The Churchill Centre UK and Churchill Archives Centre Executive Director gives a talk a Churchill’s beloved country home in Kent.
Aspects of Churchill: Chartwell Chapter of TCC
23 Feb 2012
By Allen Packwood
The title of my talk is Aspects of Churchill. There are, as you all know, many aspects and facets to this amazing man. So on the one hand this should be an easy talk to give, there is so much material on which to draw, but on the other hand I am faced with an almost impossible task, there is just so much material on which to draw!
There is one aspect that I must mention here while recognising that I am the least well qualified person to talk about it, and that is Chartwell itself. Coming to talk about Winston Churchill at Chartwell feels like walking into the lion’s den. I certainly do not need to tell this group that this is a very special place, shaped by him and loved by him, and imbued with his character and personality. If the ghost of Churchill was going to appear anywhere and engage us in the sort of conversation that Churchill imagined having with his father Lord Randolph in his essay “The Dream”, then I am sure it would be in the painting studio or study here. Because there is no doubt that this place was more than just a family home, – it was a canvas, a refuge, a work in progress, and a place to think and write. All of this is captured in Mary Soames’s memoir. Philippa, Alice and the team here do an incredible job in keeping that spirit alive, while simultaneously catering for thousands of visitors, and it is a privilege for the Churchill Archives centre to hold some of the Chartwell manuscripts on loan from the National Trust, and a joy to work with the staff on exhibitions here in the UK and abroad.
I am not going to presume to tell this group about Chartwell, but many of the aspects that I am going to talk about are facets of his character that you can see illustrated in this house.
So how am I to approach this huge subject in the few minutes allowed to me? Well, what I am going to try and do is to use Churchill’s own documents and writings to illuminate some aspects of his character: aspects that I feel are important to a fuller understanding of the man.
Let us start at the beginning. In the Archives Centre we have the file of his school reports from St George’s School in Ascot, the preparatory boarding school that he attended between 1882 and 1884, and between the ages of seven and nine. They make for interesting reading. Take this from his report for the period from 1st March to April 9th 1884; “Conduct has been exceedingly bad. He is not to be trusted to do any one thing” and the Headmaster’s remark that he is, “Very bad – is a constant trouble to everybody and is always in some scrape or other. He cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere.”
Churchill later wrote in “My Early Life” that, “Where my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn”. The truth seems to be that he was a wilful and rebellious young boy, used to having the run of his grand parents home at Blenheim Palace. St George’s was an exceptionally strict Victorian school, with a headmaster who ruled through the birch. The two were never going to meet. And I find it interesting that if you look again at those early school reports you see that it is young Winston’s conduct and behaviour that is being criticised, and that the teachers, and even the headmaster, have to grudgingly admit that, “He has very good abilities”, and that “if he were really to exert himself he might yet be first at the end of the Term”. I think you can see the independent minded man in the disobedient boy. What was lacking was the motivation and the sense of purpose. Thus Churchill’s first headmaster could conclude in June 1884 that his charge had “no ambition”. Well, I think you can say many things about Winston Churchill the man, but not that he lacked ambition.
Of course, things did not immediately improve at Harrow. On 12 July 1888 at the end of his first term his House Master, Mr Davidson, wrote the following to his mother, “After a good deal of discussion with his form-master I have decided to allow Winston to have his exeat; but I must own that he has not deserved it. I do not think, nor does Mr Somervell, that he is any way wilfully troublesome; but his forgetfulness, carelessness, unpunctuality, and irregularity in every way, have really been so serious, that I write to ask you, when he is at home to speak very gravely to him on the subject.” And it goes on, “Winston, I am sorry to say, has, if anything, got worse as the term passed. Constantly late for school, losing his books, and papers and various other things into which I need not enter – he is so regular in his irregularity that I really don’t know what to do;…”. Punctuality was never a Churchillian virtue, and Churchill the man famously joked about arriving late for trains and planes in order to give them a sporting chance of getting away.
Nor, as we all know, was he adverse to taking risks and getting into trouble. In May 1891 the sixteen year old Winston got into what he called a “deuce of a row” . In a letter to his father he admitted how he and some friends “discovered the ruins of a large factory, into which we climbed. Everything was in ruin and decay but some windows yet remained unbroken; we facilitated the progress of time with regard to these”. Unfortunately for the boys, they were also spotted by the watchman who reported them to the Harrow Headmaster, who then caned them.
