What Happened to the Library at Chartwell?

What Happened to the Library at Chartwell?

Excerpt­ed from an arti­cle for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the unabridged text please click here. To sub­scribe to posts from the Churchill Project, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is nev­er giv­en out and will remain a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Q: Where did it go?

“A kind­ly guide at Chartwell informed me that Sir Winston’s library was dis­persed and what is there (or most of it) is not his own col­lec­tion. Churchill read wide­ly and col­lect­ed thou­sands of books. He also col­lect­ed books need­ed for his writ­ing projects. He had planned to write a biog­ra­phy of Napoleon, and amassed a vast library on Napoleon. What hap­pened to these books?” 

A: Much survives

The Chartwell guide was right that the books on dis­play now do not com­prise the bulk of Sir Winston’s orig­i­nal library. The good news is that a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of Churchill’s library has sur­vived in fam­i­ly pos­ses­sion and plans to make it avail­able are in hand.

We referred your Napoleon ques­tion to Allen Pack­wood, Direc­tor of the Churchill Archives at Cam­bridge, who writes:

His spe­cial­ly bound Napoleon col­lec­tion of some 173 books was passed to Churchill Col­lege by Clemen­tine Churchill after his death. It is view­able by appoint­ment with the Churchill Archives Cen­tre. Inter­est­ed par­ties can access the list here. Some of the most impor­tant inscribed books passed to the fam­i­ly by descent and are deposit­ed at the Churchill Archives. A list is not yet avail­able. A core of the library of Lord Ran­dolph Churchill, Sir Win­ston and his son Ran­dolph, passed to the late Mr. Win­ston Churchill. 

The back story: 1966

In 2005 I pub­lished a piece on the library by a jour­nal­ist who, as a neigh­bor­hood lad of 17, helped inven­to­ry Chartwell for the Nation­al Trust. He was mak­ing good progress orga­niz­ing the library until the arrival of Churchill’s son Ran­dolph. “He ran­sacked my neat piles of books, comb­ing through the vol­umes for those signed or anno­tat­ed by his father.” These were boxed and removed, the writer recalled, “with inde­cent haste.”

Wish­ing to be accu­rate, I asked the late Lady Soames to vet this arti­cle and cor­rect or com­ment accord­ing to her own mem­o­ries. Of this account she wrote: “Under the terms of Churchill’s will, Ran­dolph had every right to the books he removed. Many still reside as trea­sured heir­looms with the fam­i­ly or at Churchill Col­lege, Cambridge.”

Surveying the library: 1992

libraryThir­ty years ago, the bib­lio­phile-col­lec­tor Michael Wybrow and I made a day-long vis­it to the Chartwell library. We were then book­sellers, and had encoun­tered copies of books Ran­dolph Churchill had removed. They usu­al­ly bore his book­plate from Stour, his home in Suf­folk. Invari­ably they also con­tained a small oval label read­ing: “From the Library of Sir Win­ston Churchill.” We were anx­ious to know their ori­gins, and how they fit­ted into the orig­i­nal scheme of things at Chartwell’s library.

Secu­ri­ty was less of a con­cern then, and the admin­is­tra­tor, Jeane Broome, kind­ly let us exam­ine books close­ly. We were able to sur­vey all the shelves and even to open (very care­ful­ly!) the odd vol­ume. Since the col­lec­tion was not the orig­i­nal, we did not attempt an inven­to­ry. The shelves were tight­ly packed with spares and odd copies, and some were dupli­cates. For exam­ple, there were mul­ti­ple copies of the Anglo-Sax­on Reviewedit­ed by Lady Ran­dolph Churchill. Among Churchill’s pub­lished books, an extra­or­di­nary num­ber were for­eign trans­la­tions. (I remem­ber my first encounter with the Turk­ish edi­tion of The Sec­ond World War. It was lim­it­ed to three vol­umes because, as Churchill’s agent Emery Reves remem­bered, “the Turks stopped pay­ing royalties!”)

Further reading

Christo­pher C. Har­mon, “The Books That Churchill Read” (Amer­i­can Spec­ta­tor, May 2022)

A.L. Rowse, ‘There was Once a Man’: A Vis­it to Chartwell, 1955 (2016) 

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