Finest Hour 88, 1994
Returning to her grandfather’s beloved home brings back vivid memories for Celia Sandys.
Last November marked the 120th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s birth, and family, friends, admirers and scholars of WSC gathered in London to honour his memory.
The child, destined to give Britain her finest wartime hour, had an unpromising start in life.
“Winston was born some seven weeks prematurely, after his twenty-year-old mother Lady Randolph had a fall while out shooting,” says Churchill’s granddaughter Celia Sandys, daughter of Diana (Winston’s eldest daughter) and Lord Duncan- Sandys. She was one of forty-five descendants at the Savoy last November who toasted the great man with his favourite Champagne. “So although he was born in a palace (Blenheim being his father’s ancestral home), there was no fine physician on hand, as planned, no whiff of pain-killing chloroform. Nothing, not even a cradle or a tiny vest, had been prepared.” The future, most famous Prime Minister of the century, was dressed in baby clothes hastily borrowed from a local solicitor’s wife.
As a boy, Winston was frail in health and seemingly accident-prone. “He could also be,” says Celia, “naughty and bumptious, inclined to put people’s backs up. Pronounced ‘difficult to manage,’ he once rang for the maid and instructed her to ‘take away this governess’ because she was Very cross’.”
He barely scraped into his public school, Harrow, and he was only accepted into officer training at Sandhurst on his third exam attempt.
Charming, energetic and determined like her famous forbear, Celia, at 52 is still as strikingly redheaded as Winston in boyhood. And if she’s feeling a particularly keen bond with her much-loved grandpapa just now it’s because, like him, she’s turned historical author. Celia’s first book, an entrancing account of Churchill’s childhood, has just been published.
From Winston With Love and Kisses (The Young Churchill as published this autumn in the USA) tells the story of Winston’s early years through his letters home, many of them reproduced in his own youthful and (to his parents’ disapproval) sometimes spidery script.
Celia took two years to write her book, which is scarcely surprising since she had two late babies by her third husband Major General Ken Perkins, and is still very much involved in raising Alexander, nine, and seven-year-old Sophie. She and Ken have also been busy planning a new home in the Savernake Forest, where the family recently moved.
“We built an oak-framed house,” she explains, “round an existing two-up-two-down cottage. So ideally I might rather have waited to write the book until we were settled and the children a little older. Intrigued by my research, they tended to run off with pictures from my desk for their scrapbooks! But once it occurred to me that nobody had really looked at Churchill’s childhood and the influence it exerted on his later life, I thought I had better — as my grandfather would have put it — get on with the job, before someone else saw the same unique opportunity.”
But Celia’s affection for her illustrious grandpapa isn’t born of family history alone. She has her own live memories of Churchill in the twilight of his ninety years. “My grandparents’ country home at Chartwell in Kent was a major and magical part of my childhood. With my sister and brother I spent many holidays there, just as Winston had spent many holidays with his Marlborough grandparents at Blenheim. And to us Grandpapa wasn’t an awesome national figurehead. He was the practical grandfather who’d devised all the waterworks for his goldfish pond and built the outdoor swimming pool which, far ahead of its time in the Fifties, he actually kept heated. He laid bricks for the walled garden; he really adored the place. ‘A day away from Chartwell,’ he said, ‘is a day wasted’.”
Every morning, Celia remembers, the three Sandys grandchildren would visit their grandparents to say good morning as they breakfasted in separate bedrooms. “Our grandmother Clementine would be reading the newspapers in white cotton gloves so the print didn’t come off on her hands. We never saw her looking anything but utterly beautiful. Grandpapa would have read the papers already, having had them sent down from London the night before. He would be well into work, reading in the company of his brown poodle Rufus and his budgerigar Toby.”
Revisiting Chartwell on a bright autumn morning is for Celia a true trip down memory lane. After forty years in the family, Chartwell passed to the National Trust, so this is a rare chance to show Sophie and Alexander round the place that meant so much to her.
How did Chartwell come to the Churchills? The story goes, says Celia, that one day in 1922 shortly after Clementine had produced her youngest child Mary, Churchill piled the eldest three into his wellworn Wolseley. They were going out for the day, he said, to look at a house he was thinking of buying. The more the children saw of the mysterious, overgrown estate, the more they begged their father to buy it. “It was typical of my grandfather.” says Celia, “that only when back in London did he tell the children that Chartwell was already theirs.”
Entranced by the panoramic views across Kent’s Garden of England, he’d snapped it up, with eighty acres, for £5,000.
The house still stands almost exactly as he and Clementine restored it.
Outside, the children gaze up at the summerhouse frieze depicting the Battle of Marlborough. Alexander dribbles his ball along the lawn where, forty years back, the Churchill grandchildren took tea alfresco. “Here we’d have cucumber sandwiches, and a delicious chocolate cake with lemon icing,” Celia recalls. “My grandmother poured tea from a huge silver kettle.”
Celia remembers her grandfather as “very warm and affectionate, so pleased to see his children and his grandchildren. I think he really loved the idea of sitting at his dining room table and seeing all the family around him. He loved the idea of family in an almost dynastic sense. Having just written about the first twenty years of his life I can quite see why; as a child he really had no family life to speak of. His letters to his socially and politically preoccupied parents are full of longing to see more of them. If he hadn’t been a lonely and rather unhappy boy, then I doubt that even as a Victorian child he’d have left such a vast childish correspondence. Writing home so much was a plea for love, attention — and more money!”
Dressing for dinner in the old-fashioned way and vast Edwardian meals were, even in the Fifties, very much the Chartwellian order of the day. Celia’s mother Diana once told her daughter she’d made her first (disastrous) marriage expressly to escape the digestive demands at home. In her teens, Celia brought several young men down to dine with her grandparents but suspects, rather cynically, that they were more in love with the prospect of brandy and cigars alone with the statesman, once the ladies had risen from the table, than ever they were with her.
