Churchill’s Silver Trowel

In December 2014, £1.8m was paid for the painting of a goldfish pond by Sir Winston Churchill. Set at Chartwell, his Kent home, the painting was one of 256 lots sold for a total of £15m by Mary Soames, Churchill’s youngest daughter. Two years earlier, with rather less fanfare, a 1954 Series 1 Land Rover was put up for sale at auction in Cambridgeshire. With an original signed log book and a widened seat for its rotund passenger, the soft-top fetched £129,000, six times the normal value of the model. ‘The most intriguing feature,’ reported Classic Driver, ‘is a wooden box specially fitted into the pick-up bed to accommodate a trowel and a bag of mortar, so that the owner could indulge in his fondness for bricklaying.’ That particular owner had been the world’s most famous amateur painter, and bricklaying had been his secret skill.

Such, indeed, were Churchill’s hidden talents with a trowel that in 1928 he was made a member of the Amalgamated Union of Building Trades Workers (AUBTW), but only for a month. Having ‘crossed the floor’ in Parliament from the Conservatives to the Liberals in 1904, then back again in 1924, he was not much loved by any brotherhood of unions. When he was invited to join by James Lane, the organizer of his local division, Churchill cautiously responded: “I do not feel I am sufficiently qualified.” He may have realized that membership might raise eyebrows from all quarters, and that Brother Churchill might not sound right. Lane agreed that the Chancellor of the Exchequer may have not been competent enough to match a professional, but replied: ‘As time passes you will improve your craftsmanship in a similar manner to those who have entered the trade under the Government adult apprenticeship scheme.’ So the would-be statesman dispatched a joining fee of 5 shillings and returned to his work as Chancellor during the day and as a brickie at weekends.

Churchill’s bricklaying had started in 1922 when he and his wife Clementine bought dilapidated Chartwell in the Garden of England. Needing to avoid his Black Dog depression, he began laying red bricks around the boundaries of the kitchen garden. This inspired him to build a little one-room cottage for his daughters, known soon as Marycot. He was taught bricklaying by two of his Chartwell staff, and by local bricklayer, Benny Barnes, who tended to pick up where Churchill left off when the Chancellor was whisked away to Westminster. Stanley Baldwin, under whose premiership Churchill ruled the Exchequer from 1924-29, had encouraged him to paint, to write and to build at home as a break from the turmoil of Parliament. “Do remember,” he wrote in August 1928, “what I said about resting from current problems.”

Credentials in Government must surely have helped when it came to buying bricks to build the cottage. Churchill ended up, via auspicious references, at the WT Lamb & Sons brickworks in Kent to order stock to match Marycot and Chartwell. The initial samples were inadequate, so four were removed from an old wall and once satisfied Churchill ordered 4000. He had enough to send Baldwin a reply within a month, in September 1928: “I have had a delightful month building a cottage and dictating a book: 200 bricks and 2000 words in a day.” The message must have been leaked to the press, as The Evening Standard reported next day that ‘Winston Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer, has become an amateur bricklayer.’ In the report, his daughter Sarah was said to have been carrying the bricks, while her father set them in place and tapped with a trowel, despite him wearing gloves, hat and a coat, and with a cigar in hand. One reporter commented this was not how a bricklayer might work on a summer’s day.

Nor did Sir Winston’s gentlemanly style did not impress AUTBW officials. At one stage he had asked James Lane, who was Mayor of Battersea as well as the local union rep, if members had to lay a minimum number of bricks a day, and what about overtime. The back and forth banter continued, with tongues stuck in cheeks, especially when Lane replied: ‘If you should be called out on strike, you will be entitled to one pound per week.’

