Forebears and Boyhood
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born on November 30, 1874, to a British father and an American mother. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was a British politician and aristocrat. His mother, Jennie Jerome, was the beautiful daughter of an American entrepreneur.
Lord Randolph was the younger son of the seventh Duke of Marlborough, and, as such, neither he nor Winston were likely to succeed to the family title. Nonetheless, from his earliest days Winston was acutely aware of his lineage. He was born and often stayed at Blenheim Palace, the mansion built by his illustrious ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough, to commemorate his famous victory over the French in 1704.
As was the prevailing custom in upper-class British circles, Winston and his younger brother, John (called Jack), were entrusted to the care of a nanny and were sent to a succession of boarding schools. Churchill's parents were occupied with high society and Lord Randolph's meteoric, yet brief, political career and did not spend a great deal of time with their sons.
Young Winston was sometimes rebellious and often in trouble. He was not as bad a pupil as he subsequently claimed, but neither was he particularly distinguished academically. On leaving school at the age of eighteen, he joined the British cavalry. Lord Randolph died in 1895—before Winston had the opportunity to prove himself to his often critical father.
The Great Duke
Churchill's ancestor John Churchill (1650-1722), first Duke of Marlborough, was alternately in and out of favor with his sovereigns. An early supporter of King James II, he played a major role in deposing him by joining forces with William of Orange (later King William III) in 1688. Churchill and his wife, Sarah, later regained influence during the reign of William's daughter, Queen Anne. In spite of his many military victories, however, he eventually lost power and was dismissed from all of the offices he held.
The first Duke of Marlborough was one of the most successful generals in English history. Never defeated on the battlefield in any major engagement, his greatest triumphs came on the European continent during the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714). There he managed coalitions with great diplomatic skill and fought effectively with allies at Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706), Oudenarde (1708), and Malplaquet (1709). This contemporaneous drawing depicts Marlborough pursuing a retreating foe. The epigram “Arma Virumque Cano” (of arms and the man I sing) is a quotation from Virgil's Aeneid.
The Duke of Marlborough wrote this note to his wife on May 24, 1706, the day following his triumph at Ramillies (in present-day Belgium) over French forces during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). While actively pursuing his beaten enemy, he asked her to tell her friend Queen Anne that he had been victorious: “the greatest pleasure I have in this success is that it may be a great service to her affairs.”
Randolph Churchill, third son of the seventh Duke of Marlborough and father of Winston Churchill, had a brilliant, if brief, career in British Parliamentary politics in the 1880s. An aggressive and effective debater, he attempted through his program of “Tory Democracy” to garner popular support for his Conservative Party. He became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1886, at the age of thirty-seven, but soon resigned in the course of a party dispute. He died on January 24, 1895, seventy years to the day before the death of his son Winston.
Winston's parents, Lord and Lady Randolph Churchill, gave him a heritage in both Great Britain and the United States. Lord Randolph was the son, though not heir, to the Duke of Marlborough, as he had an older brother to succeed to the title. Lady Randolph was christened “Jeannette” and was the second daughter of Leonard Jerome, the New York entrepreneur and founder of the American Jockey Club. Though born in Brooklyn, she was educated largely in Paris.
Studio portrait of Lord and Lady Randolph Churchill, ca. 1874. Copyprint. Churchill Papers, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge, U.K. (7.1)
Shown here is Jennie with her two sons, Winston (right) and John (left). John was Winston's junior by six years, but the two were always very close. John, known as Jack, is described as the “baby” in some of Winston's earliest letters to his mother and father. Lacking his older brother's political ambitions, Jack had a good brain for business.
Portrait of Lady Randolph Churchill with her two sons, 1889. Copyprint. Broadwater Collection, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge, U.K. (7.2)
Lord Randolph Churchill met his future wife, Miss Jennie (Jeannette) Jerome, on Thursday, August 12, 1873. They were both attending a sailing regatta on the Isle of Wight and were introduced at a reception hosted by the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. Randolph wrote this letter just two days later. It seems to have been love at first sight, and the wedding took place the following April.
This letter to his mother is one of the earliest known writings of Winston Churchill. It describes playing on the grounds of Blenheim Palace, home to his grandparents the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. It has been dated to May 1882, when Winston was just seven years old. In the note Winston describes riding a horse named for the Scottish hero “Rob Roy.”
Winston was sent to boarding school just a few weeks prior to his eighth birthday. His willful and rebellious nature clashed with the strict disciplinary regime at St. George's School, Ascot, where he was often caned. Even so, this report for the end of his first year cannot hide his potential and interest in the study of history. In later years Winston wrote, “Where my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn.”
