Soon after his appointment as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies in December 1905, Winston Churchill moved into a townhouse at 12 Bolton Street near Green Park and the Ritz Hotel. He then embarked on an astonishing book-buying spree, building an exceptional gentleman’s library.
On February 12, 1906, he purchased fifty-nine volumes of mainly historical works from bookseller George Harding of Great Russell Street, including Spencer Walpole’s History of England and Sir Archibald Alison’s History of Europe. But Churchill was only just getting started.
February 16 proved a day for book shopping along Charing Cross Road—from E. Joseph at No. 48a, Churchill purchased 178 mainly literary volumes, including sets by De Quincy, Molière, Wordsworth, Boswell, Dryden, and Smollett, George Eliot’s novels and Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. From George Winter at No. 52, Churchill took home forty-seven volumes, including Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. From J. Law & Son at No. 53, he purchased Macauley’s History of England in five volumes and Napier’s History of the War in the Peninsula in six, among many others. From Bertram Dobell at No. 77 on the following day, he bought Racine’s Works in seven volumes. On February 26, Churchill returned to E. Joseph for 108 more volumes—history and literature— including the works of Jane Austen and Carlyle.
In March, Churchill was back at it. He bought 112 volumes from James Roche of New Oxford Street, again both history and literature, including the works of Henry Fielding, Byron, and Locke. On March 26, he returned again to E. Joseph for a fifteen-volume set of Cowper’s Works, the Earl of Stanhope’s Life of William Pitt, and a four-volume Don Quixote.
Things did not let up in April. On the 9th, Churchill added nearly a hundred more books to his E. Joseph order, including Burns’s Poems, Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends, Hume’s Essays, Hogarth’s Works, and a ten-volume set of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. On April 20, he returned to Roche for 105 volumes of both history and literature, including a fifty-two volume Biographie Universelle and thirty volumes of Josia Carter’s The Modern Traveler. That same day at New Oxford Street, he purchased from J. Westell forty-one more literary volumes, including two Milton titles and a copy of Byron’s Conversations.
On May 21, E. Joseph sold Churchill fifty-nine more volumes, including the works of Lamb, the works of a Brontë sister (which one was not noted), Plutarch’s Lives, and Sloan’s Life of Napoleon Bonaparte. Churchill’s discount—it is worth noting—had now been increased at E. Joseph from 10 to 20 percent.
Churchill’s total expenditure on books in 1906 was well over £250, with his total purchases numbering more than seven hundred individual volumes.
Barry Singer is the author of Churchill Style (Abrams Image, 2012) and the proprietor of Chartwell Booksellers in New York City.
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