The opening of the Soames archives

26th February 2019 in Archives Centre, Our Collections

We are delighted to announce the opening of the archives of Mary and Christopher Soames.

Mary, who died in 2014, was Churchill’s last surviving child, and her collection is probably the last of the big Churchill family archives to be opened. Her diaries of the war years alone are a priceless resource, both while she was living close at her parents’ side, and acting as an aide to her father, for instance at the First Quebec Conference, and also while serving with the ATS.

Born in 1922, she was only sixteen when war broke out, and had to grow up very fast, but her diaries have all the breathless excitement of the teenager she was, delighting in “a simply hootsy-tootsy hat at Selfridges – 3 gns reduced to 30/- !! BARGAIN.  Mummie says I may have it – Whoops!”, enjoying numerous crushes, for example when she is placed by Mountbatten (“Glamour pants”) at dinner, and all the while never wavering in her adoration of her father, as when German forces occupied Athens, in 1941: “We all felt gloomy & depressed & then - Papa spoke to us all.  And then – We were all courageous again & ashamed of our fears & gloominess – here was strength – determination – just appreciation of the situation.  He gave us back our perspective.  I listened with mingled pride, wonder, humility & love”. Mary’s sheer enthusiasm for life never really changed: some 50 years later, when she was Chairman of the National Theatre, her diary betrays much the same sense of excitement over some of the performances she attends.

Mary Churchill

2nd Subaltern Churchill watches a demonstration of the latest methods of infantry training, Dec 1942. Clementine Churchill Papers, CSCT 5/5/67

But Mary’s diaries are only the start of it: in later years she was her husband Christopher’s greatest asset, particularly in his terms as Ambassador to France, and as the last Governor of Southern Rhodesia (Mary being the “Governess”, of course), and we have all of her papers from that era. If that wasn't challenging enough, Mary also followed her father as a successful writer, first in her award-winning biography of her mother Clementine, and then in several other books relating to her family, particularly her edition of her parents’ letters, “Speaking for Themselves” and her own memoir, “A Daughter’s Tale”. This is where you will find some of the most invaluable parts of the archive, as Mary collected everything she could find about the family as part of her research, including her own correspondence with her parents and siblings, and a massive photographic collection.

Christopher Soames’s archive has been partly open, though not sorted, for some years, but Mary had retained many of his papers, which also came to the Archives Centre on her death, so we decided to take the opportunity to redo the whole thing while the new material was being added in. Christopher (the “Great Pachyderm”) also began his career at Churchill’s side, as his father-in-law’s parliamentary private secretary during his second premiership in the 1950s. He went on to be one of the most successful Ambassadors to France that this country has ever had, at the key time of Britain’s entry into Europe, before spending five years as a Vice-President of the European Commission, so his papers have a wealth of detail on Britain’s relationship with Europe in the 1970s.  After serving as the last Governor of Southern Rhodesia, he ended his career in Thatcher’s Cabinet as Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Lords. 

Besides his voluminous correspondence and political and diplomatic papers, we have the recordings and transcripts of a series of interviews which Christopher had with the historian Martin Meredith, as a way in to writing his memoirs. Meredith ghosted a draft typescript from these interviews, but time pressure prevented Christopher from ever signing it off (and he was obliged to return the advance he’d had from his justly annoyed publishers).  The memoirs remained unpublished, but are now a key part of Christopher’s archive, ranging from his whirlwind wartime romance with Mary, to the tortuous negotiations with de Gaulle and Pompidou over Britain’s entry into Europe and Christopher’s somewhat tricky relationship with Margaret Thatcher.

Christopher Soames's resignation letter

Draft of Christopher’s succinct resignation letter on leaving the Thatcher Government, in 1981, after “a row you could hear all over Downing Street". Soames Papers, SOAM 1/13.

— Katharine Thomson, Archivist


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