As if leading a country in the midst of a world war was not more than enough to occupy someone, few people know that Winston Churchill was consumed by a lifelong passion: keeping exotic creatures.
Whether following behind prominent British eccentrics, or continuing a tradition of politicised menagerie-building, Britain’s PM was devoted to his animals.
Churchill was drawn to animal-keeping and growing plants throughout his life, beginning at his childhood home, Blenheim House. During his travels in India and East Africa in his early twenties he developed an interest in butterfly collecting and hunting exotic mammals.Churchill bought his home, Chartwell House, in 1922. It became the epicentre of his private zoo. When more extraordinary or ferocious pets were acquired, London Zoo offered its services. He tended carefully to his Koi carp, cranes and aviaries, but few people are aware of the exotic beasts he acquired, including black swans, white kangaroos, and even a lion.
Many of these beasts were gifts, each of which had implicit political and social ramifications. For starters, the extensive media coverage of Churchill’s eccentric hobby, offering a less traditional perspective on how Britain kept wartime morale high. I have already told the story of the platypus, Winston, that Churchill asked to be sent from Australia, but the others that follow are even less well known.
Churchill’s friend Sir Philip Sassoon, gave Churchill his first black swan in 1927, leading to decades of swan-keeping. Churchill managed to breed these strange, philosophically-recalcitrant species. When one of Churchill’s black swans disappeared from Chartwell in 1952, a frought, nationwide search ensued before the bird was eventually retrieved from Holland. W.S. Robinson, Prime Minister of Australia even offered to replace the swan when it looked like it might be missing. These birds were a diplomatic matter.
The white kangaroos were donated by the Livestock Owner’s Association of Australia (LOAA) in 1945, as ‘a gesture of esteem and appreciation’ of Churchill’s ‘inspiring leadership of the Empire’. Churchill arranged for them to be lodged at London Zoo until they could be accommodated at Chartwell and they were a central summer attraction.
The LOAA pressed for a large public presentation ceremony at which Churchill promised to ‘make a short speech to the kangaroos’. He did not though, as he had acerbically remarked beforehand, allow the press to photograph him ‘in the kangaroo’s pouch’ with his ‘legs all sprawling about’. After this somewhat acrimonious beginning, however, Churchill became very fond of his white kangaroos, and even attempted, unsuccessfully, to breed them.
Most acrimonious of all was the lion, ‘Rota’. He initially seemed like a generous gift, but turned out to be an incredibly elaborate publicity stunt. ‘Rota’ was a gift given with an ulterior motive. He was presented to Churchill in 1943 by George Thompson, one of the fellows of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Churchill did not plan to keep Rota at Chartwell, unsurprisingly, but joked that ‘the zoo is not far away and situations might arise in which I shall have great need of him’. Churchill regularly corresponded about Rota’s welfare with Ververs, the superintendant at London Zoo.
When Rota died 12 years later, it became clear that Thompson had mercenary intentions. Thompson had made the gift contingent on the dead body being returned to him, which he then had stuffed and displayed as ‘Churchill’s Lion’ to be sold very profitably. ‘Rota’ was also discovered to be a German rotary printing machine export firm, of which Thomson was the sales manager. The lion’s name was essentially an unorthodox advertisement. Thompson had, furthermore, fuelled a media campaign slurring the Zoo’s treatment of Rota to keep the name in the press. By the end of the interactions, the Prime Minister’s initial levity at being the lion’s ‘possessor’ had soured considerably. Seems it’s best to look a gift lion in the mouth. Rota eventually ended up in the Lightener Museum in Florida….
I did the research for this post during my MSc in History of Science at Cambridge. The telegrams can all be found at the Churchill Archives.