Churchill and Polo

Barbara Langworth

The Hot Pursuit of his Other Hobby

“He rides in the game like heavy cavalry getting into position for the assault. He trots about, keenly watchful, biding his time, a matter of tactics and strategy. Abruptly he sees his chance, and he gathers his pony and charges in, neither deft nor graceful, but full of tearing physical energy – and skillful with it too. He bears down opposition by the weight of his dash, and strikes the ball. Did I say strike? He slashes the ball.”1

Thus Patrick Thompson, a contemporary writer, compared “Churchill’s angle in life” to his game of polo. An apt comparison it was, for Churchill loved the sport, which he always called ”The Emperor of Games.”

From obscure beginnings in the Orient, the modern version of polo was developed in 1863 by British army officers stationed in the Punjab, India; they had learned the game from the Manipuri, an Indian border tribe. Six years later, polo was introduced in England.2

Churchill first mentions polo in a letter to his father, seeking permission to ride in September 1893, shortly after young Winston had arrived at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. But soon after, he wrote to his mother, “I find that you do not have to obtain permission from home to ride – but only to play polo – so the Infantry cadet will be allowed to ride for amusement until next term when all are taught.”3 From this it seems that be was not planning to participate in polo at that time, despite its availability. This is contrary to Volume I of the official biography, which states that Winston had “started to play… whilst still a cadet at Sandhurst.”4 But not subsequent Churchill letters mention polo until February 1894 when he refers to it in an aisde: “Besides the crusade against extravagance – they have stopped hunting – polo – and owning horses.”5

Churchill had taken the entrance exam for Sandhurst three times before he passed. His final test score was too low for him to be accepted in the Infantry and qualified him only for the Cavalry – a great disappointment to his father, who remarked, ”In the infantry one has to keep a man; in the cavalry a man and a horse as well.” ”Little did he foresee not only one horse, but two official chargers and one or two hunters besides,” Churchill recalled later, “to say nothing of the string of polo ponies!”6

His father hoped to get Winston into the Infanty after all: In August 1891 Lord Randolph wrote to his mother (Frances, Duchess of Marlborough), “I shall try & get Brabazon [commander of the 4th Hussars] who has a regiment of Hussars [Cavalry] to take him & after 2 or 3 years shall exchange him with the infantry.”7 Simultaneously he promised Winston, “As soon as possible I shall arrange your exchange into an Infantry regiment of the line.”8

When several of the proffered Infantry cadetships were not accepted, Winston moved up. Lord Randolph wrote to the Duchess in September, “. . . I am very glad that Winston has got an infantry cadetship. It will save me £200 a year. I shall see the Duke of Cambridge [Commander-in-Chief of the Army] when I get back & remind him about the 60th Rifles.”9 But Winston, who rather fancied the Cavalry and horses, had other ideas.

In the spring of 1894 Winston visited with Colonel Brabazon at the 4th Hussars headquarters at Aldershot, London. “Brah ” was an old family friend and Winston was charmed by his attentions. When Brabazon expressed interest in having Winston join his regiment, the young man took the matter up with his mother: “How I wish I were going into the 4th instead of those old Rifles. It would not cost a penny more & the regiment goes to India in 3 years which is just right for me. I hate the Infantry – in which physical weaknesses will render me nearly useless on service & the only thing I am showing an aptitude for athletically – riding – will be no good to me.”10

Following Lord Randolph ‘s death in January 1895, Winston succeeded in his campaign for the Cavalry, pressuring his mother to secure his admittance to the 4th Hussars through her friends, Brabazon and Cambridge. The Duke, who had previously arranged for Winston to be a candidate for the 60th Rifles, quickly agreed to Lady Randolph’s request.11 Col. Brabazon’s reply commented, ”[I] hope that the Duke will allow him to be appointed to the 4th Hussars, & thus fulfill one of Randolph’s last wishes.”12 On 12 February 1895 Churchill received his commission with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.13

Churchill joined the 4th Hussars in Aldershot in February 1895. Like others in his regiment he began intensive training as a cavalry officer in preparation for departure to India in September, 1896. As his father had feared, finances were a perennial problem. Winston bad begged his parents for money in his first schoolboy letters and was continually admonished by them for extravagance. No change in his habits occurred at Aldershot, but with Randolph’s death his mother’s income was limited. It was a stretch for her to maintain herself, Jack and Winston in the way they would all like.

