Sarah (born in October 1914 in the first months of the First World War) and Marigold (born just after the end of the War, in November 1918) were Churchill’s younger daughters. Life for them was to prove troubled and, in the case of Marigold, sadly very brief.
‘Many years later my father told me that when Marigold died, Clementine gave a succession of wild shrieks like an animal in mortal pain. My mother never got over Marigold’s death.’
Mary Soames, Prelude to A Daughter’s Tale
Churchill’s younger brother, Jack, was born in 1880 when Churchill was five. They saw little of their parents, and both of them were looked after by a nanny. Mrs Everest (she was, in fact, a spinster; the ‘Mrs’ was an honorary title) was hired when Winston was only a few months old. The children led a peripatetic life, often travelling with her from their home in Ireland (the ‘Little Lodge’, where the Churchills lived when his grandfather, the 7th Duke of Marlborough, became Viceroy of Ireland), to the Isle of Wight, to Blenheim and to London.
Churchill was enormously fond of Mrs Everest and called her ‘Woom’ or ’Woomany’. She exerted a considerable influence on him throughout his childhood until she died when he was a young man of twenty-one (he was devastated by her death, and arranged for the erection of a headstone on her grave and paid an annual sum for its upkeep thereafter, a practice which has been continued to this day by The Churchill Centre and the Churchill family). For more about Churchill and his nanny, see the National Churchill Museum site.
On 17 April 1888, Churchill went to Harrow School, an independent boarding school for boys founded in 1572 under a Royal Charter granted by Elizabeth I, in London.
He joined Head Master’s Boarding House, said to date from 1650.
Here, he wasn’t particularly happy and he didn’t particularly excel. However, Churchill’s ability to memorise lines, which he later used when he first made public speeches, was already apparent. While at Harrow, he entered a competition and won a school prize for reciting from memory 1,200 lines from Macaulay’s long poem, Lays of Ancient Rome – a quite remarkable achievement.
Blenheim Palace was always one of Churchill’s favourite places. He spent much of his time as a child there, both before he went to school and during school holidays. His parents were often away, busy with their political and social lives, and his grandparents, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, often looked after him and his brother, Jack, allowing them to play in the Palace and its Great Park.
Frances, the Duchess of Marlborough, his grandmother, kept an eye on Winston throughout his youth and, in 1890 when he was returning to school from Blenheim after the summer holidays, wrote to him advising him to take care and to ‘keep out of scrapes and don’t flare up so easily…’. Like most children, he greatly looked forward to the holidays, many of which were spent at Blenheim. Blenheim was to provide a reassuring, constant backdrop to Churchill throughout his life; not just as a venue for holidays from school, but also for house parties and dinners as an adult, and it was where he chose to propose to his future wife, Clementine.
Sir Winston Churchill is often said to have had an emotionally deprived childhood, with his distant mother and scolding father. It is an easy picture to paint, but to do so ignores the role played by the woman who became his closest companion, Mrs. Elizabeth Everest. Known to Winston by a variety of names including “Woomany” and “Oom” (from his infantile efforts to pronounce “woman”), she was the person with whom he formed the strongest emotional attachment of his childhood and into adulthood became his “dearest and most intimate friend.”
Winston was a very affectionate boy, and letters to Mrs. Everest are signed off with “100 000 kisses,” whilst those to his parents are filled with doubly-underlined requests for his nanny to come visit and telling stories of the adventures they had together. When Winston was just eight years old, a letter to his father recalls a day walking with Mrs. Everest when they saw a snake crawling in the grass. Winston had wanted to kill it, but Mrs. Everest would not allow it and encouraged Winston to let the snake carry on about its day.
To understand the strength of their connection, an example presents itself in March 1886. Winston was eleven and had contracted pneumonia with a temperature of 104.3°, firmly putting his fever in the “dangerous” bracket. He showed signs of delirium and exhaustion, with an alarmingly quick pulse. The doctor wrote to Churchill’s mother, saying that his right lung was struggling and his left lung was starting to feel the strain of the extra work. He was watched by nurses around the clock, and concerns were so grave that the doctor wrote to Lady Randolph Churchill, saying that Winston needed to rest and expressed concern that, should Mrs. Everest visit, Winston’s excitement at seeing her would be so great that it might do harm and worsen his condition. At the time, Mrs. Everest was far away but was anxiously waiting for word as to when she might be able to visit. We know from Winston’s own letters to her at this time that he was desperately unhappy, saying, “I am feeling very weak. I feel as if I could cry at everything.” It is telling that during his illness the person he most desperately wanted to see was Mrs. Everest, and saddening that she was the only person who, on medical advice, was not permitted to see him.
In December 1890, Winston was set to take the Preliminary Examination for Sandhurst. In the days leading up to the exam, however, he told his mother that he thought he would not pass because he had been put under a master “whom I hated & who returned that hate.” Lady Randolph was not pleased, and her displeasure made its way to her son. In mid-November, Winston wrote and reassured her that he had complained to the headmaster about the hated master, who had since been replaced “by masters who take the greatest interest in me & who say that I have been working very well.” “Arithmetic & Algebra are the dangerous subjects,” Winston continued, but he was “sure of English” and “nearly sure of Geography, Euclid & French.” He concluded his letter asking her to take his “word of honour…that I am working my very best.”
Apparently Lady Randolph did not do so and visited Harrow herself to talk to Harrow’s Headmaster James Welldon, who backed up Winston’s claim. She wrote to her husband on 23 November explaining that “Winston was working under a master he hated—& that one day the master accused him of a lie—whereupon Winston grandly said that his word had never been doubted before & that he wld go straight to Welldon—which he did.” She explained further that Welldon had sided with Winston and placed him with a new master and that Welldon “thought Winston was working as hard as he possibly cld & that he would pass his preliminary exam.” Read More >
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The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.