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The Churchill Girls: The Story of Winston's Daughters

Title:                The Churchill Girls

Author:            Rachel Trethewey

Pages:              320 including index

Publisher:        The History Press

Price:               £20

ISBN:               978-0-7509-9324-1

To be perfectly honest, I never even knew until relatively recently that Winston Churchill, arguably the greatest leader that the UK has ever had, even had daughters, let alone four. If prompted, I might recall a couple of scenes in The Crown, but they scarcely registered.

I remember first becoming aware of the Churchill name when the great man died, on January 24 1965, when I was still aged just seven. The media made the most enormous fuss, for a name that to me at that time meant absolutely nothing. He was just an old man whose death cleared the television schedules.

And what limited schedules those already were. In those days, most ordinary family television sets in the UK still offered only two channels: BBC1 and ITV. BBC2 had launched in April 1964, yes, but became widely viewed only in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

As I recall, the television schedules and newspapers were stuffed with stories of Churchill’s passing and images of his state funeral procession, pushing regular programmes out of their slots.

To me, they seemed endless, and are forever etched in my memory in fuzzy black and white. One of the pictures in this book, of the family standing on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, brings that occasion firmly into the present, albeit in much sharper focus.

This book, though physically all in black and white, brings colour, often vivid colour, into the Churchill saga. As the blurb inside the front cover reads: In any other family, Diana, Sarah, Marigold and Mary would have shone. But they were not in any other family. They were Churchills and neither they nor anyone else could forget it.

As the author says in her introduction: Thousands of books have been written about Winston Churchill, but this is the first focussing on his daughters. And what a read it is, giving cinematic glimpses into a privileged but not always idyllic world, even if youngest daughter Mary likened her childhood at Chartwell, the family home, to growing up in the Garden of Eden.

Post-divorce Diana, turning to her father for support, was invited to join him at ageing film star Maxine Elliott’s luxurious villa in the south of France. There, we are told, if your feet ached after dancing all night in Cannes, a bath would be filled from bottles of iced champagne to refresh them. And when the real moon was not shining, the hostess switched on a large electric one.

Future heavy drinker and inmate of Holloway Prison, Sarah, when not high-kicking across the stage in a very short skirt and frilly knickers (sic), played a wounded pheasant in a ballet satirising an Edwardian shooting party. We are told that when Sarah was sober, she was charming, funny and talented. When in drink, it was another matter. She knew the inside of the Priory clinic as a patient, and during her 10-day sojourn in Holloway she made friends with the prostitutes, confidence tricksters and thieves she came across. When lesbian prisoners propositioned her, she took it in her stride.

Marigold died on August 23 1921, aged two years and nine months, after a sore throat developed into septicaemia. According to Winston, at the time of her death, her mother, Clementine, let out a series of wild shrieks like a wounded animal.

Mary, the youngest daughter, displaying an early entrepreneurial spirit, set up a business called The Happy Zoo, selling budgerigars to guests at Chartwell, which included the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, turning up on his motorcycle.

Another visitor was Brendan Bracken, after whom is named Bracken House, the once and future home of the Financial Times, at 1, Friday Street, London, where I began learning my trade as a journalist in October 1984. The book contains, incidentally, the one and only suggestion I have ever read that Brendan Bracken was rumoured to be Churchill’s son.

I could go on, and on, but I highly recommend that you seek out this book and read it for yourself. I think you’ll enjoy it very much.

Brian Bollen, March 26 2021

The Churchill Girls

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