Winston tried his best anyway, because his tastes were well above his modest Army pay scale. He had also now discovered polo. In April 1895 he wrote his mother, ”Then as regards the Polo ponies. Everyone here is beginning to play as the season is just commencing. I have practised on other people’s ponies for 10 days and am improving very fast. If therefore, as I imagine – you have some ready money do lend me a hundred pounds – even if you do not think you will be able to give it to me as you said. The sooner the better -as ponies rise in price every day -and also 1 cannot go on without any for more than a few days – unless I give up the game, which would be dreadful.”14

By May he was well immersed in the game: ”Polo progresses steadily and I am I think improving fast,” he wrote. ”It is the finest game in the world and I should almost be content to give up any ambition to play it well and often. But that will no doubt cease to be my view in a short time.”15

Churchill played regularly during his 18 months at Aldershot, by May 1896 he was hoping to make the regimental team. ”I am making extraordinary progress at Polo,” he wrote his mother, “- but I want very much to buy another pony, I wish you would lend me £200 as I could then buy a really first class animal which would always fetch his price. When we sell the ponies at the end of August he would fetch at least 170 and the odd thirty I would make good out of the money obtained by selling the others. You see I am so near now to the regimental team that it might just make the difference and I don’t think that there would be a difference of £20 between buying and selling . . . ”If I had not been so foolish as to pay a lot of bills I should have the money now.”16

On this occasion his mother helped, and Churchill added to his stable, which, owing to the vigor of the game, required more than one pony. “I had five quite good ponies, and was considered to show promise,” he recalled in My Early Life.17 For six months he lived at home in London and played polo at Hurlingham in Essex and Ranelagh.

As summer ended the 4th Hussars marched to Hounslow and Hampton Court, gave up their Cavalry chargers to a returning regiment, and sailed for India. During the voyage the regiment decided to support its polo team by “subscriptions” (regular payments). Because it took so much time to train polo ponies new regiments were not expected to do very well. But the 4th Hussars were determined to defy traditional precedents.

Stationed in Bombay, where the Hussars would first land, was a native regiment with British officers, the Poona Light Horse. Since most of the horse-trading occurred in Bombay, the Poona had an advantage of having the best ponies. In what Churchill called an “audacious and colossal undertaking,” the 4th Hussars bought a complete polo stud of 25 horses from the Poona, giving them a huge advantage of well-trained polo ponies immediately upon arrival at their duty station, Bangalore in the south of India.

The Hussars were out to win, and Winston’s letters home were full of the sport. “The polo here is very bad and I expect our subaltern’s team will easily beat the whole Bangalore garrison,” he wrote his mother. “I have only played 3 times but have made many goals.”18 “I get up here at 5 o’clock every morning… ride off to parade at 6. At 8 o’clock breakfast and bath and such papers as there are: 9.15 to 10.45 Stables; and no other engagement till Polo at 4.15.”19

A polo game lasts one hour and is divided into periods or chukkas of 71/2 minutes each, with a short interval in between. Churchill played in every chukka he could get into, usually ten or twelve. His prodigious efforts soon came to the notice of the Aga Khan, who wrote in his memoirs: ”It was at Poona in the late summer of 1896 that our paths first crossed. A group of officers of the Fourth Hussars, then stationed at Bangalore, called on me. I was ill at the time, but my cousin showed them my horses. He later told me that among them none had a keener, more discriminating eye, none was a better judge of a horse, than a young subaltern by the name of Winston Spencer Churchill. He was a little over twenty, eager, irrepressible, and already an enthusiastic, courageous, and promising polo player.”20

In November of 1896 Churchill’s team went to a tournament at Hyderabad, a 24 hour, 700 mile train journey. The prize was a silver cup worth 1000 rupees (£60). Winston told his mother that the entire population turned out to watch, not infrequently betting thousands of rupees: “Our final match against the Native contingent was witnessed by 8 or 9 thousand natives who wildly cheered every goal or stroke made by their countrymen -and were terribly disappointed.”