School report for Winston Churchill issued by St. George's School, Ascot, November 1883. Churchill Papers, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge, U.K. (12)
In his book My Early Life, Churchill dates this early picture to his time in Ireland during the tenure of his grandfather as Lord Lieutenant. If so, it must have been taken before February 1880 when he was just five years old. Other sources place it slightly later, but it is definitely pre-school and depicts a boy who is used to having the run of palaces, parks, and servants.
Winston Churchill, ca. 1880. Copyprint. Broadwater Collection, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge, U.K. (12.1)
There is little in Churchill's childhood correspondence to suggest a great interest in his mother's American lineage, but he was eager to persuade her to let him attend Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee celebrations and see “Buffalow Bill [sic],” even writing out the text of a letter for her to send to his teacher. Churchill was a child of the British Imperial era with all its pageantry. He had a large collection of toy soldiers, and—as these drawings show—a schoolboy's keen interest in all things military.
In 1889, when this photograph was taken, Churchill was a fourteen-year-old attending Harrow, a well-known private school. He was an indifferent student in several subjects and struggled to pass the entrance examination for the British military academy at Sandhurst. Churchill nonetheless distinguished himself in history, English composition, and fencing. He also successfully memorized 1,200 lines of poetry to win a school prize. Although both he and his parents frequently were disappointed with his performance, Churchill remembered several aspects of his school days with fondness and often returned for visits in later life.
In 1894, at age forty-five, Lord Randolph Churchill's political career was over and his health was deteriorating. In this letter sent from California, he is critical of Winston's desire to join the cavalry instead of the infantry. It captures a strained relationship that likely was exacerbated by the father's illness. The final line with its refusal to countenance the change “during my lifetime” is poignant as Lord Randolph died just five months later in January 1895.
This photograph of Lord Randolph Churchill was taken shortly before his death. The impact of his death on Winston cannot be overstated. He had lost the opportunity to prove himself to his father and now found himself the head of the family.
Lord Randolph Churchill, ca. 1894. Copyprint. Churchill Press Photographs, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge, U.K. (16.1)
First Impressions of the United States
Shortly before his twenty-first birthday, in November 1895, Churchill visited the United States on his way to his first military adventure, in Cuba. He traveled by steamship to New York, where he stayed for more than a week. In New York, he enjoyed his first taste of American high society, attending parties and social events and meeting people of wealth and power.
In 1900 Churchill returned for a comprehensive lecture tour across the eastern United States and Canada. His aim was to capitalize on his fame as a British hero of the Boer War. The tour did not generate the profits Churchill had hoped, and he encountered American opposition to British action in South Africa. Yet it introduced him to the elite of American society, including Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, and President William McKinley.
Churchill returned to Great Britain in February 1901. He took his seat, which he had won prior to the U.S. trip, in the British Parliament and launched his long political career.
Churchill visited the United States for the first time in November 1895. He was almost twenty-one and was en route to his first military adventure in Cuba. He stayed in New York, where he was lavishly entertained by the politician Bourke Cockran. Churchill recorded his first impressions in this letter to his brother Jack. The aspiring writer describes American journalism as “vulgarity divested of truth” and Americans as “a great, crude, strong, young people.”
Churchill returned to America on December 8, 1900. His South African exploits had given him celebrity status, and he was resolved to capitalize on this financially by undertaking a grueling lecture tour. Churchill did not attract the crowds he was accustomed to in England and had to contend with audiences who did not share his convictions. Yet he was introduced by Mark Twain in New York, paid his first visit to Washington, D.C., and met an American president for the first time, President William McKinley.
Major James B. Pond was the American agent responsible for promoting Churchill's first U.S. lecture tour. In the letter shown here Pond tries to persuade Winston's mother, the newly remarried Mrs. Cornwallis West, to accompany her son to New York, the city of her birth. The letter illustrates the value of Jennie's fame and contacts to Winston during his early career. Churchill had a falling out with Pond during the tour and described him as “a vulgar Yankee impresario.” The lecture tour was not as successful as Churchill hoped it would be.
Churchill in Boston
This photograph was taken in Boston during Churchill's lecture tour about the Boer War. On this leg of his journey he met the then-popular American writer Winston Churchill, author of the recently published historical novel, Richard Carvel. An illustrated account of their meeting appeared on the front page of the Boston Herald. In earlier correspondence, the British Churchill had promised his namesake that he would henceforth publish under the name “Winston Spencer Churchill” to avoid confusion.
The end of the nineteenth century was a time of great opportunities for young soldiers who, like Winston Churchill, sought to win fame and rise in the military profession. The British Empire, then near its peak, was maintained and extended by Queen Victoria's armed forces in a series of small but deadly conflicts in Africa and Asia.
As a newly commissioned cavalry officer, Churchill eagerly sought opportunities to prove himself in combat and to come to the attention of his superiors and the British public. Between 1895 and 1900 he saw combat in Cuba, India, the Sudan, and South Africa.
