David Lough is author of No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money (Head of Zeus, Picador, 2015).
Was it the rolling acres of Blenheim or the chicken and rabbits of Banstead? Something in Winston Churchill’s childhood kept propelling him toward the dream of his own house in the country, surrounded by land and animals. It lay beyond reach until the First World War, when property prices had fallen far enough by 1915 for the two Churchill brothers to lease a small estate where their young families could spend the summer together. It was the land around Hoe Farm rather than its fifteenth-century house that appealed: “It really is a delightful valley and the garden gleams with summer jewellery,” Churchill wrote to Jack.1
The lease lasted just one summer, but his wife Clementine was equally smitten; that winter while Churchill fought in the trenches she wrote of her own longing for “a little country basket.”2 Churchill found on his return that he could earn much more than he expected by writing articles for newspapers, so the hunt was soon on for what he described to Sir Archibald Sinclair, a large landlord himself, as a permanent “country seat.” “I wish to find a place to end my days amid trees & upon grass of my own!” he wrote his former companion in the trenches. “Freed from the penury of office these consolations become possible.”3
Estate agents guided him to a property some thirty miles south of London that was available for £4,500.4 Stefan Buczacki, chronicler of Churchill’s homes, describes Lullenden as “a decrepit mediaeval farmhouse with no modern amenities” at the time, surrounded by a “67-acre farm in a run-down state.”5 Nonetheless the family loved Lullenden from the start; it had what estate agents call “potential.” So while the Churchills paid for the basics such as a connection to the public water supply, they planned future luxuries such as a tennis court.
Churchill’s newspaper fees dried up, however, after only six months at Lullenden, when he rejoined the government as Minister for Munitions in July 1917. He tried all sorts of schemes to hold onto the property in the months that followed, but the numbers simply did not add up. By the spring of 1919 he had to bow to the inevitable and sell. He was lucky to find the independently wealthy wife of an old army friend as the buyer. “It’s the sort of romantic place I long to have,” Lady Hamilton confided to her diary. “It’s a snuggy place with rocks, pools, trees and streams.”6
Still Churchill’s dream refused to die. Even as Lullenden slipped away in August 1919, he promised his friend Sir Howard Frank (chairman of estate agents Knight, Frank & Rutley) that he would visit a farm for sale in Buckinghamshire. At the same time he mentioned that he would be keen to acquire a 500 or 600 acre fruit farm in Kent. Yet money remained the barrier until January 1921 when a train crash in Wales removed it. The accident killed a distant Londonderry cousin with whom Churchill shared a great-grandmother, the marchioness of Londonderry. Her Irish estate unexpectedly fell into his hands and, even after death taxes, it was worth the life-transforming sum of £55,000.
Churchill instructed Knight Frank to resume the search for a country seat. In July 1921 they came up with Chartwell, an estate of seventy acres commanding fine views over the Kentish weald. The local priest had lived in it, employing more than thirty staff before the war to look after the house, its garden and farm. Now all three were run-down.
It was Chartwell’s elevated position above the weald that captivated Churchill on his visit. He urged Clementine to go too while she was staying nearby, but she was wary. Any country house, she warned, must be “a rest & joy, not a fresh pre-occupation.”7 She changed her mind after seeing it. “My darling, I can think of nothing but that heavenly tree-crowned Hill,” she told her husband. “It is rather like a view from an aeroplane up there. I do hope we shall get it.”8 Chartwell reached the auction rooms a week later, yet there is no evidence that the Churchills lodged a bid, and the property was withdrawn from sale after failing to reach its reserve price. Five weeks later the Churchills’ youngest child Marigold died and Chartwell receded to the back of their minds.
It came to the forefront again when Sir Howard contacted Churchill in May 1922 to tell him that it would return to the auction room later that summer. By now Clementine, pregnant once again, had taken against the house: it was too close to the road and faced the wrong way. She suggested they should buy on the Essex coast instead, at Frinton where she would spend the summer holidays with the children while her husband was in southern France. She found two suitable houses for sale but Churchill remained non-committal until he visited the town for the final days of August, when he clearly decided against.
