My life with father

Granada’s Head On looks at Randolph Churchill, who here looks at growing up with his father Winston

Head On, the first of an occasional Granada series this Wednesday, uses television to present living portraits of people in their own image … and out of the candid opinions and recollections of friends and others. The subjects can reply to criticism and, in so doing, enrich their own portraits. The first subject is Randolph Churchill. Lord Birkenhead and John Spencer Churchill recall Randolph the boy; Sir Fitzroy Maclean recalls Randolph the soldier; Michael Foot recalls Randolph the political opponent. Whatever Randolph Churchill is today he was moulded by happenings in his early years. Here he writes of those happenings

TVTimes masthead
From the TVTimes for week commencing 6 August 1961

I WAS born in London on May 28, 1911, at 33, Eccleston-square, of poor [sic: the Churchill family were anything but poor – Ed] but honest parents. Born within sound of Bow Bells, I was a Cockney and, until I was 40, was destined to spend more than half my life in London.

I have no recollections of Eccleston-square where my father and mother had lived from their marriage in 1908. When I was born my father was Home Secretary in Mr. Asquith’s famous Liberal administration, and when I was only a few months old my father became First Lord of the Admiralty and we all moved to Admiralty House overlooking the Horse Guards Parade. “We all” were my father and mother and sister Diana, who was nearly two years older than myself.

I remember looking out of a window at Admiralty House and seeing a large parade of soldiers on the Horse Guards Parade. I asked where they were going and was told: “The Dardanelles.” This must have been in 1915 when I was four.

Randolph Churchill

I didn’t know where the Dardanelles were or what the war was all about, but the Dardanelles hung like a storm cloud over Admiralty House, and I used to end my nightly prayers: “God bless Mummy and Papa. God bless the Dardanelles and make me a good boy. Amen.”

I also used to pray for a Mr. Jones at this time. I was taken, I suppose by my father, to the House of Commons. Among other sights I was shown the pegs on which Members hung their hats. Pointing to the first peg I saw, I enquired who hung his hat there. I was told “Mr. Jones.” He rated almost as highly in my prayers as the Dardanelles.

One other thing I remember at Admiralty House, Diana and I used to be taken for a daily morning airing in the Green Park in a double pram. This must have been just before World War One.

There were people called Suffragettes who wanted to get the vote for women, which I later discovered was a proposal to which my father and Mr. Asquith were strongly opposed; so the Suffragettes tried to kidnap me in the park.

I have a memory of being pulled out of the pram and of the nursery-maid catching hold of me and pushing me back.

More strongly etched in my memory is the detective who thereafter discreetly accompanied us on our morning outings lest this half-hearted attempt should be repeated.

I think I remember the coming of the war in August 1914. We were staying at the seaside. I think at a place called “Pear Tree Cottage.” There was a lot of excitement and my father had to keep driving to London and coming back.

One day when he was in London we were told that war had come. We looked out to sea expecting to see German ships approaching the coast, hut nothing happened except that we all had to pack up and go hack to London. We children were rather disappointed.

When we were turned out of Admiralty House we all went to live at 41, Cromwell-road. We doubled up with my Uncle Jack and my Aunt Goonie and their two children, Johnnie, who was two years older than me and Peregrine who, I suppose, had just been born.

The house was almost opposite the Natural History Museum. On wet afternoons Diana, Johnnie and myself would be taken there.

We did not spend much time looking at the exhibits. We preferred to run along the corridors playing hide and seek and since hardly anybody seemed interested in the specimens which had been collected in this fine building, we seldom got into any trouble. While we were at Cromwell-road there were Zeppelin raids on London. These were tremendously exciting, since we children would be woken up in the middle of the night, wrapped in blankets and carried down to the basement where there would be a lot of grown ups having supper and drinking champagne.

We liked Zeppelins very much indeed and thought it a great treat to mix with grown ups in the middle of the night.