However, I think I am being too negative. Churchill may not have been the best behaved boy in the school, or the top of the form, but that is not to say that he did not gain from his time in Harrow. Indeed, as we will see, I think you can see the genesis of some of the qualities of the great statesman in these early years. It was Harrow that gave him his first taste for oratory, when he won the Headmaster’s Prize for reciting twelve hundred lines of Macauley’s “Lays of Ancient Rome” and it was at Harrow that Mr Somervell installed in him a mastery of English and a passion for history.
We will come on to Churchill’s writing in a moment. But before we do, there is another aspect of Churchill’s character that is touched on in one of his early school reports, for he is also described by the headmaster of St George’s as “greedy at meals”. This brings us to Churchill’s Epicureanism, which like the colourful accounts of his school years has the capacity for much myth making.
Churchill was by his own admission easily satisfied with the best. This meant Cuban cigars, and Scottish whiskey, but it meant fine wines, and particularly a lifelong association with champagne. There are no shortage of Churchill quotes on the subject. What about this from his first published book, The history of the Malakand Field Force, describing his adventures as a young officer on the Indian North West frontier in 1898. “A single glass of champagne imparts a feeling of exhilaration. The nerves are braced, the imagination is agreeably stirred, the wits become more nimble. A bottle produces a contrary effect. Excess causes a comatose insensibility. So it is with war, and the quality of both is best discovered by sipping”.
The stories of Churchill’s drinking are many, and are probably generally exaggerated, though one suspects with at least his tacit approval. One of my favourite examples is the report of a meeting between Churchill and the famously austere Field Marshal Montgomery at the British commander’s field headquarters during the war. Explaining why there was no alcohol at lunch, Montgomery is supposed to have said, “Prime Minister, I do not drink, I do not smoke and I am one hundred percent fit”. To which Churchill is said to have replied, “General, I do drink, I do smoke, and I am two hundred per cent fit”. Even if this is apocryphal or exaggerated, it seems to me that it touches on a bigger truth.
If you talk to Churchill’s surviving secretaries, or read their memoirs, they will tell you that he drank steadily but not excessively, and that he was the master not the slave of his vices. This would seem to be born out by some of our papers. In 1937 Lord Rothermere paid out £1,100 to Churchill and renewed a bet that Churchill would not drink spirits for a year. The fact that Churchill had apparently won this bet for 1936 surely casts doubt on some of the wilder stories about his drinking (though you do need to be wary of the small print, for the terms of this bet apparently excluded brandy or undiluted spirits).
Churchill famously said that he had taken more out of alcohol than it had taken out of him, and I guess you do not live to be ninety and to hold high political office for almost half a century without this being true.
However, he certainly liked to entertain and liked to do so in some style. An account survives in his papers, showing the huge leap in expenditure on hospitality at Chequers from 1939/40 to 1940/41: from Chamberlain to Churchill. The figure for Oct 39 to Mar 40 was £183; for Oct 40 to Mar 41 it was £421. But of course there is a difference between entertaining and personal consumption.
There is no doubt that Churchill threw himself wholeheartedly into life and lived it to the full. He never did anything by halves. Take his approach to painting.
The latest book on Churchill’s paintings by Minnie Churchill and David Coombs has traced and reproduced some 500 canvases. Painting was something that Churchill immersed himself in; persuading leading artists like Sir John Lavery and Walter Sickert to help him develop and refine his technique, before sharing his enthusiasm and Churchillian approach with others through his essay “Painting as a Pastime”, written in 1932. It will not surprise you that he had strong views on technique, and on the use of colour, writing, “I cannot pretend to feel impartial about the colours. I rejoice with the brilliant ones, and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.” Indeed, the text of “Painting as a Pastime” contains some antecedents for Churchill’s wartime oratory. He records how “one sweep of the palette-knife ‘lifts’ the blood and tears of a morning from the canvas and enables a fresh start to be made”, he compares being a painter with being a military Commander in Chief, admitting the prospect of defeat for sometimes, “The pictorial battlefield becomes a sea of mud mercifully veiled by the fog of war”, but above all he cites the need for “Audacity,” and describes attacking his subject, “Splash into the turpentine, wallop into the blue and white, frantic flourish on the palette – clean no longer – and then several large, fierce strokes and slashes of blue on the absolutely cowering canvas.”
