Winston Churchill and Polo, Part 2, by Barbara Langworth

Winston Churchill and Polo, Part 2, by Barbara Langworth

“Win­ston Churchill and Polo” was first pub­lished in 1991. It is now updat­ed and amend­ed, thanks to the rich store of mate­r­i­al avail­able in The Churchill Doc­u­ments pub­lished by Hills­dale Col­lege Press. This arti­cle is abridged with­out foot­notes from the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the com­plete text and foot­notes, click here.

============== Con­tin­ued from Part 1…

Part 2: Dislocations

On 18 Decem­ber 1898 Win­ston Churchill wrote to his friend Aylmer Hal­dane. “I am leav­ing the army in April. I have come back mere­ly for the Polo Tour­na­ments.”  He told his moth­er he would stay at Gov­ern­ment House. He was “play­ing polo quite well now. Nev­er again shall I be able to do so. Every­thing will have to go to the war chest.”

For­tune inter­fered: “Every­thing smiled until last night—when I fell down­stairs and sprained both my ankle and dis­lo­cat­ed my right shoul­der,” he wrote his broth­er Jack in February.

In his auto­bi­og­ra­phy three decades lat­er, Churchill wrote that he first dis­lo­cat­ed his shoul­der on arriv­ing in India in 1896. At the Bom­bay quay­side he had grabbed an iron hand-hold ring when the boat fell with a sud­den surge and he wrenched his shoul­der. There­after, he wrote, he had to play polo with his arm strapped to his side.

* * *

His let­ters at the time make no men­tion of this inci­dent. It was his habit to men­tion injuries—an injured knee in Decem­ber 1896, for exam­ple. In the first ver­sion of this arti­cle (1991), I sug­gest­ed that Churchill’s first dis­lo­ca­tion like­ly occurred after falling at Gov­ern­ment House in 1898, rather than the much more roman­tic quay­side episode in 1896. Upon reflec­tion and expert advice, I believe Churchill’s ver­sion is cor­rect. After describ­ing the Bom­bay acci­dent he writes: “Since then, at irreg­u­lar inter­vals my shoul­der has dis­lo­cat­ed on the most unex­pect­ed pre­texts; sleep­ing with my arm under the pil­low, tak­ing a book from the library shelves, slip­ping on a stair­case, swim­ming, etc.” (Empha­sis mine.) This makes it clear that Bom­bay was the ini­tial inci­dent, although his stair­case fall two years lat­er cer­tain­ly aggra­vat­ed his condition.

Even with his arm immo­bi­lized, Churchill man­aged to play well. His team beat the 5th Dra­goon Guards 16-2, and the 9th Lancers 2-1, in the first round on 23 Feb­ru­ary. “Few of that mer­ry throng were des­tined to see old age,” Churchill rumi­nat­ed sad­ly. “Our own team was nev­er to play again. A year lat­er Albert Savory was killed in the Trans­vaal, Barnes was griev­ous­ly wound­ed in Natal, and I became a seden­tary politi­cian increas­ing­ly crip­pled by my wretched shoulder.”

Playing on

Play­ing at Roe­hamp­ton, 12 March 1921. His right arm is strapped in to pre­vent it “going out,” as if often did after a dis­lo­ca­tion when land­ing in India in 1896. (Hel­mut Gernsheim)

Despite his depar­ture from the home of polo, Churchill con­tin­ued to play. An appoint­ment book for 1901, his first year in Par­lia­ment, showed ten dates in May and June. List­ed for Sat­ur­day July 6th was “House of Com­mons ver­sus Guards.” The games on Mon­day-Wednes­day August 5th-7th were marked “Wind­sor.” 

In 1902 Churchill wrote a long let­ter to Sec­re­tary of State for War St. John Bro­drick. He argued against a pro­posed pro­hi­bi­tion of inter-reg­i­men­tal polo tour­na­ments. He attrib­uted the increas­ing cost of ponies to the Eng­lish gentry’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the game. Polo, he wrote, con­tributed to build­ing a soldier’s char­ac­ter and skill. Two years lat­er (after oppos­ing Bro­drick over the latter’s army esti­mates), Churchill left the Tories for the Lib­er­al Par­ty. As a con­se­quence, he felt oblig­ed to alter his club mem­ber­ship. It is often said that Churchill was unaware of the polit­i­cal ani­mus he engen­dered. But in May 1905 he remarked to Lib­er­al MP Alexan­der Mur­ray (lat­er Baron Mur­ray of Elibank):

I fool­ish­ly allowed myself to be pro­posed for Hurling­ham as a polo play­ing mem­ber; & was of course at once black-balled. This is almost with­out prece­dent in the his­to­ry of the Club—as polo play­ers are always wel­comed. I do not think you and your Lib­er­al friends real­ize the intense polit­i­cal bit­ter­ness which is felt against me on the oth­er side.

