Sorting Out Sir Winston Chartwell, 1966
In 1966, when I was seventeen, I was asked to help sort through and catalogue much of the contents of Chartwell,
the house where Sir Winston Churchill lived from the 1920s until his death in 1965.
This glimpse of life behind the scenes seems worth recording.
[In April 2005 this article was reproduced by Finest Hour, the Journal of the Churchill Centre and Societies.
It appeared almost in its original form (see below) but also carried a few comments, and explanations
kindly offered by Sir Winston's daughter, the Lady Soames, DBE.]
By Christopher Long
t was during the summer holidays of 1966, less than a year after Churchill's death, that my mother and I were asked by the old man's private secretary if we would spend several days helping her to sort through and catalogue the contents of the study and other rooms at Chartwell left.
I imagine Grace Hamblin chose us for this task because we had known him since the early 1950s, were presumably considered discreet and anyway lived little more than a mile away.
I was seventeen at the time and I thought this project was as good a way as any other of killing time until the evenings brought what seemed then to be the far more interesting prospect of dinners and dances in London.
My chief memory of first entering the house was that nobody appeared to have tidied or sorted anything in the months since Churchill's death. It was as if he had just dismissed the staff, walked out and locked the door behind him. The nation was gripped by Churchill fever and still deeply preoccupied by the loss of this colossal figure who had straddled two centuries of public life and was universally regarded as the saviour of the free world in World War ll. So, I found it strange to see the house so scruffy and wondered naively what the mourning public would have thought of such apparent neglect.
Presumably instructions had been given that everything was to be left completely untouched until the cohorts of executors, lawyers, trustees and members of the family had settled his estate and agreed with The National Trust how the house would be transformed into what is now a museum and what it would contain. Only the garden, in the care of the remarkable head gardener Mr Vincent, was still maintained to perfection.
Lady Churchill had already removed clothes and personal items from her bedroom to her flat in Prince's Gate, London, and I gathered that some security 'officials' had made a discreet visit to assure themselves that nothing compromising had been left among the former Prime Minister's papers. The officials had painstakingly combed through files in the ground floor library, one wall of which was dominated by a massive model of the 1944 D-Day landings plan at Arromanches. This had left Grace Hamblin with the arduous task of putting Churchill's vast archive back into order. Together we would sometimes take a break and comb the house for 'strays'. To my surprise it emerged that nobody had ever prepared an inventory of the now scattered and jumbled contents. We, it appeared, were to be the first to do so and I spent many days roaming the house and garden when I wasn't sifting through piles of jumbled artefacts and memorabilia, as well as thousands of books and papers.
Most of our work took place in the first floor study (left). This was fortunate because I knew this had been the heart of the old man's life a centre of operations. Though once a soldier, Churchill preferred the atmosphere and habits of the navy and the flooring of this room deliberately resembled a ship's quarter-deck.
It was here that he had written most of his vast literary output as he languished in caged frustration while out of office in the 1930s, watching his prediction of total war in Europe come to pass. Here, and in the garden room below, he had retreated with war-time friends and colleagues to relax and plan the defeat of the Axis powers.
Here too he had come to terms with electoral defeat in 1945 and had spent much of his retirement after the 1955 electorate decided that it didn't want to be led into the New Elizabethan age by an old war-horse, however much it revered and idolised him.
This room had seen Churchill at his highest and lowest moments and usually alone. I was acutely aware of his continuing presence. It seemed almost intrusive to reach into the back of shelves and pull out long-lost hand-written notes. Scribbled calculations in pounds, shillings and pence were testimony to his periods of financial insecurity and seemed largely to relate to his earnings from writing.
By comparison with the rest of the house the study was still well-organised at least until the arrival of Churchill's son, Randolph. It doesn't surprise me that this over-bearing man succeeded in making himself so comprehensively disliked throughout his life. He succeeded in irritating me within a couple of minutes. He swaggered into the library and, with scarcely a civil word, immediately ransacked my neat piles of books, combing through the volumes for any that had been signed or annotated by his father, regardless of their titles or subjects. He put his hoard into boxes and took them away. I had the impression that he felt uncomfortable in this room and that in some sense he felt he was trespassing. He arrived, helped himself and left with indecent haste.
[Under the terms of Churchill's will, Randolph had every right to the books he removed!]
I had carefully sorted the books so that every one could be put back on its shelf precisely where Churchill had left it. This had not been difficult to achieve. I simply adapted Churchill's own habits. Whenever he removed a book from a shelf he would stick one of his children's stuffed toys piglets, bears, etc into the gap to mark the spot. I put a piglet or a bear at each end of a shelf and wrote 'piglet' or 'bear' on slips of paper tucked into the first and last books in a stack. Thanks to Randolph the arrangement of the books today does not correspond to the way Churchill had very specifically set them out to be of most practical use to him for reference. And legions of piglets and bears would be needed to mark the places where his favourite and most annotated books are now missing.
Behind the desk was a small and insignificant door which opened into a small room. It was here that Churchill often retired to a day-bed and where his youngest daughter Mary would sometimes sleep after creeping down from her bed in her night-dress to join her father as he worked late into the night.
