By Fred Glueckstein
“…200 bricks and 2000 words a day” —WSC to Stanley Baldwin, 1928
In January 1952, Winston S. Churchill arrived in New York Harbor aboard the Queen Mary on a visit to the eastern United States. Dorothy McCardle, society reporter of The Washington Post, recorded a story told by members of the staff accompanying the Prime Minister from New York to Washington. In a delightful piece dated 13 January 1952, McCardle humorously wrote that the man Americans knew as the bulldog leader of World War II had acquired a new title for his current visit to America: “bricklayer.”
Those travelling with Churchill had related that the day before he left for the United States, he had been asked to lay a foundation stone in Bristol, where he was Chancellor of the University. WSC picked up a silver trowel provided for the occasion and looked at the foundation stone. To the surprise of everyone he laid the trowel aside and said, “The stone isn’t level.” McCardle wrote: “Red-faced officials produced measuring instruments and in a second discovered that Winnie was right. Solemnly, they adjusted the stone, and then Winnie the bricklayer nodded his approval, took up the silver trowel, and smoothed the cement.”1
The Brtish public’s knowledge of Churchill as an amateur bricklayer had become known twenty-four years earlier in 1928, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, a position he held from November 1924 to June 1929 under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. During the summer and autumn of 1928, Churchill spent most of his time at Chartwell, finishing the fourth volume of his war memoir, The World Crisis, which he subtitled The Aftermath.
Churchill had been under pressure by his Conservative colleagues as well as his financial duties, and Baldwin knew he needed a rest, writing him on August 5th: “Do remember what I said about resting from current problems. Paint, write, play with your dams [probably referring to Chartwell’s pond-feeding waterworks]. But a big year will soon begin and much depends on your keeping fit.”2
Churchill’s ministerial work was brought from the Treasury to Chartwell by car, and he dedicated several hours to it daily. In addition to writing and working on government duties, WSC also found time to help build a tiny cottage for his daughters, on the lower, eastern boundary of the kitchen garden. Churchill’s daughter Mary remembered:
While my father was constructing the red-brick walls which now surround the garden, he had the delightful idea of building a little one-roomed cottage in the line of the wall for Sarah and me: it was meant for us both, but Sarah, who had started at boarding school in 1927, outgrew its pleasures fairly soon, and this charming dwelling became known as the Marycot.3
In constructing the Marycot, Martin Gilbert wrote, Churchill helped with the bricklaying.4 Although it is not known exactly why he became interested in this trade, it is known that he was taught the skill by two of his Chartwell employees, Messrs. Whitbread and Kurn, and a professional bricklayer named Benny Barnes. It was Barnes who often found himself picking up where Churchill left off when duties took the minister away from his wall building. How much was built by Churchill or Barnes is not known.
Churchill was also directly involved in buying bricks, presumably for the cottage, which he chose to blend with those on the main house. For advice he approached his friend George Mowlem-Burt, chairman of John Mowlem Construction, and was referred to Bertrand Cardain Lamb of W.T. Lamb & Sons. Churchill visited their brickworks at Godstone, and Lamb’s son Richard subsequently went to Chartwell with samples. However, the match was not good enough, so four bricks were removed from an old wall for a better match. The removal was made on condition that if Lamb’s couldn’t make an acceptable duplicate, the company would pay for the four to be replaced. Richard Lamb returned with fresh samples Churchill found satisfactory, and he placed an order for 4000 new bricks.
On his second visit, Lamb gave Churchill some instructions in the correct way of laying bricks. Later, in 1934 and 1935, Churchill purchased from Lambs two more batches of 2000 and 4000 bricks. He particularly liked the plum tinted ones and stated that he would most likely need 8000 in total; however, he gave no hint of how the bricks would be used, but it is likely they went into additional walls.
Working on the Marycot gave Churchill a great amount of pride and joy in his six-year-old daughter, as shown by a letter he wrote to his wife, who was away with Sarah:
Mary’s house is growing and I hope to have a treat for you when you come….Mary has taken the greatest interest in the work and laid the foundation stone with great ceremony. She was presented with a bouquet by the Prof. [Frederick Lindemann] and then manifested a great desire to make a speech. We all had to stand for five minutes while she remained in deep thought, her lips frequently moving over the sentences. In the end she said she regarded it as a great honour to have been called upon to lay this foundation stone and that she hoped she would spend many happy hours in the house when it was finished. (Loud cheers.)5
On 2 September 1928, Churchill wrote Baldwin about his time at Chartwell: “I have had a delightful month building a cottage and dictating a book: 200 bricks and 2000 words a day.”6 A day later the Associated Press reported a comment in The Evening Standard (prematurely awarding WSC a knighthood he wouldn’t have until 1953):
…Winston Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer, has become an amateur bricklayer. A reporter found Sir Winston [sic] acting the part of a bricklayer to perfection on the home of one of his servants on his estate at Westerham. His young daughter, Sarah, was “hod carrier” for him, carrying the bricks while her father set them in place and tapped them with a trowel.
