Growing Up a Churchill: Sir Nicholas Soames in Conversation with Henry Wyndham
by| 23 Nov 2014
Henry Wyndham: Your mother was an extraordinary person. I remember her from when I was a boy and we used to come to your house for the most amazing children’s parties. What was it like growing up at Chartwell?
Sir Nicholas Soames: We lived in Chartwell Farmhouse, which is the most lovely place just down from the main house. It was a paradise. You just walked out of the house into the farmyard, where we had this wonderful herd of Jersey cows – milking cows and the first herd of landrace pigs in the country. Chartwell also had all the lakes and the marvellous swimming pool, built by my grandfather where we swam every day. He built it himself, it is still there and is enormous! When he went to America in 1953, Grandpapa said that if I could swim the width of the pool before they got back, they’d bring me a wonderful present. I managed it and they brought back a proper Indian wigwam, which was up for years in the garden.
HW: It is fascinating that your mother also grew up at Chartwell – she must have met some incredible people there over the years?
NS: If you look at the Chartwell visitor’s book, it reads like the Who’s Who of 20th Century British history. T.E. Lawrence used to come regularly – my grandfather loved him, he was brave, and a romantic. Apparently when my grandfather asked my mother, “What did you think of Colonel Lawrence?”, she answered, “All very well, but I thought he was an Arab Prince.” My grandfather said, “Well he is! He commanded the Arab Armies”, and she said, “He wasn’t wearing the right clothes”. My grandfather said to Lawrence, “Next time you come, Mary wants to see you dressed in the robes of the Prince of Arabia.” They were waiting for dinner at Chartwell the following weekend, and Lawrence waltzed in his full finery! My Mama was completely swept away by it all.
HW: Having known Mary my entire life, I do not think I have ever seen a family so unified behind one woman.
Back row: Emily Macmanus, Serena Soames, Will Peel, Christopher Soames, Charlotte Peel, Jeremy Soames, Rupert Soames, Emma Soames, Orlando Fraser, Milly Soames. At centre: Mary Soames, Nicholas Soames. Second row: Arthur Soames, Archie Soames, Christabel Fraser, Clementine Fraser, Isabella Soames, Susanna Soames. Second row: Arthur Soames, Archie Soames, Christabel Fraser, Clementine Fraser, Isabella Soames, Susanna Soames. Front row: Daisy Soames, Antonia Peel, Ruby Fraser, Alice Fraser, Jack Soames, Gemma Soames, Flora Soames.
Photograph by Ian Keys
NS: It’s difficult because it sounds like I’m showing off, but we were so lucky. We are so lucky to have had my Mama. She was such an extraordinary person and loved us all unconditionally and completely equally. She was determined we would have the most perfect, wonderful, golden childhood at Chartwell, and then at Hamsell Manor where we moved in 1957.
HW: Do you think that your mother was closest of the children to your grandfather?
NS: She was, but for a very understandable reason - my mother had the advantage of this golden childhood at Chartwell and was the only one of the Churchill children to grow up there. My grandfather’s life had been so tumultuous, my grandmother devoted her entire life to trying to look after him but Chartwell was always where he was happiest.
HW: What about her character, do you think your mother was more like her father or her mother?
NS: The extraordinary thing about my Mama is that there is no doubt that she inherited my grandfather’s pen. If you had asked her if she could paint, she would have fallen off her chair laughing – she could not do anything like that. But she really did inherit his pen. When she set out to write her story of her mother Clementine she had never written anything before and she had a brilliant way of writing. This first book won the Wolfson Prize!
HW: Did your mother ever talk about the war when you were children?
NS: She had been doing all sorts of stuff for the Women’s Voluntary Service, canteens and libraries and things for the soldiers. She joined up with her great friend Judy Montague and had to work extremely hard-she had to clean out twice as many loos as everyone else, just to stay ahead of the game. She loved it and I think she was a natural soldier, and was terribly proud of her uniform. Eisenhower asked my grandfather what was his proudest moment in the war – he said when Mary was promoted from a private soldier to a lance corporal.
HW: She also smoked cigars didn’t she?
NS: To have a mother who smoked a cigar was quite something! She smoked all sort of cigars, and Davidoff even named a cigar after her. It’s called Madame L’Ambassadrice. It was when my father was British Ambassador in Paris, and in the evenings Mama always enjoyed a cigar.
HW: What do you recall about your grandmother, Clementine?
NS: Before I went off to school, we used to go and see my grandmother every day. I remember she used to sit up in bed in the most exquisite sort of shawl, reading the newspapers wearing white gloves, because in the old days the ink used to come off onto your hands. I did not realise this was in any way unusual and assumed everyone read newspapers wearing white gloves! She was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my entire life, to this day. She was unbelievable.
HW: When did Mary meet your father, Christopher Soames?
NS: They met when he was the Assistant Military Attaché in Paris and Duff Cooper was Ambassador. Mama went over with my grandfather to see General de Gaulle and Papa was asked to lunch as a sort of spare man. Quite literally, their eyes met across the crowded room and he pursued her to Rome – where she was going to meet her sister Sarah. They had a whirlwind romance, and were engaged on the steps of St. Peter’s.
HW: This really is the end of era – it is quite astonishing to consider what your mother, father and grandfather experienced during their lives.
NS: Absolutely, my mother and father were from a different generation. They were brought up to different standards, they did not whinge, they did not complain, they were in the army and they went through the War. They lived a life that none of us today can even begin to imagine, and they never banged on about it, ever.
Sir Nicholas Soames, the eldest son of Lady Soames, was in conversation with Henry Wyndham, Chairman, Sotheby’s Europe