Johnson was born on 19 June 1964 in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York City, to 23 year-old Stanley Johnson, an upper-middle class Englishman, then studying economics at Columbia University, and his 22-year-old wife of one year Charlotte Fawcett, an artist from a family of liberal intellectuals and a daughter of Sir James Fawcett, a barrister. Boris's parents had married in 1963, before moving to the US where they lived opposite the Chelsea Hotel; in September 1964 they returned to England so that Charlotte could study at the University of Oxford, during which time she lived with her son in Summertown, Oxford and in 1965 gave birth to a daughter, Rachel. In July 1965 the family moved to Crouch End in North London and in February 1966 they relocated to Washington, D.C., where Stanley had gained employment with the World Bank. A third child, Leo, was born in September 1967. Stanley then gained employment with a policy panel on population control and in June moved the family to Norwalk, Connecticut.
preparatory school, East Sussex, attended by Johnson 1975-7
In 1969 the family returned to England and settled into West Nethercote Farm, near Winsford in Somerset, Stanley's remote family home on Exmoor in the West Country. There Johnson gained his first experiences with fox hunting. Stanley was regularly absent from Nethercote, leaving Johnson to be raised largely by his mother assisted by au pairs. As a child Johnson was quiet and studious and suffered from deafness, resulting in several operations to insert grommets into his ears. He and his siblings were encouraged to engage in highbrow activities from a young age, with high achievement being greatly valued; Johnson's earliest recorded ambition was to be "world king". Having few or no friends other than their siblings, the children became very close.
In late 1969 the family relocated to Maida Vale in West London, while Stanley began post-doctoral research at the London School of Economics. In 1970 Charlotte and the children briefly returned to Nethercote, where Johnson attended Winsford Village School, before returning to London to settle in Primrose Hill, North London, there being educated at Primrose Hill Primary School. In late 1971 a fourth child and third son, Joseph, was born to the family.
After Stanley secured employment at the European Commission, he moved his family in April 1973 to Uccle, Brussels, where Johnson attended the European School, Brussels I and learned to speak French. Charlotte suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalised with clinical depression, after which in 1975 Johnson and his siblings were sent back to England to attend Ashdown House, a preparatory boarding school in East Sussex. There he developed a love of and excelled at Ancient Greek and Latin, but was appalled at the teachers' use of corporal punishment. Meanwhile, in December 1978 his parents' relationship broke down and they divorced in 1980, when Charlotte moved into a flat in Notting Hill, West London, where she was joined by her children for much of their time.
Eton and Oxford: 1977–1987
As a kid I was extremely spotty, extremely nerdy and horribly swotty
. My idea of a really good time was to travel across London on the tube to visit the British Museum
Johnson gained a King's Scholarship to study at Eton College, the elite independent boarding school near Windsor in Berkshire. Arriving in the autumn term of 1977, he began using as his first-name Boris rather than Alex, and developed "the eccentric English persona" for which he became famous. He abandoned his mother's Catholicism and became an Anglican, joining the Church of England. School reports complained about his idleness, complacency, and lateness, but he was popular and well known at Eton. His friends were largely from the wealthy upper-middle and upper classes, his best friends then being Darius Guppy and Charles Spencer, both of whom later accompanied him to the University of Oxford and remained friends into adulthood. Johnson excelled in English and Classics, winning prizes in both, and became secretary of the school debating society, and editor of the school newspaper, The Eton College Chronicle. In late 1981, he was elected a member of Pop, the small, self-selecting elite and glamorous group of prefects. It was later in Johnson's career a point of rivalry with David Cameron, who had failed to enter Pop. On leaving Eton, Johnson went on a gap year to Australia, where he taught English and Latin at Timbertop, an Outward Bound-inspired campus of Geelong Grammar, an elite independent boarding school.
Johnson won a scholarship to read Literae Humaniores at Balliol College, Oxford, a four-year course in the study of the Classics, ancient literature and classical philosophy. Matriculating at the university in late 1983, he was one of a generation of Oxford undergraduates who were later to dominate British politics and media in the second decade of the 21st century; among them David Cameron, William Hague, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and Nick Boles all went on to become senior Conservative Party politicians. At university he played rugby for Balliol and associated primarily with Old Etonians. To his later regret he joined the Old Etonian-dominated Bullingdon Club, an exclusive drinking society notorious for acts of vandalism on host premises. Many years later a group photograph including himself and Cameron in Bullingdon Club formal dress was the cause of much negative press coverage. He entered into a relationship with Allegra Mostyn-Owen, a glamorous and popular fellow student from his own social background and they became engaged while at university.
Johnson was popular and well known at Oxford. Alongside Guppy he co-edited the university's satirical magazine Tributary. In 1984, Johnson was elected secretary of the Oxford Union, and campaigned for the career-enhancing and important position of Union President, but lost to Neil Sherlock. In 1986 Johnson ran for president again, aided by undergraduate Frank Luntz; this time his campaign focused on reaching out beyond his established upper-class support base by emphasising his persona and playing down his Conservative connections. Hoping to court their vote, Johnson associated with university groups affiliated with the centrist Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Liberal Party. Luntz later alleged that Johnson portrayed himself as an SDP supporter during the campaign, of which Johnson later said he had no recollection. Johnson won the election but his term was not particularly distinguished or memorable and questions were raised regarding his competence and seriousness. Finally, Johnson was awarded only an upper second-class degree, and was deeply unhappy that he did not receive a first.