When news of Churchill’s private induction at the Treasury in October 1928 hit the headlines, some union members were irate, especially since he had been so forthright ending the General Strike in 1926. ‘You damned old hypocrite,’ wrote one. Such was the furore that later in the month the union’s Executive Council debated, as Agenda Item 3, ‘Winston S. Churchill’. Questions were raised about his application, and particularly that he had not revealed how long he had, or had not, been working in the bricklaying trade. Despite some understanding that the issue was being taken too seriously, the Council voted to revoke his membership, declaring that ‘Mr Winston Churchill is not eligible for membership of this union, and that Brother Lane be advised to this effect accordingly.’ The expulsion notice was distributed nationwide. Even so, Churchill considered the union had no legal right to oust him. He stated that accepting the rejection might endanger other members, ‘who ought to have assurance they cannot be turned out for political reasons.’

Then, on the 4th June 1929, with his union membership rescinded, Churchill’s own political career ended when Baldwin lost the General Election. Aged just 55, Churchill was cast off the front bench for the first time since 1917 and faced a life of perpetual wilderness and the threat of an unfettered Black Dog for years to come. So he kept busy instead.

He wrote, and wrote and wrote, articles and books, to cover the prodigious costs of running Chartwell and his undiminished demand for cigars and champagne. Then there would have been the travelling costs to paint all those overseas landscapes. There is a rumour he sold a couple of paintings in Paris in 1921, under a pseudonym as Charles Morin, but the other 550 were painted for pleasure, as a pastime. That indeed was the title of a short book of his, first published in 1948. Painting for Pleasure combined two articles Churchill had written in the 1920s; one eponymous, and the other entitled Hobbies. The first third of the 75-page book explores the value of having at least one pastime, and mentions bricklaying. ‘The tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened,’ he wrote, ‘not only by rest, but by using other parts.’ He described ‘Fortune’s favoured children’ as those for whom work and pleasure are one. ‘For them the working hours are never long enough. Each day is a holiday, and ordinary holidays, when they come, are grudged as enforced interruptions in an absorbing vocation.’

Churchill believed that those who separate work and pleasure, however hard they do both, actually repeat their office life at home. So those who weigh and measure all day will do so in the evening. And those who worry for wages will worry at home. ‘It is only when new cells are called into activity, when new stars become the lords of the ascendant,’ he wrote, ‘that relief, repose, refreshment are afforded.’

With his own retirement in mind, he stipulated that a hobby must be cultivated properly. These must not be mere interests, fancies one might say, which he concluded ‘only aggravate the strain of mental effort.’ No, Churchill also considered a single hidden talent not enough: ‘To be really happy and really safe, one ought to have at least two or three hobbies, and they must be real.’

Alongside his painting and other interests, Churchill continued his bricklaying through his decade out of office. He ordered 6000 more of his favourite plum-tinted bricks in 1934 and 1935, and according to his daughter Mary continued as a brickie while saving a Britain at war. He could not contain himself when building works were inspected during his 1942 visit to Mary’s Anti-Aircraft Battery at Enfield. “To my embarrassment, but to everyone else’s delight, my father stopped, seized a trowel, and laid down a line of bricks!”

An even more famous moment was his laying of a foundation stone at Bristol University in 1952. The 78-year-old (who in 1948 had foretold the block-built Berlin Wall as part of an Iron Curtain crossing Europe), picked up a silver trowel to make the ceremonial tap. “The stone isn’t level,” he complained, and when red-faced university officials discovered he was right, Sir Winston smoothed the cement to knock the block in place. Days later he arrived in New York on the Queen Mary to visit the USA once again. This time journalist Dorothy McCardle wrote in The Washington Press that the bulldog leader had acquired a new title. For his current visit he should be called ‘the bricklayer’. Enough said.

The Cactus Communist

I am currently working on a book of the unlikely hobbies and skills and interests of history’s great and good, with a working title of 100 Hidden Talents. Here, for example, is the plant collecting world of Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army and passionate advocate of world communism and Mexican cacti.

The Cactus Communist

Leon Trotsky, ever a Marxist revolutionary, spent the last few years of his life collecting cacti and caring for rabbits, before he was murdered with an ice pick in August 1940. To the end the communist born Lev Davidovich Bronstein in 1879, remained a committed advocate of world-wide socialism, forced into exile in 1929 by arch enemy Stalin, who considered Trotsky a threat. The final three-year stay inside a small, fortified community near Mexico City reflected Trotsky’s hopes as a utopian model of his dreams that Communism might thrive everywhere. Who’d have thought that the founder and head of the Russian Red Army from 1918-1923 would one day set up shop in such a smallholding.