I wish now that I had photographed this small room as it was when I found it. The floor was covered with years of accumulated litter piled up over stacks of vast, tarnished silver and gold-plated cigar boxes. Stashed against the walls were elaborate presentation scrolls and dust-covered photographs, framed and signed by long-dead heads of state.
Like the tomb of Tutankhamun, one sumptuous tribute was piled upon another: every gift and accolade that kings, emperors and presidents could think to bestow on the world's greatest statesman. Consigned wholesale to a box-room, the old man's disdain for these lavish but tawdry tributes and baubles was all too evident. Today these same objects, so little valued in their owner's lifetime, hang throughout the house and gleam in their glass display cabinets for the benefit of Chartwell's thousands of visitors.
For a while I tried to sort and catalogue the contents of this room but it soon became clear that it was a fruitless exercise. An engraved silver plate announced that on a certain date this elaborate humidor was, on a certain occasion, presented to Sir Winston Churchill by the emperor of Abyssinia. What more was there to be said apart from the fact that Sir Winston had not rated its importance all that highly.
Downstairs I explored what had once been a dining room and which had been transformed into a small cinema with a projector near the door and a screen hanging down the side wall. Here the old man had watched Chaplin films with his children and friends. It was littered with old film cans and a spaghetti of cables when I found it, the only recognisable label on one of the cans being for an army training film I had myself been shown a year or two earlier by instructors at Aldershot or Camberley.
Whenever I could I escaped the house and wandered through the gardens, past the swimming pool towards the lake. It was at the swimming pool that I had once been terrified by Lady Churchill's waspish: "Well, don't just stand there jump in!". That provoked another mortifying memory: Lady Churchill standing over me in the little changing room at Laverock School clearly irritated because she was in a hurry to deliver a car-full of us home as quickly as possible. "What, you can't tie your own shoe-laces yet?"
[Our various mothers took it in turns to collect us from Laverock School. When Lady Churchill collected us on behalf of her daughter Mary Soames, she would arrive in a gleaming Rolls Royce. This was owned by Mr Frank Jenner, known as 'Fat Jenner', who ran a very grand taxi service with his brother 'Thin Jenner', operating from behind the King's Arms in Westerham. Mr Jenner frequently drove Sir Winston and Lady Churchill to and from Chartwell and Downing Street.]
At the lake the celebrated collection of black swans had been almost wiped out by a marauding fox from the Ide Hill woods across the valley and wandering back towards the rose garden I found the one place I really wanted to explore was locked. This was the garden studio where Churchill had painted and spent many of his last days in a wheel-chair. It was awaiting experts to assess the 'very valuable' paintings inside. The idea of this garden retreat appealed to me greatly. However, I suspected that the paintings inside might be even worse than the awful canvases that had made it into the house. I also wondered whether the experts would have seen as much merit in them if I they had been painted by me rather than him.
And then I wandered round and round the fish pond, surrounded by a hedge of rhododendrons. Almost inevitably someone had assured me that a heron had helped itself to most of the treasured but now neglected golden orfe.
It was here at the fish pond that, as a six or seven year-old, I had glimpsed Churchill casting handfuls of fish food from a green box before turning ponderously to relieve an old man's weak bladder into the bushes. The sight had embarrassed and shocked me. Ten years later I found myself standing exactly where he had been. I find it interesting that after glancing around me and up at the windows of the house I too chose to relieve myself into those same bushes.
This was, after all, 1966. This was the high-point of the rebellious Sixties and though I was one of its favoured children, I felt confused. The most dominant and indomitable public figure of the age and of my childhood was gone, leaving behind him a vacuum of uncertainty. But, seventeen year-olds are harsh judges of greatness and of heroes and I was, I suppose, trying to engender a suitably rebellious disdain for all this worship of the past. I am no more sure now than I would have been then that by pissing in those bushes I was making a mark of protest or homage.
For the first time though not the last I was aware, during those few days at Chartwell, that I was an intimate witness to something few others would experience. I was aware too that those very ordinary things we were sifting through jumbled books, papers, pens, notebooks, account ledgers, walking sticks, old spectacle cases and discarded hearing-aids would be either banished from view or boxed, glazed and labelled as revered but remote icons. Despite the best intentions of The National Trust, the process of sanitisation had begun. Churchill the man was indeed dead. Churchill the legend was a work in progress.
[The author entirely agrees with Lady Soames who kindly wrote to comment on the above piece in a number of letters during 2003. She feels that while the scenes described here represent Chartwell during a brief period of limbo after her father's death, they do not of course describe the happy home of her childhood.
And needless to say, perhaps, the above descriptions bear no resemblance to the delightful and excellent museum created there subsequently by the National Trust. Indeed, the Trust has very specifically and succesfully set out to re-create Chartwell as the Churchill family knew it in the 1930s!]
Christopher Long, the 'funny little chap', circa 1952.
ir Winston Churchill first properly entered my life when I was about five or six years old though, to be more honest, I clambered into his when he was almost eighty.