Another memory of Cromwell-road is of one of my father’s birthdays. We children had our luncheon up stairs and were always brought down to see the grown-ups finishing theirs.

One day, when it was my father’s birthday (November 30, St. Andrew’s Day), we came down, and for some reason or other the grown-ups had only just started eating.

My mother had arranged a treat for my father — oysters. When we children came in there was only one left. My father said: “Would you like to try one?” I naturally said: “Yes.”

The oyster was put into my mouth. I was horrified and went and spat it into the fire. I suppose this was in 1916 with food rationing so very strict.

Everyone was aghast at my act.

I am glad to record that this episode left no permanent scar on my palate, for I have eaten scores of dozens of oysters in later years, with the greatest enjoyment.

A man, a woman and a baby
1912: one-year-old Randolph playing with his parents at the seaside

A little later, I suppose at the end of 1916 or the beginning of 1917, my father bought a little place in the country, Lullenden, near East Grinstead. I imagine to get us away from the air raids.

We were very happy there and used to go to school at a place called Dormansland in a pony-trap. I think we went there only in the morning.

The lessons ended with a short religious service and the final hymn was always O God Our Help in Ages Past.

It was at this time that I first discovered in a rather macabre way that my father was different from other fathers and was a great man.

I was about five years old at the time and I said to a little boy at school (it makes me blush to recall the episode): “Will you be my chum?”

He said: “No.”

I said: “Why not?”

He said: “Your father murdered my father.”

I said: “What do you mean?” He said: “At the Dardanelles.”

So when I got home I told my mother who was naturally distressed and explained to me about the Dardanelles.

I am sorry to say it made me feel immensely proud and I realised my father was a boss man who could order other fathers about. My discovery that my father had exceptional powers was reinforced in a more mundane matter.

Often my mother and father were not at Lullenden tor many weeks. He was making munitions and she was running canteens for munition workers.

One day we heard that my father was coming down that afternoon at tea time. We had run out of jam. My father has never had tea as a meal in his life. He always said: “I don’t believe in eating between meals.” However, we thought he would come and sit with us while we had our tea.

So with a precocious sense of propaganda I collected 10 or 12 empty jam pots and put them on the tea table. My father is not particularly observant about these sort of things, but a collection of 12 empty jam pots caught his eye. He was horrified to learn that we had no jam. The next day several jars arrived.

He seemed to me a very powerful man. He could order the fathers of other boys into battle and could produce jam.

Under my father’s encouragement I learnt by heart “Ye Manners of England who guard our native shores…” When my father and mother and their important friends came down for the weekend. I was invited to stand on a stool and recite this poem.

I particularly enjoyed the last verse: “The meteor flag of England shall yet terrific burn, till England’s troubled night be passed and the star of peace return.”

I remember this vividly and I always thought that I had enjoyed these recitations.

But it seems that I bore some resentment against my father in the matter. For my mother has since told me that I used to refer to my father as the “meteor beast.”

One last recollection of Lullenden. A splendid old man with a white beard who looked like King Edward VII came to stay. He was Sir Ernest Cassel and I understood that he had been a great friend of my grandfather’s as well as being a friend of my father and mother; also that he was rich.

On the morning he was due to leave, my sister Diana was summoned to see him and came back with a £1 note.

The nanny said: “Now Sir Ernest wants to see you.” I said. “Do you think he is going to give me £1 as well?” “No,” said she, “I think he’s going to give you something bigger.”

I was not aware that there was anything bigger than a £1 note so I approached Sir Ernest with lively excitement.

He gave me a £5 note. I did not know that such a thing existed. It seemed more than all the money in the world.

I saw him once more about a year later. Again he gave me a £5 note. I have seldom been solvent since.

I discussed Sir Ernest’s generosity with my governess, Miss Kinsey. She said: “Well, you see, he is a millionaire.” This was the first time I had heard the use of this magic word.

