Did Churchill Conduct Business in Bed? (Or: “Toby’s Roost”)

Did Churchill Conduct Business in Bed? (Or: “Toby’s Roost”)

“Busi­ness in Bed” is excerpt­ed from the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal text includ­ing end­notes, please click here. Sub­scrip­tions to this site are free. You will receive reg­u­lar notices of new posts as pub­lished. Just fill out SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW (at right). Your email address will remain a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Q: Did Churchill conduct business in bed?

“I am a crim­i­nol­o­gist cur­rent­ly research­ing my next book and I need to know some­thing about Churchill brief­ing col­leagues from his bed. Is this true?  Did Churchill work from his bed? I rather get the impres­sion that he did, but why was this not seen as odd behav­iour, the bed­room being pri­vate?” —D.W., Eng­land

A: True if odd

Churchill occa­sion­al­ly received vis­i­tors in bed, more at Down­ing Street than at Chartwell, where he had bet­ter con­trol of vis­i­tor tim­ing. The fol­low­ing is from Long Sun­set: Mem­oirs of Win­ston Churchill’s Last Pri­vate Sec­re­tary, by Antho­ny Mon­tague Browne (1995), 114. “Toby” is described below.

Dur­ing the morn­ing, Min­is­ters (or those he knew well enough) were received at his bed. R.A. But­ler (“Rab”), the Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer, had a large bald head that Toby* found par­tic­u­lar­ly attrac­tive as a perch, with inevitable avian con­se­quences. But­ler mopped his head with a spot­less silk hand­ker­chief and sighed patient­ly: “The things I do for England.”

Min­is­ters who sought to call on WSC were not always wel­come, par­tic­u­lar­ly if he was work­ing on a speech. On these he lav­ished more con­cen­tra­tion and more anx­i­ety than any oth­er busi­ness. On my way up to WSC’s bed­room on one such morn­ing, I was inter­cept­ed by But­ler and Antho­ny Eden, the For­eign Sec­re­tary, who had just come in unex­pect­ed­ly. “We must speak to Win­ston urgent­ly,” said Eden….

They stopped out­side the open bed­room door while I went in. “The For­eign Sec­re­tary and the Chan­cel­lor are here and say they must see you urgent­ly,” I announced por­ten­tous­ly. WSC looked up irri­ta­bly: “Tell them to go and bug­ger them­selves,” he ordered and returned to his speech notes.

I retreat­ed, pon­der­ing on a suit­able para­phrase. (“The Prime Min­is­ter hopes that you will for­give him for the moment as he has reached a cru­cial point in his speech,” per­haps.) A shout fol­lowed me from the bed: “There is no need for them to car­ry out that instruc­tion lit­er­al­ly!” From the faces in the cor­ri­dor it was all too clear that they had heard both messages.”

*Toby: Sir Winston’s airborne assistant

Toby was a budgeri­gar (para­keet) pre­sent­ed to WSC in 1954 by Dido Cairns, sis­ter of Christo­pher Soames, his par­lia­men­tary pri­vate sec­re­tary. See The Churchill Doc­u­ments, vol. 23, Nev­er Flinch, Nev­er Weary, Novem­ber 1951- Feb­ru­ary 1965 (Hills­dale Col­lege Press 2019).

Toby quick­ly insin­u­at­ed him­self into Churchill’s affec­tions and trav­eled every­where with him. He learned to drink, and WSC once had to fish him out of a brandy glass. He perched on vis­i­tors’ heads, leav­ing tokens of esteem—“hoping to be remem­bered,” accord­ing to Churchill.

The bird often nib­bled at books and man­u­scripts, Piers Bren­don wrote, “thus indi­cat­ing, in his master’s view, that he had read them. A sec­re­tary showed Churchill a set of nib­bled page proofs: ‘Oh! Yes, that’s all right,” said WSC—”give him the next chapter.’”

In 1960, to Churchill’s great dis­tress, Toby flew out of a Monte Car­lo hotel win­dow. An urgent search failed to recov­er him. A replace­ment could not match Toby’s per­son­al­i­ty. (See Churchill’s Bes­tiary, 54.)

Further reading

For more on Win­ston Churchill’s dai­ly rou­tine and ani­mal companions:

Cole Feix, “Churchill’s Char­ac­ter: A Rigid Dai­ly Sched­ule,” 2019.

Richard M. Lang­worth, “Churchill’s Dai­ly Rou­tine (Or: ‘You Can’t Get Good Help Any­more’),” 2020.

Review: “The Bren­don Bes­tiary: Churchill’s Ani­mals as Friends and Analo­gies,” 2019.

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