At Hyderabad, the 4th Hussars strategy of buying a seasoned stud on arrival in Bombay was vindicated. ”This performance is a record,” Churchill continued, ”no English regiment ever having won a first-class tournament within a month of their arrival in India. The Indian papers express surprise and admiration. I will send you by the next mail some interesting instantaneous photographs of the match – in which you will remark me – fiercely struggling with turbaned warriors.”21

Climax of the year was the Inter-Regimental Polo Tournament at Meerut, a thousand miles north of Bangalore, in March 1897. The reigning champion at that time was the veteran Durham Light Infantry. The tournament was all the 4th Hussars team could think about and Churchill’s letters are filled with prospects for the match. But to the Hussars’ enor­mous disappointment Madras’ Governor-General Gen. Sir Mansfield Clarke refused the team leave to attend the tournament. “Perhaps,” remarks Sir Winston’s son in the official biography, “he simply thought the 4th Hussars did not stand a chance.”22

Churchill was fond of other horse sports besides polo; be participated in steeplechases, point-to-points and pleasure riding. In a letter to Jack in November 1896 he proudly noted that their father’s racing colors, chocolate and pink, would appear on Indian soil for the first time at a pony race meeting. In a 1930 admonition Churchill would advise parents: “Don’t give your son money. As far as you can afford it give him horses. No one ever came to grief – except honourable grief -through riding horses. No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle. Young men have often been ruined through owning horses, or through backing horses, but never through riding them; unless of course they break their necks, which, taken at a gallop, is a very good death to die.”23

During his two and half months leave in 1897, Churchill traveled in Europe and then went home to England. He made his first public speech to the Primose League (an organization cofounded by his father, which provided volunteer Conservative Party canvassers) in Bath in July. By September he was back in India – Nowshera in the northwest, 2700 miles from Bangalore – chasing fame and notoriety as a war correspondent with Sir Bindon Blood and the Malakand Field Force. From Nowshera he wrote polo team-mate Reginald Barnes, ”Best luck at Poona. It is bloody hot.”24

Winston returned to Bangalore – ‘to polo and my friends” – in October 1897. But the success of his writing, and the realization that it could be a serious source of income, had taken the edge off his consumption with polo. “I am off to Hyderabad on Sat for a polo tournament,” he wrote his mother. “It is a nuisance having to go when I am so busy.”25 He referred to the writing of his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. In January 1898 he added, “We are all thinking of the Big Polo Tournament now – but it fills a vy different position in my mind to what it did last year.26

On 17th February, Churchill left for the tournament at Meerut. “We shall definitely find out what place in Indian Polo the regiment can aspire to,” he wrote home. “The team is as follows: l. self, 2. [Albert] Savory, 3. [Major Reginald] Hoare, 4. [Reginald] Barnes. We are altogether equipped with 24 ponies and I have some hopes that we may do well.” But on March 3rd ”the polo tournament ended as I expected in our defeat by the famous Durham Light Infantry, though after a gallant fight. We made hay of the 5th Dragoon Guards in the first round and escaped without disgrace.”27

In March Winston wangled an appointment to Tirah Expeditionary Force for war reporting, but was disappointed when no fighting occurred. Hoping for more action in the Sudan, where General Kitchener bad been appointed to reconquer that territory on behalf of Britain and Egypt, be engaged in mighty efforts for a similar appointment. After much correspondence he succeeded, being attached to the 21st Lancers; this took him to the Nile valley and provided subject-matter for his second book The River War.

Before he left India there was much correspondence between himself and his mother regarding the usual subject: his finances. He was finding it very difficult trying to sell his ponies in a country where there wasn’t much of a horse market. On 31 March be proposed spending a month in England before going to the Nile and was ”getting rid of every polo pony I possess and shall have settled up all Indian matters… 28 ”I hope to get rid of them all soon,” be wrote in May. “They eat.”29

Churchill would not return to India again, and would soon be leaving the army. He found it extremely expensive to be a subaltern of Hussars, whereas writing could be very lucrative. His Malakand Field Force ”earned me in a few months two years’ pay as a subaltern”;30 he was about to publish his novel Savrola {at first entitled Affairs of State) and had offers to write biographies of his father and his ancestor the First Duke of Marlborough.

