In February 1943, at a critical time in the Second World War, 68-year-old Prime Minister Winston Churchill was stricken with life-threatening pneumonia. My mother Doris Miles was chosen by Churchill's personal physician Sir Charles Wilson to nurse his illustrious patient. Throughout this time Doris was writing to her husband Roger, a Surgeon-Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, about her experiences at Downing Street and Chequers. Her letters form the core of my book Nursing Churchill: Wartime Life from the Private Letters of Winston Churchill's Nurse (Amberley Publishing; Foreword by Emma Soames).
Everyone knows that Churchill smoked cigars and drank a lot, but from Mum's letters I uncovered the following five fun facts about the Great Man that not many people know:
- He didn't wear pyjamas. He preferred a natty little silk vest that barely covered his bottom, a velvet jacket with a diamond V on the lapel, and slippers of velvet with 'PM' embroidered on the front.
- He had very distinctive times for working and sleeping. According to my mother, “Been having a long chat with the old boy, he’s been telling me his daily habits, did you know that he stays in bed until 12, sleeps from 3 to 5, never goes anywhere before 5, and never goes to bed before 2”.
- He had two baths every day. While in the tub he would “hold court to Sir Charles [Wilson], one or more secretaries, and any odd visitors who may be around”. Sometimes he would sing “rather tunelessly, and at the top of his voice”. Doris also told Churchill's biographer Martin Gilbert that the PM “was proud of being able to turn the taps off with his toes”.
- He loved watching movies. Doris wrote that at Chequers “After dinner every night we have a film, the whole staff, guards, policemen, guests, family all go . . . Some of the films are rather stupid and if the Old Man doesn’t like any of it he comes out with some pretty cutting remarks. As dinner is never over much before 10, the show hardly ever ends before midnight, and you can see the poor audience sitting patiently, absolutely dying to go to bed!” He particularly enjoyed the newsreels, and was delighted if he featured in them - “Look, Pug, there we are!” he would declare to his Chief of Staff, General “Pug”Ismay.
- He had a remarkable memory and a deep intellectual curiosity. He wanted to know everything about his illness, paying close attention to his blood count and the corpuscles that he called “pollywogs” and “eowins”, as well as the fluctuations in his temperature. Doris wrote: “The old boy doesn’t miss a thing, and foxed Sir Charles by asking what was the proportion of blood at the surface of his body when his temperature was 102.”
It's these intimate details that historian Andrew Roberts says “remind us of the good nature and humanity of the Greatest Briton”