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
Thirty 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 Review, edited 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!”)
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)