This was not in fact the first time I had seen or met him and nor was it the last. But it was the only time I can claim to have had his undivided attention.
On a gloriously sunny afternoon in the early 1950s, not long after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth ll, about a dozen of us were celebrating the fifth birthday of our friend Nicholas Soames at Chartwell Farm where he and his sister Emma lived with their parents, Mary and Christopher Soames.
The inevitable conjuror had been and gone. Now, on the lawn outside the French windows, the nannies were organising the obligatory sack-races and egg-and-spoon races that preceded a ritual tea of birthday cake and jelly.
But for some reason I refused to join the others in these games and instead spent the entire afternoon in the drawing-room, clambering all over an accommodating old man in an armchair who seemed designed for the purpose.
Though very ancient he had several unusual attractions to recommend him which included an interesting gold watch on a chain strung across his stomach and a cigar which needed to be cut with a cigar-cutter. Indeed, at my insistence, it needed to be re-cut quite frequently.
Less to his credit and rather disappointingly, this was a man who had never heard of Thomas The Tank Engine which the Rev'd Audry had specially written for 'Christopher' (which I assumed was me since I didn't know he had a grandson Christopher).
However, when asked to tell me a story about trains the only subject of intense interest to me at the time my ancient friend invented quite a good story about escaping from somewhere to somewhere else on a train in extremely dangerous circumstances.
Above: A scene at Westerham, Kent, in c.1955. My father, Dr Aidan Long is at far left on the platform; my mother Helen Long stands behind Sir Winston & Lady Churchill and is apparently holding his hand; Emma Soames, Churchill's grand-daughter, aged about five, upstages everyone. The author, in disgrace as usual, is somewhere behind his father's legs.
After tea the inevitable rowdy anarchy broke out as children and their exhausted nannies waited for mothers to collect them. By this time I had returned to my friend in the arm-chair who was now nursing a glass of whisky. I remember my mother appearing with Mary Soames through the door-way on a raised dais at the end of the drawing-room. She smiled brightly and, in that irritating way mothers have, told my elderly friend that she very much hoped I had not been a nuisance.
"Oh no, not at all," Sir Winston assured her. "Been here all afternoon. Funny little chap."
It was many years before I realised that I had had the undivided attention of a Prime Minister for more than three hours something denied to most of his ministers in that 1951-55 government.
And not till then did I understand that the pale, emaciated and very gentle conjuror, Mr Fergus Anckorn, had taught himself those tricks to keep himself sane during his wartime incarceration by the Japanese on the infamous Burma railway. We were, after all, too young to know that only six years earlier he had been one of the few human skeletons to survive and return.
Above: A similar scene to the one above this, a year or so earlier or later, with my mother Helen Long at far left and the Earl & Countess of Cromer at far right. In the centre is Fred Catterway, organiser of the annual Westerham Carnival. Just visible in the background is the statue of General James Wolfe, born in Westerham, who defeated the Marquis de Montcalme on the Heights of Abraham at Quebec, Canada, in 1759.
Sad to say, I can remember very little of Churchill's account of his celebrated escape on a South African train during the Boer War. It was only when I was seventeen and sorting through the books in his study that I discovered this story in his autobiography My Early Life when, of course, the tale sounded vaguely familiar.
What he was relating, of course, was the story of his capture in 1899 by Boers in Natal, South Africa, and of his subsequent escape. On 15 November the 24 year-old Churchill, by then a war correspondent, joined a detachment of Dublin Fuseliers and Durban Light Infantry on a routine reconnaissance mission aboard an armoured train. Unbeknown to them a Boer commando had loosened the plates on a stretch of track near Frere which derailed two trucks, killed several men and left the rest exposed to Boer shooting. Churchill quickly asserted himself as a former Army officer and spent two and half hours getting the men to clear the track, using the locomotive to push the remainder of the train to safety. However Churchill and several men giving covering fire were left behind as the train gathered pace. He was captured, taken to a prison camp in a former school in Pretoria and then famously succeeded in escaping from its lavatory block. With a ransom on his head Wanted Dead or Alive he crossed Boer territory to Mozambique and eventually received a hero's welcome in England. It was these events that first brought him to the attention of the general public and doing much to help him win his first seat in Parliament."
Above: This photograph was taken by the author's grandmother, Chrissie Vlasto, at her home at Betsoms, Westerham, in about 1955. It shows Nicholas Soames (left), Christopher Long (leaning towards the camera) and Dr Aidan Long far right about a year after the events described in this article. Both boys are wearing some of their Laverock School uniform. This picture was not found in time to be included in the version published by Finest Hour.
In April 2005 the two articles above were reproduced by Finest Hour, the Journal of the Churchill Centre and Societies. They appeared almost in their original form (see above) but also carried a few comments, and explanations kindly offered by Churchill's daughter, the Lady Soames, DBE.
On 03-11-2012 Deborah Cortey (née Anckorn) kindly wrote to say that almost 60 years after the events described above, Fergus Anckorn was alive and well at the age of 94, still performing as a conjuror and attending the Magic Circle in London each week!
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