‘Trotsky had left the Soviet Union first to Turkey, then France and finally Norway. Stalin’s 1930s show trials declared him guilty of plotting to kill the dictator, and he was sentenced to death in absentia. Trotsky described the trials as ‘one of the greatest frauds in political history’. Ultimately Norway yielded to Soviet pressure in case Trotsky proved the accusations false, and so the Scandinavian country ejected him and his family. 

Only Mexico, as members of the International Communist League, welcomed the Trotskys, and in January 1937, an oil tanker, sailing from Norway, arrived at the Mexican port of Tampico. Trotsky set up near Mexico City, in a property defended by high walls to halt any Stalinist attack. A visiting grandchild described the house as “a small community, a front line to socialism. Around my grandfather there was an atmosphere of solidarity, partnership and enthusiasm for work, as in the number of tasks, like house chores. There were no privileges nor distinctions. My grandfather irradiated great dynamism and a firm faith on socialist future in humanity.”

Trotsky lived to a routine, starting the day around six in the morning to feed chickens and rabbits. “The chore of caring for them he performed too, with methodology and precision,” his secretary Charles Cornell testified.3 “The animal feed was prepared to the most scientific formula he could come up with. The amount of food was carefully measured. He inspected the animals regularly for any signs of sickness or parasites. The chicken yards and pens were kept scrupulously clean.” 

Trotsky took trips with his coterie of supporters into the Mexican countryside. It was there that he found and dug up cacti. He would unearth them with a spade or pick to plant them later in his yard. Cacti weighing anything from 50-80lbs were collected from different places, wrapped in newspaper and taken to a large patio in his fortress, with extra soil brought back in sacks. Cacti seemed to interest Trotsky with its endurance and for being exotic. None of the younger people on a foraging trip could go faster than him, and even at his age, he was considered tireless. “Where did he get all his energy, all this physical strength? He walked with his cacti, heavy as lead, and not even the rigorous sun, nor the hard-to-climb mountains could decrease his speed,” one acquaintance said. According to Bertrand Batenaude, writing for the Hoover Digest in 2010, cactus hunting became Trotsky’s chief form of exercise. ‘It was something of an obsession,’ he wrote. Trotsky’s wife, Natalia, joked that his cacti collecting was a form of ‘penal labor’, Trotsky adding that it was the next best thing to hunting. 

The trips into the mountains were photographed and filmed by the American camera enthusiast, Alexander Buchman in 1940, six months before Trotsky’s assassination. Trotsky can be seen in the film digging out one after another cactus, wearing heavy gloves and swinging a pickaxe. The 58-year-old Communist would badger anyone who leered at the physical exhaustion of the expeditions. ‘At one point,’ wrote Batenaude, ‘he turns and accuses the cameraman of loafing.’

‘He seemed hypnotized by the goal to be reached. ‘The change in occupation was a sort of relief. He found in the work a compensation for all the hard blows that ripped him up inside and the harder the test, the more passionately did he forget it. He never did anything slowly or half-way, laziness and depression were unknown to him.’ Trotsky was described as being affable and affectionate, but very strict in discipline and work. The old Communist participated in any tasks, often the first to find a solution and use a shovel or pick.

Of course, it was with a short-handled ice pick that he was killed in August by Stalin’s Spanish agent, Ramon Mercader, who gained access by pretending to be interested in Trotskyism. Mercader wanted a document to be discussed, and while Trotsky was sitting at a desk he took the pick from his raincoat and struck from the back. Blood poured out of a wound, Trotsky screaming and then taken to the dining room table supported by his wife. Guards hit Mercader violently, but Trotsky asked them not to kill him but to force him to confess. Trotsky was taken to hospital, but having refused brain surgery, died a day later, aged 60, declaring to the end his certainty that international Communism would be victorious.