Back in London in September, he first pursued a small estate near Edinburgh in Scotland. Then on 14 September Sir Howard got back in touch, offering first refusal on Chartwell at a price of £5,500 before it went to auction ten days later. Churchill faced a decision at an awkward moment: Clementine was about to give birth and government business was pressing, as Turkish forces encircled a detachment of British soldiers south of the Dardanelles. Deciding not to disturb his wife, he offered £4,800 for Chartwell the next day, justifying his lower bid on the grounds that it would have to be “very largely rebuilt.”9
Negotiations followed in Churchill’s government offices until a price of £5,000 was agreed on 20 September. After the birth of their daughter Mary, it is unclear how soon Churchill broke the news of his purchase to Clementine. All we know is that Mary wrote years later that it was the only matter “over which Clementine felt Winston had acted with less than candour towards her.”10
Nor was Churchill entirely straightforward with the older children whom he took down to see Chartwell the following weekend. “He told us on the way that the purpose of this journey was to inspect a house that he thought of buying in Kent, and he wanted our opinion,” recounts his daughter Sarah. “Chartwell was wildly overgrown and untidy, and contained all the mystery of houses that had not been lived in for many years.”11 The children urged him to buy; not until they had reached London did their father confess that he had already done the deal.
He planned to find £2,000 of the purchase price from his own money and to borrow the remaining £3,000 from the trustees of his marriage settlement. His bank, he hoped, would then lend the £8,000 that he expected the building work to cost. He planned to repay both loans from his royalties for The World Crisis, the account of the First World War that he was then writing.12
It was Churchill’s cousin the Duke of Marlborough, a trustee of the marriage settlement, who scuppered the plan. “The sovereign is deflating,” the duke stated presciently, while declining to lend as much as Churchill wanted.13 Appendicitis then put Churchill out of action until just before he was due to pay for Chartwell on 11 November. As a result, he had to sell some of his inheritance and reduce his long-term indebtedness before asking his bankers, Cox & Co., to re-lend him £5,000 for the purchase until he found a different family settlement to take over the loan. The trust that he had in mind was his father’s will trust, where his brother Jack was the other trustee.14
Before he fell ill, Churchill had already appointed an architect for Chartwell. Edwin Lutyens, who knew the family well and had designed many country houses of the era, was unavailable because he left in November each year for India to oversee the construction of the government’s new buildings in Delhi. Churchill was in too much of a hurry to wait for his return in March and instead chose Philip Tilden, a less experienced and more flighty architect who had worked for David Lloyd George and Sir Philip Sassoon.
Tilden saw a challenge in Chartwell’s “drabness of Victorian umbrageousness”; and “so embowering were the giant trees,” he wrote, “so encroaching was the verdure that the red bricks of the house were slimed with green.”15 Tilden was equally green as an architect. His work at Chartwell would end up costing Churchill three times as much as his first forecast of £8,000.
Yet to Tilden goes the credit for the transformation of Chartwell achieved by turning the front of the house through 180 degrees so that it faces the glorious views to the south rather than the road to the north. Inside, the Churchills wanted larger bedrooms and reception rooms, extra bathrooms, a new kitchen, a library, and a large study. New windows, electric lighting, and modernized systems for heating and plumbing were also on the list. The work required was extensive; yet Churchill was in a hurry to start as soon as the house changed hands on 11 November. He demanded plans and estimates, yet would not pay for the scale model that Tilden wanted to build; work began without any master-plan.
Lloyd George had left Tilden largely alone, but the architect soon found that Churchill was cast from a different mould; no client, he later wrote carefully, had taken a closer interest in proceedings. Churchill employed a local joiner, William Wallace, to carry out some work in parallel to the efforts of the builders engaged by Tilden: it would prove a recipe for mutual blame and recrimination later when things started to go wrong.
Churchill lost his parliamentary seat at Dundee soon after building work began. As a result he decided with Clementine to take a rest in the south of France for several months early in 1923. He would return to inspect progress at Chartwell each month. Before they left, Tilden told the Churchills that the nursery wing should be ready for the family to live in by the end of March 1923. The builders would then move on to the new east wing, which they planned to finish in August. It sounded simple.
Each time that Churchill returned from France, however, he took a picnic down to Chartwell and would add to the work he wanted completed: oak paneling for the reception rooms, for example, or a gothic style for the pattern of the windows.