The AP report went on: “Three glaring inconsistencies in Sir Winston’s make-up are pointed out in the story, which mentions his cigar, gloves and hat and coat such as bricklayers never wear on a summer day.” Finally the AP reported, “Sir Winston said he had been laying bricks for a fortnight, but planned to ‘lay off’ tomorrow and go on a holiday.”7
After it became known that Churchill laid bricks, a photograph of him at work was published in the British press. The picture, Stefan Buczacki wrote, “unfortunately showed one corner brick perched extremely precariously while Churchill, trowel in hand, beamed contently from above.”8
The photograph resulted in mixed reviews. One irate letter from a professional bricklayer pointed out the poor quality of his work and expressed concern about the critical brick. “Now sir, this is not on a par with your State work, and I urge you to attend to its alignment and correct placing.…”9
Churchill received a more positive letter from James Lane, Mayor of Battersea, who was also the organiser of his local division of the Amalgamated Union of Building Trades Workers (AUBTW), the union including bricklayers and masons. Lane wrote: “If you are desirous of continuing at bricklaying it is respectfully suggested that you become a member of this society. All good workmen join an organization with a view to keeping up the traditions of honuorable occupation. You will be waited on at your convenience for enrollment.”10
“I do not feel that I am sufficiently qualified,” answered Churchill to Lane’s first letter.
The union official replied: “I was aware that you would not be sufficiently competent to carry on the work of a fully qualified bricklayer. But…as time passes you will improve your craftsmanship in a similar manner to those who have entered the trade under the Government adult apprenticeship scheme.”
Churchill cautiously replied: “Would you mind letting me know whether for instance, there is a rule regulating the number of bricks which a man may lay a day…and what are the restrictions on overtime.”
“Right Honuorable Sir,” responded Lane, “there is no restriction whatsoever on the number of bricks a member of this union may lay….So far as overtime is concerned this is governed by the national agreement between the employers and the operatives.”
Lane also advised that “if you should be called out on strike you will be entitled to one pound per week and to an additional unemployment benefit should you at any time fall out of employment.”11 The unemployment benefit described by Lane required all members to pay a weekly contribution of nine pence.
Urging the Chancellor to become a unionized bricklayer, Lane noted that when William McKinley was President of the United States, he had to become a member of the appropriate craft organization before he could lay a foundation stone.
After further inquiries, Churchill did complete an application and sent an admission fee cheque for five shillings. George Hick, chairman of the AUBTW, said it would “be interesting to see whether Churchill will contract in for the politics fund,” which referred to the union levy for the Labour Party, against which Churchill would be campaigning in the following year’s elections.12
On 10 October 1928, Churchill was inducted into the AUBTW in private proceedings in his office at the Treasury by a pleased James Lane. Churchill was issued a membership card signed by Chairman Hicks. It read: “Winston S. Churchill, Westerham, Kent. Occupation, bricklayer.”
Lane later displayed the Chancellor’s signature on the prescribed forms. He said that Sir William Joynson-Hicks, the Home Secretary, had also also been invited to join the union, but had declined: “The invitation followed an experiment by Sir William in a housing scheme. The promoters had claimed unskilled men could lay 3000 bricks a day, but the Home Secretary fell short of half this number.”13
The press zeroed in on the story with headlines: “Mr. Churchill Joins Bricklayers in Union” and “New Role for Versatile Winston.” Sir Abe Bailey and a handful of union members wrote Churchill to congratulate him; one member even offered to work as his hod carrier. But most members of the union were unhappy: it was Churchill, after all, who had led the forces of the government in the union-led General Strike two years before.
One union member, who signed himself “A British Subject Sodden with Taxation,” wrote: “You damned old hypocrite. It would do you and the country good if you were forced to earn your daily bread by laying bricks instead of playing at it, and making yourself look like a fool.”14
Its members’ unhappiness with Churchill in their union was not altogether surprising. The AUBTW was described as “a left wing organization” which had passed a resolution at its Conference a few weeks earlier that read: “This Conference calls upon the Labour Party Executive and the parliamentary Labour Party to expose the danger of war to the workers and to mobilize them for organized action against the war preparation of the Baldwin Government.”15
As a result of several outraged messages to the union’s Executive Council about Churchill’s admission, the matter was debated at length at its meeting on 26 October. Agenda item 3 read, “Winston S. Churchill.”
