September 1922 saw another event of even greater importance to the Churchills’ family life than the birth of the “Benjamin”—myself. In the very week I was born, Winston made an offer for Chartwell Manor, near Westerham in Kent. Three years earlier, Winston and Clementine had sold a charming old house and property, Lullenden, near East Grinstead in Sussex, which they had bought in the latter part of the First World War, chiefly to get their (and Winston’s brother Jack’s) children out of London and away from the zeppelin raids. It had been a real haven for everybody, but the small farm proved a real money loser, and in 1919 they had most regretfully sold it. Since then the whole family had greatly missed their country life. Long school holidays were spent in rented houses, but these were no substitute for one’s own home, and Winston and Clementine were soon on the lookout for another “country basket” (as Clementine called it). One major problem stood between them and their dream house: money—or rather, the lack of it. However, in January 1921 a totally unforeseen event dramatically changed their financial situation: the death, already noted, of Lord Herbert Vane-Tempest. He was childless, and through the tortuous processes of entail his considerable fortune, in the form of the Garron Towers estate in Ireland, passed to Winston. Now the remote hope of a “country basket” became a bright possibility, and Winston and Clementine kept their eyes and ears open.
Presently Winston saw Chartwell. About twenty-five miles from London, it was a dilapidated and unprepossessing Victorian house built round a much older core, standing on a hilltop commanding the most sensational view to the south over the Weald of Kent. Below the house the hillside falls away to a lake, fed by a spring—the Chartwell—and alongside the whole valley ran a wide belt of beech woods sheltering the property from the north and east. Winston fell—at once and forever—in love with this beautiful place. He, of course, hastened to show it to Clementine, whose first reaction was enthusiastic—“I can think of nothing but that heavenly tree-crowned Hill,” she had written to him in July 1921. But on subsequent visits she became aware of several major defects in its condition, and soon realized that the cost of making the house habitable would be significantly higher than the original estimates. Furthermore—perhaps most serious of all the drawbacks—she feared the house and property would be too much for them to run and maintain. Time would prove her right in both these judgements. However, to all her arguments Winston was deaf—although for a time he went “quiet” on the plan to buy this place which had so beguiled him. Then, during the second half of September, while Clementine was fully occupied with their new baby, Winston presented her with a fait accompli—his offer for Chartwell had been accepted. Clementine, contrary to Winston’s earnest hope, never came to share his love of Chartwell—and never quite forgave him for his (totally untypical) lack of candour with her at the time of its purchase.
The autumn of 1922 was an eventful one both for the Churchills domestically and for the country politically. While Winston lay very ill from an emergency appendectomy in October, the famous and fateful meeting of the Conservative party at the Carlton Club put an end to the Coalition: Lloyd George and his government resigned, and were succeeded by Bonar Law and a Conservative administration. Parliament was dissolved, and at the ensuing general election in November the Conservatives won a large majority over the Liberals, the latter fatally divided between the followers of Lloyd George (Winston among them) and of Asquith.
Winston’s seat in Dundee, which he had represented for fourteen years, was gallantly fought by Clementine and a band of devoted supporters until Winston, still in a very weak condition after his operation, arrived late in the campaign. It was here that I made my first entry into politics, at the age of seven weeks, when in the local newspaper a photograph of my mother arriving by train from London for the campaign bore the unhelpful (and, in the circumstances, churlish) caption: “Mrs Churchill and her unbaptized infant [my italics] arrive in Dundee.” A further ill omen was their local address in Dudhope Terrace. Winston was roundly defeated, thereby evoking his rueful comment that he found himself “without an office, without a seat, without a party and without an appendix.”
After all these events and calamities, Winston (liberated from the ties of government and Parliament) and Clementine took themselves and their brood off to five sunshine months in Cannes, where they rented the Villa Rêve d’Or. Winston recovered his health, painted, and pondered his future; Clementine loved the warmth and played a lot of tennis; and I (after my first singularly unsuccessful foray into politics) lay cocooned in my pram.
i was nearly two years old when our family moved into a rehabilitated and largely rebuilt Chartwell, after all the usual hazards and hindrances, compromises, and final ill will between architect and clients which seem inevitably to accompany such enterprises.
Winston, with the three “Big Ones,” Diana, Randolph, and Sarah, formed the pioneer party, moving in with a basic survival kit and minimal staff support in the Easter holidays: Winston wrote his first letter to Clementine from Chartwell on 17 April 1924. But it would be nearly another two months before she, Nana Whyte (who will figure very prominently in my story), “Baby Bud” (me), and the rest of the household took up residence. The first weekend guests signed the visitors’ book in the last weekend of June.
