Finest Hour 139, Summer 2008
“Cats Look Down on You…” Churchill’s Feline Menagerie
By Fred Glueckstein
Mr. Glueckstein thanks Lady Soames for kindly reviewing this article. His previous pieces were “Winston Churchill and Colonist II” (FH 125) and “The Statesman John Kennedy Admired Most” (FH 129).
Sir Winston Spencer Churchill left such a large record, so much of it crafted by himself, that even the best scholars fail to get their arms around him. And there are so many fascinating side issues to distract us! Take for example his passion for and genuine love of animals.1
Cats were part of Churchill’s life at both his official and private residences. Grace Hamblin, who was both his secretary and his wife’s at Chartwell from 1932 to 1965, addressed the unportentous side of his life at the 1987 International Churchill conference:
He loved cats. So do I and he knew it. He always had a cat, if not two. I must tell you one lovely cat story. It was way, way back in the Thirties. He came to his door one morning with some papers in his hand and a cat was sitting in the passage: “Good morning, Cat.” But the cat didn’t answer. It was one of those horrible snooty things. So he said again, “Good morning, Cat.” The cat made no effort to be near him. He slashed at it with his papers and the cat ran from the house. Cat didn’t return the next day or the next or the next. Finally he said, “Do you think it’s because I hit him?” Of course I said, “Yes, definitely.”
That evening I was whiling away my time while the family had dinner downstairs, when Sarah came up and said, “Hambone, I have a message for you from Papa. He said if you like you may go home, and if you wish before you go, you may put a card in the window to say that if Cat cares to come home, all is forgiven.” Cat did come home several days later with a wire round his neck. Given cream and the best salmon and so on, he did recover, I’m glad to say.2
There was a succession of Chartwell cats. Two of them were Mickey, a large tabby, and Tango, a marmalade. William Manchester related an amusing story in The Last Lion, volume II, about the former. Churchill was speaking on the telephone to the Lord Chancellor when Mickey began playing with the telephone cord. WSC shouted, “Get off the line, you fool!” Realizing his mistake he turned his attention back to the Lord Chancellor: “Not you!” he said.
Later, wrote Manchester, “he offered the cat his apologies, which he never extends to human beings, cajoling the pet, cooing, ‘Don’t you love me anymore?’ and proudly telling his valet at breakfast next day, ‘My Mickey came to see me this morning. All is forgiven.’”3
In a 2 March 1935 letter to his wife, who was on a cruise in the South Pacific, WSC brought her up to date on Chartwell’s menagerie, including Tango: “The cat treats me well very graciously and always wishes to sleep on my bed (which I resent). When I dine alone, and only then, she awaits me on the table.”4 Churchill’s daughter Mary would later write: “It is curious that my father habitually endowed the beautiful marmalade neutered male cat, called Tango, with the feminine gender.”5
Churchill’s affection for and patience with cats grew over time. During the war, Sir John Colville, his principal private secretary, remembered one episode involving Tango on 3 June 1941. The war was going badly. The British had evacuated Greece; Crete was falling; Lord Beaverbrook was being difficult; the Navy had lost several ships in the Mediterranean. Colville recorded the lunch they shared that day:
I had lunch with the P.M. and the Yellow Cat, which sat in a chair on his right-hand side and attracted most of his attention. He was meditating deeply on the Middle East, where he is intent on reorganizing the rearward services, and on Lord Beaverbrook who is proving particularly troublesome….While he brooded on these matters, he kept up a running conversation with the cat, cleaning its eyes with his napkin, offering it mutton and expressing regret that it could not have cream in war-time.6
The Prime Minister’s best-known cat during the war years was a big grey named Nelson. During a dinner at Chequers, the American war correspondent, Quentin Reynolds records Churchill as saying: “Nelson is the bravest cat I ever knew. I once saw him chase a huge dog out of the Admiralty. I decided to adopt him and name him after our great Admiral….” It was a cosy family dinner, Reynolds continued: “Churchill scarcely mentioned the war. Our first course was smoked salmon and twice, when Mrs. Churchill was not looking, the Prime Minister sneaked pieces of salmon to Nelson.”7
When WSC became Prime Minister in May 1940, he and his family had moved into Ten Downing Street, which had a resident cat, Lady Soames recalls: “He was treated with great kindness but we disrespectfully named him Munich Mouser, since he was a holdover from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s administration.”
