Doreen Pugh, secretary who worked for Sir Winston Churchill in the final decade of his life – obituary

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Doreen Pugh - Courtesy of Monty Wates
Doreen Pugh - Courtesy of Monty Wates

Doreen Pugh, who has died aged 96, worked as a secretary for Sir Winston Churchill from 1955 until his death, and in interviews with the Churchill Archives Centre at Churchill College, Cambridge, and with Cita Steltzer for her book Working with Winston, described the “sweet”, playful, but demanding man she came to know.

May 1955, when Doreen Pugh was taken on, was not a happy time for Churchill. Suffering increasingly from health problems, he had resigned in April as prime minister, but had had to return to London from holiday in Syracuse to fight his seat in the general election.

Doreen Pugh reckoned that she had been recommended by the secretarial agency because she had worked for Reuters and “they thought I knew about pressure and speed and that sort of thing”.

Her interview with the great man took place at the Hyde Park Hotel, where the Churchills were living until their house in Hyde Park Gate could be made ready. She found him ensconced, somewhat alarmingly, in “this great bed” and was so nervous her hands were shaking. But she was struck by his “lovely skin and a lovely expression... And lovely hands”.

She was appointed, on a temporary basis, for a month. In the event she remained with him until his death nearly 10 years later, boxing and coxing for the first few years with her fellow recruit Gillian Maturin.

Like all those who worked for Churchill, in addition to secretarial work Doreen Pugh was expected to muck in and help with personal chores which, in her case, often seemed to involve animals.

“All his animals and birds and fish were very close friends and he had a lion [called Rota] at the London zoo whom he used to visit. He had a photograph of him in his bedroom,” she recalled. When he was told that Rota would have to be put down he “took it rather personally. He thought he and Rota were going along together. Pretty upsetting.”

When the chauffeur or detective was not available she stepped in as his driver to visit his pig farm at Chartwell. Meanwhile, on drives between offices and houses, Churchill’s budgerigar Toby was always “out of his cage and fussing about and chewing edges of papers”. Toby travelled with the Churchill entourage on holidays in France, requiring “endless forms and Ministry of Agriculture permits and visas and French Embassy and everything you could think of, and you had to swear that he hadn’t met another budgie or might carry parrot’s disease.”

Doreen Pugh with Sir Winston Churchill
Doreen Pugh with Sir Winston Churchill

His love of animals revealed Churchill’s playful side. When she was fairly new, Doreen Pugh recalled being startled when Churchill suddenly said “Come here darling, I want to kiss you,” before adding, with a mischievous twinkle, “I meant the cat.”

It would never have crossed Churchill’s mind that his secretaries had other lives, she said. Their days began at 9am and typically lasted until 11pm, while holidays were “a sad story”. For the first two years she and Gillian Maturin got a fortnight off per year. When they asked whether they could have three weeks, Churchill said, with a grin, “I know three weeks is better than two but I can’t spare you.”

The following year they appealed to his wife Clementine, who took more of an interest in their personal lives – she was “very keen on romance” – and the extra week was granted.

But there was no getting away from the films, ordered from the Kinematograph Rental Society, that Churchill often liked watching after dinner: “He was jolly upset if everybody wasn’t there”. “Any film with Vivien Leigh was absolutely safe to be had again,” Doreen Pugh recalled. “Anything about the American Civil War... He liked a good western... anything in French... things about animals tended to be good”, so long as there was a happy ending.

Doreen Pugh worked on all aspects of the 1955 election, coordinating constituency visits and typing out Churchill’s speeches, which involved “a lot of dictating, and that was quite nerve-wracking, very quickly learning to hear it and get it and to spell... and all the time there was a lot of other work to do and a lot of catching up and mountains of things which wanted attention.”

Later, his work on The History of the English-Speaking Peoples formed a large part of her workload, though she continued to deal with huge amounts of correspondence including “mad letters” from members of the public. “I think great people attract certain regular maddies,” she reflected. “We got very few obscene ones, I’m happy to say.”

One of her more challenging tasks was to prepare Churchill’s notes for a meeting with Anthony Eden (who had succeeded Churchill as prime minister) to discuss the Suez crisis, in a car speeding from Chartwell to Chequers. Churchill, she recalled, “dictated and I could not type with the car going along ... It was a huge heavy typewriter. But he was terribly helpful in helping me turn the paper and handing me pencils and rubbers and being very sweet and funny”. They stopped in a layby for some while so that she could finish.

When Churchill took holidays, work went with him as did the secretaries: “Mountains of stuff went. As if we were going to a desert island or something”. Doreen Pugh loved staying at Lord Beaverbrook’s villa in the South of France, “La Capponcina”, which “smelled of France”, and she recalled, while staying at La Mamounia in Marrakesh, “amazing picnics” in the foothills of the Atlas mountains with “long tables and fine linens, silver, endless tea-making things, all set up, awaiting his arrival”.

Doreen Pugh: in later life she lived in Herstmonceux, and volunteered at Chartwell when it was opened by the National Trust - Courtesy of Monty Wates
Doreen Pugh: in later life she lived in Herstmonceux, and volunteered at Chartwell when it was opened by the National Trust - Courtesy of Monty Wates

As decline set in and Churchill became increasingly deaf, he was gloomy at times, though he was “always very, very good at putting on the right face as though he could hear” and derived some pleasure from listening to “Gilbert and Sullivan and military marches” on his gramophone. While fewer people came to visit, an exception was Field Marshal Montgomery, whom Doreen described as “quite a difficult friend, but he was a close friend... one of the ones that bothered to come at the end of the day when things weren’t so much fun”.

It was when he retired from the House of Commons in 1964, after almost 50 years, that Doreen Pugh felt that Churchill “just gave up”. She was away when he suffered his final stroke in January 1965, but was called back to Hyde Park Gate: “We were all there in those last few days... and Lady Churchill sat with him sweetly so long. And the cat on the end of the bed.”

Churchill died on January 24. In his will he left Doreen Pugh £650, the equivalent of some £13,000 today.

Doreen Elizabeth Pugh was born in Leamington Spa on May 31 1925, the daughter of John Vernon Pugh, director of Charles H Pugh, the Birmingham-based company which manufactured Atco lawnmowers, the first mass-produced petrol mowers, from 1921. Her mother Doris, née Driver, was a secretary.

From boarding school in Buckinghamshire, Doreen trained at a secretarial college. After working for the Kent Messenger and Reuters, the press agency, she decided to see the world, and before her appointment as Churchill’s secretary had been travelling in Australia.

After Churchill’s death, Doreen Pugh worked as a secretary to Lady Birley, the founder of Charleston Manor Festival in East Sussex. In later life she lived at Herstmonceux, where she was involved with the local church and enjoyed gardening.

She kept in touch with the Churchill family and for many years was a volunteer at Chartwell after the National Trust opened it to the public. She also collaborated with Martin Gilbert on the final volume of his eight-volume biography of Churchill. On the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death in 2015, she attended a private dinner at Blenheim Palace.

She was appointed MBE in 1965 and was unmarried.

Doreen Pugh born May 31 1925, died July 17 2021

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