Black Swans Thrive at Churchill’s Chartwell

Black Swans Thrive at Churchill’s Chartwell


“All the black swans are mat­ing, not only the father and moth­er, but both broth­ers and both sis­ters have paired off. The Ptole­mys always did this and Cleopa­tra was the result. At any rate I have not thought it my duty to inter­fere.”  —Churchill to his wife, Chartwell, 21 Jan­u­ary 1935.

Giles Palmer and Friends (National Trust)
Giles Palmer and friends. (Nation­al Trust)

Return of the swans

(Updat­ed from 2009). Vis­it­ing Chartwell in 1935, Lady Diana Coop­er observed its col­lec­tion of birds. There were “five fool­ish geese, five furi­ous black swans, two rud­dy shel­drakes, two white swans—Mr. Juno and Mrs. Jupiter, so called because they got the sex­es wrong to begin with, two Cana­da geese (‘Lord and Lady Beaver­brook’) and some mis­cel­la­neous ducks.”

Chartwell’s black swans were looked after as zeal­ous­ly as the apes on Gibral­tar. But maraud­ing fox­es and mink had reduced the pop­u­la­tion to zero by 2008.

Hap­pi­ly in 2009, Chartwell head gar­den­er Giles Palmer installed a new float­ing “swan island” to pro­vide nat­ur­al pro­tec­tion, and two new black swans (Cygnus atratus) were returned to the ponds designed by Churchill himself.

 Mr. Palmer told Kent News:

I have seen the swans on their island once or twice. I am con­fi­dent they will be there as soon as the foliage grows up. For now, I’m sim­ply thrilled that the swans are set­tling on so well. They’re get­ting so brave now that they ven­ture all the way to the kitchen garden.

The float­ing island has allowed Palmer to remove ugly mesh screen­ing set up against preda­tors, return­ing the lakes to their appear­ance in Churchill’s time.

The first black swans

The orig­i­nal black swans were a gift to Churchill from Sir Phillip Sas­soon in 1927. The pop­u­la­tion was fre­quent­ly topped up by the gov­ern­ment of West­ern Aus­tralia, where they are the state sym­bol. C. atra­tus is native also to Tas­ma­nia and has been intro­duced to New Zealand. It is the world’s only black swan, though its flight feath­ers, invis­i­ble at rest, are white.

Talking to the animals

Churchill was devot­ed to his swans and reg­u­lar­ly engaged them in “swan-talk,” in which he claimed pro­fi­cien­cy. But a post­war body­guard, Ronald Gold­ing, told me his skill was not exclu­sive. It was one of WSC’s lit­tle myths. In fact, the swans would cry out to any­one who approached with­in a cer­tain dis­tance. Ron said:

Some time after this dis­cov­ery that I was walk­ing down to the lake with Mr. Churchill. I was a lit­tle in front, and watched care­ful­ly for the crit­i­cal spot. I then called out in “swan-talk” and the birds duti­ful­ly replied to me.

Mr. Churchill stopped dead. I turned round and he looked me full in the eye for a moment or two. Then the faintest sus­pi­cion of a smile appeared and he walked on in silence. No com­ment was ever made that this secret was shared.

Related reading

“‘Dar­ling Mon­ster’: Lady Diana Coop­er and Her Remem­brances of Churchill,” 2022.

“Lady Diana Coop­er on Win­ston and Clemen­tine,” 2018.

“Churchill’s But­ter­flies Con­tin­ue to Flour­ish at Chartwell,” 2019.

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