Historical Figures: Winston Churchill

Born Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill at Blenheim Palace on November 30, 1874. He was voted as the greatest Briton in a recent BBC poll and was certainly a force to be reckoned with.


In birth, young Winston displayed the energy and lust for life that would distinguish him as one of this country's most remarkable leaders: he was two months premature. The great man's leadership during World War II, his stirring speeches and instinct for the strategic necessities underpinning modern conflict are all well-known. But Winston Churchill was a complex man of many parts. Here is a selection of lesser-known facets of his character.

Boys will be boys

As well as being a pre-eminent politician, Churchill was a prolific, respected journalist and historian. Yet his schooldays were punctuated by bad reports. "Is a constant trouble to everybody and is always in some scrape or other," complained one of his primary school teachers. On May 25, 1891, Harrow School's punishment book records that Winston got seven whacks of the cane for "breaking into premises and doing damage". Perhaps it's no surprise that he responded better to life at the Sandhurst military academy. He only just scraped in but passed out eighth in a batch of 150.

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

A rake's progress

Churchill developed a taste for the good things in life while still a young man. Though an aristocrat by birth, he was not immensely rich and had to rely on his writing to bring in enough cash to pay for high society parties, gambling debts and bar bills. He was badly stung in the U.S. Wall Street Crash of 1929 but that didn't diminish his fondness for a flutter. His enthusiasm for gambling was matched by his appetite for alcohol. A steady drinker rather than a binger, Churchill's favourite tipple was vintage Pol Roger champagne. He is said to have borrowed a phrase of Napoleon's to justify his love of bubbly: "In defeat I need it, in victory I deserve it."

War wear

In 1940, when Churchill became prime minister, he was already nearing 70. He was known for his old-fashioned suits and bow ties. But his adoption of the utilitarian "siren suit" proved he was a man of the people. The siren suit was really a glorified boiler suit with a zippered front. It was meant to be donned quickly - over pyjamas if necessary - during air raids. Churchill had a hand in its design and wore it often, especially when working late at the underground Cabinet War Rooms. In addition to his workaday siren suits, Churchill had a version made in red velvet.



Dark days

Throughout his life, Churchill periodically suffered from bouts of crushing depression. His nickname for these interludes was "Black Dog". Depression often drove him to the point of despair but many psychologists believe that battling Black Dog may have helped Churchill to find the inner strength to lead Britain through the darkest days of World War II.

Hands-on man

In 1922, Winston and his wife, Clementine, bought Chartwell Manor in Kent. It became the Churchill's main family home until Winston's death in 1965. He was a keen amateur bricklayer and created much of Chartwell's garden landscaping and brickwork himself. The house is open to the public and contains a collection of Churchill's paintings. He developed a passion for oil painting at the age of 40 and found it a great antidote to stress throughout the rest of his life.