She explained to me as best she could what a millionaire was. I asked whether we knew any other millionaires. She said: “Yes. Colonel and Mrs. Spender-Clay who live nearby at Ford Manor. I used to work for them. They are certainly millionaires because Mrs. Spender-Clay was an Astor.” “Don’t we know any other millionaires?” I asked.

“Well, your father’s friend Sir Phillip Sassoon is certainly a millionaire.”

I had not then met Phillip Sassoon; later I often did, but neither he nor the Spender-Clays ever gave me a fiver.

Shortly before I was eight I went to a boarding school, Sandroyds, which was then at Oxted in Surrey.

There was a gang of bullies at the school organised by two boys who held the whole school in awe.

They would send their minions to arrest any small boy like myself whom they did not like, and frighten him by swinging and cracking whips around their heads.

Many other small boys less uninhibited than myself were terrorised and enslaved by this process. So I formed a counter-gang to resist these outrages.

My gang consisted of a very tough boy called Benn, who I think was a nephew of a Member of Parliament called Sir Arthur Shirley Benn, and three Spanish princes, Alvaro, Alonzo and Atalfo of Orleans-Bourbon.

Benn was my chief of staff and the three Spanish princes were my bodyguard. We got the better of the old bullies and demoralised them.

My greatest friend at Sandroyds was a boy called Rattigan. He was a member of my counter gang and in the holidays he would ask me to lunch at his mother’s home and we would go to see a matinee, usually a Conan Doyle about Sherlock Holmes.

In the next holidays my mother would ask him back and we would go to see another play.

When we left Sandroyds he went to Harrow and I went to Eton, and I didn’t see him again for 25 years. Meanwhile in the early thirties I began to read in the papers about a clever young playwright called Terence Rattigan who had written a play called French without Tears.

I wondered often whether it could have been my boyhood friend but it was not until many years later, just after World War Two when I met him on the liner Queen Elizabeth in Beatrice Lillie’s cabin, that I discovered he was.

Two nannies and two children
Randolph in the “kidnap” pram. Diana walks with nurserymaid and nannie.

One of the things I remember very well about my four years at Sandroyds was that Queen Marie of Rumania came down to inspect the school.

We were all drawn up in two lines on the cricket field. Accompanied by Mr. Hornby, the headmaster, she inspected all of us.

She naturally embraced her three nephews, the Princes Alvaro, Alonzo and Atalfo; she also embraced me.

I was flattered but surprised, and supposed that she had done this because I was the son of a famous man. I had been indicated to her by Mr. Hornby as the son of Mr. Churchill.

What made us giggle very much was when she also embraced Rattigan, for this could not have been due to relationship or the fame of his parents, but to his charm and good looks.

Five men in dress suits
Oxford, 1930. Randolph (right) stands with Oxford Union debaters… and, on his left, his father Winston, there for the debate

When I was about 12 my father asked me whether I would like to go to Eton or Harrow. I thought it was very civilised of him to give me the option.

We had been an Etonian family for many generations. My father was sent to Harrow only because it was quaintly thought at the time that he suffered from lung trouble and that Harrow on the Hill would be better for him than Eton in the smog.

Lack of lung power has never subsequently been detected in my father, but perhaps it was the climate of Harrow which rid him of this complaint.

My father had not been happy at Harrow. I doubt if he would have been much happier at Eton, but I was greatly complimented that he gave me the choice.

I inspected both institutions. It seemed that there were many fewer rules and much less discipline at Eton than at Harrow; accordingly I opted for Eton and joined Colonel Sheepshanks’ House in October 1924.

I remember very little about Eton except that I wanted to escape as soon as possible and get to Oxford, an ambition I achieved well before I was 18. When I got to Oxford, much as I enjoyed it, my ambition was to escape into the outside world, which I did after four terms, by going on a seven-month lecture tour of the United States, at the age of 19. Now I was grown up. So this concludes the story of my childhood.

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