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.”