The Brendon Bestiary: Churchill’s Animal Friends and Analogies

The Brendon Bestiary: Churchill’s Animal Friends and Analogies

Piers Bren­don, Churchill’s Bes­tiary: His Life Through Ani­mals. Lon­don, Michael O’Mara Books, 2018, 320 pages, Ama­zon $18.96. Excerpt­ed from a review for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the full text, click here.

“An enor­mous­ly agree­able side of his char­ac­ter was his atti­tude toward ani­mals,” Sir Antho­ny Mon­tague Browne, his last pri­vate sec­re­tary, said of Win­ston Churchill. “Although a Victorian—and they were not notably aware of ani­mal suffering—he had a sen­si­tiv­i­ty well in advance of his time.” Ever since Sir Antho­ny said that we’ve been wait­ing for a good book on the sub­ject, and his­to­ri­an Piers Bren­don has oblig­ed. His Bes­tiary is well named: an ency­clo­pe­dia on Churchill’s rela­tions with ani­mals, and allu­sions to them in his writ­ings and speeches.

BrendonThe book is in alpha­bet­i­cal order, so you can quick­ly find any mem­bers of the ani­mal world. The anec­dotes are not all about ani­mals Churchill “knew per­son­al­ly” (as he said of a favorite goose). WSC also deployed ani­mal analo­gies, many not­ed here.

For exam­ple, bears and eagles rep­re­sent­ed Rus­sians and Amer­i­cans respec­tive­ly. Com­mu­nists were croc­o­diles. Toads were the 1930s prime min­is­ters Stan­ley Bald­win and Ram­say Mac­Don­ald. “Rat” was applied both as a noun (to rep­re­hen­si­ble peo­ple) and a verb (famous­ly to him­self on chang­ing par­ties: “to rat twice” and to “re-rat”).

The Poodles, Rufus I and II

The Bes­tiary con­tains cap­sule bios of Churchill’s famous poo­dles, Rufus I and II. The first, acquired dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, became a con­stant com­pan­ion. In 1947 Rufus was run over by a car. His replace­ment was Rufus II, a dog of vari­able health and “breath like a flame-throw­er,” but Churchill was no less devoted.

Bren­don tells us that Churchill even made assig­na­tions for his ani­mal friend. In 1955 Rufus II received a pro­pos­al from a poo­dle named Jen­nifer. WSC sent Rufus’ reply: “My dear Jen­nifer, On the 10th of April I shall be going…to Lon­don. I should be very glad to receive you there.” The let­ter was marked, VERY PRIVATE.

Once, watch­ing “Oliv­er Twist,” the movie reached the point where Bill Sykes drowns his bull ter­ri­er to throw the police off his track. Churchill cov­ered Rufus’s eyes with his hand: “Don’t look now, dear. I’ll tell you all about it afterwards.”

Perches and pates

Late in WSC’s life, Field Mar­shal Mont­gomery pre­sent­ed him with a green budgeri­gar (para­keet) named Toby. Quite tame, he was often let loose to fly around. Bren­don describes a ses­sion Toby spent on the bald head of Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer R.A. But­ler. Toby left four­teen tokens of esteem on RAB’s pate. Wip­ing his head with a white silk hand­ker­chief, But­ler sighed: ‘The things I do for England….’”

At meal­time, Toby “strut­ted across the din­ing table, knocked over glass­es, helped him­self to grape­fruit, fought with his reflec­tion in the sil­ver pep­per pot. He even tried whisky, Bren­don writes, and “appar­ent­ly once fell into his master’s brandy glass. This did noth­ing to dimin­ish Churchill’s affection….”

In his role as lit­er­ary aide, Toby lapped ink from Churchill’s pen, “embell­ish­ing his let­ters with blots and scrib­bles…. He nib­bled the edges of book and proof pages—“an indi­ca­tion, in Churchill’s view, that he had read them: ‘Oh! Yes, that’s all right,’ Churchill would say, ‘give him the next chapter.’”

Lord Wardens of the Cinque Mouseholes

Wher­ev­er Churchill lived there was a cat or two. When he moved to Down­ing Street from the Admi­ral­ty in 1940, he brought along Nel­son, a for­mi­da­ble grey tom who served the war effort, he said, “by act­ing as a prime min­is­te­r­i­al hot water bot­tle.” Nel­son soon chased away the pre­vi­ous res­i­dent, a holdover from Cham­ber­lain whom the Churchills had chris­tened “Munich Mouser.” Nel­son was con­grat­u­lat­ed. But the PM was aghast dur­ing an air raid, to find Nel­son hid­ing under a chest of draw­ers: “Come out Nel­son! Shame on you, bear­ing a name such as yours, to skulk there while the ene­my is overhead.”

