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 his arrival in Durban in December 1899, Churchill was hailed a war hero after his daring escape from the Boer POW camp. His new fame allowed him to override the objections of the War Office and he continued to assume the dual role of officer – with a local volunteer unit, the South African Light Horse – and war correspondent.
For the next six months, he encountered fire, took part in the bloody and unsuccessful battle of Spion Kop in January 1900 and, as the war turned in Britain’s favour, was present at the relief of Ladysmith and the occupation of Pretoria. Returning to England in July 1900, Churchill was feted on the streets of Oldham.
Old College, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Wikimedia Commons/Albert Sydney
Churchill left Harrow School in 1892 and went to a ‘crammer’ to help him pass the entrance exam into the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, which he eventually did on the third attempt in 1893. He found life at Sandhurst much more suited to his temperament and talents than school life. Military topics such as tactics and fortifications were far more appealing to him than mathematics and he was a skilled horseman. The practical nature of the course appealed to him and he passed with credit in December 1894, twentieth out of a class of one hundred and thirty.
In February 1895, Churchill joined the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, a fashionable cavalry regiment, as a 2nd Lieutenant, as a way of gaining some experience before working his way into politics. Churchill’s regiment, the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, amalgamated with the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars in 1958 to form the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars. After further cuts in 1993, the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars amalgamated with the Queen’s Own Hussars (formerly the 3rd King’s Own Hussars and 7th Queen’s Hussars) to form the Queen’s Royal Hussars.
It is a fine game to play – the game of politics – and it is well worth a good hand – before really plunging.
Churchill, in a letter to his mother, 16 August 1895
In his last youthful military adventure, Churchill joined British forces in the Boer War. Churchill set off, armed with the important things in life – sixty bottles of spirits, twelve bottles of Rose’s Lime Juice and a supply of claret – and arrived in Cape Town late on 30 October 1899.
He was famously captured only two weeks later by the Boers when the armoured train on which he was travelling in Boer-occupied territory was ambushed and derailed. He made a dramatic escape the following month, making his way to Durban, with the Boers offering a reward of £25 for the recapture of their well-known prisoner, ‘dead or alive’. His dispatches from the Boer War were republished as two books, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900) and Ian Hamilton’s March (1900).
Desperate to join the army reconquering the Sudan, lost following the death of General Gordon in 1885, Churchill managed to obtain a temporary commission as a Lieutenant with the 21st Lancers while again also serving as a war correspondent, this time for the Morning Post.
In August 1898 he travelled up the Nile with the expeditionary force under General Kitchener.
A few weeks before his eighth birthday, in 1882, Churchill – like many other children of his class and background – was sent away to boarding school. The school was St George’s, near Ascot, Berkshire. Like lots of schoolchildren, Churchill didn’t like school. Churchill later wrote about his schooldays: ‘It appeared that I was to go away from home for many weeks at a stretch in order to do lessons under masters… After all I was only seven, and I had been so happy in my nursery with all my toys. I had such wonderful toys … Now it was to be all lessons …’
He was unhappy from the start, initially probably no unhappier than many children sent away to school at the time, although ‘floggings’ (beatings) were common. But the discipline of school life didn’t suit his independent spirit.
After only two years at St George’s, he was sent to a school in Brighton, run by the two Misses Thomson (The Misses Thomson’s Preparatory School), where he learned things that interested him such as French, history, poetry, riding a horse and swimming.
With all his writing and journalism gaining the attention of the political authorities (due in no small part to a promotion of his activities by his mother Lady Randolph), he resigned from the army in April 1899. Politics beckoned.
He had already spoken at a few political meetings in the Autumn of 1898 and attempted to enter Parliament as a Conservative, but failed – by a small margin – at the by-election in Oldham in 1899. But more action was to beckon. A serious colonial war had begun in South Africa and Churchill managed to secure another lucrative assignment to report on the war for the Morning Post. The contract he negotiated with the newspaper, a salary of £250 a month and all expenses paid, made him the highest-paid war correspondent of the day.
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.
Back home in Britain, in 1896, Churchill did all he could to get posted to Egypt or Matabeleland in South Africa, where he could see some action and get noticed – to no avail. He eventually sailed to India with his regiment in the Autumn of 1896.
Confined to a life of polo and military routine in Bangalore, he eventually took matters into his own hands and, armed with a contract as a war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, travelled to the North West frontier to join the Malakand Field Force. Here he did find himself in danger. Although the fighting on the north-west frontier against the Afghan tribes in 1897 couldn’t really be called battles, there was a real risk of being killed and Churchill had several narrow escapes.
Churchill had a period of leave and managed to obtain his first assignment as a war correspondent for the newspaper. He was reporting on the rebellion against Spanish rule by guerilla rebels in Cuba when he first came under fire. It was also in Cuba that he first refined his well-known taste for fine Cuban cigars. He was attached to the Spanish forces as an observer but his writings reveal considerable sympathies for the Cuban rebels.
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.
Winston Churchill and his family long delighted in extolling the legend of their Native American blood, believed to have been introduced through Jennie Jerome’s maternal grandmother, Clarissa Wilcox. Despite the much-mooted Red Indian features of some of Clarissa’s descendants, there is no genealogical evidence to support Native American ancestry in the Jerome lineage.
In his biography of Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill (vol. 1, The Romantic Years) Ralph Martin noted ‘marked Indian features of Clara Jerome and her sisters and their children’, suggesting that Clarissa Wilcox’s mother ‘may have been raped by an Indian’ and that Clarissa may have been a half-caste. This is quite a stretch: there were no Iroquois Indians in Nova Scotia, where Anna spent much of her youth. While there were certainly Iroquois in upper New York, where she moved as a 25-year-old wife and mother, her husband’s will mentions their daughter Clarind [sic] Wilcox and her sisters, which itself seems definitive. Martin’s thesis is harder to believe than the simple, forthright facts as recorded by her colonial family in their probate records. The absence of proof does not make a story untrue; but it does not establish it, either.
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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.
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