Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born in November 1874. He was born at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. This is the only non-royal and non-episcopal palace in the British Isles. It is the seat of the Duke of Marlborough. Winston was the grandson of the Duke of Marlborough. Winston’s father was Lord Randolph Churchill. Lord Randolph was a younger son of the duke so was not in line to inherit the dukedom. Winston’s mother was Jenny Jerome who was American.
In August 1873 Miss Jerome had come from New York to England to find a husband. Her father was a highly successful banker. The family had money but they feared not class. Jenny Jerome was 18 and she went to Cowes Week. This was a yachting even on the Isle of Wight. It was very fashionable at the time. That was because international travel was much slower before the plane was invented. Jenny met Lord Randolph who was a few years older than her. Within weeks of a whirlwind romance they wed.
Winston was born early. He was always below average height. He also suffered from a shoulder that often became dislocated. This might have been due to his premature birth.
A few years later Winston was followed by a brother named Jack. The two were not close.
The Spencer-Churchill family had been prominent in politics since the 17th century. They originated in a Oxfordshire village named Churchill from which they took their name. They moved to Wiltshire in the Middle Ages. There they became gentry. Sir John Churchill fought for the king in the English Civil War. Sir John became a close advisor to Charles II. His sister became the mistress of James II who was the brother of Charles II.
As a toddler Winston moved to Dublin. His father was Under Secretary for Ireland. His grandfather was the Viceroy of Ireland. Winston dwelt in the Under Secretary’s Lodge. He was fond of a kindly civil servant Thomas H Burke. After some years they left Ireland. When Winston was 7 he found out that that lovely Mr Burke had been murdered by the Fenians. Winston developed a lifelong aversion to Irish republicanism.
Winston attended St George’s School in Ascot. He did not excel. He found Latin and Greek dull. The headmaster was a flagellomaniac.
Later Winston went on to Harrow School. His pater had attended Eton and loathed it. Therefore he sent his son to Eton’s rival. Winston had to parade in alphabetical order like the rest of the school. His surname was Spencer-Churchill. This put him far down the alphabet. He chose to drop the ‘Spencer’ part. As a Churchill he was much higher up the alphabet. Winston struggled with classics and French. He did well only at history and English.
The cleverest boys concentrated on classics. Middling ability boys did some classics but a lot of other subjects such as Maths, sciences and modern languages. The dimmest did little classics and were called the army class. The dimmest of the dim were guided towards joining the cavalry. Winston was in the army class and was told to aim to become a cavalry officer.
By the time Winston was a teenager his parents were estranged. They both carried on extramarital affairs. They had little regard for their eldest son. He knew his lack of academic aptitude disappointed them. He wrote to them begging for them to visit him. They seldom replied. His emotional bond was with his nanny Mrs Everest. He called her Womany as he had done since toddlerhood.
At Harrow Winston showed prowess in fencing. He was the public schools champion. He also won a declamation competition for reciting Macaulay’s the Lays of Ancient Rome. One of the most renowned quatrains is ‘How can man die better/ than facing fearful odds /for the ashes of his fathers /and the temples of his gods.’ By ‘fathers’ Macaulay meant ‘ancestors’.
Winston left Harrow a year early. He was enrolled in a crammer to prepare him for Sandhurst. This is the Royal Military Academy. The crammer was not fun or prestigious but it got the job done.
At Sandhurst Winston trained to be a cavalry officer. He passed out successfully. By then his father was stricken with syphilis. He died when Winston was 20. That same year Womany also died. Winston paid for her funeral.
Lady Churchill soon married a man only a little older than Winston. Winston loathed his stepfather.
The young Winston went to India with the British Army. There he read with avidity. His voracious desire for knowledge was limited to European history. He decided that he was a Liberal in politics. However, his family connections were all to the Conservative Party.
The British and Indians were fighting against rebellious tribes on the North West Frontier. Winston was sent there with the Malakand Field Force. He distinguished himself by his contempt for death. He exposed himself to enemy fire when there was no need to do so. He wished to make a name for himself. Winston was adamant that he must demonstrated his gallantry. He said that he was playing for high stakes and therefore must risk his life. He later wrote a history of this military expedition. The young officer was convinced that India had nothing to teach him. He soon returned to the British Isles.
In the 1890s the British Empire was fighting in Egypt. The British were assisting the Egyptians to defeat the Mahdist Revolt. Many Sudanese were against the extremist sect ruling the country. Winston was eager to participate in what he saw as an adventure. He wangled his way onto the expedition. He set sail for Egypt. Then he took a boat down the Nile to Sudan.
On one occasion Winston had to report to the British commander Herbert Kitchener. Winston found this nerve wracking. He fought at the Battle of Omdurman. Winston later wrote about killing an enemy soldier, ‘how easy it is to kill a man’. He later wrote how some British soldiers killed wounded enemy fighters. His book on the campaign was entitled ‘The River War’.
At this time there was a rebellion in Spanish Cuba. Winston managed to go there as a war correspondent. He could not make up his mind which side he sympathised with.
Later Winston went to SOuth Africa as a war correspondent. He not only reported on the fighting but participated in it. He was on a train that was ambushed. He carried a gun and fired at the enemy. He was taken prisoner. The Boers was irate. This man was masquerading as a journalist. The Boers considered executing him. He managed to escape. Winston walked through the night and hid out in the day. He took a risk and asked a man for help. A friendly civilian hid him in a mine for a few days. In the end he managed to get onto a train to Portuguese South-East Africa (now called Mozambique). He got to Lourenco Marques. At this time the conflict was going badly for the empire. Winston’s escape was a ray of hope.
The young journalist to the United Kingdom to a hero’s welcome. Winston soon stood for Parliament. He was elected as a Conservative. He was instantly regarded as a rising star.