Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was a descendant of John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, of Blenheim (1704) fame. His father Lord Randolph Churchill was a Tory politician, his mother Jennie Jerome the daughter of an American millionaire and a descendant of the Jeromes who fought for American independence at the side of George Washington, to whom she claimed to be related.
Winston was born in 1874 in a cloakroom at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, when his parents were attending a ball and his mother had a fall and gave birth prematurely. He never lived there, but during his formative years he spent many a visit at the palace under the watchful eye of his Grandmother Frances, the 7th Duchess of Marlborough, and his nanny Elisabeth Everest, whom he nick-named ‘Woom’ or ‘Woomany’.
The boy was accident-prone, rather sickly and suffering from a speech impediment (part stammer, part lisp), probably because he was emotionally abandoned by his parents for which he blamed himself. But he enjoyed riding, swimming and catapulting vegetables at passersby. He read history and adventure tales such as King Solomon’s Mines, Treasure Island and popular boys’ stories, but he was particularly interested in all things military. His earliest surviving letter, written in 1882 at the age of seven, is a note to his mother thanking her for a gift of toy soldiers, a castle and flags.
Churchill still played with them after most boys turn to other things (some never do, as we know). On Christmas morning in 1888 master Winston was seen deploying his regiments across the carpet in front of the marble fireplace in the nursery and setting up ambushes behind the chair legs in preparation for a re-fight of the Blenheim battle. His later military orientation was entirely due to his collection of toy soldiers, he wrote in his childhood memoirs .
I had ultimately nearly fifteen hundred. They were all of one size, all British, and organised as an infantry division with a cavalry brigade. My brother Jack commanded the hostile army. But by a Treaty for the Limitation of Armaments he was only allowed to have coloured troops, and they were not allowed to have artillery. Very important! I could muster myself only eighteen field-guns – besides fortress pieces.
But all the other services were complete – except one. It is what every army is always short of – transport. My father’s old friend, Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, admiring my array, noticed this deficiency and provided a fund from which it was to some extent supplied.
The day came when my father himself payed a formal visit of inspection. All the troops were arranged in the correct formation of attack. He spent twenty minutes studying the scene – which was really impressive – with a keen eye and captivating smile. At the end he asked me if I would like to go in the Army. I thought it would be splendid to command an Army, so I said ‘Yes’ at once: and immediately I was taken at my word. For years I thought my father with his experience and flair had discerned in me the qualities of military genius. But I was told later that he had only come to the conclusion that I was not clever enough to go to the Bar. However that may be, the toy soldiers turned the current of my life. Henceforward all my education was directed to passing into Sandhurst.
After passing out of Sandhurst in 1895, Churchill saw service as a war correspondent and cavalry officer in Cuba, India and Egypt, briefly (and unsuccessfully) held the post of First Lord of the Admiralty at the start of the First World War, then commanded a battalion on the western front, and went on to become prime minister from 1940 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1955.
There seems to be some confusion about the fate of Winston’s toy soldiers. Visitors of Blenheim Palace are treated to a magnificent display in one of the side aisles of 780 hand-painted polychrome lead figurines made by the French master Lucotte, all in mint condition, arrayed in an 18th century three-shelved gilt cabinet of French origin.
The Lucottes were certainly popular at the time. By the end of the 18th century when Napoleon’s armies were on the march, the demand for toy soldiers had mushroomed and the Parisian artisan Lucotte had been the first to manufacture solid, three-dimensional lead figures two or two and a half inches high. The Lucottes were cast in bronze molds and hand-painted. The Lucotte Company was bought by the French toy firm Cuperlu, Blondel and Gerbeau (CBG) in 1825, which was bought in turn by Mignot in 1928. CBG Mignot continues to produce Lucottes to this day.
But the Blenheim Lucottes were not Winston’s. The first clue is that the cabinet contains French regiments that fought under Napoleon and that the Emperor himself and several of his Marshals are displayed on the top shelf, whereas young Winston’s models, as we have seen, were ‘all British’.
In view of their French provenance it comes as no surprise that the Blenheim Lucottes originally belonged to a French friend of Winston’s, the painter Paul Lucien Maze, whose father began collecting them during the 1890’s. When Paul was old enough to look after them Maze senior gave him the collection.
Churchill and Maze first met in the trenches during World War I when the anglicised Maze served with the Royal Scots Greys. Back in London, Maze used to display his soldiers when Churchill visited and the latter would invariably rearrange them and complain that there was ‘not enough artillery in support’. In 1935, when Maze and Churchill spent Christmas at Blenheim together, Churchill suggested that Maze’s collection be moved ‘stock and barrel’ to Blenheim where it could be properly displayed. Whereupon Maze gave the entire army as a gift to the present Duke who was nine years old.
A more likely candidate would be the 48mm soldiers on display in the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms in London. This army consists of 44 cavalry and 53 foot soldiers. We know that they belonged to Winston Churchill; they hail from Chartwell, the former prime minister’s country house in Kent now administered by the National Trust.
The manufacturer is unknown, but according to experts the models are probably German like nearly all ‘flats’ produced at the time. Whether these are indeed the figures from Churchill’s childhood is a matter of conjecture. First of all they are ‘Napoleonic’ figures; and a descendant of the First Duke could hardly be expected to stage another Blenheim on the carpet with soldiers of a later age. Secondly they are not ‘all British’ – even at a young age the prime minister will certainly have known the difference between a Tricolore and old Blood-and-Guts. And last but not least these troops lack transport…
So until further notice Sir Winston’s toy army is missing. Inquiries at Blenheim, Chartwell, the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms as well as with various individual experts have not turned up anything worthwhile yet. But the search is on. Any suggestions from you, the reader of this blog, as to how I might track them is very welcome. This journalist and amateur wargamer will not rest before he gets to the bottom of the matter.
 Winston Churchill, My Early Life: 1874-1904, 1930