February 10, 2015

Finest Hour 164, Special Edition, September 2014

Page 19

By Minnie Churchill

Mary Soames was a very important part of my family’s life. We so looked forward to her visits which were full of laughter and wonderful stories. After my father-in-law Randolph died in 1968 she took over his role and was always there for us, and I know she was always there as well for Arabella, who was young Winston’s half-sister. She came to all my children’s weddings. When Randolph and Catherine were married at Chartwell, which was the first family wedding that had ever been held there, she was full of advice.

A Long Weekend with Mary

We invited her for a lengthy weekend to our house in Lyme Regis, Dorset, together with my son Jack and a few friends for his birthday. Mary always loved the company of the young. She could be quite formidable in the nicest of ways. So we decided to have a project that might interest her. We had discovered that the MP for Lyme Regis was once the original Sir Winston Churchill, and that he lived in the next village of Musbury in a residence called Ashe House, where John Churchill, later first Duke of Marlborough, was born—or was he? We had heard that he could not have possibly been born at Ashe House, for it had been burnt to the ground and in fact was partially rebuilt forty years later.

Sir Winston was married to Elizabeth Drake, and they owned a Drake house nearby called Great Trill—so they moved there and this was where John was born. In Mary’s father’s biography, Marlborough: His Life and Times, the first chapter is entitled “Ashe House.” Now Simon, whom I live with, is slightly braver than me and mentioned to Mary that her father might have been wrong! This resulted in a very old-fashioned look from Mary. We spent the next few days examining church records, lists of births and various authoritative texts. We visited Ashe House and observed that only one wing of the original house had been rebuilt, in fact the old servants’ wing. We visited Great Trill and observed the Drake Crest on the building, the delightful owners confirming that John Churchill had in fact been born there. There are in fact two entries of his birth, one in Musbury and a second in the parish of Axminster, the location of Great Trill. We had a wonderful few days seeking the truth. At the end Mary exclaimed that “perhaps” we were right and her father was incorrect!

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On one of the evenings, as we were enjoying the company of the young, there was a strange squeaking noise from outside. Mary asked what it was and I said that it was a baby Little Owl, calling for its mother. So, armed with a strong torch, we all went out into the garden, followed the noise, and there on a branch was the baby Little Owl. Just at that moment the mother owl arrived and fed it in front of us. Mary, who shared her father’s deep love of animals, was thrilled.

During this weekend Simon asked her if she minded him telling stories about her father, as he felt that Sir Winston was part of his life and history. She replied that of course he could talk about her father, but must always be accurate. This applies to us all: our personal history was formed by this great man.

Mary did not walk in her father’s shadow; she created her own sunshine and place in our hearts and lives. She will be missed with great sadness and affection but with the thought constantly in our minds: What would Mary say or do?

Ms. Churchill married grandson Winston S. Churchill in 1964 and is the mother of Randolph and Jack Churchill, Jennie Repard and Marina Brounger. She is co-author of Sir Winston Churchill: His Life Through His Paintings (2004).

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