Some of his earliest paintings were indeed forged in war, depicting the headquarters from where he commanded a battalion of Royal Scots Fusiliers for a few months in 1916, and from where he wrote to his wife, Clementine, recording his view that painting might prove , “a great pleasure and resource to me – if I come through all right”. He did come through and it did prove a great resource.
Churchill the artist has become well known, but what about Churchill the scientist?
He lived in an age of great technological change, and he embraced it. As a young man, he not only learnt to drive, but even took flying lessons in 1913, taking to the cockpit at a time when to do so was both pioneering and dangerous. In his early political life he helped to develop the Royal Naval Air Service, pushed through the modernisation of the British Fleet and its conversion from coal to oil, and sponsored research into the land battleships that would become the tank. Once convinced of the value of a particular project, he would often assume the role of its most passionate advocate.
On 31 March 1949, he spoke at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the subject of “The Twentieth Century- Its promise and its realization”. The theme of his speech was the contrast between the promise of scientific discoveries and the terrible weapons and wars they had actually delivered. Yet even after the carnage of two world wars, and when faced with the horrors of atomic annihilation, he refused to be too pessimistic, seeing science as the servant of man rather than man as the servant of science, and advocating stronger Anglo-American relations within the new United Nations as the best way of securing the benefits of scientific progress and guaranteeing peace. He predicted that the Soviet regime would not be able to sustain its grip on its people forever, and that while, “Science no doubt could if sufficiently perverted exterminate us all”… ” it is not in the power of material forces in any period which the youngest here tonight may take into practical account, to alter the main elements in human nature or restrict the infinite variety of forms in which the soul and the genius of the human race can and will express itself”. This was a message of hope, a statement of belief in the possibility of progress through technological advance. It was the same vision that led him to found Churchill College in Cambridge as an institution with a two thirds bias towards the sciences.
We cannot presume to know how Churchill would respond to the world today, but I think we can be confident that he would want his words to be heard, and the lessons of the history his era to be studied, and that he would have looked to new technology as a means of reaching the widest possible audience. This after all is the man who said, upon accepting his Honorary Degree at Harvard University in September 1943: “It would certainly be a grand convenience for us all to be able to move freely about the world – as we shall be able to move more freely than ever before as the science of the world develops- be able to move freely about the world, and be able to find everywhere a medium, albeit primitive, of intercourse and understanding”. It is interesting to note that at the beginning of the 21st century, Churchill’s hope has the potential to be realised through the development of the internet, which uses English as its main language and allows truly global communications. I am not crediting Churchill with foreseeing the World Wide Web, but he did end this section of his Harvard speech with the observation that, “the empires of the future are the empires of the mind”. I hope then that he would approve of our plans at the Churchill Archives Centre, working with the publishers Bloomsbury, to digitise all of his papers.
Of course everything that Churchill did was underpinned by words, written and spoken, and this is another aspect of Churchill that cannot be overlooked or overstated.
His gift for language perhaps first manifested itself at school at Harrow. In My Early Life Churchill claimed that he owed his mastery of English to the fact that he was so bad at other subjects, remaining “so long in the lowest form I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English.” As we have already seen, this is clearly not the whole story. It is very evident from the records we have that Churchill was not a dunce and that when enthused or motivated he could do well.
He was wilful and rebellious, certainly, and it is this independent nature that we can see being asserted in his earliest surviving published pieces, a series of letters that he wrote to the school magazine The Harrovian between October 1891 and June 1893, and between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. Never shy to speak his mind, there survives in his papers a manuscript of the letter that he submitted for publication, care of the Headmaster, in about November1891. He signs himself De Profundis and he makes the complaint that: “The Class rooms provided for several forms are very bad. In some the light is meagrely doled out, as in the Old Music Room, the towers of the new Speech Room and Mr Welsford’s Room. In others, as the ‘cock-loft’ the wind of heaven has free access from every quarter. Something ought to be done. Either the number of the school should not exceed the number for whom proper accommodation can be provided or new class rooms should be built. Since that conspicuous, though unsightly edifice, the Music Schools was erected with so much ease I would respectfully suggest the latter alternative.” The letter was apparently not published, (though he refers to an earlier piece which had been printed) but this failure does not seem to have put its author off. Indeed, rejection may have encouraged him, and a month or so later he is writing again, this time under the pseudonym of ‘Junius Junior’ about the poor performance of the school in the Gymnasium display. Further pieces are then published in March, November and December 1892 and in June 1893. They are all similarly witty and gently sarcastic and critical in tone.