Observers knew that Nelson was soon moving into Number Ten, and could not resist poking fun at the felines: “Nelson will follow his master shortly to Downing Street and make a problem of protocol. How, it is asked will the Munich cat react to Nelson? Will he follow Chamberlain next door to his new home at No. 11 leaving the field at No. 10 to Nelson? Or will he refuse to abdicate and call for a show-down in His Majesty’s court of justice?”8
It was the latter: the scrappy Nelson did not take a liking to Munich Mouser and, as was his wont, took decisive action. Lady Soames recalled that he chased Munich Mouser out of Number Ten; one must hope that the Mouser found another home next door.
Silly stories circulated that Nelson sat in with Churchill at Cabinet meetings: not so, though he may have wandered in on occasion. Always his ardent admirer, WSC told a colleague that Nelson was doing more than he was for the war effort, since Nelson served as a prime ministerial hot water bottle.
Another Churchill cat, residing at the flat at Number Ten Annexe, was Smoky—like Nelson a grey of uncertain lineage. While her husband was traveling to meet President Roosevelt in Casablanca January 1943, Mrs. Churchill wrote:
The “Annexe” & No 10 are dead and empty without you—Smoky wanders about disconsolate—I invite him into my room & he relieves his feelings by clawing my brocade bed-cover & when gently rebuked, biting my toe through it.9
Once during an important wartime meeting, WSC and a cat did cross paths (photo opposite). In August 1941, Churchill met President Roosevelt on board HMS Prince of Wales, when they rendezvoused off the coast of Newfoundland. As the Prime Minster listened to the American national anthem on the deck of the British warship, he saw the ship’s large cat Blackie, moving toward the USS Augusta, which was moored alongside. The Prime Minister bent down to stroke Blackie’s head, perhaps stopping him from deserting ship.
When the photograph of WSC patting Blackie was published, cat fanciers were affronted. Cat, the monthly publication of the Cats Protective League, scolded that cats abhor head-patting and added: “He should have conformed to the etiquette demanded by the occasion, offering his hand and then awaiting a sign of approval before taking liberties.”10 No one ever said being Prime Minister was easy.
After Newfoundland, the crew named Blackie “Churchill” and he became a beloved ship’s mascot. Later that year, Prince of Wales was sunk by Japanese aircraft off Malaya (see page 40). Despite vast loss of life, Churchill made it with some of the crew to Singapore, where he encamped with the survivors. In February 1942, when orders came to evacuate Singapore, Churchill, who was believed off foraging for food, could not be found and was sadly left behind.
Kittens were always special, Grace Hamblin said. One day at Chartwell a neighbor brought a basket of white kittens, each wearing a red bow, hoping Sir Winston would take his pick. Miss Hamblin decided that there were already too many cats at Chartwell, declaring, “There is no way I am going to stand for one more Lord Warden of the Cinque Mouseholes. There are quite enough as it is!”
So she took the basket up to his bedroom, and told WSC: “Now you are not to have these, they are just here for a visit.” An hour later he summoned her back. The kittens were everywhere, tearing into his newspapers, climbing around the room, investigating his bedclothes. “Take these kittens away,” Churchill commanded, “before I fall in love.”11
One kitten that did capture his fancy was at Downing Street during Churchill’s postwar premiership. On the evening of 10 October 1953 Lord Moran, Churchill’s physician, called at Number Ten to see his patient, who was recovering from a stroke some months earlier. Earlier that day, WSC had delivered a fighting speech at Margate to the Conservative Party Conference. Moran found him listening to the wireless reports of Margate, with Clementine, his daughter Diana, his son-in-law Duncan Sandys, and Jock Colville. Churchill was in fine spirits, relaxed and satisfied that the speech had gone well:
A small black kitten jumped on to his knee. It was found on the steps of No.10 and had been taken in.
“It has brought me luck,” he said, stroking the purring cat.
He had assumed proprietorship.
“It shall be called Margate.”
