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Bake for victory! How Churchill's cook beat the Blitz

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Winston Churchill and friends in the dining room at Chartwell, Kent, c1928
Winston Churchill and friends in the dining room at Chartwell, Kent, c1928 Credit: Churchill Archives Centre/National Trust

Anne de Courcy reviews Victory in the Kitchen by Annie Gray

In Victory in the Kitchen, food historian Annie Gray tells the story of Georgina Landemare, a village girl who wound up working for the Churchills from 1940 until 1954 (the longest-serving of any of their domestic staff) – though this fascinating period is not reached until two thirds of the way through the book.

And here lies the main problem: how to write a biography with only a few skeletal facts of the subject’s life to go on, and no clue as to thoughts, emotions, reactions? Gray has attempted to fill the gaps by giving details of what work in various contemporary households would have involved, comments from great cooks of the time, recipes, and so on. There is also a light, parallel sketch of the Churchills’ life (with one unfortunate major error: Winston’s wife Clementine was never “married to the profligate, autocratic and sometimes violent Henry Hozier”; he was her mother’s husband).

Born Georgina Young in 1882, in Aldbury, near Tring, the future Mrs Landemare began life as a nursemaid, a job she took to easily after helping her mother look after three younger siblings. This came to an end after her employers moved to Ireland – so what should Georgina do next? After a holiday and family colloquies it was decided that she should move into kitchen work.

She was taken on as a scullery maid by a Kensington household where five other servants were employed (all ambitious servants aimed at a household with a large staff). She began at £10 a year, payable every quarter, was up at 5am and in bed at 10pm; in between she would have peeled vegetables, gutted, plucked or skinned game, washed up and cleaned the large copper kitchen pans. “Although it was hard, I liked it,” she wrote on one of the 19 handwritten pages that survive of a memoir she wrote in old age. Two years later she had risen to kitchen maid and by 1907, at the age of 25, she was a cook.

But fast forward to 1940 and wartime when Georgina, with years of freelance experience behind her cooking for dinners, balls, shooting weekends and stalking parties in Scotland, joined the Churchills’ permanent staff, and here the book takes off. Who is not interested in what the great man ate and drank?

'Although it was hard, I liked it': Georgina Landemare Credit: Edwina Brocklesby

Rather too much, is the first impression – throughout the Thirties, Churchill had consulted his doctors about his indigestion, and received the advice to eat more moderately, drink less (“I refuse to give up all alcohol, as I think life would not be worth living”) and take a few sandwiches and some soup before bedtime at midnight – this after his usual dinner. He refused the doctors’ suggestion that he drink a post-prandial glass of brandy instead of port – “I must not drink brandy before the end of the year, as I have a wager.” This was a bet with Lord Rothermere, from whom he won £600 by abstaining.

Air raids made no difference to the need for tempting meals to be punctually served. During one particularly heavy raid in 1940 Churchill suddenly remembered the 25ft-high plate glass window in the kitchen “behind which Mrs Landemare, the cook, and the kitchen maid, never turning a hair, were at work. I got up abruptly, went into the kitchen and ordered [them] into the shelter. She argued ‘I’m all right, really, sir,’ worried that her pudding would collapse.” Moments later the window exploded and the back wall collapsed, leaving the kitchen a mass of rubble.

Nor were meals always in the same place. Sometimes Georgina had to be driven from Downing Street to the War Rooms when Churchill was working there, with the dishes clutched tightly in her lap, wrapped in shawls to keep them warm. She adored Churchill, but did not hesitate to tell him off when he absent-mindedly wandered around the house stark naked (he always apologised profusely to her).

The household lived well for wartime. Basic rations were supplemented by fruit, vegetables, eggs and honey from the Chequers and Chartwell farms, and gifts (game from Balmoral, plovers’ eggs from the Duke of Marlborough). The Government Hospitality Fund allowed wine for when overseas visitors were present (“they almost invariably were,” says Gray). An addition to Churchill’s sizeable breakfast – eggs, toast, butter, honey and a peach – was his habitual very weak whisky and soda (described by him as “mouthwash”), before champagne or white wine at lunch.

After the war, though Churchill, having been ousted in the 1945 election, was no longer prime minister, he still received such quantities of food as gifts that continued rationing had little effect: Beaverbrook sent game, whisky and champagne, American statesman Bernard Baruch organised hams, tongues, honey and olive oil. Georgina regularly produced at least three meals a day for the family and three for the servants.

Finally, in 1954, at the age of 72, Georgina’s health broke down and she left the Churchill household, though she came back to help several times until December 1955. Perhaps her proudest moment came the day the war (in Europe) ended, and Churchill, making his victory speech from the Ministry of Health balcony in front of a crowd of 20,000, broke away from the group with him to shake her hand and tell her he couldn’t have achieved victory without her efforts over the years. Reading all she did, one is inclined to agree.

Victory in the Kitchen is published by Profile at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop