Victory in the Kitchen: The Life of Churchill’s Cook 
by Annie Gray.
Profile, 390 pp., £16.99, February, 978 1 78816 044 5
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Thereare more than a thousand books about Winston Churchill, but this is the first about his cook, Georgina Landemare. Since it may well also be the last, it’s fortunate that she has fallen into the sympathetic hands of Annie Gray. Gray is a food historian and she sets Landemare’s long life in the context of changes in diet and eating habits over nearly a century. The story that unfolds against this background takes us from her birth, as Georgina Young, in a Hertfordshire village, through her late Victorian childhood to her appearance beside Churchill on VE day.

Gray’s ability to draw on the broader context is fortunate, because there are considerable gaps in the detail. Landemare gave an interview to Joan Bakewell in 1973, which catches her tone of voice, and she wrote a memoir, but near the end of her life she destroyed almost all of it. In 1977 her granddaughter, Edwina, discovered her ‘weeping in her bedsit kitchen’ as she ‘methodically’ shredded the pages and washed the pieces down the sink. She was doing so because her daughter and son-in-law had told her that her life was of no interest and her memories were worthless. She accepted their verdict but Edwina, happily, didn’t. The 27 pages she saved, which cover her grandmother’s childhood, are the foundations of Gray’s biography. Landemare’s father, Mark Young, was coachman to the Liberal MP Cyril Flower. Her mother, Mary, had been in service until her marriage, and the family belonged to what Gray calls ‘the affluent working class’. Between Aldbury, the picturesque but poor village where Landemare was born in 1882, the local market town of Tring and the backwater of Aston Clinton where she grew up, families like the Youngs were held in the orbit of the local landowners, who included the Flowers, the Harcourts (for whom her grandfather was a gamekeeper) and, especially, the Rothschilds at Tring Park. The Tring estate covered five thousand acres and employed three hundred people, when the population of Tring was four thousand. The other source of employment, already in decline, was the local craft of straw plaiting.

Family life operated laterally across networks of aunts and cousins. An evocative passage in Landemare’s memoir describes a six-mile walk from Aston Clinton to Aldbury with her mother and two younger siblings to visit her maternal grandmother. Gray suggests it is a composite of many such trips. There were stops en route, the most exciting of which was at Tring Park, where Mrs Young took a welcome rest while the children watched the kangaroos. These belonged to Walter Rothschild’s menagerie, a source of great local interest and periodic nuisance. The edible dormice escaped and became a pest (there is still a thriving population in the local area), while the ha-ha, effective in stopping sheep from straying, presented no obstacle to the kangaroos which bounced over to the flower garden and dug it up. Apart from these exotica the world of Landemare’s childhood belongs to the late Victorian dreamtime, a chapter from Lark Rise to Candleford. After Tring they stopped to picnic for ‘dinner as it was called in those days’. Arriving at Aldbury, she found her grandmother had been making bread:

Just by her gate was a sort of shed and in it was an oven. So, she used to put in a faggot of wood and it would burn itself out. By that time the oven would be hot enough to cook the loaves and sometimes she would put in a rice pudding to start and I guess she would have to put on more faggots.

Brick beehive ovens of this sort, Gray explains, go back to Roman times.

Landemare’s education was sporadic. Her father’s job meant that the family went to London for the season, where the outdoor servants had lodgings in Little Grosvenor Mews. She left school at the age of 13: ‘I loved to read about the different things that happened in the Reformation [but] that wouldn’t get me a living.’ Her mother invoked the offices of the Sunday school teacher to get her a post as a nursemaid. What she might have done with more schooling is impossible to know, but her later career is evidence of a strong organising intelligence, a forceful but even temperament and a remarkable memory. After an interval charring while she considered what to do next, as well as a serious talking-to from an aunt, she decided she would be a cook and set about working her way up. She began as a scullery maid, ‘number six’ in the kitchens of a house in Kensington Palace Gardens that had a staff of about 14. Landemare set her standards early. She never took a position in a house with fewer than six staff, which implied a household income of less than £2000 a year.

