Maugham's father, Robert Ormond Maugham, was a lawyer who handled the legal affairs of the British embassy in Paris. Since French law declared that all children born on French soil could be conscripted for military service, his father arranged for Maugham to be born at the embassy, technically on British soil. His grandfather, another Robert, had also been a prominent lawyer and co-founder of the English Law Society. It was taken for granted that Maugham and his brothers would follow in their footsteps. His elder brother Viscount Maugham enjoyed a distinguished legal career and served as Lord Chancellor from 1938 to 1939.
Maugham's mother, Edith Mary (née Snell), had tuberculosis (TB), a condition for which her medic prescribed childbirth. She had Maugham several years after the last of his three older brothers; they were already enrolled in boarding school by the time he was three. Being the youngest, he was effectively raised as an only child.
Edith's sixth and final son died on 25 January 1882, one day after his birth, on Maugham's eighth birthday. Edith died of tuberculosis six days later on 31 January at the age of 41. The early death of his mother left Maugham traumatized; he kept his mother's photograph by his bedside for the rest of his life. Two years after Edith's death, Maugham's father died in France of cancer.
Maugham was sent to the UK to be cared for by his uncle, Henry MacDonald Maugham, the Vicar of Whitstable, in Kent. The move was damaging, as Henry Maugham proved cold and emotionally cruel. The boy attended The King's School, Canterbury, which was also difficult for him. He was teased for his bad English (French had been his first language) and his short stature, which he inherited from his father. Maugham developed a stammer that would stay with him all his life, although it was sporadic and subject to mood and circumstance.
Miserable both at his uncle's vicarage and at school, the young Maugham developed a talent for making wounding remarks to those who displeased him. This ability is sometimes reflected in Maugham's literary characters. At sixteen, Maugham refused to continue at The King's School. His uncle allowed him to travel to Germany, where he studied literature, philosophy and German at Heidelberg University. During his year in Heidelberg, Maugham met and had a sexual affair with John Ellingham Brooks, an Englishman ten years his senior. He also wrote his first book there, a biography of Giacomo Meyerbeer, an opera composer.
On Maugham's return to Britain, his uncle found him a position in an accountant's office, but after a month, Maugham gave it up and returned to Whitstable. His uncle set about finding Maugham a new profession. Maugham's father and three older brothers were all distinguished lawyers, and Maugham asked to be excused from the duty of following in their footsteps. A career in the church was rejected because a stammering minister might make the family seem ridiculous. His uncle rejected the civil service, not because of the young man's feelings or interests, but because his uncle concluded that the civil service was no longer a career for gentlemen; a recent law required applicants to pass an entry examination. The local physician suggested the medical profession and Maugham's uncle agreed.
Maugham had been writing steadily since the age of 15 and fervently wished to become an author, but as he was not of age, he refrained from telling his guardian. For the next five years, he studied medicine at St Thomas' Hospital in Lambeth, a medical school of King's College London.