Above all, however, Churchill hungered for a seat in Parliament. Here too he had received encouragement; a good response to speeches he’d made while on leave in England. An important friend, the Prince of Wales, told him, “Parliamentary and literary life is what would suit you best as the monotony of military life in an Indian station can have no attraction for you . . .”31

On 18 December 1898 Winston wrote to his friend Aylmer Haldane from a train near Wadi: “I am leaving the army in April. I have come back merely for the Polo Tournaments. “32 In support of this climacteric even in his army polo career, Churchill recalled later, all the officers had subscribed to support a special train to carry all of its 30 ponies the 1400 miles. “I shall stay at Government House,” Winston wrote his mother. “The week after the Jodhpore where we all stay practising for the Tournament with Sir Pertab Singh [administrator of Jodhpore). Then Meerut for the Inter-Regimental Tournament, where I stay with Sir BB [Bindon Blood] and after that Umballa for the Championship – a very pleasant six weeks. Then home and the more serious pleasures of life. . . I am playing polo quite well now. Never again shall I be able to do so. Everything will have to go to the war chest. “33

But fortunes interfered with his plans: “Everything smiled until last night -when I fell downstairs and sprained both my ankle and dislocated my right shoulder,” be wrote his brother Jack in February. “I am going to struggle on to the polo ground this afternoon – but I fear I shall not be able to play in the Tournament as my arm is weak and stiff and may come out again at any moment. It is one of the most unfortunate things that bas ever had happened to me and is a bitter disappointment. I bad been playing well and my loss is a considerable blow to our chances of winning. I try to be philosophic but it is very hard. Of course it is better to have bad luck in the minor pleasure of life than in one’s bigger undertakings.”34

This is an interesting contradiction to what Churchill himself wrote in My Early Life 30 years later. Here he said he had dislocated his shoulder when he first arrived in India. He described how he had grabbed an iron hand-hold ring at the quayside when the boat fell with a surge and he wrenched his shoulder. Thereafter, he wrote, he had to play polo with his arm strapped to his side.

But his letters at the time made no mention of this incident. In one message, sent just a few days after arriving in India, he wrote that “…nearly 500 tons of luggage bad to be moved we were busy from 4 in the morning till late at night.”35 It was his habit to mention injuries – an injured knee in December 1896; being bit with splinters from a rifle target in April 1897. (“I managed to play polo with the reins fastened on to my wrist . . .”36) From the evidence of his letters we may conclude that Churchill’s shoulder dislocation stemmed from falling down stairs at Sir Pertab Singh’s home in Jodhpore in February 1898, rather than the (much more romantic) quayside ring episode he records in his autobiography.

Even with his arm immobilized, Winston managed to play well enough that his team beat the 5th Dragoon Guards by 16 to 2, and the 9th Lancers 2 to 1, in the first round on 23 February. In their final match with the 4th Dragoon Guards on the 24th, the Hussars won 4 to 3, making them Inter-Regimental Champions!

”Few of that merry throng were destined to see old age,” Churchill ruminated later. ”Our own team was never to play again. A year later Albert Savory was killed in the Transvaal, Barnes was grievously wounded in Natal, and I became a sedentary politician increasingly crippled by my wretched shoulder.”37

Despite his departure from the home of polo, Churchill continued to love and play the game. An appointment book for 1901, his first year in Parliament, showed notations for polo seven times in May, (mostly Thursday and Saturday at 3:30), including Crystal Palace on the 30th. In June polo was scheduled for three days; the 20th had the notation “Windsor.” Listed for Saturday July 6th was “House of Commons versus Guards” and Monday -Wednesday August 5th-7th were again marked “Windsor.” Winston informed his mother that be had ”decided definitely to play polo this year [1901] in a team which is being formed by some of my young military friends, and I think if I get two days a week at Hurlingham or Ranelagh, it will provide me with the physical exercise and mental countercurrent which these late hours and continual sitting of the house absolutely require.”38

