Churchill and Butterflies

Churchill and Butterflies

Small tor­toise­shell, one of Churchill’s favorites, has declined at Chartwell in recent years, but can still be found there.

Churchill was fas­ci­nat­ed by but­ter­flies since boy­hood and col­lect­ed many col­or­ful local vari­eties while sta­tioned in India in 1896-97. At Chartwell, he began rais­ing but­ter­flies  in 1939 and con­tin­ued after Chartwell was reopened after the war. The but­ter­fly “farm” was set up with the help of Hugh New­man, who described the events in Finest Hour 89, Win­ter 1995-96, start­ing at page 34; a .pdf is ava­iable: click here. 

Sir Winston’s daugh­ter Lady Soames was not sure when exact­ly this hob­by end­ed, but it might have been after an event described by long­time Chartwell sec­re­tary and Chartwell admin­is­tra­tor the late Grace Ham­blin, at the 1987 Dal­las Churchill Con­fer­ence, reprint­ed in Finest Hour 117:

 …he had a lit­tle hut in the gar­den, which is still there. In those days he had the front cov­ered with gauze, with a gauze door open­ing into it. A near­by but­ter­fly farm sent him chrysalis­es which he liked to see devel­op. One morn­ing, I was with him spread­ing out the chrysalis­es, and when he left the lit­tle hut he left the door open. I said, “Did you want to leave the door open, or should I close it?” He said, “I can’t bear this cap­tiv­i­ty any longer!” Thus we no longer kept but­ter­flies, but they are sup­posed to remain in the gar­den once you start. It’s a love­ly occu­pa­tion. When he knew that Chartwell would even­tu­al­ly go to the Nation­al Trust and be open to the pub­lic he said, “I hope the Na­tional Trust will grow plen­ty of bud­dleia for my but­ter­flies.”

Grace Hamblin’s “Chartwell Mem­o­ries,” one of the finest pieces on the sub­ject, appeared in the 1987 Churchill Pro­ceed­ings and Finest Hour 117. These are not online but I can pro­vide the text by email. Con­tact me offline.

A 1946 but­ter­fly episode was record­ed by for­mer body­guard the late Ronald Gold­ing:

 …he sent for an expert, who bred very beau­ti­ful specimens….He took the breed­er for a walk round the grounds and gave a gen­er­al idea of his plans; the expert then gave advice and went into tech­ni­cal details. Mr. Churchill said very lit­tle. Rather like a pen­ny drop­ping in the but­ter­fly man’s mind, you could almost hear him think­ing: ‘Ah, I’ve got the old boy. He’s not near­ly as clever as I thought. This is one sphere in which I know a lot more than he does.’

The but­ter­fly man became just the slight­est bit patron­iz­ing and boom! Mr. Churchill came back at him with very lucid com­ments show­ing that he was ful­ly acquaint­ed with every­thing being said. Vis­i­bly shak­en, the expert nev­er tried to ‘talk down’ again. It was a pat­tern of con­ver­sa­tion I’d noticed with oth­er experts. I can’t help feel­ing that WSC pre­tend­ed igno­rance to a cer­tain extent, then came down like a ton of bricks if there was any attempt to patron­ize him.

A very suc­cess­ful scheme was put in hand and some of the rarest but­ter­flies and moths of the great­est beau­ty were hatched out. By care­ful pro­vi­sion of the right flow­ers and bush­es, the but­ter­flies were kept well fed.

In 2009, Chartwell rebuilt the but­ter­fly hut and Nigel Guest, a Chartwell vol­un­teer, report­ed “a ter­rif­ic year for but­ter­flies.”


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