Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill is revered as one of the most famous and celebrated Britons in the long history of the United Kingdom. His leadership as prime minister during World War II and the many stories surrounding his turbulent political career are well known from frequent repetition in books, films and elsewhere. But many details of his long life are less familiar and, indeed, often surprising.
The future leader was born prematurely during a dance held on 30 November 1874, in the ladies lavatory at the Churchill family home, Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. His was a family of the highest aristocratic origins, and the fact that his father — Lord Randolph Henry Spencer Churchill, himself the third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough — was an MP, Secretary for India, Chancellor or the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons was bound to have an influence upon the young Winston.
His father (who went mad and died of syphilis at a relatively young age) was a stern parent who thought little of his son’s failure to excel while at school. The young Winston, it has to be said, did not attract undue attention for his mental prowess and was generally considered slow-witted. He also had a lisp. When the time came for him to enter the Royal Military College at Sandhurst it took him three attempts before he was admitted.
Winston’s early career in the army, which saw him reach the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and subsequent employment as a war correspondent, included service in the Sudan and South Africa and is well-documented. Highlights of this period included his much-publicised escape from a prisoner-of-war camp during the Boer War.
On his return home, Churchill became a member of parliament, initially serving as a Conservative before switching to the Liberals and finally going back to the Conservatives and in the process earning himself a reputation as a political opportunist.
Before and during World War I, he held many senior posts, among them Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty and Minister of Munitions, but he fell from grace after masterminding the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of 1915. He returned to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the years 1924–29 but despaired of further advancement because of his unpopularity among political contemporaries and, indeed, a large proportion of the electorate. Instead he devoted himself to his writing in order to meet his extravagant bills.
Although subject to depression, which he called his ‘black dog’, Winston could at least fall back on a happy family life. He adored his wife Clementine (or ‘Clemmie’) and their five children, though sadly one of them died of septicaemia at the age of three. He revealed his playful manner in the nicknames he gave them: Clemmie was ‘Kat’, while he was ‘Pug’ (although the rest of nation knew him as ‘Winnie’), and the four surviving children were ‘Puppy Kitten’, ‘Chum Bolly’, ‘Bumble Bee’ and ‘Duckadilly’.
He was also fond of animals and kept a green budgerigar, several cats and poodles. No one was permitted to eat until the dogs had been fed.
Winston lost most of his red hair as he grew older. His personal habits included wearing pale pink silk underwear, drinking whisky and soda (he was often criticized for appearing drunk on important occasions) and smoking eight or nine cigars a day, though he didn’t inhale.
It is somewhat ironic, however, that he is remembered as a man of the people. He owned a Daimler and only once travelled on the Underground, for instance, and never on a bus. His wife once confided that ‘he knows nothing of the life of ordinary people’.
When not engaged in affairs of state, Churchill pursued a wide variety of hobbies including shooting, fencing, riding, butterfly-collecting, rose-growing and painting. Perhaps the most surprising of all was bricklaying, which he liked to busy himself with at Chartwell, his home in Kent.
After the Gallipoli disaster and his subsequent resignation he occupied himself by building a large model of the Forth Bridge out of Meccano. His favourite reading included Kipling, C.S. Forrester, George Orwell and the Brontës. One of his favourite films was Lady Hamilton, which he was reputed to have seen no less than 17 times.
The War Years
Churchill’s reputation rests primarily, of course, upon his stalwart leadership of wartime Britain as prime minister in the years 1940–45. His wartime speeches are still often referenced decades later. Quotations like ‘we shall never surrender’, ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’, ‘never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many, to so few’, and ‘give us the tools and we’ll finish the job’ all have Churchillian origins.
The man himself was unimpressed by the huge crowds who turned out to hear him speak, once remarking that ‘ten times as many would come to see me hanged.’ His two-fingered Victory V salute became familiar around the world as the struggle against Nazi Germany dragged on. When victory finally came in sight in 1945 Churchill celebrated in typically robust fashion by urinating on the Siegfried Line, the Third Reich’s last line of defence.
As the war ended, it was a mystery to Churchill why the war-weary British did not return him to power in the first post-war election. He was heard to remark on that occasion that ‘if this is a blessing, it is certainly very well disguised’. There were consolations, however, including a return to the premiership (1950–55) and the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature, ostensibly for his historical writings though arguably more in gratitude for his leadership of the free world during and after the war years.
When Churchill died, at the advanced age of 90, he was widely mourned and was recognised by friends and foes alike as the embodiment of the British national character. Indomitable, complex, witty and combative, he once looked ahead to what would happen at the end of his life, commenting, ‘I am ready to meet my maker. Whether my maker is ready for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter.’
A national poll conducted in 2002 named him ‘the greatest Briton of all time’.