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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

Winston Churchill's Butterflies

Sir Winston Churchill led Britain to victory in the Second World War and is a world renowned historian although he is much less well known for his lifelong love of butterflies.

The butterfly house that Churchill created at his beloved
Chartwell in the 1940s has recently seen butterflies bred there for the first time in 50 years. Plans to start breeding butterflies at Chartwell began in the summer of 1939 when Churchill consulted the leading expert on butterfly breeding, at the time, L. Hugh Newman.

With the intervention of the war years, the idea did not come to fruition until 1946 when Newman produced plans to convert the summerhouse into a place to breed butterflies and then release them into the garden.

Churchill's lifelong secret passion for butterflies began as a young boy when he went ‘butterflying' in the fields near to his school in Sussex. As a young man, he was a serious collector on his travels around the world and later would have spent many a summer day enjoying the beauty of butterflies in his garden at Chartwell.

The summer of 2010 saw the emergence of the first butterflies since the 1950s with the beautiful peacocks and painted ladies stretching their wings and fluttering into the garden at Chartwell. Six peacocks emerged in July and painted ladies during August.

The garden team at Chartwell faithfully recreated the butterfly house using descriptions taken from articles written by Newman. The butterfly house was originally a game larder, which was then converted to a cool summer house. Churchill adapted the latter, erecting a muslin netting doorway over the entrance. Butterflies, including small tortoiseshells, swallowtails, peacocks and speckled woods, were bred in cages seated on the summer house benches, and Churchill often sat there and watched them emerge, releasing them into the garden when ready to fly.

Today a code advocates that only native British butterflies should be bred for release. Therefore, following consultation with Defra and Butterfly Conservation, larvae of locally occurring species were sourced to help stock the newly refurbished butterfly house.

Visitors to Chartwell can also wander along the Butterfly walk and follow in the footsteps of guests to Churchill's garden parties in the 1940s and 1950s.

Churchill was way ahead of the times with his focus on making sure that Chartwell had a wildlife friendly garden, and he was also a pioneer of butterfly gardening. Mixed in with the formal nature of an English country garden Churchill insisted that buddleia and thistles were also planted to attract butterflies and other insects.

Chartwell was bought by Winston Churchill in 1924 and remained his home until the end of his life in 1965. It was a source of inspiration to him and his particular love of nature and the beautiful Kent countryside.

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