I always loved this story about Winston Churchill, one of my heroes. It shows you the influence one person can have on another. A great quote by the famous baseball player Jackie Robinson reads, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” I think that quote is applicable here.
The man some called the “Greatest Man of the Age,” lay dying in 1965 at the age of ninety, there was only one picture that stood at his bedside. It was the picture of his beloved nanny, gone to be with her Lord seventy years before. She had understood him, she had prayed him to his best, and she had fueled the faith that fed the destiny of nations (Manchester 2012). The nanny’s name was Elizabeth Anne Everest and the boy she had loved was named Winston Churchill.
Mrs. Everest was one of thousands of nannies who spent her days caring for the children of the aristocrats in Victorian England. In February 1875 when she became the nanny of a rosy checked baby boy named Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. There was little hint of the greatness that he would one day command. Churchill (as Prime Minister) would lead his tiny island nation to stand alone against the overwhelming might of Nazi Germany in World War II (Manchester 2012).
Few pedigrees read as impressively as Winston’s: descendant of John Churchill, “the Duke of Marlborough,” according to some historians the greatest military leader Britain has ever produced. Son of Randolph Churchill, a man of such political ability he was made England’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons simultaneously at the unheard of age of only 37. His mother was Jeanette Jerome Churchill, a beautiful American heiress whose favor was sought throughout Victorian high society.
Despite his impressive oratory ability and personal charisma Winston’s father was your standard issue upper-class curmudgeon. His ambition and pride drove him to make disastrous decisions leading to the destruction of his career with alcohol and drugs and ultimately his death by syphilis in 1892 at the age of 48.
His mother was a young woman of great beauty but questionable morals. She was a notorious adulteress whose renowned promiscuity saw her married three times and forever scandal-ridden. The marriage of Winston’s parents was a hushed and hurried affair as Jeanette had gotten pregnant prior to it, presumably by Lord Randolph but no one could be quite sure. Of his mother, Winston later wrote, “I loved her, but at a distance,” (Churchill 1930).
Lord and Lady Randolph Churchill ignored their two son’s – Winston the first, John the second (believed sired by someone other than Sir Randolph) – devoting their time to far more important matters of high society and career advancement. What time they did spend with young Winston was hurried and fraught with contempt at their “little monster.” His father thought Winston was retarded, rarely talked to him, and regularly vented his mounting rage on the child.
They sent off their child, a sickly redhead with a tendency to throw temper tantrums, to the new nanny’s care as they lived the 19th Century equivalent of ‘la vita loca’. As the years passed, Winston’s father became publicly prominent and a well known politician. His mother spent her time throwing parties and seducing other men. She hired a wetnurse, who fed the child and when he was a month old, she hired Elizabeth Everest to care for him.
It was in Elizabeth Everest – whom he called “Woom”, it was the closest thing he could to say to ‘woman’- became not only his nanny, but his dearest companion. He would share with her an understanding of his widening world as he grew older.
She was the stereotypical British nanny; plump, simple, cheery, ever optimistic, and always compassionate. The boy grew to love her completely. Of their special relationship, Violet Asquith later wrote, in Winston’s “solitary childhood and unhappy school days, Mrs. Everest was his comforter, his strength and stay, his one source of unfailing human understanding. She was the fireside at which he dried his tears and warmed his heart. She was the night light by his bed. She was security,” (Asquith Bonham-Carter 1966 ).
“Woom” changed his diapers, offered him her arms for comfort, and wiped his tears. She gave him all the love and parenting that his own parents should have given, but did not. She was his love, his caretaker, and shaped him in the ways of life in ways that his foolish, frivolous mother and cruelly insane father could not hope to do so. Her encouragement would deeply shape the man he would become.
When the boy was seven, he was exiled to a series of boarding schools where he was abused and beaten; when he came home for holidays, he often found his parents gone –without warning – and spent his holidays alone with his nanny and the other servants of the house.
Mrs. Everest provided a steady regimen of love, understanding, faith, firm principles, gentle guidance, and Christian instruction. When the tests of life had prepared him and his day of destiny arrived, Winston Churchill was ready to lead the world with a trumpet call of the solid faith he had learned from his godly nanny.
In an age of mounting skepticism at the dawn of World War II, Churchill proclaimed the cause of “Christian civilization.” It was threatened, he believed, by “that barbarous paganism called Nazism.” This was critical he felt, for “once the downward steps are taken, once one’s moral intellectual feet slipped upon the slope of plausible indulgence, there would be found no halting-place short of a general Paganism and Hedonism,” (Manchester 2012).
Churchill defined the challenges of western civilization in the stark terms that moved his countrymen to greatness to stand against the Nazis until America joined the war. It was from his kind nanny that he learned all evil needs to succeed is for good men to do nothing. Behind the arsenal of his words, behind the scope of his vision, was the simple teaching of a devoted nanny who served her God by investing in the destiny of a troubled little boy through love and patience.
Winston had a lifetime of achievements. He displayed physical courage as a Cavalry Officer on the battlefield serving in India, Afghanistan, Africa and France during World War I. He wrote vivid articles for British newspapers that were well received and advanced both his literary and political career. His oratory and bulldog determined leadership was instrumental in his country’s defeat of Nazi Germany. He was knighted and awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his six volume history of World War II. Time magazine named him “Man of the Year” in 1940 and in 1949. He attributed many of his greatest accomplishments to his devoted nanny’s support and understanding.
When Winston learned that Mrs. Everest was gravely ill he rushed to her bedside. He was the only member of his family to attend to her, and upon her death provided the tombstone for her grave. “She had been my dearest and most intimate friend during the whole twenty years I had lived.” “I shall never know such a friend again,” (Churchill 1930).
Asquith Bonham-Carter, Violet. Winston Churchill As I Knew Him. London , 1966 .
Churchill, Winston. My Early Life: A Roving Commission . London : Thronton Butterworth, 1930.
Manchester, William. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012.