For Sir Winston’s 88th birth­day in 1962, his pri­vate sec­re­tary Jock Colville pre­sent­ed him with a gin­ger tom which WSC named “Jock.” This faith­ful cat was on his bed at Hyde Park Gate when he died. At his request, Chartwell has kept a gin­ger cat named Jock on the premis­es ever since. Oth­er Chartwell cats were addressed Mis­ter or Miss Cat. Churchill attempt­ed con­ver­sa­tion with them, not always suc­cess­ful­ly. On a cer­tain morn­ing, meet­ing one in the pas­sage, he said, “Good morn­ing, Cat.” The cat deigned not to reply. He slashed at it and it ran away. Remorse­ful, he had a card placed in a win­dow: “Cat: Come home. All is for­giv­en. Win­ston.” Cat did return, and was reward­ed with fresh salmon and cream.

“Tender solicitude”

At Chartwell, Bren­don writes, ani­mals inhab­it­ing the farms and wood­lands were as dear as pets. “One of the heifers has com­mit­ted an indis­cre­tion before she came to us and is about to have a calf,” he wrote his absent wife in 1935. “I pro­pose how­ev­er to treat it as a daughter.”

The Churchills’ friend Lady Diana Coop­er list­ed some of Chartwell’s more or less domes­tic birds: “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 Cana­di­an geese (‘Lord and Lady Beaver­brook’) and some mis­cel­la­neous ducks.

Piers Bren­don sup­plies a long chap­ter on swans, includ­ing the exot­ic black vari­ety from Aus­tralia, which thrived in Chartwell’s ponds. Alas, they were vul­ner­a­ble to the pre­da­tions of foxes—who roamed freely because Churchill could not resist try­ing to befriend them! Sir Win­ston relat­ed to the swans “in a per­son­al and pater­nal­is­tic fashion…[He loved] to give them bread and feel them nib­bling at his fin­gers, to look at them and look after them with ‘ten­der solicitude.’”

“Man’s faithful friend the horse”

Brough Scott’s Churchill at the Gal­lop is the most detailed book on this top­ic, but Piers Bren­don does it jus­tice in two chap­ters, “Hors­es” and “Race­hors­es.” From his train­ing at Sand­hurst to rid­ing with hounds in his sev­en­ties and rac­ing thor­ough­breds into his eight­ies, Churchill loved hors­es. Sta­tioned in India, he main­tained sev­er­al polo ponies, and was in his Fifties when he played his last chuk­ka. His com­pas­sion was dis­played in his efforts to repa­tri­ate Britain’s sur­viv­ing war hors­es at the end of World War I.

Bren­don thor­ough­ly cov­ers his post­war horse rac­ing; Churchill owned fifty thor­ough­breds, includ­ing a dozen brood mares. His most famous and win­ning thor­ough­bred was Colonist II, a French three-year-old he acquired for £1500. “Why don’t you sell your horse?” a Labour oppo­nent shout­ed. WSC replied: “I am doing my best to fight against the prof­it motive.” Asked why he didn’t put Colonist to stud he cracked: “What? And have it said that the Prime Min­is­ter of Great Britain is liv­ing off the immoral earn­ings of a horse?”

A world of animals

Churchill’s first encounter with a giant pan­da was at the Lon­don Zoo. He “gazed long at the ani­mal, lying supine and unaware of the hon­our done to it.” Then he exclaimed: “It has exceed­ed all my expectations…and they were very high!”

Anoth­er zoo favorite was his lion “Rota,” pre­sent­ed by an admir­er in 1943. “I don’t want the lion at the moment either at Down­ing Street or Che­quers owing to the Min­is­te­r­i­al calm which pre­vails there,” Churchill told the Zoo. Lat­er he showed Rota’s pho­to­graph to a diminu­tive sec­re­tary, Patrick Kin­na: “If there are any short­com­ings in your work I shall send you to him,” he winked. “Meat is very short now.”

This is just a rep­re­sen­ta­tive frac­tion of Piers Brendon’s com­pre­hen­sive book. He avoids repeat­ing mate­r­i­al in sev­er­al pre­vi­ous accounts, and goes much deep­er into the sub­ject. Most of the anec­dotes have not appeared pre­vi­ous­ly and are thus quite valu­able. Any­one inter­est­ed in the per­son­al side of the great man owes it to them­selves to buy a copy.

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