Churchill’s Butterflies

Churchill’s Butterflies

Chartwell gard­ner Stephen Humphrey took charge of the but­ter­flies. (BBC)

David Rid­dle, a Nation­al Trust vol­un­teer at Chartwell, offers the obscure his­to­ry of the “But­ter­fly House” Churchill estab­lished to prop­a­gate but­ter­flies on the grounds of his home:


The But­ter­fly House was first used as a game larder between 1869-1889 by the Colquhoun fam­i­ly, who owned the Chartwell Estate between 1830 and 1921. In 1924, Churchill and Philip Tilden, his archi­tect, con­vert­ed the larder to a sum­mer house by remov­ing the east wall. In 1946 it was con­vert­ed again, this time to a But­ter­fly House. Churchill used it for rais­ing cater­pil­lars, chrysalis­es, etc. He received advice from but­ter­flies expert L. Hugh New­man who owned a but­ter­fly “farm” in near­by Sid­cup. Lady Churchill plant­ed bud­dleia, laven­der and oth­er nec­tar-rich flow­ers in order to encour­age the but­ter­flies. Sir Win­ston changed the walk from grav­el to turf and step­ping stones in 1950.

Butterflies: A Lifetime Interest

Euro­pean Swal­low­tail, a Churchill favorite.

Churchill became fas­ci­nat­ed with but­ter­flies as a young offi­cer sta­tioned in India, where they were col­or­ful and pro­lif­ic. Years lat­er, in 1939, and again after the war, he deter­mined to prop­a­gate them at Chartwell. L. Hugh New­man, who sup­plied but­ter­flies and chrysalis­es, the events in Finest Hour 89, Win­ter 1995-96, start­ing at page 34; a .pdf can be down­loaded by click­ing here:

An amus­ing episode involv­ing Hugh New­man and the estab­lish­ment of but­ter­flies at Chartwell was record­ed Ronald Gold­ing, Churchill’s Scot­land Yard detec­tive dur­ing 1946-47:

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.”

Mr. New­man became just the slight­est bit patron­iz­ing and boomf! 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 Mr. Churchill 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 Durance Vile”

Churchill’s daugh­ter Lady Soames was not sure when he stopped rais­ing but­ter­flies, but it might have been after an event described by long­time Chartwell sec­re­tary and admin­is­tra­tor Grace Ham­blin, at the 1987 Inter­na­tion­al Churchill Con­fer­ence in Dal­las.

…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.”

This charm­ing sto­ry reminds us of Churchill’s hatred of impris­on­ment. In his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, he writes of being jailed by the Boers in the Anglo-Boer War, in a chap­ter enti­tled, “In Durance Vile.” Ten years lat­er as Home Sec­re­tary, he strove to avoid impris­on­ing peo­ple for triv­ial offens­es and was ahead of his time in his ideas about reha­bil­i­tat­ing pris­on­ers.

But­ter­flies are back in force at Chartwell. In 2009, the Nation­al Trust rebuilt the but­ter­fly hut and Stephen Humphrey, a gar­den­er, took charge of rais­ing but­ter­flies. Nigel Guest, a Chartwell vol­un­teer, report­ed “a ter­rif­ic year for but­ter­flies.” For this report and col­or pho­tos of Churchill’s favorite species BBC Radio Kent, “Churchill’s But­ter­fly House at Chartwell.”

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