Polo in later life

Push­ing fifty, polo was still very much Churchill’s sport. In the sum­mer of 1921, for exam­ple, he and his wife were look­ing for a fam­i­ly sum­mer cot­tage. Clemen­tine rent­ed one of the hous­es at Rug­by School, near Ash­by St Ledger. “The plan was that Win­ston would stay with them all,” her biog­ra­ph­er wrote, “and be divert­ed by polo with his Guest cousins.” This the same year Clemen­tine cau­tioned Win­ston against spec­u­lat­ing in stocks…. “Pol­i­tics are absolute­ly engross­ing to you…and now you have paint­ing for leisure and polo for excite­ment and danger.”

At Chartwell, which he bought in 1922, Churchill would some­times embark on a well-meant but briefly kept econ­o­my pro­grams. In 1926 he sug­gest­ed that Chartwell be rent­ed and that all livestock—except the two polo ponies—be sold. The ponies were still sacred! Many pho­tographs exist of the mature Churchill at play, always with his right arm strapped to his side. A group pic­ture tak­en on 18 June 1925 shows WSC with fel­low play­ers Capt. G.R.G. Shaw, Cap­tain Euan Wal­lace and Cap­tain the Hon. Fred­die Guest, after Churchill’s Com­mons team defeat­ed the House of Lords. Win­ston and Clemen­tine are seen at Hurling­ham the same year, to watch the British Army play polo against an Amer­i­can team.

Last chukka

Winston’s last game had the longest ges­ta­tion of all. Plans for it began in the autumn of 1926, when Admi­ral Sir Roger Keyes invit­ed Churchill, who was tak­ing a hol­i­day cruise in the Mediter­ranean, to inspect the fleet. They were old friends, hav­ing met dur­ing polo around 1904, accord­ing to Keyes’s biog­ra­ph­er. In those days young Keyes and his friends “would dri­ve down to Wem­b­ley and play polo on hired ponies from 8 to 9 am. Often, before they fin­ished, a par­ty of young Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment would arrive to play from 9 to 10 am. It was at Wem­b­ley that [Keyes] first made the acquain­tance of Win­ston Churchill.”

Respond­ing to Keyes’s invi­ta­tion, Churchill replied on 15 November:

As to Polo, of course I should love to have a game. It is awful­ly kind of you to offer to mount me. It would have to be a mild one as I have not played all this sea­son. How­ev­er I will arrange to have a gal­lop or two before­hand so as to ‘cal­i­brate’ my tai­lor mus­cles [sar­to­rius]. Any­how I will bring a cou­ple of sticks and do my best. If I expire on the ground it will at any rate be a wor­thy end!

Tak­en at a gal­lop, he must have rea­soned, and would lat­er write in My Ear­ly Life, it would be a very good death to die.

* * *

The enthu­si­as­tic Sir Roger replied imme­di­ate­ly. “Don’t both­er to bring polo sticks—you will find all kinds and lengths here. What is your Hurling­ham hand­i­cap? We’ll get up a four chuck­er [sic] match for one day after you’ve had a bit of prac­tice. I expect 4 would be about enough if you haven’t been playing—also where do you like playing?”

On 24 Decem­ber 1926 Churchill wrote Keyes in Mal­ta. “I shall be with you in plen­ty of time to play on Sat­ur­day after­noon [8 Jan­u­ary]. I do not think one day’s prac­tice would do me much good; in fact it would only make one stiff. I hope to do a lit­tle hack­ing in the next few days, if the snow which now over­lays us should permit.”

Evi­dent­ly, Churchill man­aged his final game with­out mishap. From Admi­ral­ty House, Mal­ta, 10 Jan­u­ary 1927 he wrote Clemen­tine: “I got through the polo with­out shame or dis­tinc­tion & enjoyed it so much.”

At age 52, that was the last record­ed occa­sion when Win­ston Churchill played polo.

Author’s note

Bar­bara F. Lang­worth is a New Hamp­shire pub­lish­er and edi­tor. “Churchill and Polo” was first pub­lished in 1991. This updat­ed, amend­ed ver­sion is pub­lished by kind per­mis­sion of the author in response to read­er requests for more infor­ma­tion on Churchill’s favorite team sport. The arti­cle inci­den­tal­ly demon­strates the rich store of mate­r­i­al avail­able in The Churchill Doc­u­ments, pub­lished by Hills­dale Col­lege Press.


Bar­bara Lang­worth is a bac­te­ri­ol­o­gist, edi­tor and pub­lish­er in New Hamp­shire. Mul­ti-tal­ent­ed, she runs everything.

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