In all of these adventures Churchill demonstrated unusual bravery and self-possession under fire. His writings from the battlefield exhibited the literary, journalistic, and historical skills that would characterize his future career and generated sufficient income to allow him to enter politics.
In 1898 Churchill was anxious to win a name for himself as a soldier and war correspondent. He maneuvered his way into a posting with a British cavalry unit, the Twenty-first Lancers, just before the climax of the Anglo-Egyptian expedition to reconquer the Sudan—the Battle of Omdurman. This letter to his cousin describes his participation in the last great British cavalry charge of the nineteenth century. It also discusses his future political plans, his need for money, and his feelings—not always positive—about the expedition's commander, General Herbert Kitchener.
After the Battle of Omdurman, Churchill's mother, Jennie Jerome Churchill, telegraphed her sister Clara and brother-in-law, Moreton Frewen. Jennie told them that her son was safe and that his regiment had performed well. She added, however, that a newspaper correspondent, Hubert Howard of the London Times, had been killed and that another Times reporter, Francis Rhodes, had been wounded.
Churchill resigned his commission in the British Army in 1899. Embarking on a career of writing and politics, he wrote his cousin Marlborough that he regretted leaving a profession that had assured him “at least of a livelihood and some sort of progression.” He also congratulated Marlborough on his recent political appointment: “You are young to be in the ministry, but this is an age of youth, so accept my tribute not only as coming from a friend but from one of the generation that has yet to divide the world.”
£25 Reward for Churchill's Capture
Churchill won international fame with a price on his head. On the night of December 12, 1899, the twenty-five-year-old war correspondent escaped from Boer captivity by climbing over the wall of the States Model School in Pretoria, where he was held prisoner. A reward of £25 was issued for his recapture. A description circulated by the Boer authorities noted that he could not speak a word of Dutch. Despite this, and after some adventures, Churchill made it to safety.
Boer “Wanted” poster in Dutch, with translation. On loan from the National Trust, Chartwell, UK. (25)
Fighting the Boers
After his escape from the Boers, Churchill joined the South African Light Horse, an irregular cavalry unit fighting his former captors. He remained as a soldier/correspondent in South Africa for several more months, thrilling British readers with his accounts of battle and the army's laborious progress toward victory. He also wrote two books about his experiences. This picture, taken for a dust jacket, shows him in uniform, complete with a decorative feather and a fledgling moustache.
During the Boer War Churchill's mother tried to promote Anglo-American solidarity by providing a hospital ship to treat men wounded in the fighting. This ship, re-christened the Maine, sailed for South Africa on December 23, 1899, with Jennie aboard. In this letter to a supporter, she reported on her voyage and noted that her younger son, Jack, had gone off to fight: “Of course it is a great source of anxiety to me—but I am thankful the other [i.e., Winston] escaped from Pretoria.”
As a reporter for the London Morning Post, Churchill crafted a lively mix of second-hand accounts, personal impressions, and commentary. In this article he described the stubborn Boer resistance to the British forces during the siege of Ladysmith: “Fighting is vigorously proceeding, and we shall see who can stand the bucketing best—Briton or Boer.” Churchill also accused his enemies of using bullets banned by international law even as he paid tribute to their courage and fighting qualities.
Churchill's widely publicized exploits made him famous in Britain. In this appreciation by London's Sunday Telegraph, a feature writer said: “It is now a household tale how he led the fight of the armoured train, how he returned into the hands of the enemy rather than desert his comrades, how he escaped from Pretoria prison. Who has not read the story of his dangerous dash for freedom?” The article also predicted that his recently published novel, Savrola, would be “a really popular book.”
The Boer War was a family affair for the Churchills. Winston's mother and his brother Jack had also gone to South Africa, where Jack had joined Winston as a cavalry officer. This letter from Jack to his aunt describes the Battle of Hussar Hill (February 12, 1900), Jack's first time under fire. He was wounded and, at Winston's insistence, was put into an ambulance and sent to the rear. Jack later went aboard his mother's hospital ship for treatment and recuperation.
South African Light Horse
Frustrated by the mobility of their Boer opponents during the Boer (or South African) War, British leaders raised a number of volunteer cavalry formations to serve in their cause. Churchill himself cabled back to London, “More irregular corps are wanted. Are the gentlemen of England all fox-hunting?” Churchill's own unit, the South African Light Horse, is shown here as it rides through Cape Town on its way to the front lines.
Lady Randolph Marries Again
Popular interest in Churchill's glamorous and irrepressible mother was increased by reports in July 1900 of her marriage to George Cornwallis West, a handsome British Army officer. He was twenty years younger than Jennie, and only sixteen days older than Winston. The Churchill family demonstrated their support for Jennie by attending the wedding, but the groom's parents, who disapproved of the match, stayed away. This news clipping announcing the couple's engagement is from an American paper and appeared seven days before the wedding.