Now I start my track of life. I started on ten pound a year, payable every quarter, two coarse aprons to clean the copper saucepans in … Although it was hard I liked it, and more so I liked to see my copper pans looking nice, and to see and to know all the uses of the small moulds. Today all that is no longer used.

At this point the surviving pages of the memoir come to an end.

Landemare’s career began at the moment when, as Arnold Palmer writes in Moveable Feasts (1952), life for the middle and upper classes had reached a most agreeable plateau. As Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee approached, ‘the ground beneath the feet had never been firmer … They were absolutely certain about the next day, they could depend upon the next year … they were happy.’ This comfortable stasis floated on a ‘deep reservoir of indoor and outdoor servants’ and glided through days punctuated by regular meals. After tea in bed came a substantial breakfast involving porridge, fish, eggs, sausages and marmalade. It was eaten around 8.30 a.m., much earlier than the Georgian breakfast, as it had now to make way for the meal that first appeared at the beginning of the century under various names, as nuncheon, noonings or noonshine and finally settled down to become luncheon and then lunch. Lunch elbowed its way into the day, pushing breakfast earlier and dinner later, and by the 1890s was itself moving clockwise towards 1.45 p.m. or even 2 p.m. It had become a social occasion, and luncheon parties, less formal than dinners, were popular. Then came what Palmer calls ‘the 19th century’s great gift to mankind, the afternoon’. Instead of the two-part day of Landemare’s childhood, divided into morning and evening by dinner, there was now a quadripartite arrangement of morning, afternoon, the interval between tea and dinner, and after dinner. Tea, as a significant social occasion, came into its own in the 1890s. ‘Why all these cups?’ Jack Worthing asks in The Importance of Being Earnest. ‘Why cucumber sandwiches? Why such reckless extravagance in one so young? Who is coming to tea?’ Algernon explains huffily that ‘it is customary in good society to take some slight refreshment at five o’clock.’

Below stairs, a kitchen maid might have to be down by 4.30 a.m. to start on the tea trays and breakfast. The rest of her day involved all the hardest and humblest tasks, from peeling vegetables to keeping the range lit. Her hands were subjected to a succession of ‘hot water, ice water, salted iced water (from ice cream), blood, guts, gore and the skin-blistering mixture of salt, sand and lemon’ required for cleaning pans. The food that was served in Landemare’s little copper moulds required a lot of puréeing. Everything from potatoes and carrots to rabbits and steak had to be pushed through a drum sieve and, as Landemare’s contemporary Margaret Powell recalled laconically, ‘This wasn’t easy.’ Every kitchen maid’s ambition was to learn enough to move up the service hierarchy. Landemare managed this in 1901, when she went to work for Edward Dunbar Kilburn, who had made a fortune in the import/export business and lived in Gloucester Square, a ‘good part of London’. As this was ‘new money’, dinner was served à la Russe, in sequential courses, of which there were at least seven. The order was fixed: hors d’oeuvres, soup, fish, entrées, joint with vegetables, sweets, savoury (and/or cheese) and dessert. In order to be smart, food had to aspire to be French, and French was the language of menus and cookery books. Agnes Marshall, the doyenne of cookery teachers at the time, explained to readers of Mrs A.B. Marshall’s Cookery Book that a ‘properly constructed sweet’ should be a source of ‘pleasure and taste’ but ‘in no way suggestive of nourishment or solidity … the average English tart is a fair example of precisely what a sweet should not be.’ By 1907, when she was 25, Landemare had learned enough to take a position as cook to the Allatinis, an Italian-Greek family living in Holland Park. But the great turning point came in 1909, when she married Paul Landemare.

