In 1975, when central dining was introduced, the School gymnasium was converted into a dining hall and a new sports centre was built opposite.
The gymnasium was built in 1923 and would have been considered state-of-the-art when Turing arrived in 1926.
Abbey Grange in Hospital Lane was built in the 14th or 15th century as a tithe barn for the monastery. In 1912 it was purchased by Geoffrey O’Hanlon, who later became Alan Turing’s housemaster at Westcott House, and in 1969 the School Governors purchased the property as house for the Headmaster and his family.
Alan Turing is known to have stayed with the O’Hanlon family at Abbey Grange during his return visits to Sherborne.
On 9 March 1953, Alan Turing made his last visit to Sherborne (he died on 7 June 1954) to read a paper about ‘The Electronic Brain’ to The Alchemists (a society for boys interested in the progress of science). The meeting was held at The Green (now known as ‘The Old Green’), which was a school boarding house from 1865 until 1999 when the ‘new’ Green was opened on the opposite side of the road in the former Greenhill House.
Geoffrey O’Hanlon purchased Grosvenor Lodge in Horsecastles in 1919. In 1920 he opened it as a School boarding house and renamed it Westcott House after former Headmaster, the Rev. F.B. Westcott. O’Hanlon remained housemaster of Westcott House until 1936. In 1999, due to falling numbers, the house was closed and today is used as boarding accommodation by Sherborne International.
Alan Turing boarded at Westcott House from May 1926 to July 1931. In May 1926, 48 boys were boarding at Westcott House. Initially, Alan would have slept in a dormitory and would have returned to the house for every meal. Alan wrote home to his parents after his first week at the School:
‘I am getting more & more settled down. But I won’t be quite right until my things come. Fagging starts for us next Tuesday. It is run on the same principle as the Gallic councils that tortured & killed the last man to arrive; here one fagmaster calls & all his fags run the last to arrive getting the job. You have to have cold showers in the morning here like cold baths at Marlborough. We have tea at 6.30 here on Mons, Wed, Frid. I manage to go without food from lunch to then… As in most public schools new boys have to sing some song. The time has not yet come. I am not sure what to sing anyhow it won’t be “buttercup”.’
Under O’Hanlon’s gentle but firm influence Alan developed from an untidy, unsociable boy into a respected member of the school. His transformation can be traced through his School reports.
Mrs Turing later wrote: ‘It was, surely, this profound respect for the individual, be he but a schoolboy, which enabled [Geoffrey O’Hanlon] to judge how far to tolerate, and how much to prod and exhort, the boy whom after a week he described as sui generis [unique].’
This does not mean that O’Hanlon was not at time exasperated by Alan! Alan continued to carry out experiments, in 1927 his housemaster complained that he didn’t care to find Alan ‘boiling heaven knows what witches’ brew by the aid of two guttering candles on a naked wooden window sill.’
On a Sunday in Summer term 1930, Alan reconstructed Foucault’s pendulum experiment in the stairwell by suspending a weighted string from the staircase wall and set it swinging before going to Chapel to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth by the time he returned at noon.
As a Sixth former, Alan was allotted a shared study with Matt Blamey. The study was furnished with a large table, two chairs and an armchair and O’Hanlon hoped that Matt might help organise Alan and interest him in a wider range of subjects than just maths and science, although he later admitted he had failed!
In August 1931, when Alan left Sherborne, O’Hanlon wrote to him saying, ‘This letter has two purposes. First that I should say thank you to you for your help & loyalty, as well as for the enjoyment you gave by being here. I will guarantee that Turing will be a household word until the present generation has disappeared.’
We know from the Westcott House visitors book that Alan’s brother John stayed at Westcott House in June 1931 for the end of term prize giving, at which Alan won so many prizes. Also that Alan visited three times in his first two years at Cambridge and again in 1946.
Other famous old boys of Westcott House include the author John le Carré, the actor Charles Collingwood who plays Brian Aldridge in The Archers, and the director Richard Eyre.
On 30 June 2016, Alan Turing’s nephew, Sir John Dermot Turing (OS), unveiled a Blue Plaque at Westcott House commemorating Alan’s connection with the house.
One of Alan Turing’s best friends at Sherborne was Christopher Morcom (1911-1930) who attended Sherborne School and boarded at Lyon House from 1925 until his untimely death, aged 18, on 13 February 1930.
After Christopher’s death, Turing wrote to his mother saying, ‘I feel sure that I shall meet Morcom again somewhere & 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.’
In March 1930, the Morcom family visited Sherborne and invited Alan Turing to meet them at Lyon House. In Christopher’s memory the family set up the Morcom Prize for Science. Alan won the prize in 1930 and 1931, and in 1978 it was won by Alan’s nephew, Sir John Dermot Turing. The prize is still awarded at Sherborne School today. Pew no.57 in the School chapel is also dedicated to the memory of Christopher Collan Morcom.
The Upper is the name given to the School playing fields in Horsecastles. Originally, the land sloped down towards Westbury, hence the name, but it was levelled in 1869. The original gateway to the School Courts (built in 1853) was re-sited at the entrance to the Upper in 1923.
Alan Turing was not a great player of team games, however, he did take part in inter-house rugby matches, although not always with much success. In Easter Term 1927, Alan was a member of the Westcott House XV team that lost 22-0 to Harper House, and in 1930 his team lost 18-0 to Abbeylands with the match report stating that ‘Turing was the only star, in no danger whatever of being eclipsed by a rival. Unfortunately Turing has a violent dislike to running with the ball, or even holding it, which detracts from his value as a forward.’
It was while he was at Sherborne that Alan became interested in long-distance running, taking part in the inter-house Steeplechase. In 1930, he finished 10th in the School steeplechase race, and in 1931 he came 6th with the house report stating that ‘He was very keen and his place does him credit.’ Alan went on in August 1947 to take part in the Amateur Athletics Association Championships held at Loughborough College Stadium where he came 5th in the Marathon Championships with a time of 2 hrs, 46 mins, 3 secs. He would have entered for the 1948 London Olympics had he not contracted Fibrositis the previous January.
Sherborne Railway Station was opened on 7 May 1860, and the majority of boys attending Sherborne School arrived by train.
Alan Turing was supposed to have arrived at Sherborne by train for his first term in May 1926. His family were then living in France, so Alan caught the ferry from St Malo to Southampton to find that, due to the General Strike, the railway network was closed. However, the resourceful 13-year-old purchased a map and decided to cycle the 65 miles from Southampton to Sherborne across what was for him unknown territory. He stopped halfway in Blandford Forum and spent the night at the Crown Hotel. His journey was reported in the Western Gazette on 14 May 1926 and, for a while, earned Alan a certain notoriety at Sherborne.
Geoffrey O’Hanlon, Alan’s housemaster, wrote to Alan’s mother in 1954 ‘the picture I keep and treasure is of a somewhat untidy boy arriving during the Railway Strike, after making his way on a bicycle from Southampton via the best hotel in Blandford Forum, and reporting, ‘I am Turing.’ It was a good start.’
The station and school featured in the 1969 film version of Goodbye Mr Chips, starring Peter O’Toole and Petula Clarke.
Compiled by Rachel Hassall, School Archivist, January 2016.
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