Winston’s Lost Watch

  • Churchill in 1895, the year after he graduated from Sandhurst, as a Hussars officer | © CORBIS
  • Lord Randolph’s career as an important Tory politician deteriorated while Winston was still a boy | © CORBIS
  • Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome, was an American heiress and a famous beauty | © CORBIS

How a watch led to one of young Winston Churchill’s finest hours.

  • “I would not believe you could be such a young stupid.”- Lord Randolph churchill

  • Dent was among the most prestigious names in English watchmaking.

  • “I cannot understand anybody not taking the greatest care of a good watch.”- Lord Randolph churchill

It was the kind of accident that happens before you know it. The cadet ambled along beside a stream on a spring afternoon, then bent down on the bank to pick up a stick―and in an instant, the pocketwatch in his breast pocket had slipped out and plunked into the water.

He immediately disrobed and dove for it, but he could only manage to stay in the frigid water for 10 minutes, and no luck: he couldn’t find the watch. Although most of the stream was shallow, the watch had fallen in a six-foot-deep pool―the only one for miles around.

Most people would probably leave it there, lamenting a moment of bad luck and going home. Or they would try to tell themselves that it didn’t matter, and that the loss was no big deal. But this young man was Winston Churchill, and the watch―a Dent, with a half-hunter case and the Churchill family coat of arms engraved and enamelled on the back―was not something he could just give up.

At the time, in April 1894, Churchill was 19 and in his first year as an infantry cadet at Sandhurst, the Royal Military College southwest of London. His uniform had no place to keep his pocketwatch protected, and he could not attach a chain for it. Although he’d a leather case especially made for his watch, it wasn’t enough to shield the Dent against the elements.

Winston was determined to get the watch back because of what it meant to him. The gold Dent had been a gift from his father, Lord Randolph, before Winston went to Sandhurst.

As a boy, Winston Churchill wouldn’t have appeared to anyone as a leader and a hero in the making. He showed little of the grit, courage, or authority he would later be known for. Instead, he was generally described as an unimpressive student, without much drive or ambition. He was demanding of his parents, irresponsible, and clumsy. Getting accepted to the military college had taken him three tries. But the loss of the Dent watch brought out another side of him.

Winston hired 23 members of his infantry detachment at a cost of three pounds and had them dig a separate course for the stream, routing all the water away from the pool. He then got his hands on the Royal Military College’s fire engine and pumped the pool completely dry. There, at the bottom, he finally found his watch. The insides were rusted and the watch would have to be entirely taken apart. He sent the watch to the shop of M.F. Dent in London, hoping to have it repaired quickly and be done with it. The story of Winston almost literally moving heaven and earth to get the watch back became the stuff of legend: his peers at Sandhurst would retell it, and even decades later, friends would write to him recalling the event.

But the victory was short-lived. On April 21, he received an unexpected letter from his father. “I would not believe you could be such a young stupid,” Lord Randolph wrote. Randolph had already been angry when Winston damaged the watch the month before: a cadet running by had batted it out of his hand, and it had needed a new balance staff, minutes wheel, pinion, seconds hand and crystal. The watch also had to be cleaned and its case needed repairing. Now, hearing of even worse damage to the timepiece, Randolph was furious.

Winston was alarmed: how could his father have learned about the mishap? As it happened, while Winston’s watch was in Dent’s shop on Cockspur Street, Lord Randolph had taken his own watch into the same shop for repairs. Things still might have gone off without a hitch, but the watchmaker, Edward John Dent, hadn’t realised that Winston wanted to keep his misadventure under wraps, and told all to the elder Churchill. Consequently, Lord Randolph took the opportunity to lecture Winston on his actions:

It is clear you are not to be trusted with a valuable watch & when I get it from Mr Dent I shall not give it back to you. You had better buy one of those cheap watches for £2 as those are the only ones which if you smash are not very costly to replace. Jack [Winston’s younger brother] has had the watch I gave him longer than you have had yours; the only expenses I have paid on his watch was 10/s for cleaning before he went back to Harrow. But in all qualities of steadiness taking care of his things & never doing stupid things Jack is vastly your superior.

72TheRoyal The Royal Military College at Sandhurst as it was in Churchill’s time | © The FranciS Frith Collection

Lord Randolph’s words were painful and surprising, but it was not the first time that he had lashed out at his son. Winston had immense admiration for Lord Randolph, whose career as a prominent Tory leader had culminated when he briefly became chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the House of Commons in 1886. But Randolph’s political rise was over nearly before it began, and by 1890 he was mostly forgotten.

