Despite wryly stating that cats looked down upon humans, Winston Churchill had a great love for them, as Steve Ainsworth explains
This autumn will mark the 140th anniversary of the birth of Sir Winston Churchill. A Great Briton certainly; but would Churchill have been voted the ‘Greatest Ever Briton’ if he hadn’t also been a cat lover?
According to Grace Hamblin, the great man’s secretary for over 30 years: “He loved cats. So do I and he knew it. He always had a cat, if not two. I must tell you one lovely cat story. It was way, way back in the Thirties. He came to his door one morning with some papers in his hand and a cat was sitting in the passage: ‘Good morning, Cat.’ But the cat didn’t answer. It was one of those horrible snooty things. So he said again, ‘Good morning, Cat.’ The cat made no effort to be near him. He slashed at it with his papers and the cat ran from the house. Cat didn’t return the next day or the next or the next. Finally he said, ‘Do you think it’s because I hit him?’ Of course I said, ‘Yes, definitely’.”
“That evening I was whiling away my time while the family had dinner downstairs, when Sarah [Churchill’s daughter] came up and said, ‘Hambone, I have a message for you from Papa. He said if you like you may go home, and if you wish before you go, you may put a card in the window to say that if Cat cares to come home, all is forgiven.’ Cat did come home several days later with a wire round his neck. Given cream and the best salmon and so on, he did recover, I’m glad to say.”
Down the years there was a succession of cats at Churchill’s country home, Chartwell. Two of them were Mickey, a large tabby, and Tango, a marmalade.
In his book ‘The Last Lion’ William Manchester tells of Churchill speaking on the telephone to the Lord Chancellor when Mickey began playing with the telephone cord. Churchill roared, ‘Get off the line, you fool!’ Realizing what he had done he turned back to the phone: “Not you!” he barked. Later he offered the cat his apologies, something he didn’t offer the Chancellor.
Writing to his wife, Clementine, in 1935, Churchill brought her up to date on Tango: “The cat treats me very graciously and always wishes to sleep on my bed (which I resent). When I dine alone, and only then, she awaits me on the table.”
Churchill’s best-known cat during the war years however was a big grey, the aptly named Nelson.
During a dinner at Chequers, whilst the Prime Minister slipped choice morsels of salmon to Nelson, an American war correspondent, Quentin Reynolds recalled Churchill saying: “Nelson is the bravest cat I ever knew. I once saw him chase a huge dog out of the Admiralty. I decided to adopt him and name him after our great Admiral...”
Before Churchill arrived in No 10 in 1940 the resident Downing Street cat was referred to as Munich – a disrespectful reference to Churchill’s predecessor Neville Chamberlain who had tried and failed to gain ‘Peace in Our Time’ at the Munich Conference with Hitler.
One writer asked: “Nelson will follow his master shortly to Downing Street and make a problem of protocol. How, it is asked will the Munich cat react to Nelson? Will he follow Chamberlain next door to his new home at No. 11 leaving the field at No. 10 to Nelson? Or will he refuse to abdicate and call for a show-down?”
In fact Nelson simply chased his predecessor out of Number Ten.
Nelson sometimes sat in with Churchill at Cabinet meetings. Churchill once told a Minister that Nelson was doing more than he was for the war effort, since at least Nelson was useful as a hot water bottle!
During the dark days of 1941, Sir John Colville, Churchill’s principal private secretary, remembered an episode involving Tango.
“I had lunch with the P.M. and the Yellow Cat, which sat in a chair on his right-hand side and attracted most of his attention. He was meditating deeply on the Middle East, where he is intent on reorganizing the rearward services, and on Lord Beaverbrook who is proving particularly troublesome….While he brooded on these matters, he kept up a running conversation with the cat, cleaning its eyes with his napkin, offering it mutton and expressing regret that it could not have cream in war-time.”
Another Downing Street cat was Smoky. In 1943 when Churchill was in Casablanca meeting President Roosevelt Clementine Churchill wrote to her husband:
“The Annexe & No 10 are dead and empty without you—Smoky wanders about disconsolate—I invite him into my room & he relieves his feelings by clawing my brocade bed-cover & when gently rebuked, biting my toe through it.”
For his 88th birthday in 1962, John ‘Jock’ Colville gave Churchill a marmalade cat with a white chest and paws. The cat, named Jock after its giver, became a favourite.
On 27th July 1964 Churchill visited the House of Commons for the last time. Wearing his trademark bow tie, he was photographed leaving his London home: in the foreground was Jock.
The ‘Greatest Ever Briton’ died at the age of 90 in January 1965. The National Trust subsequently acquired his beloved country residence. Churchill’s family however asked that a marmalade cat named Jock always have a home at Chartwell.
Jock lived on at Chartwell until his death at the age of 13 in 1975.
Jock II, another marmalade cat, was recruited forthwith.
And in March 2014 Chartwell saw the arrival of a rescue cat, Jock VI.
Staff welcomed the seven-month-old kitten after Jock V moved to Scotland with his owner, Chartwell’s former house manager.
Like all of his predecessors, Jock VI is a marmalade with white paws and bib. He lives at Chartwell with a member of staff; his own cat flap has been specially approved by the Historic Buildings Inspector. No doubt it would have been approved of by Churchill too.
Steve Ainsworth is a well-known writer, normally specialising in the history of medicine, he also writes commercial and civil history.
This article first appeared in the autumn issue of The Cat, the Cats Protection magazine, and my huge thanks go to Steve Ainsworth for giving me permission to publish his very interesting article on the daily mews website. Thanks also to Francesca at The Cat offices for her permission and help.