Born: 15 September, 1922, in London. Died: 31 May, 2014, in London, aged 91
FROM her youth, Mary Soames provided strong support for her father and mother. She was at his side during the Second World War and acted as his aide-de-camp on several overseas journeys, including his post-VE trip to Potsdam. On that occasion, she met the new US president Harry S Truman and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The latter Soames found “small, dapper and rather twinkly – and very impressive in his grand military uniform”.
Soames was much loved by both her parents and as the youngest helped them to adjust after Churchill lost the 1945 election. She was a forthright and strong lady who also supported her husband, the MP Christopher Soames, throughout his political career, particularly when he was ambassador in Paris – a post they fulfilled with great panache and style.
Soames was a most distinguished upholder of the name of Churchill and often spoke lovingly of her parents’ close relationship. From them, she inherited a very strong sense of duty and right. From her father she inherited a love of cigars, which until recently she used to enjoy after dinner.
Mary Spencer-Churchill spent a most happy childhood at her parent’s country home in Kent. In fact she was born the year Churchill lost his seat in the Commons and Soames was looked after by nannies and governesses. As the youngest, Mary, known as “the Chartwell child”, was very much part of everyday events and was allowed to roam the grounds: watch her father build his brick walls, paint his pictures and was accepted by all the famous guests. “I was” Soames wrote, “never confined to the nursery, but given entry to a grown-up world of interest, variety, excitement and fun”.
For much of her youth, Soames was looked after by Maryott Whyte – affectionately known as Nana. In her autobiography Soames wrote of Nana: “She was very upright, very Scottish, very religious and it was she who gave me my faith.” Indeed, her school holidays were often spent in Scotland with Nana.
She was educated at Manor House School near Chartwell and left aged 17 to serve with the Red Cross and the WVS during the war – often living with her parents in Admiralty House. In 1941, she joined the ATS, serving in mixed anti-aircraft batteries in Hyde Park.
She had visits from her father, who regularly watched air raids from the roves of Whitehall. Later she was stationed in Hastings. “I was billeted in a house on the front, quite exposed” she later recalled. “On Saturdays, the people next door used to ask if we’d like to have a bath and a fish tea.”
In the last years of the war Soames served, as an officer, with the ATS in Brussels and Hamburg.
On foreign trips, Soames often accompanied her father as ADC – always in uniform to ensure she was treated as an official. In 1943, she was at her father’s side at the talks in Quebec between Churchill, US president Roosevelt and the prime minister of Canada, Mackenzie King. She accompanied him to Potsdam for the Big Three Conference in the summer of 1945 and was demobbed in 1946.
On a visit with her father to the British Embassy in Paris, Mary met Captain Christopher Soames of the Coldstream Guards. The two fell instantly in love and were engaged within a month. After their marriage in 1947, the Soames lived at Chartwell and Christopher managed the farm.
As his political career progressed, Mary’s good-nature and sound political judgment proved an immense asset. She was at his side on six general election campaigns and in 1968 when he was appointed the UK ambassador in Paris. They were high profile (and politically turbulent) years: the Soames’ immense charisma and knowledge helped to soothe many difficult situations. They knew both French presidents Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
The Soames then spent four years in Brussels as her husband was appointed the British president of the European Community. It was a testing few years, made more intense when her husband underwent open heart surgery.
But Mary was thrown into another political cauldron in 1979 when her husband was appointed the last governor of Rhodesia. He had to prepare a ceasefire between the rebellious tribes and oversee an election. Eventually, Soames handed over power to Robert Mugabe in 1980. Mary was left with a huge vacuum to fill in 1987 when her husband died. She was appointed chairman of the National Theatre (she herself said, “the rummest appointment that was ever made”), but she and the director Richard Eyre got on well and it proved an inspired appointment.
She wrote a biography of her mother, served as a trustee on many Churchill foundations and was appointed a Lady Companion of the Order of the Garter in 2005. But it was the war that made this Churchill, too. At Hastings she had to intercept the V1 rockets. Her pet name for her father was Dove and she sent him a message while on duty: “The Battle Of Hastings proceeds according to plan. We are busy and in good heart and proud of our increased usefulness…Tender love Darling Dove from YOUR DOODLE GUNNER – MARY.”
Lord and Lady Soames had three sons and two daughters.