Churchill’s relationship with his father was characterised by distance and unpredictability. He cherished the rare moments of warmth from Lord Randolph, and would think back longingly to “the three or four long intimate conversations with him, which are all I can boast”. It was unknown to Winston and his family at the time of the watch incident, that the beleaguered Lord Randolph was approaching the end of his life. Although historians dispute the cause of his death―tertiary syphilis and a brain tumour have often been suggested―Randolph began to deteriorate mentally by 1894, losing his faculties and his ability to speak clearly. His contemporary Lord Rosebery once referred to Randolph’s humiliating end, still trying to behave like himself and making embarrassing efforts to speak in Parliament, as “dying by inches in public”. Most of this disintegration wasn’t noticeable to the Churchill family until it was far advanced; and it was certainly not apparent to Winston, who had so few chances to be around his father during his cadetship.

75Dentwatch A Dent watch similar in appearance to Churchill’s. This 1896 Dent was recently sold at auction by Christie’s | CHRISTIE’S images ltd. 2012

Lord Randolph’s mental duress had already led to several particularly cold-hearted criticisms of his son. A year before, when Winston had finally gained admission to Sandhurst, Randolph said little in congratulations, instead rebuking the boy for low marks that “demonstrated beyond refutation your slovenly happy-go-lucky harum scarum style of work for which you have always been distinguished at your different schools.”

With all the advantages you had, with all the abilities which you foolishly think yourself to possess & which some of your relations claim for you, with all the efforts that have been made to make your life easy & agreeable & your work neither oppressive nor distasteful, this is the grand result that you come up among the 2nd rate & 3rd rate class who are only good for commissions in a cavalry regiment. … if you cannot prevent yourself from leading the idle useless unprofitable life, … you will become a mere social wastrel, one of the hundreds of the public school failures, and you will degenerate into a shabby unhappy & futile existence.

Now with the Dent watch, Winston had once again infuriated his father through an unhappy accident. Lord Randolph was astounded at his son’s lack of responsibility. “The old Mr Dent was quite concerned at one of [the] best class of watches being treated in such a manner. ... I cannot understand anybody not taking the greatest care of a good watch,” he wrote to his wife, Lady Randolph. Then, he added: “I wanted you to know this as he may tell a very different story.”

In this situation, as in others, Winston’s mother served as a buffer between her husband and her son. Randolph knew that his wife would be easier on Winston. Lady Randolph, née Jennie Jerome, was an American heiress and a famous beauty, known to have a long line of paramours. As Winston grew up, she became a more and more consistent advocate for him, and at times a political mentor, too. In France at the time of the incident, she comforted Winston about the loss of the Dent.

Dearest Winston,
I am so sorry you have got into trouble over your watch―Papa wrote to me all about it. … However he wrote very kindly about you so you must not be too unhappy. … Oh! Winny what a harum scarum fellow you are! You really must give up being so childish. I am sending you £2 with my love. I shall scold you well when we meet.

Yr loving

Winston had gone to great lengths and showed great responsibility in getting the watch back, but he also showed real maturity in dealing with the aftermath of the debacle. Responding to his father, he seems to have taken his mother’s advice to heart. His reply to Lord Randolph shows a young man developing formidable character, and making an effort to abandon his childish ways and take responsibility for himself in full:

I have been very unfortunate about the watch… really I have had it for over a year without an accident and then come 2 in a fortnight. Yet I have been no less careful of it during that fortnight than during the preceding year.

Winston went on to describe the events in meticulous detail, admitting that he had been wrong and explaining where accidents had occurred outside of his control, as in the first case with the other boy. He acknowledged his own fault, saying, “this time I am more to blame”, and he even explained all of his exertions with the pool and the infantry cadets in order to show his father how much trouble he had taken to find the watch. “I would rather you had not known about it,” he writes at the end of the letter, “but since you know about it―I feel I ought to tell you how it happened in order to show you that I really valued the watch and did my best to make sure of it.”

I quite realise that I have failed to do so and I am very very sorry that it should have happened. But it is not the case with all my things. Everything else you have ever given me is in as good repair as when you gave it first.

75HomeSecretary Churchill in 1910, when he was Home Secretary | © CORBIS

Winston’s measured, mature response must have comforted his father somewhat. In the end, he didn’t have to buy a replacement: Lord Randolph resolved to purchase and send Winston a less valuable pocketwatch made by the Waterbury Watch Co.―“which is rather a come down,” Winston admitted to his mother. Indeed, a Waterbury was a far cry from an English Dent watch. Waterbury was an American brand that mass-produced its watches; 75 years later its name would become “Timex”.