Landemare was a French chef and a widower with six children. He came from a family of Parisian pâtissiers: the Landemares were listed in the Annuaire-almanach du commerce in the 1880s as suppliers of a range of sweetened breads, madeleines, biscuits and those insubstantial elegancies advocated by Mrs Marshall, such as the hérisson, a confection topped with meringue and studded with slivers of almond, to give the appearance of a hedgehog. Landemare’s childhood coincided with the last days of the pièces montées, the fabulous towers of pastry, fashionable in the Second Empire, an age of spun sugar, moulded pastillage and elaborate icing. Beyond this, still less is known about his life than Georgina’s. Like her he left school at 13, after which he took an apprenticeship in a restaurant. His life must have been violently disrupted by the siege of Paris in 1870 and the Commune that followed. One of the few relics of his earlier life is a copper pan marked ‘Système Café Voisin’, suggesting that he was once employed in the establishment now most remembered for its heroic feat, during the siege, of cooking one of the elephants from the Paris zoo. He may also have worked for Escoffier, but all that is certain is that he moved to England with his wife, Anne, in 1886. From London restaurants he went into the household of the 7th duke of Newcastle and then undertook a succession of ventures, including keeping a boarding house. Some suggestions that his marriage was unhappy and his wife mentally unstable are all that fill the interval before his marriage to Georgina, two months after Anne’s death.

In the summer of 1914 the certainties of the 1890s were shattered and the Landemares disappear from the record for a while. They emerged from the war unscathed, now with their own daughter, Yvonne, to find themselves in a world in which food was scarce and servants scarcer. The years from 1918 until Paul’s death in 1932 are ‘indistinct’, Gray writes, but it seems to have been a happy marriage. Landemare later said that she ‘worked with and learned from’ her husband. When she was widowed at fifty she was not well off, but her prospects were good. The interwar years saw the dawn of what Palmer disapprovingly refers to as ‘chain eating’. The era of the ‘unending snack’ had arrived. Cooking habits adapted to absence of staff and the availability of gadgets, gas ovens and refrigerators. Women’s fashions also changed and fewer corsets translated into fewer courses and an interest in dieting. There was less aspic and less sieving. Frills on cutlets went from being smart to being vulgar. But simplicity, whether in the form of a perfect omelette or a Chanel suit, requires skill. There is nowhere to hide a mistake. Any halfway decent cook became a ‘potentate’ in the middle and upper-class household. The Churchills’ daughter, Mary Soames, recalled that in her childhood the family’s cook had to be ‘approached at all times with care; she who must not be ruffled’. Diaries and magazine columns, especially E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, bear witness to the authority of this tremendous personage. ‘Last night I would have put my head in the gas oven,’ Ann Fleming wrote, ‘if I wasn’t too frightened of the cook to go into the kitchen.’

Landemare​ was the crème de la crème. She could afford to work as an ‘occasion’ cook for grand dinners and parties. Her clientele were often politicians. The exercise book in which she wrote her recipes reflects the decades of her experience, from hefty Canapés Edward VII (fried bread, bacon, mushrooms and devilled herring roe) to the lighter more cosmopolitan tastes of the 1930s – Waldorf salad and clam chowder – as well as the influence of her husband’s French training in a poulet Marengo. There were recipes named for clients, such as gâteau Worplesdon, for fellow cooks and for her sister, Maud. Yvonne’s name is applied to what Gray describes as a ‘simple, slightly bland chocolate cake’. It seems that mother and daughter were never close. Among Landemare’s regular clients in the mid-1930s were Winston and Clementine Churchill. Churchill was not at the time a minister, but he understood the political power of food. ‘He treated the dining room as a stage, and dinner as a performance.’ Happier as host than as a guest, he and Clementine gave dinners twice a week and frequent lunches. As lunch remained a less formal occasion the balance of the sexes didn’t matter. Winston and Clementine each held their own parties and she particularly enjoyed her ‘hen luncheons’.