In 1902 Churchill wrote a long letter to Secretary of State for War St John Brodrick, arguing against a proposed prohibition of inter-regimental polo tournaments. He attributed the increasing cost of ponies to the English gentry’s participation in the game, but nevertheless argued that the polo contributed to building a soldier’s character and skill. Two years later (after opposing the same St John Brodrick over the latter’s army estimates), Churchill left the Tories for the Liberal Party. As a consequence, he felt obliged to alter his club membership. In May of 1905 be remarked to Liberal M.P. Alexander Murray (later Baron Murray of Elibank), “I foolishly allowed myself to be proposed for Hurlingham as a polo players are always welcomed. I do not think you and your Liberal friends realize the intense political bitterness which is felt against me on the other side.”39

The next several years were busy political times for the young statesman, but polo was not forgotten and was occasionally mentioned in his letters. “I am going to spend Sunday with Ivor [Guest] at Ashby – with polo on Saty & Monday.”40 … “I stay (at Blenheim) for the next ten days, writing in the mornings & playing polo at Rugby in the afternoons.”41

…”We are having a pleasant week on this . . . splendid yacht [H.M.Y. Victoria & Albert], though the rainy weather has… spoiled… polo”42 “I hope . . . that I shall see [Alfonso XIII, King of Spain)
…in the seclusion of the polo world.”43

Into his forties, polo was still very much a hobby with Churchill. In the summer of 1921, for example, when he and his wife were looking for a family summer cottage, Clementine took one of the schoolhouses at Rugby school, near Ashby St Ledger, the Wimbournes’ country house. “The plan was that Winston would stay with them all,” her biographer wrote, “and be diverted by polo with his Guest cousins.”44 In the same year Clementine cautioned Winston against speculating in stocks, telling him: ”Politics are absolutely engrossing to you, . . . and now you have painting for leisure and polo for excitement and danger.”45

At Chartwell, which he bought in 1922, Winston kept his own stable of polo ponies. This expensive country house in Kent was often the subject of financial “discussions” between Winston and Clementine, after many of which Winston would go on a well-meant but only briefly kept economy program. In one of these schemes be suggested to Clementine that Chartwell be rented while they were in London, and that all livestock except the two polo ponies, be sold.46 This was around 1926 -the polo ponies were still sacred!

Quite a few photographs exist of the mature Churchill engaged in his favorite sport, always with his right arm strapped to his side.47 He wipes his brow after a chukka at Roehampton (12 March 1921), takes a drink during a break in a Lords vs. Commons match (June 1922). A famous photo shows him playing with the Prince of Wales in 1924. A group picture taken on 18 June 1925 shows Churchill with fellow players Capt. G.R.G. Shaw, Capt. Euan Wallace and Capt. the Hon. P.E. Guest, after Churchill’s Commons team defeated the House of Lords. Winston and Clementine are seen arriving at Hurlingham the same year, to watch the British Army play polo against an American team.

Winston’s last game had the longest gestation of them all. Plans for it began in the autumn of 1926, when Admiral of the Pleet Sir Roger Keyes invited Churchill, who was planning a holiday cruise in the Mediterranean, to inspect the fleet. They were old friends, having met during polo around 1904, according to Keyes’ biographer: in those days young Keyes and his colleagues “would drive down to Wembley and play polo on hired ponies from 8 to 9 am. Often, before they finished, a party of young Members of Parliament would arrive to play from 9 to 10 am and it was at Wembley that [Keyes] first made the acquaintance of Winston Churchill.”48

Responding to Keyes’ invitation Winston replied on 15 November, “As to Polo, of course I should love to have a game. It is awfully kind of you to offer to mount me. It would have to be a mild one as I have not played all this season. However I will arrange to have a gallop or two beforehand so as to ‘calibrate’ my tailor muscles [sartorius) Anyhow I will bring a couple of sticks and do my best. If I expire on the ground it will at any rate be a worthy end!”49 Taken at a gallop, be must have reasoned, it would be a very good death to die…

The enthusiastic Sir Roger replied immediately: “Don’t bother to bring polo sticks; you will find all kinds and lengths here. What is your Hurlingham handicap? -We’ll get up a four chucker [sic) match for one day after you’ve had a bit of practice. I expect 4 would be about enough if you haven’t been playing – also where do you like playing?”50

Churchill wrote back, ”If you want me to play a game of Polo that afternoon, I shall be quite ready to do so without a preliminary ‘knock up’. I thought it might be inconvenient to play on Monday as you state the Fleet would probably be sailing that day. You must realise I am very bad at Polo. I think my latest handicap was 2.”51

On 24 December 1926 Churchill advised Keyes in Malta, ”I shall be with you in plenty of time to play on Saturday afternoon [8 January]. I do not think one day’s practice would do me much good; in fact it would only make one stiff. I hope to do a little backing in the next few days, if the snow which now overlays us should permit.”