Although her grandparents were never critical of Celia’s suitors, they could be protective. “It was agreed that it was Not Suitable for me to drive back to London after dinner with one particular chap, because my mother wasn’t at home to receive me.” The clear suspicion was that this young man might not have entirely honourable intentions. On another occasion, 15-year-old Celia fell foul of her grandfather’s pleasure in Champagne. “An elderly cousin complimented me to my mother adding that it as ‘such a shame the child drinks so much. She always has a full glass of Champagne.’ ‘If you look,’ said my mother, ‘you will see that her glass is always full but never filled.’ I took Champagne to please my grandfather. But I never drank until I was 21.”
Celia did, however, see more than might then be thought frightfully good for a young “gel” in her grandfather’s company. Together they holidayed on Ari Onassis’s yacht; it was to be Ari’s last voyage with his wife Tina. Singer Maria Callas, with whom Ari was soon to be publicly enamoured, was also on board … “It was an explosive situation,” recalls Celia. “And there I was, a fly on the wall!”
She was often Churchill’s travelling companion, and grand hotels since have never met the pampering expectations set by travels with Grandpapa, when “my clothes were unpacked, my bath run and there always seemed to be someone longing to do something for me.” On one such trip to Monte Carlo, Churchill thrust a wad of notes — very probably casino winnings — into Celia’s hand, asking as he did so, “Are you all right for money?” Even as an octogenarian, Churchill remembered what it was like to be short of cash. As he wrote home: “My funds are in rather a low condition. The exchequer would bear replenishing.”
But ultimately it wasn’t the presents, but the presence, says Celia Sandys, that drew her to her grandfather. “Ours was a very companionable relationship towards the end of his life. It was thrilling that he came to my coming-out party at Quagliano’s, though he didn’t dance. It was a very peaceful time of his life: we’d go for a drive together. I’d watch him paint, or we’d just sit together and watch the sun go down over the Mediterranean. I adored him.”
Being red-headed and fair-skinned means you can spend little time in the sun, “which was one reason I was so thankful,” says Celia, “that none of my four children have it. (She has two grown-up sons by two former marriages, Justin, 27, a banker in Hong Kong, and Dominic, 25, who works at The Travellers Club.) That hair, Celia recalls, was the one unfortunate inheritance from her grandfather — at least in wartime.
“Our nanny, Miriam Buckles, knew that if the Germans invaded, which was of course unthinkable and unmentionable, my brother, sister and I would, as redheads, be immediately identifiable as Churchill’s grandchildren and, therefore, death targets. So Nanny planned, as she later told us, to dye our hair black and take us to her parents’ pub in Liverpool, safe from Hitler’s vengeance.”
Watching her own children explore Chartwell, Celia is struck by the comparisons and contrasts between their light-hearted modern childhood and Churchill’s Victorian youth. Although his hair is brown, Alexander certainly has a look of the young Winston and was also lucky to survive his premature birth. “All my children were three weeks early,” says Celia.
Alexander is bound, like Winston, for Harrow, but unlike Winston, can follow comfortably in his two big brothers’ footsteps. “And he can also rest assured,” says Celia, “that he can change his mind, if he suddenly prefers not to board.” Winston sold his parents’ autographs for profit, but Alexander is reluctant even to divulge his famous connections. “We took him to the Imperial War Museum and while watching a film he said, “Oh, look! There’s my great-grandfather.’ The audience clapped and he was rather embarrassed.”
Alexander and Sophie’s biggest worry is whether or not they have behaved well enough during the day’s photo shoot to warrant roller boots as a reward. Their informal upbringing is secure and equally shared by their mother and Ken who, now retired, paints and writes, too. For Winston, however, the whole of his early life was a battle of some sort. “For affection, for health, and later for recognition,” says Celia. “He was always having to push himself to be heard or noticed. His greatest regret was that he didn’t have the close relationship with his father for which he always longed.”
What young Winston did have was an unfashionably uninhibited love for his mother and for his nanny, Mrs. Everest. He adored his mother, the American-born Jennie Jerome, of Native American extraction, who was glamorous, beautiful and highly sociable. But she could never he maternal. Says Celia: “He wrote to her more fondly and openly than most children would feel comfortable with, even today. He called her his ‘little bird.’ He described how she shone for him like the Evening Star — brightly, but at a distance. Reliably close at hand, representing cosy security and everyday comfort, was Mrs. Everest, his own particular rock.
“Even for a formal Victorian childhood,” says Celia, “my grandfather’s has to have been unusual. On the one hand he was born into a family of enormous privilege, grandson to the Duke of Marlborough. On the other, his parents found themselves in comparatively straitened circumstances for their station. There was very little money and they were permanently preoccupied with its lack.”
It was also a childhood that provided Winston with far wider insights than was usual. “One minute he might be staying on the royal yacht at Cowes with the Prince of Wales, the next with Mrs. Everest’s brother-in-law, a prison warder who told him all about the Zulu wars. A spell at Blenheim might be followed by a seaside boardinghouse holiday.
“If he’d been my child and not my grandfather,” says Celia, “I would have adored him, because he could be most beguiling. I’d have felt endlessly protective because he put people’s backs up. I think he would probably have been pronounced a gifted child who was therefore difficult. He had a flawless memory and won a Harrow prize for reciting 1,200 lines of Macaulay without mistake. But I’m afraid he wasn’t the sort of child you’d want to stay for the holidays.”
If Winston had been one of Celia’s children, he would certainly not have spent his eighth birthday at a boarding school with a headmaster who beat him. But if, as Celia likes to say, the child born at Blenheim had not survived such challenging early years, the world today would be a totally different place. And the Champagne glass might be empty this week.