Tag Archives: Sir Winston Churchill

Hughenden Manor: Winning the War in the Icehouse


Who was the man getting the surprise ice-water bath above, and what did he have to do with victory in World War II? One day in 2004, a National Trust guide at Hughenden Manor overheard an intriguing conversation.  An old man was very quietly describing to his grandchild how he had once worked in the very room they were standing in.  Hughenden Manor was the country home of Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister and friend of Queen Victoria.


The house was a dusty relic of Victorian times. But it turned out that the house played a pivotal role in the Second World War, totally unknown to anyone except the 100 or so people who secretly worked there in the 1940s.

When the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz ended in late 1940, Britain’s Royal Air Force, the RAF, had overcome all the odds and held off the German Luftwaffe. Adolf Hitler had believed that the British would fold under heavy bombing, negotiate a peace treaty, and become his allies.  How wrong he was. About 3,000 young pilots, averaging 20 years of age, did battle daily over the Channel, outnumbered by 5 to 1 in both equipment and flyers. They were not all British; some of them were Polish, Czech, Belgian and French.  According to the RAF, 544 of them were killed in the Battle of Britain, and another 814 died later in the war. Winston Churchill famously summed up the Battle of Britain: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”  To this day, pilots who fought are referred to as “The Few.”

But the war was just beginning. It was necessary for Allied forces, soon including the United States, to knock out German infrastructure. The only maps available at the time were made for tourists. They showed roads, cities, railways and sightseeing destinations like castles and cathedrals. Bombers needed detailed maps to accomplish their missions of destroying armament factories and other strategic targets.

Hughenden Manor became a secret command center for the vital mission of creating detailed maps for bomber pilots to use.  British Spitfires and later Mosquitos were dispatched across the Channel with automatic cameras in their gun bays.  Since the gun bays had no guns, the planes had no protection.  The pilots, as brave as any of The Few, flew thousands of surveillance missions over Germany. Over the course of the war, they took 36 million photos. The camera film was carried by courier to Hughenden Manor, where the 100 or so top-secret mapmakers went to work.


The old Hughenden icehouse was the darkroom.


Mapmakers were on duty at all times; someone always slept in the icehouse.


Inside, mapmakers worked day and night, translating the surveillance photos into maps for bomber pilots. Target maps were drawn by hand, with the target in the middle, surrounded by concentric circles one mile apart.


Today, the visitor can try out the equipment, which in its day was high-tech. Completed maps, thousands of them, were sent seven miles up the road to Bomber Command.  Often, couriers used bicycles, so as not to draw attention.


The entire map-making operation was a military secret, protected by the Official Secrets Act.  People who worked at Hughenden, military and civilian, took an oath to keep the operation secret for their entire lifetimes.  When the National Trust accidentally learned a little about the amazing World War II history of Hughenden, they went to Parliament and eventually received permission to make the secrets public.  Today, the icehouse and the basement of Hughenden hold an enthralling museum of this vital part of victory for the Allies in World War II.


Veterans of the secret operation were tracked down and interviewed on video, before their stories were lost forever. People sent in their personal diaries and photos. The almost-lost history came alive.


And the man getting the surprise ice bath?  Newbies were invited into the icehouse to have a wartime picture taken, to send to the folks at home (of course, the location was always kept secret). The helpful icehouse staff posed the unsuspecting person under an icy water outlet in the brick ceiling.  Someone pulled a lever at the exact moment the camera snapped.  Everyone, including the victim, laughed uproariously.


The result was a nice wartime keepsake, and a personal reminder of undaunted British spirit when the odds of victory seemed slim.  British self-deprecating humor and camaraderie were a big part of that spirit.


I’d recommend a visit to Hughenden Manor. Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Consuelo Vanderbilt to the Rescue

La Duchess de Marlborough, Helleu, 1901, Public Domain

La Duchess de Marlborough, Helleu, 1901, Public Domain

Julian Fellowes, creator of the television hit Downton Abbey, did not invent the story of an American heiress bringing her fortune to the rescue of an aristocratic British family of declining fortunes. Fortune-hunting Brits, titled but poor, regularly patrolled the upper reaches of American society for rich brides.  Consuelo Vanderbilt was one of those real-life brides. She became the very reluctant wife of the 9th Duke of Marlborough.

By all accounts, Consuelo was one of the loveliest and most charming women of her age. The playwright Sir James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, famously wrote, “I would wait all night in the rain, to see Consuelo Marlborough get into her carriage.” She was also sweet, compliant, and dominated by her mother Alva Vanderbilt.

