A Love of the Hot-Water Bottle: Wartime Anecdotes

A Love of the Hot-Water Bottle: Wartime Anecdotes

Living Hot-Water Bottle

Q. “Rab” But­ler, Churchill’s Min­is­ter of Edu­ca­tion (1941-45) and Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer (1951-55), recalled that Churchill once told him he was doing less for the war effort than Churchill’s grey cat Nel­son, who saved fuel and pow­er by act­ing as a Prime Min­is­te­r­i­al hot-water bot­tle. True?

A. Yes. But­ler said this in a speech to the Rt. Hon. Sir Win­ston Spencer Churchill Soci­ety of Edmon­ton, Alber­ta. (This was the orig­i­nal Churchill Soci­ety, the only one sanc­tioned by Churchill per­son­al­ly). But­ler spoke at their annu­al din­ner on 6 May 1968. His speech is reprint­ed in The Hero­ic Mem­o­ry, vol. 1, speech­es from 1965 to 1989. But­ler recalled that had draft­ed a paper for Churchill to sign, which the PM found unsatisfactory:

I saw him at an ear­ly hour of the morn­ing hav­ing had very lit­tle sleep, but he dis­missed my efforts imme­di­ate­ly, say­ing that his cat could do more for the war effort than your hum­ble ser­vant. I asked him why, and he said, “At any rate, my cat is at least a hot water bot­tle to me, and you do damn lit­tle for the war effort.” But in the end, when he draft­ed the para­graphs they were far supe­ri­or to mine.
Churchill was fond of cats, though in their nature, they didn’t always return his affec­tions. Nel­son was a for­mi­da­ble grey tom which Churchill brought from the Admi­ral­ty when he moved to Down­ing Street in 1940. The aggres­sive Nel­son soon chased away the pre­vi­ous res­i­dent, a holdover from Cham­ber­lain, which the Churchill fam­i­ly had chris­tened “Munich Mouser.” Nel­son was congratulated.

Not an idea but a coincidence

Churchill liked the old-fash­ioned hot-water bot­tle, as his staff well knew. In dig­ging for this sto­ry I found two oth­er amus­ing anecdotes.
Here’s an inter­change with Sawyers, the boss’s long-suf­fer­ing and infi­nite­ly patient but­ler, in Win­ston S. Churchill, vol. 7 (Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2013) 332:
WSC: “Sawyers, where is my hot-water bottle?”
Sawyers: “You are sit­ting on it, sir. Not a very good idea.”
WSC: “It’s not an idea, it’s a coincidence.”

Rolled up like a hedgehog

Arthur Bryant pro­vides anoth­er sto­ry in Tri­umph in the West , the sec­ond vol­ume of mem­oirs by Field Mar­shal Alan­brooke (New York: Dou­ble­day, 1959), 262.  Alan­brooke was often exco­ri­at­ing in his diary notes, but here he suc­cumbs to a bit of fun. The diary is from 13 Novem­ber 1944, when Brooke, fol­lowed by Churchill, arrived at Besançon, east­ern France. Churchill was pay­ing his first vis­it to lib­er­at­ed France:
We arrived well up to sched­ule by 10 a.m. There we were met by Gen­er­al de Lat­tre, the Préfet, the May­or and a mass of oth­er offi­cials. Out­side the sta­tion a band, a guard of hon­our and a large crowd. We solemn­ly stood in the snow whilst most of “God Save the King,” the “Stars and Stripes” and “La Mar­seil­laise” were played through.
Win­ston at lunch. He arrived com­plete­ly frozen and almost rolled up on him­self like a hedge­hog. He was placed in a chair with a hot-water-bot­tle at his feet and one in the back of his chair; at the same time good brandy was poured down his throat to warm him inter­nal­ly. The results were won­der­ful, he thawed out rapid­ly and when the time came pro­duced one of those inde­scrib­ably fun­ny French speech­es which brought the house down.
This speech unfor­tu­nate­ly is not in the Com­plete Speech­es. No doubt his frac­tured French was pre­ced­ed by an announce­ment like he’d used the day before in Paris: “I am going to give you a warn­ing: be on your guard, because I am going to speak, or try to speak, in French, a for­mi­da­ble under­tak­ing and one which will put great demands on your friend­ship for Great Britain.”

2 thoughts on “A Love of the Hot-Water Bottle: Wartime Anecdotes

  1. Ref­er­ence is to Fred Glueck­stein, “Cats Look Down on You: Churchill’s Feline Menagerie,” Finest Hour 139, Sum­mer 2008, start­ing at page 50:

    When the pho­to­graph of WSC pat­ting Black­ie was pub­lished, cat fanciers were affront­ed. Cat, the month­ly pub­li­ca­tion of the Cats Pro­tec­tive League, scold­ed that cats abhor head-pat­ting and added: “He should have con­formed to the eti­quette demand­ed by the occa­sion, offer­ing his hand and then await­ing a sign of approval before tak­ing lib­er­ties.” No one ever said being Prime Min­is­ter was easy.

    After the New­found­land encounter, Black­ie was renamed “Churchill” by the crew and became a beloved mas­cot of the offi­cers and men. Lat­er that year, Prince of Wales was sunk by Japan­ese air­craft off Malaya. Despite vast loss of life, Churchill made it with some of the crew to Sin­ga­pore, where he encamped with the sur­vivors. In Feb­ru­ary 1942, when orders came to evac­u­ate Sin­ga­pore, Churchill, who was believed off for­ag­ing for food, could not be found and was sad­ly left behind.

    I asked Fred for his source. He names Angus Kon­stam in a chap­ter on Ships’ Mas­cots, Naval Mis­cel­lany, page204: “Blackie/Churchill: The ship’s mas­cot of HMS Prince of Wales, a large cat called Black­ie, was pho­tographed being stroked by Churchill when Britain’s wartime prime min­is­ter met Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt in New­found­land in August 1941. Black­ie was duly renamed ‘Churchill.’ The Prince of Wales was sunk off Malaya in Decem­ber 1941, but ‘Churchill’ man­aged to swim ashore, where he was found by British ser­vice­men. He was left on Malaya when Sin­ga­pore fell in Feb­ru­ary 1942.”

  2. The cap­tion for the pho­to says that Black­ie, ship’s cat on the HMS Prince of Wales sur­vived the sink­ing. Do you have any sources for that infor­ma­tion? Aside from this site, I can find no oth­er men­tion of a cat sur­viv­ing the sink­ing of Prince of Wales in the south Chi­na Sea.

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