On Time: Winston Churchill’s Pocket Watch and Wristwatch

On Time: Winston Churchill’s Pocket Watch and Wristwatch

A wrist­watch that the Com­mune de Vaud gave ​Churchill on ​11 Sep­tem­ber 1946 was sold recent­ly by Sotheby’s. Did he wear wrist­watch­es? One almost always sees him with a pock­et watch. —S.R., New Hamp­shire

​From the 1890s until the end of his life Churchill car­ried his father’s pock­et watch, nick­named “The ​Turnip.” He did how­ev­er some­times wear a wrist­watch, as the above pho­to shows. N.B.: This is a revised, extend­ed ver­sion of a 2009 post, which I have left up for the com­ments by read­ers: click here.

Wristwatches

William Man­ches­ter wrote that the wrist­watch was a ​”​prod­uct of trench war​fare.​”​ Evi­dent­ly Churchill thought so. Vio­let Asquith wrote him on 16 Novem­ber 1915, as he was about to ​leave for the front​ after mak­ing his depar­ture speech in the Commons​:

Dear­est Win­ston: One line to say I thought your speech quite flaw­less – I have sel­dom been more moved – It was a fine and gen­er­ous speech – How thank­ful I am you said what you did about that wicked old lunatic. Is there any­thing you haven’t got for the Front? Com­pass, lumi­nous wrist­watch? Muf­fler and tin­derlighter? If there is any lacu­na in your equip­ment let me fill it. Good­bye and good luck—God bless you—Yours, Vio­let.  [The “wicked old lunatic” was Admi­ral Fish­er.]

He con­tin­ued to make use of wrist­watch­es at least through World War II.

watch
“The Turnip.” (Pho­to cour­tesy Win­ston S. Churchill)

Pocket Watch

Churchill pre­ferred radio to tele­vi­sion and pock­et watch­es to wrist­watch­es. He called his gold Breguet pock­et watch “The Turnip.” There are sev­er­al amus­ing ref­er­ences to it:

Sarah Churchill, A Thread in the Tapes­try, 38:

One day at lunch when cof­fee and brandy were being served my father decid­ed to have a slight “go” at Pro­fes­sor Lin­de­mann, his sci­en­tif­ic advis­er] who had just com­plet­ed a trea­tise on the quan­tum the­o­ry. “Prof,” he said, “tell us in words of one syl­la­ble and in no longer than five min­utes what is the quan­tum the­o­ry.” My father then placed his large gold watch, known as “The Turnip,” on the table. When you con­sid­er that Prof must have spent many years work­ing on this sub­ject, it was quite a tall order. How­ev­er with­out any hes­i­ta­tion, like quick­sil­ver, he explained the prin­ci­ple and held us all spell-bound. When he had fin­ished we all spon­ta­neous­ly burst into applause.

William Man­ches­ter, The Last Lion II, 12:

Even at Chartwell his dila­tori­ness is a source of dis­tress for both his fam­i­ly and the manor’s staff. Once a manser­vant con­spired against him by set­ting his bed­room clock ahead. It worked for a while, because he scorned that off­spring of trench war­fare the wrist­watch, remain­ing loy­al to his large gold pock­et watch, known to the fam­i­ly as “The Turnip,” which lay beyond his grasp. After his sus­pi­cions had been aroused, how­ev­er, the game was up; he exposed it by sim­ply ask­ing morn­ing vis­i­tors the time of day.

On Time

Roy How­ells (WSC’s male nurse), Churchill’s Last Years, 20-21:

We tried all kinds of rus­es to get him out of bed in time and one of them was putting for­ward every clock in his bed­room. We tried this too often how­ev­er and even­tu­al­ly he became wise to it. I spot­ted him one day check­ing the bed­room clocks against his pock­et-watch. In an attempt to beat this manoeu­vre I coun­tered by putting his pock­et-watch on ten min­utes when he was not look­ing. Still he was sus­pi­cious. He used to win in the end by ask­ing some­one enter­ing the room, no mat­ter how many clocks he had around him, “Uh-huh, what time is it?” The per­son nat­u­ral­ly told the truth and we were back where we start­ed.

Edmund Mur­ray, Churchill’s Body­guard, 85:

The morn­ing passed in much the same way as the pre­vi­ous after­noon. As one o’clock approached I looked at my watch. “It’s one o’clock, sir,” I said, “time for lunch.” With great delib­er­a­tion he pulled out his pock­et watch and con­sult­ed it. “No,” he said at last. “It’s only five to one. Why do you wish to rob me of five min­utes of my life?” “Sor­ry sir. My watch must be fast … but lunch is at one.”

watch
Sir Winston’s watch chain. (Pho­to cour­tesy Win­ston S. Churchill)

* * *

“The Turnip,” Sir Winston’s Breguet, is still in per­fect work­ing order. It is in the pos­ses­sion of his great-grand­son Ran­dolph, whose late father described it.

It is attached to a heavy gold waist­coat-chain which, at the end has a small round gold case for hold­ing gold Sov­er­eigns, a V for Vic­to­ry emblem (sim­i­lar, we believe, to one WSC gave the mem­bers of his Wartime Cab­i­net in 1945), a sil­ver head of Napoleon (of whom he was a great admir­er), a keep­sake medal­lion of the (West­min­ster) Abbey Divi­sion by-elec­tion of 1924 (which WSC lost by just forty-three votes), a gar­net-stone set in a gold heart (the gift of his wife Clemen­tine on their wed­ding day in Sep­tem­ber 1908) and anoth­er gold­en heart, which Clemen­tine gave Win­ston on his 90th Birth­day, after fifty-six years of mar­riage and less than eight weeks before his death.

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