Winston Churchill, known to be hugely keen on polo, was at one time a 3-goal player and, for much of his life, an absolute devotee of the sport, as Nigel à Brassard reports
Sir Winston Churchill took up polo as a young cavalry officer, played as a civilian before World War I and had his final game in the twenties while in his fifties. The future prime minister felt continually hampered, however, through his lack of pony power, which was caused by a shortage of funds. Churchill had thoughts that will no doubt be recognised by many modern-day players.
He had a continual debate with his family and wife, Clementine, about the cost of stabling,
believing the cost of ponies to be unu sually high when he was buying and disappointingly low when he was selling. While he often recognised he ought to stop playing, he didn't want to.
In 1895, Churchill received his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 4th Queen's Own Hussars and joined them at Aldershot for cavalry training. In a letter to his mother in April of that year, he wrote: 'Everyone here is beginning to play [polo], as the season is just commencing. I have practised on other people's ponies for 10 days and I am improving fast. He asked her to lend him £100 to buy someponies and said if she did not it would be 'dreadful' as he would have to give up what he would later famously describe as 'The Emperor of Games'.
In May 1895, Churchill declared, in another letter to his mother, that polo was 'the finest game in
the world and I should almost be content to give up any ambition to play it well and often'. Over the next 18 months, Churchill played regularly and, by May 1896, he hoped to be selected for the regimental team. However, he felt it would make a huge difference if he had another first-class pony, so again wrote to his mother asking for a loan of £200, to which she agreed. Later that year, the regiment sailed for India and, during the voyage, Churchill wrote an eight-page draft constitution for the 4th Queen's Own Hussars Polo Club. The Hussars formed a polo committee and subscriptions were sought from all the officers to provide credit facilities to procure ponies.
On arrival in India, the 4th Hussars, in what Churchill described as an 'audacious and colossal undertaking', purchased the entire stud of 25 ponies belonging to the Bombay Light Horse. Polo became a central feature for the Hussars and Churchill wrote: 'We devoted ourselves to the serious purpose of life. This was expressed in one word - polo', and he rarely played fewer than eight and more often 10 or 12 chukkas every evening. In November 1896, Churchill's team won a tournament at Hyderabad against a native contingent. Churchill wrote to his mother that 'eight or nine thousand natives wildly cheered every goal and stroke made by their countrymen', and were terribly disappointed when the Hussars ended victors. He mentioned the 'surprise and admiration' of the Indian newspapers and said he would send 'some interesting instantaneous photographs of the match in which you will remark me fiercely struggling with turbaned warriors'.
Over the next few years, Churchill developed interests outside the Army. In 1897, he made his first public speech to the Primrose League, became a war correspondent and began work on his first book. He returned 'to polo and my friends' in Bangalore, but the success of his writing and his realisation that it could be a serious source of income had taken the edge off his passion for the sport. In January 1898, he wrote to his mother, describing how the regiment were all thinking about the Inter-regimental Tournament but admitted, 'It fills a very different position in my mind to what it did last year.' The 4th Hussars were beaten in the tournament by the Durham Light Infantry, but 'escaped without disgrace'.
By the end of 1898, Churchill had decided to leave the Army. He was about to publish his novel Savrol and had offers to write biographies on his father and the First Duke of Marlborough. The budding politician also hungered for a seat in Parliament and had been encouraged in this by the Prince of Wales, who told him: 'Parliamentary and literary life is what would suit you best.' Returning to India to play in a final few tournaments, he wrote: 'I am playing polo quite well now. Never again shall I be able to do so. Everything will have to go to the war chest.' The Hussars' decision to buy the stud of trained ponies and the sheer 'sustained intensity of purpose' resulted, in 1899, in their victory in the Inter-regimental Cup. They defeated the 5th Dragoon Lancers and the 9th Lancers before beating the 4th Dragoon Guards in the final, which Churchill described as 'a matter of life or death'. He wrote in My Early Life: 'Do not grudge these young soldiers gathered from so many regiments their joy and sport. Few of that merry throng were destined to see old age. Our team was never to play again.'
In 1899, Churchill began his political career in earnest and, in 1900, entered Parliament as the Conservative MP for Oldham, but he soon became concerned about leading a sedentary life, 'increasingly crippled' by a shoulder he had injured a year or two earlier, off the polo field.
In early 1901, he started playing polo again for a number of teams, including the House of Commons and the Old Harrovians, and informed his mother, 'I think if I can get two days a week at Hurlingham or Ranelagh, it will provide me with the physical exercise and mental countercurrent that these late hours and continual sitting of the House absolutely require.' There is little evidence, however, that Churchill played much, if any, polo from 1908 onwards, although there is a report of him playing in Spain in 1914 as a guest of King Alfonso XII I. It is not until 1920 that polo is again mentioned in Churchill's papers. In January 1920, he bought some ponies and became a playing member at Roehampton. In April 1922, by then in his late forties, he had a polo accident at Eaton Hall. Churchill played a few times early in the season, but then decided in July not to play again that year, on health grounds, and then lent his ponies to Sir Archibald Sinclair (later Lord Thurso).
Churchill clearly had not planned to retire from polo completely and, in March 1923, he played in an American tournament in Cannes. During the early Twenties, he played, on a number of occasions, for the House of Commons against the House of Lords. The photograph on the left is of him playing at Ranelagh for the Commons in 1925 - one of the last times he played polo in Britain. In August 1925, he wrote to Lord Kimberley to inform him he was giving up polo and asking him to help sell his ponies. In response, Kimberley suggested that any sale was delayed until the spring.
In December of the following year, Churchill corresponded with Admiral Lord Keyes, an old polo friend, about his imminent visit to inspect the Mediterranean fleet in Malta. As part of the stay, Keyes invited Churchill to play polo. Clearly, Churchill knew that, at 52, he was taking a risk and wrote to Keyes saying the game would have to be a 'mild one', adding: 'If I expire on the ground, it will at any rate be a worthy end.' The match on 8 January 1927 was to be the last Churchill played. He wrote to Clementine: 'I got through the polo without shame or distinction and enjoyed it so much.'
Churchill played polo in many parts of the world, including India, France, Spain, Egypt and
Malta and the famous quote, 'a polo handicap is your passport to the world', is attributed to him. There is no evidence in his writings, speeches or diaries that he ever made this remark. Rather like some of the others attributed to him, it is probably one that he wished he had said.