Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire on St Andrew’s Day, 30 November 1874. This was the home of his grandfather, the seventh Duke of Marlborough. On his father’s side, he was a child of the aristocracy; his father was the Conservative politician, Lord Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill. His mother was the American-born beauty, Jennie Jerome, daughter of a New York stockbroker, financier and newspaper proprietor. They were a glamorous high society couple but distant parents.
Churchill was brought up by his nanny, Mrs Everest, with his younger brother, Jack, and was sent away to boarding schools in Ascot and Brighton before going to Harrow School. He was a willful and rebellious child, who clashed with school discipline, and who was not thought clever enough to go to university. He only passed the entrance exam for the officer training school at Sandhurst on his third attempt.
This section will tell you more about his early life and the people and places that shaped him.
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.
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.
In 1892, when Churchill was 17, he won the Public Schools fencing championship, presaging his future career as a fighting man. Generally, however, his other achievements at school didn’t seem to suggest an academic future. His parents decided that he wasn’t university material and instead they wanted him to try to enter the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and the military career for which he had already shown an inclination.
He left Harrow in 1892 and went to a ‘crammer’ to help him pass the entrance exam, which he eventually did on the third attempt in 1893. Churchill’s poor maths meant he couldn’t join the artillery and engineers, and he didn’t do well enough in the final exam to qualify for the infantry, much to his father’s disappointment. Against his father’s wishes, he qualified for a cavalry cadetship (the cavalry was more expensive than the infantry; the family would need to buy one or two costly ‘hunters’, polo ponies).
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.
Lord and Lady Randolph Churchill, Churchill Papers, CHAR 28/41/46. The Churchill Archives Centre.
Lord Randolph Churchill and Miss Jennie Jerome met during the racing season in 1873 on the Isle of Wight–one of the great social events of the British summer season. The Cowes Week regatta began in 1826 and is the longest-running regatta in the world.
Winston Churchill described the time that his parents met in his book My Early Life: ‘She was at that time widely known in New York, Paris and London Society as one of the most beautiful girls of the day. Lord Randolph Churchill fell in love with her at first sight, and in a few months, they were man and wife.’
They had a relatively short courtship and decided to marry when she accepted his proposal not long after having met. They married on the 15th of April 1874.
Lord Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill was born in 1849, the second son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. Miss Jennie Jerome was several years younger than her husband, born in 1854 and was the second of the four daughters of Leonard and Clara Jerome of New York.
Winston Churchill was born several months prematurely in 1874 and he was the oldest of two boys. He was very close to his brother Jack and adored both of his parents. He grew up in a classically Victorian fashion so was mostly away at boarding school during his childhood.
What I found, very much to my surprise, was that this nighttime reading wasn’t altogether a diversion from what I was thinking about in the day, because Churchill was exploring the same problems that I had been studying in these eminent philosophers—the same questions that had divided the ancient philosophers from the modern ones. In the essays at the end of Thoughts and Adventures were questions of whether nature or Providence—or whatever it is out there in the world that we don’t choose, that we simply have to accept—whether that all was a friend to man, so that the fundamental human posture here on earth would be one of gratitude; or whether nature was a kind of hostile foe that had to be mastered and bested, so that the fundamental posture of human beings would be defiance. In short, again: Plato versus Machiavelli.
Churchill, very surprisingly to me (I guess I was a little snooty about politicians), seemed to have thought through all these great questions of philosophy for himself and then had offered us some of the results of these reflections, with a very light touch, and modestly, saying to us in effect (as he actually did say to us in his essay on painting): these thoughts are very pleasant for some people and you at least ought to try them and see if they are for you—which may account for the fact that Thoughts and Adventures has had a larger readership than Hegel’s Phenomenology.
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