Rufus, the P.M.’s poodle, had gone to bed in a sulk.12
Three days later, his wife now in France, WSC wrote her, as he often did when they were apart. After talking about the negative French reaction to the Margate speech—Churchill had welcomed West Germany “back among the Great Powers of the World”—he wrote: “The Kitten is behaving admirably & with its customary punctilio! Rufus is becoming gradually reconciled. Generally the domestic situation is tranquil.”13
A week later Lord Moran again called, finding Churchill and his new friend à deux: “I found the P.M. reading The Times, while the black kitten, lying on its back, pawed the fluttering edges of the paper.”14
For Sir Winston’s 88th birthday in November 1962, Sir John Colville gave him a ginger cat with a white chest and paws. Named “Jock,” the cat became a favorite, often found on Churchill’s knee. Churchill took Jock to his London home at Hyde Park Gate when he traveled there from Chartwell.
In frail health and using a cane, WSC visited the House of Commons for the last time on 27 July 1964. Wearing a dark bow tie, black jacket, with long white cuffs below his jacket sleeves, he was photographed leaving his London home for Parliament. In the foreground of the photograph was Jock.15
Sir Winston died at Hyde Park Gate at the age of 90 on 24 January 1965. With his passing, the National Trust took possession of Chartwell16 and the Churchill family asked that a marmalade cat named Jock always have residence at his beloved country home.
“After Sir Winston’s death Jock lived on at Chartwell, where he had the run of the house,” a National Trust spokesman said after the cat died at the age of 13 in January 1975. “He would spread out in front of the fire, just as he did when Sir Winston was alive. The public loved him.”
In accord with the family’s wish, a new marmalade cat, Jock II, replaced the original, and the National Trust has ensured that the tradition continues. The incumbent today is Jock IV.
Like his predecessors, Jock IV is a marmalade with white paws and bib. “He is about five to six years old,” said Caroline Bonnett of the National Trust. “He lives in an apartment at Chartwell with a member of staff, and has his own National Trust Green cat flap [kitty door] which has been approved by our Historic Buildings Inspector.
“He is a very affectionate cat and has trained the Chartwell staff very well. He spends most of his day sleeping on various chairs and beds around his apartment. He tends to be much more active at night, when he gets out and about in the garden.”17
Knowing that a marmalade still lives comfortably at Chartwell would have pleased its famous master.
1. By late 1936, according to William Manchester, Chartwell had “an astonishing array of pets: lambs, bantams, a Blenheim spaniel, a beige-colored pug dog, a marmalade cat, two fox cubs, and three goats, one of whom produced twins while the other gave birth to triplets, and all of whom ate the cherry trees, to Clementine’s indignation.” William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, vol. 2, Alone 1932-1940 (Boston: Little Brown, 1988), 254.
2. Proceedings of the International Churchill Societies 1987. “Chartwell Memories,” by Grace Hamblin OBE, Dallas, Texas, 30 October 1987 (Hopkinton, N.H.: International Churchill Society, 1989), 37-49.
3. Manchester, op. cit., 20.
4. Mary Soames, editor, Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), Chartwell Bulletin No. 7, April, 2005, 388.
5. Ibid., 389 n. 1.
6. John Colville, The Fringes of Power, 2 vols. (London: Sceptre, 1986-87), I: 468.
7. Reynolds, Quentin, All About Winston Churchill (London: W. H. Allen, 1964), 148.
8. “Downing St. Cats Create Problem of Feline Protocol,” The Washington Post, 7 June 1940, 6.
9. Soames, op. cit., 471.
10. “Churchill Should Pet Cat Only If Invited, Fans Say,” The New York Times, 23 September 1941, 25.
11. Langworth, Richard M., editor, Churchill by Himself (London: Ebury Press, 2008), 534.
12. Lord Moran, Churchill: Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 512.
13. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 8, “Never Despair” 1945-1965 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), 898.
14. Moran, op. cit., 513.
15. “Churchill Pays Last Visit to Commons,” The New York Times, 28 July 1964, 1.
16. Gilbert, op. cit., 304. Churchill sold Chartwell to a group of friends led by Lord Camrose, who presented it to the National Trust on 29 November 1946, with the proviso that WSC and his wife could live there as long as they wanted; after WSC’s death, his wife left and took an avid interest in Chartwell’s conversion to a National Trust property, which was opened to the public on 22 June 1966.
17. Caroline Bonnett, Assistant Visitor Services and Marketing Manager for Chartwell, Emmetts Garden and Quebec House, correspondence with the author, 2 July 2007. Ms. Bonnett also told the author about Jock III, “a beautiful cat with a fairly bad temper! He made quite a habit of scratching staff (and visitors) but could also be very affectionate. He was often out in the garden meeting visitors and particularly enjoyed sleeping in flower beds on sunny days.”