My first memory is snapshot-clear, and must be from that summer. I am lying in my big pram under the great yew tree on the lawn in front of the arcaded windows of the new dining room. Woken up from my midmorning siesta, I am greatly bored: I start jiggling (I am really too big now for the pram), and (securely held by my harness) manage to rock my “boat.” Now I try a back-and-forth movement: this is great fun—except suddenly the pram pitches forward on to its handle, and I slide down, held awkwardly suspended by my straps. Suddenly grown-ups, clutching white table napkins, are running towards me—a luncheon party was in progress, and my plight had been observed: I am rescued, taken into the dining room, consoled, and made much of. I think dining-room life is very agreeable, and plan to join it as soon as may be!
At this point I must introduce Nana. After the trauma of Marigold’s death, and the departure of Mlle. Rose, Clementine was much shaken in her confidence, and, fully aware that her life with Winston would always mean frequent absences from her children, cast about to find a more mature nanny/nursery governess figure to take charge of them. As chance would have it, she did not have far to look: her own first cousin, Maryott Whyte, was a trained Norland nurse—then, as now, the ne plus ultra in terms of child care. Maryott, known as “Moppet,” was the younger daughter of Lady Maude Whyte, a daughter of the Earl and Countess of Airlie and so Clementine’s aunt. Lady Maude Ogilvy had made a late, and—since she had next to no money herself—improvident marriage to Theodore Whyte, himself an impoverished gentleman land agent. The Whytes had four children—Madeline, Mark (who would be killed aged nineteen in Flanders in 1918), Maryott, and Felix. The two girls were well educated, but, unlike their female cousins (or indeed the majority of their female social contemporaries), knew that they must earn their living. Madeline was an intellectual artisan, learning carpentry and working at the famous Doves Press. Here, under the tutelage of Cobden Sanderson, she became an expert in bookbinding, a craft she subsequently taught herself for many years. Moppet was sensible and intelligent, but less eccentric than her elder sister: she elected to train as a children’s nurse and, at the time her cousin Clementine Churchill was looking round for someone to take charge of her lively nursery/schoolroom, was aged twenty-six and in one of her early posts after completing her Norland training.
So cousin Moppet, or Nana—as she was to all of us children—was recruited, and came to our family in October 1921. Randolph was then in his second year at Sandroyd, a preparatory school in Surrey, and the two girls were day pupils at Notting Hill High School. After my arrival on the scene nearly a year later, Nana’s attention was largely focused on myself: she was enchanted to be in charge of a baby again, and with Randolph and Diana rapidly outgrowing the confines of the nursery, her dominion principally embraced Sarah and the “Baby Bud.” Nana, while observing her professional position in the household, was nevertheless from the start on a different footing from all the previous nannies, as Clementine’s first cousin and the social equal of her employers: when I was christened, she was my godmother.
I cannot think of any reason for my being named Mary. My only godfather, Victor Cazalet, considerably annoyed my mother by suggesting I should be called “Victoria,” and went so far as to have that name engraved on the elegant pale blue velvet case which enclosed his present to me (the almost statutory christening gift at that time: an “add-a-pearl” necklace—to which the recipient’s benefactors were meant to do just that at regular intervals). I only discovered this font-side disagreement years later when, on examining the velvet case, I made out that Mary had been very firmly superimposed on an only partially successful erasure of Victoria. I was rather sorry; I felt I would have liked to be Victoria (Vicky to personal friends, of course). But plain old Mary had clearly been under discussion for some time before my christening at the end of November, because in a letter from school on 1 October Randolph wrote: “What is the baby going to be christened? I do hope it will be Mary.?.?.?.”
A “Benjamin’s” life is one of contrasts, especially when there is a wide age gap between oneself and older siblings, as in my case: Sarah was nearly eight years old, Randolph eleven, and Diana thirteen when I appeared on the family scene. One finds oneself alternately in the roles of new cuddly toy and real little bore—to be discarded rapidly when a more pressing or suitable-to-age attraction presents itself. Soon after our family’s arrival at Chartwell, our father caused to be constructed in the first fork of the great lime in the front drive a wonderful tree house—from which, of course, I was excluded. Access to this aerial retreat was by means of a rope ladder, which would be swiftly pulled up to preserve the privacy of the members of this elite club. The older children and their visiting cousins would spend hours aloft, and I remember at age four or five wandering disconsolately round the tree, gazing up, trying to catch the loudly whispered secrets and yearning to know the cause for the gales of uproarious laughter, quite often punctuated by stern commands down to me to “Go and find Nana.” I remember I very often took refuge in the office, whose windows looked out on the drive, where I found delightful (and apparently appreciative) company in the secretaries, who indulgently allowed me to play with the typewriters and pinch treasury tags and paper clips: I think they must have sometimes wished for the protection of a rope ladder too! Presently Nana would appear and bear me off to my quarters.