However, school boy writings are far removed from the front line despatches of a war correspondent. Churchill may have had a talent for writing, but he needed the motivation to take up his pen professionally. It seems pretty clear that the personal catalyst was the death of Lord Randolph Churchill in January 1895, aged just forty five. Winston suddenly found himself as the head of the family, and the focus of his mother’s ambitions, with the need to establish an independent income, and the desire to prove himself worthy of his dead father’s memory. Like the age in which he lived, with the advent of motor cars and aeroplanes, he was suddenly a young man in a hurry; determined to forge a name for himself, or, as he wrote to his mother from barracks outside London in August 1896, to “beat my sword into an iron despatch box”. This letter is very revealing. Churchill may have originally been motivated to join the army by dreams of adventure, inspired by playing with his toy soldiers among the martial tapestries of Blenheim, but within eighteen months of receiving his commission, and even before his regiment was despatched to India, it is clear that he now saw an army career as a means to an end. Yes, he still wanted “scenes of adventure and excitement” but he wanted them now and on his own terms, in “places where I could gain experience and derive advantage”. He writes that, “The future is to me utterly unattractive. I look upon going to India with this unfortunate regiment – (which I now feel so attached to that I cannot leave it for another) – as useless and unprofitable exile.” And later in the same later, “It is useless to preach the gospel of patience to me. Others as young are making the running now and what chance have I of ever catching up.”
In recent years there have been a number of new books about Churchill which cover his years as a young officer in the British army. They have shown how his military experiences, in Cuba, in India, the Sudan, and South Africa, helped to shape his character and world view ; introducing him to the wider world, exposing him to mortal danger, and instilling in him a personal bravery and a first-hand experience of warfare. There is no doubt that the short five –year period between 1895 and 1900 was a pivotal one for Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill.
Yet what is perhaps often overlooked is that he had two careers during these years. He was not just soldier; he was also a war correspondent. Moreover, I think you can argue that it was as a journalist that he was most successful. Promotion in the Victorian army was a slow process, and Churchill left the army with much the same rank that he had entered it, as a junior officer in a cavalry regiment. Yet in the same time his earnings as a special correspondent increased tenfold. In 1895 he received just 25 guineas, about £1,500 (or $2,400) in today’s money, for his five articles for the Daily Graphic for his accounts of his exploits in Cuba. By 1899 the Morning Post was prepared to pay him a staggering £250 a month, the equivalent today of over £14,000 (or $23,000) per month, with all expenses paid, to cover the Boer War in South Africa.
In his autobiographical memoir My Early Life Churchill tends to downplay this side of his activities. He chooses to emphasise the young man of action above the young man of letters. Yet in truth the two developed side by side and fed off one another. It was in this period that Churchill developed the dual system that was to serve him so well throughout his political life; of being both a leading participant in events, and a leading commentator and chronicler of those same events. He made the news by writing it, while also ensuring that he made the headlines.
There is no doubt that in his dual capacity as an officer and special correspondent, Churchill took risks. But they were calculated risks, and they were intended to serve his longer game. His contemporary letters capture this faith in own abilities; an enthusiasm and ambition married with a personal bravery. From the Indian North Western Frontier he wrote to his mother, Lady Randolph Churchill. Firstly on 5 September 1897 before going into battle: “As to fighting – we march tomorrow, and before a week is out, there will be a battle – probably the biggest yet fought on the frontier this year. By the time this reaches you everything will be over so that I do not mind writing about it. I have faith in my star – that is that I am intended to do something in the world. If I am mistaken – what does it matter? My life has been a pleasant one and though I should regret to leave it – it would be a regret that perhaps I should never know”. Two weeks later, on 19 September, he was able to write again in a similar vein describing his skirmishing with the Pathans: “I rode on my grey pony all along the skirmish line where everyone else was lying down in cover. Foolish perhaps but I play for high stakes and given an audience there is no act too daring or too noble. Without the gallery things are different”.
