The stories behind the objects revealed...

Katherine Carter, Project Curator Katherine Carter Project Curator
Katherine Barnett, house and collections manager at Chartwell, a National Trust property in Kent

We need your help to acquire over 1,000 historic and personal belongings of Churchill for future generations to learn from and enjoy. House and collections manager, Katherine Barnett, talks to us about her personal connection to the objects and why they are so important in portraying Churchill's life and achievements.

" Chartwell houses a lifetime of cherished possessions and each one has a story to tell."
- Katherine Barnet, House and collections manager

1.    What role do these objects play in bringing Churchill’s story to life at Chartwell?

These objects combined tell the story of the life of Sir Winston Churchill – from his childhood and adolescence, through his career and later years. They also give us a direct connection to Churchill himself. They are his possessions, handled, used and displayed how he intended and kept here at Chartwell, the safe harbour to which he would always return. It is this connection that is so special and it is through these items that we can best share the stories of one of the most important individuals in the history of our country.

2.    Which of Churchill’s objects do you get the most questions about?

The one I get asked most about is the Nobel Prize for Literature. Firstly it’s so unusual to see the object in the flesh which makes it incredibly special. Most people perceive it simply as an honour given to an individual, so to be able to see one physically here at Chartwell, and for it to be Sir Winston Churchill’s, makes it a really fascinating experience. It also then prompts questions about why he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which then offers a lovely way to tell our visitors about Sir Winston’s literary output, and how his oratory, for which he is so famous, was a large part of the reason the prize was awarded. This then brings to mind those iconic speeches of his, and allows visitors to consider the impact that his words and his voice had on the course of history. Having said that, every one of these objects gets asked about for different reasons. That is the incredible thing about having the objects that Sir Winston himself received or used throughout his life, here in the very place where he kept them. Chartwell houses a lifetime of cherished possessions and each one has a story to tell.

Our visitors get the rare opportunity to see a Nobel Prize up close
Churchill's Nobel Prize for Literature on display at Chartwell, a National Trust property in Kent
Our visitors get the rare opportunity to see a Nobel Prize up close

3.    Which object would you pick as the ‘unsung hero’ of Chartwell?

For me it’s the HMS Exeter hairbrushes. At first glance you’re looking at a hairbrush, and Churchill’s hairbrush, which makes it a really interesting curio in itself. What’s more fascinating is the story behind the object. The Battle of the River Plate (1939) was the first major naval battle of the Second World War. In this early battle the HMS Exeter was targeted and sustained considerable damage and was under repair for over a year – during which time it was suggested that three pairs of hairbrushes were made from some of the salvaged deck of the ship. These 3 pairs were gifted to the ship’s captain - Captain Bell, King George VI and Winston Churchill. This was when Churchill had only recently been made First Lord of the Admiralty and it would be the following year before he was made Prime Minister. For him to be chosen for this honour, even ahead of the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was a real statement of support for him. So yes they’re a pair of hairbrushes but they’re also part of a Second World War battleship and, most importantly, they represent the shift in thinking which would take Churchill from his ‘Political Wilderness’ of the 1930s, into his return to Cabinet and then onto becoming our heroic wartime Prime Minister. 

 4.    Which of Churchill’s possessions do you think really surprises people?

I think the objects representing the gentler side of Churchill can sometimes be the most surprising. It’s so easy to hear the name ‘Churchill’ and associate it with an older man holding that iconic cigar and shaping his hand into the famous ‘V' for Victory. What is less well known is that his home life and hobbies beyond the war are equally fascinating, for example Churchill’s lifelong love of animals. We have a medal here at Chartwell which was awarded after the Second World War when Churchill had bought nearby Chartwell Farm and kept livestock there, including shorthorn cattle. Then in 1949 he entered his shorthorn cow Gratwick Beatrice II into the Kent Country Show which won first prize. This prize came with a medallion which is on display in the very case Sir Winston himself showed it in, alongside international awards and prizes. Amongst them sits this silver medallion decorated with a shorthorn cow. It’s just wonderful to think of how much that prize meant to him that it took pride of place alongside those of international acclaim.

 5.    Do you have a ‘favourite’ object and why?

For me it’s definitely the 80th birthday book, but my reason for loving it is as much about what is missing as what is there. For Churchill’s 80th birthday he was given a 2-part gift from the House of Commons, consisting of a book and a painting. The painting would go down in history as among the most unflattering of Churchill. He was appalled by it and even asked that it not be shown at his birthday celebrations owing to its controversial depiction of Churchill. But the painting was parliament’s gift, having been paid for by Members, and therefore had to be presented. Churchill put on a brave face but upon its return to Chartwell it was immediately hidden away in Chartwell’s boiler room and at a later date was burned and destroyed in the grounds on the instruction of Lady Churchill. So we know Churchill’s thoughts on the painting, but what of the surviving book? 

" The care and thought which has been devoted to this beautiful volume...deeply touches my heart...I shall treasure it as long as I live"
- Sir Winston Churchill on the House of Commons 80th birthday book, 1954

Here you have one of the world’s greatest statesmen, on his 80th birthday, with hundreds of gifts from all over the world, but this one was among the most special to him. He once called himself a ‘child of the commons’ and his love of the cut and thrust of politics spanned from his election as MP in 1900, right through to his retirement in 1964 as the longest serving parliamentarian of the twentieth century.