Lady Williams of Elvel, who as Jane Portal served as a secretary to Winston Churchill from 1949 to 1955, received a standing ovation after speaking in conversation with Churchill’s granddaughter Celia Sandys at the Thirty-fourth International Churchill Conference in New York City. For one hour, the two women shared their memories of the busy life of the Greatest Briton. To watch the full video, please click here.
It was Lady Williams’s maternal uncle R. A. Butler, Secretary of State for Education under Churchill during the war, who suggested that his twenty-year-old niece apply for the job working on the staff of his boss, who was then Leader of the Opposition. Lady Williams’s paternal uncle Charles Portal had been the head of the RAF during the war, which meant she came to the job well recommended but also having heard many stories about how demanding an employer she would be working for.
She started out in the typing pool, but one night was asked to take dictation for the first time when all the other members of the secretarial staff had been worn to a frazzle. When Miss Portal appeared in Churchill’s bedroom, where true to form the Great Man was working from his bed surrounded by papers and animals, Churchill looked up at her over his glasses and inquired, “Isn’t there anyone else?” Jane retired quickly from the room, but, after she explained to her immediate superior what had happened, she was marched right back up to Churchill’s room and the boss was told very firmly that he would dictate to Miss Portal and no one else. This Churchill accepted, and an unforgettable time continued for six years until Churchill’s retirement.
Lady Williams made her views quite clear: “Anyone who works for Winston Churchill is incapable of being objective.” She said, “I never once saw him the worse for drink” and expressed her displeasure with the 2016 movie Churchill’s Secret, which dramatized the events of Churchill’s stroke in 1953. Instead of the loud and bitter family fighting depicted in the film, she recalled “calm and peace at Chartwell.” Lady Williams described Churchill’s convalescence as “heroic” and that “there was never one word of self pity” as he followed all of the doctors’ orders.
One of Jane Portal’s tasks included choosing films to be shown in the specially-created screening room at Chartwell. Churchill would settle into his armchair in the front row next to Clementine, light a cigar, and announce, “Let it roll.” Knowing that her boss loved movies about animals, Jane often selected these. After a showing, however, of a film in which a horse is shot, Churchill turned on his secretary in tears and exclaimed, “How could you?”
The affection that Lady Williams continues to have for Sir Winston came through vividly with all that she had to say. Everyone at the conference was anxious to meet her, take photographs, and express gratitude for her presence. As expected, this was the true highlight of the conference.