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.)
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.