Evidently, Churchill managed his final game without mishap. From Admiralty House in Malta on 10 January 1927 be wrote Clementine: “I got through the polo without shame or distinction & enjoyed it so much. ”52

At age 52, that was the last time Winston Churchill played polo.

1. The Churchill Years 1874-1965, foreword by Lord Butler, New York: The Viking Press; London: The Times 1965, page 70.
2. The New Funk &. Wagnalls Encyclopedia, Joseph Laffan Morse,
editor. New York: Unicom Publishers Inc., 1949, page 9746.
3. Winston S. Churchill. Companion Volume I Part 1 1874-1896, edited by Randolph S. Churchill. London: Heinemann 1967, pages 413-14.
4. Winston S. Churchill, Volume I: Youth 1874-1900, by Randolph S. Churchill. London: Heinemann 1966, page 305.
5. Companion Volume I, Part 1, op. cit., page 440.
6. My Early Life, by Winston S. Churchill. London: Odhams, 1958 reprint, page 36.
7. Companion Volume I, Part 1, op. cit., page 386.
8. Ibid, page 390.

9. Ibid, page 404.
10. 1bid, page 478. 11. Ibid, page 554.
12. Ibid, page 553.
13. Ibid, page 558.
14. Ibid, page 568.
15. Ibid, page 572.

16. Ibid, page 672.
17. My Early Life, op. cit., page 88.
18. Winston S. Churchill: Youth, op. cit., page 294.
19. Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume I, Part 2 1896-1900, edited by Randolph S. ChurchHl. London: Heinemann 1967, page 693.
20. Memoirs, by Aga Khan, 1954, page 85, as quoted in Churchill: The Life Triumphant, by Henry Anatole Grunwald. New York: American Heritage Press, 1965.
21. Companion Volume I, Part 2, op. cit., page 701.
22. Youth, op. cit., page 306.
23. My Early Life, op. cit., page 45.
24. Companion Volume I , Part 2, op. cit., page 788.
25. Ibid, page 829.

26. Ibid, page 865.
27. Ibid, page 885.
28. Ibid, page 902.
29. Ibid, page 933.
30. My Early Life, op. cit., page 154.
31. Companion Volume I, Part 2, op. cit., page 985.
32. Ibid, page 995.
33. Ibid, page 1002.
34. Ibid, page 1006.
35. Ibid, page 683.
36. Ibid, page 748.
37. My Early Life, op. cit., page 207.
38. Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume II, Part 1 1901-1907, edited by Randolph S. Churchill. London: Heinemann 1969, page 48.
39. Ibid, page 393.
40. Ibid, page 388.
41. Ibid, page 460.
42. Ibid, page 564.

43. Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume II, Part 3, 1911-1914, edited by Randolph S. Churchill. London: Heinemann 1969, page 1985.
44. Clementine Churchill, by Mary Soames. Boston:Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979, page 268.
45. Churchill: A Life, by Martin Gilbert. London : Heinemann, 1991, page 439.
46. Winston & Clementine: The Triumph of the Cburchills, by Richard Hough. London: Bantam Press, reprinted 1990, page 406.
47. See for example Churchill: His Life in Photographs, edited by
Randolph S. Churchill and Helmut Gemsheim. New York: Rinehart &. Co., pages 99, 100, 115, 116.
48. Roger Keyes, by Cecil Aspinall-Oglander. London: The Hogarth Press, 1951, page 78.
49. Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume V, Part 1, The Ex­chequer Years 1922-1929, edited by Manin Gilbert. London: Heinemann, 1979, pages 48 &. 878.
50. lbid, page 886.
51. Ibid, page 903.
52. Ibid, page 910.

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