The first cracks in his relationship with Tilden followed the visit in March 1923 when Churchill found that the ceiling of the new kitchen was to be only nine feet high. “Some other plans will have to be made or the cook will be unable to carry on under such conditions,” he wrote after discussing the matter with Clementine. “I have never seen a large house with a low kitchen, and its existence at Chartwell would be fatal to the whole organization of the household.”16 In July it was clear that Tilden had already spent his original budget and would exceed it by at least £2,500; by late August that over-run had risen to £5,000, partly in response Churchill’s insistence on a new kitchen with a higher ceiling.
Unable to move in by August as they planned, the family rented a house nearby for the summer holidays. Churchill left as usual for the south of France, from where he tried to reconcile his unhappy wife to the dream. “My beloved I do beg you not to worry about money, or to feel insecure.…Chartwell is to be our home. It will have cost us £20,000 and will be worth at least £15,000.…Add to this my darling yr courage & goodwill and I am certain that we can make ourselves a good, permanent resting place, so far as the money side of this uncertain & transitory world is concerned. But if you set yourself against Chartwell, or lose heart, or bite your bread & butter & yr pig, then it only means further instability, recasting of plans & further expense & worry.”17
Churchill’s hope that Chartwell, once finished, would be worth at least £15,000 lasted for only a week. The family lawyers insisted on a professional valuation before Lord Randolph Churchill’s will trust could lend any more money to pay for the cost overruns. When it came, Knight Frank estimated the finished value at no higher than £12,000.18
The saga of changed requirements from the Churchills and higher costs from Tilden continued throughout the winter of 1923. Even in April 1924 Churchill was asking for the surrounds of four brick windows to be changed from brick to fluted stone.
Two weeks later the family finally moved in, but Clementine was pointedly absent, staying with her mother in France. Churchill at least was delighted with the result. “It is majestic,” he wrote to her: “Only one thing lack these banks of green—The Pussy Cat who is their Queen.”19
1. Winston S. Churchill (WSC) letter to Jack S. Churchill (JSC), 19 June 1915, Martin Gilbert, ed., Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume III, Part 2, May 1915–December 1916, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), p. 1042.
2. Clementine Churchill (CSC) letter to WSC, 16 February 1916, Mary Soames, ed., Speaking for Themselves (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), p. 177.
3. WSC letter to Sir Archibald Sinclair, 15 September 1916, Ian Hunter, ed., Winston and Archie: The Letters of Winston Churchill and Archibald Sinclair (London: Methuen, 2005), p. 40.
4. For simplicity, all sums given in this article should be multiplied by 50 times to produce an approximate 2017 value in sterling, or by 75 times to produce an approximate 2017 value in US dollars.
5. Stefan Buczacki, Churchill and Chartwell (London: Francis Lincoln, 2007), p. 66.
6. Jean Hamilton Diary, 12 April 1919, Hamilton papers, King’s College, London.
7. CSC letter to WSC, 11 July 1921, CHAR 1/139/62, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge.
8. CSC letter to WSC, 20 July 1921, CHAR 1/139/85.
9. WSC letter to Knight, Frank and Rutley, 15 September 1922, CHAR 1/159/25.
10. Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), p. 248.
11. Sarah Churchill, A Thread in the Tapestry (New York: Dodd and Mead and Company, 1967), p. 22.
12. JSC letter to WSC, 18 September 1922, CHAR 1/162/66; WSC letter to William Bernau, 22 September 1922, CHAR 1/162/68.
13. Duke of Marlborough letter to WSC, 11 October 1922, CHAR 1/159/17.
14. WSC letter to William Bernau, 7 November 1922, CHAR 1/162/79. Churchill drew down a first loan of £4,000 from Lord Randolph Churchill’s Will Trust in February 1923.
15. Philip Tilden, True Remembrances: Memoirs of an Architect (London: Country Life, 1954), pp. 115–16.
16. WSC letter to Tilden, Buczacki, p. 128.
17. WSC to CSC, 2 September 1923, Martin Gilbert, ed., Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume V, Part 1, 1922–1929, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), pp. 56–59.
18. Knight, Frank and Rutley letter to WSC, 12 September 1923, CHAR 1/167/25.
19. WSC letter to CSC, 17 April 1924, CV V, Pt. 1, p. 144.
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