Union branches protesting his admission as a “Brother” argued that Churchill’s application had not been completed properly, that the proposal hadn’t been seconded, that his cheque had not been cashed, and, most importantly, Churchill had not given any details of the length of time he had worked at the bricklaying trade.
Although it was recognized that the matter was never intended to be taken too seriously and had been “viewed generally in a wrong light,” the Executive Council decided to act and reverse its initial decision: “That this Council declares that Mr. Winston Churchill is not eligible for membership of this union, and that Bro. Lane, No. 2 Divisional Organiser, be advised to this effect accordingly.”16
A formal statement outlining the matter, with a copy of the resolution, was circulated to all divisional councils, branches, and committees. In addition, the statement and resolution was copied and provided to the Daily Herald, the official organ of the Labour Movement.
Despite his expulsion, Churchill was disinclined to give up his membership. The union, he said, having accepted his membership, did not have the legal power to oust him. On November 1st, a statement was released on his behalf:
Mr. Churchill does not see how he could accept expulsion without endangering the position of other members of the union who, having been duly accepted as members, by responsible authorities, ought to have assurance they cannot be turned out for political reasons. It would be injurious to the interests of the union if doubt were thrown upon the validity of the signatures and authority of its responsible officers. Mr. Churchill hopes, therefore, that the matter be further considered and the correspondence studied by the Executive Council.17
No further action was taken by the union, nor would it have been expected to reverse the decision.
Despite his ouster, which was undoubtedly a personal embarrassment for Churchill, his pleasure in bricklaying continued, as witnessed thirteen years later. In 1942, when his daughter Mary was posted to the 469 Heavy (Mixed) Anti-Aircraft Battery at Enfield, the first VIPs to visit the camp were her parents:
…my comrades really seemed quite pleased to show off our skills. In the event it wasn’t only our skills that were shown off: there were some building works in progress on the site, and— to my embarrassment, but everyone else’s delight—my father stopped, seized a trowel, and laid down a line of bricks!18
As in 1942 and 1952, there were undoubtedly other times when Churchill was asked to wield a trowel in his illustrious career, for his bricklaying experience had become part of his legend. It would be fair to surmise that he would have performed at each opportunity with the same ardor, attention and satisfaction he had in working on the Marycot, decades earlier at Chartwell.
Mr. Glueckstein is a Long Island, New York writer and a frequent FH contributor. His last article was on the Morgan Library exhibit, FH 155: 36.
1. Dorothy McCardle, “‘Winnie’ Wanted Most to See His Daughter,” The Washington Post, 13 January 1952. We quote verbatim, though Churchill disliked the nickname “Winnie,” except when used by his nurse Mrs. Everest.
2. Stefan Buczacki, Churchill & Chartwell: The Untold Story of Churchill’s Houses and Gardens (London: Frances Lincoln, 2007), 172.
3. Mary Soames, A Daughter’s Tale (London: Doubleday, 2011), 43.
4. Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life (London: Pimlico, 2000), 486.
5. Soames, 43-44. See also “Mary’s First Speech,” a painting by WSC, on the cover of Finest Hour 148, Autumn 2010.
6. Gilbert, 486.
7. “Churchill Laying Brick; Daughter Is Hod Carrier,” Associated Press report in The Washington Post, 4 September 1928.
8. Buczacki, 169.
9. Ibid., 170.
10. W.A.S. Douglas, “Winston Churchill Made Member of British Bricklayers’ Union: Chancellor of Exchequer Virtually Forced to Enroll after Photographer Snaps Him at Work on Daughter’s Cottage,” Baltimore Sun, 11 October 1928.
11. W. Granger Blair, “Letters of Churchill about Joining Union are Sold in London,” The New York Times, 14 July 1966.
12. Douglas, op. cit.
13. “Winston Churchill Joins Bricklayers: British Chancellor Receives Union Card, but Home Secretary Declines,” Associated Press report in The Washington Post, 11 October 1928.
14. Buczacki, 170.
16. Buczacki, 171.
17. “Churchill Is Ousted by Bricklayers’ Union: Executive Council Decides Chancellor of Exchequer Is Not Eligible, but He Protests,” The New York Times, 2 November 1928.
18. Soames, 231.
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