The nursery wing had been purposely built as part of the major construction work in the rehabilitation of Chartwell. Comprising three floors and an attic, it faced due south, overlooking the gardens and the beautiful Weald. On the ground floor, a long room combined both schoolroom and nursery life: there was a large open log fireplace (where we made buttered toast), and glazed doors opened out on to the garden. Behind this big front room were a bathroom, and a kitchen/pantry which produced elevenses, teas (delicious drop scones made on the stovetop), and our various pets’ meals; luncheon and Nana’s supper were brought from the main kitchen by the nurserymaid.
The upper floors were connected by a very steep, narrow staircase, with blue linoleum-covered treads “nosed” with thick rubber. At first I scrambled laboriously down and up this precipice, but was soon negotiating it at high speed, taking two and three steps at a time: I had some horrific tumbles.
On the first floor Sarah had her room—a lovely bed-sitter (evolving over the years from schoolgirl’s den to debutante’s “bower”) which also communicated via a door onto the Pink Terrace with Mama’s Blue Sitting Room. Diana and Randolph from the first had their bedrooms in the main part of the house. On the second floor was the night nursery, with its adjoining bathroom: this was Nana’s and my abode until I was about ten, when I was promoted to the attic and my first bed-sitter.
Only vestigial traces of the nursery staircase remain now, as sometime in the midthirties, when I was in my teens and had melded into grown-up domestic life, Nana and I migrated to the top floor of the main house. Then my father pierced through the thick wall and took possession of the former night nursery for his bedroom. Later still, after the war, my mother colonized her former sitting room as a bedroom, penetrating into Sarah’s former room on the same level to create a dressing room and bathroom. I explain all this in some detail, because today thousands of visitors troop through the house, some of whom may read this book and be puzzled by the present configuration of the rooms and the disappearance of the nursery wing which figured so strongly in my childhood life.
If the nursery wing was my “castle” (of which undoubtedly I was the “princess”), it was also the base from which I sallied forth into the wider world. To a small child it was mountainous territory, as Chartwell, being constructed on the side of a steep hill, is a house of confusingly many levels. Unlike most nursery quarters one reads of, mine were based on the garden floor, and I started my daily forays on the same level as the servants’ hall, pantry, and kitchen. After calling on my numerous friends in those regions, I would then start on my uphill scramble to the upper floors—probably first visiting my mother, who, adorned with curlers and hairnet, face liberally greased, would usually be ensconced in bed, penned in by her breakfast tray or hidden behind The Times. I always remember a warm welcome, though at this point it took the physical form of a wave rather than a cuddle. Here I would remain while a succession of “callers” made their appearance: her lady’s maid; a secretary with a message; or Papa, arriving suddenly and unceremoniously, clad in his (extremely mini) silk vest/nightshirt, clutching his copy of The Times, and usually protesting at some part of the leading article. This he would discuss with Mummie (who had usually already noticed the offending passage) before departing again, like a tempestuous gust of wind, for his own study-bedroom along the passage. I always, if visible, received en passant a warm hug or embrace during this visitation. A more ceremonious interlude was the daily conference with the cook, who, in spotless white overall and apron, bearing the menu book, would draw up a chair and seat herself at the bedside. During the long—and to me infinitely boring—dialogue which ensued, I would disappear from view under the desk (I was a lion in my den); or I would clamber onto the lower shelf of the great oak double-doored cupboard, retreating and burrowing into folds of satin underclothes—I remember how deliciously the silky gloom smelled. Needless to say, successive lady’s maids greatly deplored this activity of “little Miss Mary”—and I don’t remember liking any of them very much: a generally disapproving race I deemed them to be. On looking now at the cupboard (still in its exact place in my mother’s bedroom), I realize I must have been very small to have hidden there, and that my freedom to roam at will all over the house began at a very early age.
Excerpted from A Daughter's Tale by Mary Soames. Copyright © 2012 by Mary Soames. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.