Alva was formidable.  She was estranged from her husband, the fabulously rich railroad man who, among other feats, created Madison Square Garden.  He was a grandson of the dynasty’s founder, Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt, and inherited the equivalent of about $1.4 billion in today’s money. Alva divorced him for adultery and landed a settlement of the equivalent of $280 million in today’s money.  Alva named her daughter after her godmother, a half-Cuban American socialite who had made a spectacular marriage into the family of the Duke of Manchester.

Alva expected no less of her beautiful daughter Consuelo. She forced Consuelo into a brilliant but doomed marriage with the 9th Duke, who didn’t want the marriage any more than Consuelo did. Alva actually placed her daughter under house arrest in her bedroom, keeping her away from the man she loved, until the tearful teenager finally agreed to marry the Duke of Marlborough.  Consuelo wept behind her wedding veil at the 1895 ceremony in New York. She was just 18 at the time. The Duke wasted no time in collecting her dowry, the equivalent of $67 million dollars, which he sorely needed to maintain the family seat at Blenheim Palace. The money lasted until around 1950, when declining fortunes forced the house to open to the paying public.

Duke of Marlborough and His Family, John SInger Sargent, 1905, Public Domain

Duke of Marlborough and His Family, John SInger Sargent, 1905, Public Domain

Consuelo did her duty, producing the required “heir and a spare.” By some accounts, she invented the famous expression. Predictably, the marriage ended in separation in 1906, divorce in 1921, and finally annullment in 1926, after Alva admitted that she had been wrong to force the marriage. Consuelo forgave her domineering mother and they developed a close relationship.

Consuelo with WInston Churchill at Blenheim, Public Domain

Consuelo with WInston Churchill at Blenheim, Public Domain

Consuelo became a close friend of Sir Winston Churchill, who was born at Blenheim in 1874 and remained a frequent visitor there all his life. While she was the Duchess, she worked to improve the lives of the poor around the estate and in the town of Woodstock.  It appears she was universally adored.  Later in life, she continued her good works, even as she took part in glittering society.  Her second marriage was happy, and she lived out her days in contentment. She died in New York at age 87.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Sir Winston’s Cat


When I was planning my trip to England, I read about the new kitten that recently took up residence at Chartwell, the country home of Sir Winston Churchill.  When Churchill’s family gave the property to the National Trust to become a museum in 1966, they specified that there must always be on the property a marmalade cat with a white bib and white boots.  Sir Winston had owned such a cat for many years. The Chartwell cat must always be named “Jock,” after the family’s beloved pet.  Jock V recently retired to Scotland, and the perfect Jock VI was located in a local animal shelter. I wrote about Sir WInston’s unhappy childhood and his determination to create a happy home for his own children in a previous post, “The Bulldog and the Marmalade Cat” at  https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/09/12/the-bulldog-an…-marmalade-cat/


When I visited Chartwell yesterday, I searched for Jock in the Rose Garden, the woodland walkways, beside the pond with the black swans, and in the flower beds beside Sir Winston’s painting studio.  I was leaving, disappointed, when who should spring right into my path?


Jock had his eye on something in the shrubbery.


He perched on a branch, watching the ground intently and switching his orange-and-white-striped tail.


Then he turned around and very briefly glanced at me, the tourist excitedly taking his picture. Jock certainly has some of Sir WInston’s charisma and supreme self-confidence. I also think some of Sir Winston’s political acumen has already rubbed off on Jock.  He is a busy cat with countless demands on his time. But like any good politician, he took a moment to pose for me.  He showed off the “target” design on his side that marks him as a classic tabby.

Sir Winston Churchill was a soldier, a statesman, a Nobel prize-winning writer, and a great orator who led his country to victory over seemingly insurmountable odds.  His childhood was lonely and unhappy; his father actively disliked him and never missed an opportunity to tell him that he would never amount to anything.  His beautiful mother rarely paid him any attention. Young Winston was ambitious and ruthless in getting what he wanted, but he was also far more compassionate than either of his parents. He was a loving family man with a soft spot for a marmalade cat.  I feel that I know Sir Winston better than I did before.

Maybe Jock wanted to get closer?  Maybe he fancied being scratched behind his ears?  No such luck.  Jock was needed elsewhere.  The entire estate is his responsibility.  Off he went at a gallop.  No matter.  He made my day!

A Siren and a Siren Suit

The birth of Winston Churchill, the future Prime Minister, was a shocking surprise and a bit of a scandal. His father, Randolph Churchill, was related to the Dukes of Marlborough, whose seat was (and still is) the over-the-top Blenheim Palace just outside Woodstock.  His mother was the famous American beauty Jennie Jerome.  The couple’s engagement went on longer than they wished, due to financial negotiations, and the bride was very soon noticeably pregnant.  Jennie was a headstrong free spirit.  She was not about to give up the admiration of everyone on the dance floor just because of her condition. By all accounts, she was as lovely and alluring as ever in the final stages of pregnancy.