Still, in a letter to his brother Jack, Winston made the best of the situation. “I have an excellent Waterbury watch, which keeps far better time than the gold one”, he wrote after the fact. Jack was six years younger than Winston, and had been eager to hear news about the scuffle that had everyone in the family up in arms. (“Why haven’t I heard all these goings on before, how silly to have broken the watch!!!! Mama said Papa was furious… Do write! And let me know how the watch happened.”) Although Winston downplayed the incident to his brother, the whole affair must have plagued him for a long time. The Dent watch would later be given to Jack; Winston would never own it again. Jack wore it throughout his life and passed it on to his own son. (It was eventually stolen, and is no longer in the Churchill family.) The token of a father’s respect had been taken away, and Winston could not get it back.

But Winston took comfort in knowing that he had handled the situation well. Reflecting on it frankly in a follow-up letter to his mother, he writes:

I feel quite clear in my own mind that I am not to blame except for having brought so good a watch back here―where there is everything in the way of its safety.

The loss and recovery of Winston’s watch has the feeling of a turning point in the young man’s life. Sandhurst had a significant effect on Churchill’s character, his ambition, and his ability to apply himself. By the end of his time there, Winston graduated 20th out of 130 cadets, a marked improvement from his arrival.

However, Lord Randolph didn’t live to see any of his son’s successes. Even during their tensions over the watch, Randolph’s mind was going; two weeks after the angry letter, his doctor advised him to give up public life altogether. He would die in January of 1895, just as Winston was graduating from Sandhurst. Winston was dedicated to preserving and honouring his father’s legacy; one of the first of his many books was a biography of Lord Randolph, aimed at repairing the reputation of the elder Churchill.

In the last years of Lord Randolph’s life, Winston had hoped for some rapprochement. “Had he lived another four or five years, he could not have done without me. But there were no four or five years! Just as friendly relations were ripening into an Entente, and an alliance or at least a military agreement seemed to my mind not beyond the bounds of reasonable endeavour, he vanished for ever.”

In the decades that followed, Churchill owned several other watches, the most famous of which is a gold Breguet no. 765 pocketwatch―a chronograph with a minute repeater and a flyback seconds hand, purchased by his uncle the Duke of Marlborough. He owned at least one other Dent: company records show that in 1911 he bought a gold Dent pocketwatch, again with a hunter case. Churchill died on January 24, 1965―70 years to the day after his father’s death.

73monument A monument to Churchill now stands opposite the Palace of Westminster, facing the clock first installed by Dent in 1859 | © adrian zenz/shutterstock.com

The Making of Dent

When Lord Randolph Churchill gave his son Winston a gold Dent watch (see main story), he was being generous indeed: Dent was one of the most prestigious names in England’s celebrated watch history.

The founder of the Dent watch company was the watchmaker Edward John Dent (1790-1853), who apprenticed and then served under a number of British watchmakers before becoming a partner in the firm of Arnold & Dent in London in 1830. (“Arnold” was John Roger Arnold, son of the famous John Arnold.) In 1840, Dent struck out on his own and became respected as a maker of chronometers and clocks used in voyages of discovery. Dent watches were used during Charles Darwin’s 1831 journey on the H.M.S. Beagle, and David Livingstone purchased a Dent chronometre for his voyage to the interior of Africa in 1850. The Dent firm was responsible for many patents and innovations. Thomas Prest, who worked for Arnold & Dent, made one of the world’s first keyless-winding mechanisms. Dent became a standard of fine watchmaking for royalty, and the company made timepieces for monarchs in Britain, Russia, Japan, Persia, and elsewhere. In 1852, Dent received the order to construct the great clock commonly known as Big Ben for London’s Palace of Westminster. (Strictly speaking, the name “Big Ben” refers to the clock’s hour bell, not the clock itself.) The clock was installed in 1859.

Following E.J. Dent’s death in 1853, his company was split between his two stepsons, and for the next 67 years there were two separate Dent companies― E. Dent & Co. and M.F. Dent. Lord Randolph purchased the gold watch for Winston from M.F. Dent, located at 33-34 Cockspur St., London. (The “Mr. Dent” referred to in Winston’s and Lord Randolph’s letters is another Edward John Dent, 1854-1899, the fourth member of the family to carry this name.) The Dent company continued to operate through the 20th century, no longer making timepieces but rather repairing its old ones. In 2008, the Dent brand came back on the scene and began producing wristwatches. Its legacy as an historic watchmaker lives on today.

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