On 17 February 1908, Winston Churchill spoke to the Author’s Club of London. He took as one of his main themes the freedom of the writer; “He is dependent for his occupation upon no-one but himself, and nothing outside him that matters. He is the sovereign of an Empire, self-supporting, self contained. No-one can sequestrate his estates. No-one can deprive him of his stock in trade; no-one can force him to exercise his faculty against his will; no-one can prevent him exercising it as he chooses. The pen is the great liberator of men and nations”. It seems to me that Churchill cannot have spoken a truer word about himself. For him, writing had proved a great liberator. It allowed him to make the most of his military career; it enabled him to launch his political career; but more than that – it gave him a voice and a platform. This was something he carried with him into the next phase of his life. Throughout his political career he continued to use his writings, his newspaper articles and books to support and to reinforce his public life; financially but also and – more importantly – intellectually.
His dramatic political and public career was indeed founded on, and sustained by a lifetime of writing. On 2 November 1949, he received the Sunday Times Book Prize, where he commented: “Whilst writing, a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy, then an amusement, then it becomes a mistress and then it becomes a master and then it becomes a tyrant and, in the last stage, just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public”.
Churchill’s written legacy was part and parcel of his political legacy. This after all is the man who joked in the House of Commons in 1948 that,”For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.” And write he most certainly did. A fact that is amply reflected in the scale and complexity of his own archive. Assembled partly as a working resource to support his own research and writings; and partly – with an eye to posterity – as the raw material that would inform his official biography.
And this leads us to Churchill the War leader. And here I would argue that all the aspects we have seen forming in the child and young man come to fruition in 1940 and combine to shape the finest hour. The wilfulness and rebelliousness of the school boy never really disappear. At times, they make Churchill a difficult political colleague, prepared to abandon party for policy, but they also inform his stubborn defiance of Nazi Germany, and give him the self belief to assume the premiership at a moment of grave national crisis. His enthusiasm and energy for life translate into the motto “Action this Day”; his love of history, literature, art, of food and drink, provide him with the conviction that he is fighting for the cause of civilisation against barbarism; his broad range of interests and his inquisitive mind, with its interest in scientific progress, enable him to preside over a highly technological conflict; while his mastery of words allows him to articulate British war aims in a way which cleverly- and simultaneously – rallies Domestic morale while sending a message of hope to occupied Europe, a message of defiance to the Axis Powers, and an appeal for aid to the United States.
We have in the Archives Centre the original speaking notes for Churchill’s “finest hour” speech of 18 June 1940: the actual pieces of paper that he had in his hand when he addressed the House of Commons before broadcasting to the Nation that evening over the BBC. They are set out in the blank verse format used by his office, and known by them as speech form. The end of the penultimate page contains the lines; “What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over, the battle of Britain is about to begin”. Above this, in his own hand, in his Churchillian red pen, the Prime Minister has added just four words, “All shall be restored”.
Since his death in 1965, if not since victory in 1945, Churchill has become an icon. An exemplar of strong leadership in the face of totalitarian aggression. The real story is inevitably more complicated. Churchill was an incredibly complex character, capable of inspiring and exasperating those around him in equal measure, and prey to mortal frustration, ego, exhaustion and illness. To see him as human and fallible does not diminish his achievements. It must have taken amazing bravery, determination and belief to lead Britain through the dark summer of 1940 and on to victory in 1945. The country was not always united, he did not always see eye to eye with political colleagues, allies and the chiefs of staff, but he managed to project and maintain his public image of resolution and defiance while simultaneously wrestling with a multitude of problems and personalities, and he did it without losing his basic humanity. I hope that I have managed to shed a little light into the Churchill despatch box and to illuminate the development of some of the character traits and skills that allowed him to underpin his remarkable career.
 Winston S Churchill “My Early Life” pp30-31 (reprinted edition, 1944)
 Letter by Churchill to the Headmaster, circa November 1891. Churchill Papers, CHAR 1/3/4.
 Letter from Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 4 August 1896 . Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill Papers, CHAR 28/21/96-99.
 For example see Carlo D’Este “Warlord” (2008) or Michael Paterson “Winston Churchill: His Military Life” (2005) or Richard Holmes “In the Footsteps of Churchill” (2005)
 See National Archives Historic Currency Converter at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency/default0.asp#mid
 Letters from Churchill to Lady Randolph, 5 & 19 Sep 1897. Churchill Papers, CHAR 28/23/52 & 57.
 Robert Rhodes James, “The Complete Speeches”, vol I, pp903-905
 Speech by Churchill at Sunday Times Book Prize, 2 Nov 1949 (Churchill Papers, CHAR 5/28A/6)
 House of Commons, 23 January 1948, cited in The Wisdom of Winston Churchill ed. F.B. Czarnomski (London, 1956)