Jennie Jerome Churchill, , circa 1880, Public Domain

Jennie Jerome Churchill, , circa 1880, Public Domain

So Jennie was dancing, with abandon, in a diaphonous flowing gown when she suddenly went into labor–“prematurely,” or so the story went.  Winston was born about two months sooner than anyone expected, in the Palace that many people consider more grand than any palaces of actual British royalty.

photo (12)

The surprise birth took place in a small and rather plain bedroom close to the grand state rooms, where the band played on. A glass box displays the baby’s infant vest.

photo (13)

Much later in life, when he was Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Sir Winston wore a “siren suit” during air raids.  Many people, men and women, had one. We’d call it a “jumpsuit:” a loose full-length garment, designed to be zipped into over pajamas on the way to the air raid shelter.


By today’s standards, Jennie Jerome would be considered a terrible mother–selfish before her child was born, and even more selfish afterward in pursuing her often scandalous social life. She paid very little attention to Winston as he grew up. He was raised almost entirely by a beloved nanny.  Yet in later life, Jennie became almost like a sister to her son, advising him and using her wide social and political connections to further his career.  The little bedroom in Blenheim Palace is where a remarkable life began.

Winston Churchill: How the Bulldog Got His Scowl

Digitally restored vector portrait of Sir Winston Churchill.

The iconic photograph of Winston Churchill, with his famous bulldog scowl, appeared on the cover of “Life Magazine” in 1945, toward the end of World War II.  When newsman Edward R. Murrow saw it, he remarked, “Ah, there is the face which marshalled the English language and sent it to battle when we had little else.” The photo was taken by Yousuf Karsh in 1941.

All through the war, starting when England faced the enemy alone, Churchill roused and encouraged his people with his words.  His most famous phrase was “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” The words were first spoken at Churchill’s first cabinet meeting as Prime Minister on May 13, 1940. He repeated them in the House of Commons the same day, and soon his words of defiance and courage went out over the airwaves to every British home and workplace.  The stirring words were, in part, “We have before us many, many months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say:  It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny…You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word:  victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.” The words, even on the page decades later, cause goosebumps. Victory looked very unlikely when the words were spoken.

How did Mr. Karsh, one of the greatest portrait photographers of all time, capture this iconic image?  He was sent to photograph the great man on a visit to Canada in 1941, before Pearl Harbor and before the United States became fully committed to the fight.  Churchill had just addressed the Canadian Parliament.  He was weary. He told the photographer he had exactly two minutes.  Then Churchill began chomping on a cigar. The photographer politely held out an ashtray. Churchill continued chomping. So Mr. Karsh walked up, begged Churchill’s pardon,  and pulled the cigar out of the Prime Minister’s mouth.  (Where did he get the nerve?)  By the time the photographer got back to his camera, the bulldog scowl was there.  And amazingly, Mr. Churchill softened.  He allowed more photographs, but the one that had taken him by surprise became his most famous image.

The photo is from the article cited below.


The Bulldog and the Marmalade Cat




Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

When the family of Sir Winston Churchill left the family’s country estate, Chartwell, in the care of England’s National Trust organization in 1966, there was an important condition:  there must always be a marmalade cat with a white bib and four white socks, and the cat’s name must always be Jock.

Jock V recently retired to the Scottish countryside when his person, a staff member at Chartwell, retired.  Jock VI just took up residence.

I’ve been reading a biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion, by William Manchester. The man who stood up to Nazi tyranny when the situation seemed hopeless had a very unhappy childhood.  His parents, Randolph Churchill and the American Jennie Jerome, were socially and politically prominent–and they had very little time for their son.  They wrote him off as a dullard, not even fit for university.  Instead he went into the military–a choice that later served him well.  As a child of only seven years old, WInston was put on a train all by himself and sent off to an expensive but abusive boarding school where he was miserable.  He only escaped two years later, when he had a chance to show his beloved childhood nanny the welts he carried from regular beatings. He rebelled against authority all through his childhood and young adulthood, even as he pursued his own political ambitions.

When Sir Winston had his own family, he wanted to create a happy home life.  Jock the marmalade cat was part of that secure, loving home Sir Winston wanted to provide for his own family.  I’m hoping to meet Jock VI when I travel to England soon. I’ll salute the man whose own struggles taught him to be both tough and tender.