Although the Churchills always lived beyond their means, by the end of the 1930s Landemare’s prices had exceeded the Churchills’ reach. The outbreak of war, however, altered domestic economics once again. The demand for grand dinners declined and Landemare decided a permanent post would be desirable. The Churchills took on ‘Mrs Mar’ in February 1940, less than a month after rationing started. Clementine was ‘enchanted … I knew she would make the best out of rations, and that everyone in the household would be happy.’ In May, Churchill became prime minister and Landemare moved into 10 Downing Street the following month. Here, at last, she becomes visible in history as a person described by others: ‘a round body’, according to one of the Churchill secretaries, ‘who could tell one in detail the intricacies of marriage and divorce among the aristocracy’. A woman who was ‘open and generous-spirited’ and ‘very calm indeed, whenever there was a mini-crisis’. She was quite often to be found sitting in the kitchen ‘half an hour or so before a big dinner … with everything under control, reading the Sporting Life’. In October 1940 this sangfroid nearly cost her her life. Churchill ran into the kitchen during an air raid and told her to get into the shelter, but Landemare, who was making a delicate pudding, refused: ‘If I’d’ve turned it out it’d’ve been no more – it was so light you see.’ Churchill insisted, and moments later the 25-foot plate-glass window at the back of the kitchen exploded into shards. ‘Ooh the rubble, terrible,’ she recalled. ‘He saved my life, I’m sure.’

Throughout the war she cooked at Downing Street, Chequers and occasionally in the tiny kitchen under the Cabinet War Rooms. Churchill was an enthusiast for chain eating, which was his interpretation of the medical advice he had been given before the war. He liked soup last thing at night and insisted, even at Yalta, on operating on ‘tummy time’. He was not a glutton but, as Gray puts it, ‘he was used to good food and plenty of it.’ Landemare was able to eke out their rations with produce from Chartwell, the Churchills’ country house in Kent. The prime minister had an extra allowance for diplomatic entertaining, the exact size and purpose of which was a subject of intense discussion between Churchill’s secretaries, the Ministry of Food and the Government Hospitality Fund. The meals Landemare provided were a ‘careful balancing act between need, want and public image’, carefully pitched at ‘hearty trencherman’ but avoiding any suggestion of greed or faddishness. Hitler, after all, was a vegetarian. Ingredients were not only fewer, but also more seasonally dependent. The gastronomic day of the 1930s and 1940s was relatively light compared with the 1890s. It began with breakfast in bed for Clementine and Winston at 8 a.m., which they took separately in their own rooms: orange juice, eggs, toast and butter. Lunch was held at 1.15 p.m. in London and at 2 p.m. at Chequers. On less formal occasions it might be fishcakes, for example, and pears in red wine. While the Churchills stuck mostly to the rules, they were not so strict about rationing as Buckingham Palace and the king quickly established a habit of coming to dinner every Tuesday. In March 1941 he and the Churchills sat down to ‘fish patty, tournedos with mushrooms on top and braised celery and chipped potatoes, peaches and cheese to follow’.

The Churchills were famously terrible employers. Many a cook and kitchen maid had left in tears and one had reputedly gone mad. Mrs Mar, however, did more than stay the course. She became a trusted ally and a friend to Mary, the Churchills’ daughter. She took a practical view of Winston’s peculiarities. If, as sometimes occurred, he ‘absent-mindedly wandered around stark naked’, she told him off and he would apologise. His roast beef ‘always had to be underdone’, but since he was often late for meals this could be difficult to achieve. Landemare’s method was to ‘watch till I knew he was in, then he’d have to have his bath and then I knew to put the meat in’. He was also apt to change his mind about where to eat, whether in the house or in the lavishly appointed bunker under the garden. This would mean wrapping all the dishes in a shawl, ‘sometimes at a rather late stage’ in their preparation, and jumping into the duty car to be driven round the back. Nothing was spilled or spoiled. On VE Day, Churchill addressed the crowds from the balcony of the Ministry of Health. Landemare took a while to get up the stairs but when she did he broke away from the group, shook her hand and said he couldn’t have done it without her.

She stayed in post through the 1945 election defeat and the triumph of 1951. They all returned to Downing Street. ‘They welcomed me at Number Ten and I, I can’t remember the gentleman that was in charge of Number Ten, he was Sir Somebody, but he said “Welcome back Mrs Landemare” and I was so pleased.’ She was, in her way, famous. When Charlie Chaplin came to dinner he was asked if he would like to meet her. By now she was seventy. There were numerous attempts at retirement, but whether she missed the Churchills or they – now blacklisted by all the recruitment agencies – couldn’t manage without her, it wasn’t until 1954 that she finally stopped work, eight days before the end of rationing. When Churchill himself stepped down in 1955, she returned to cook his grand farewell dinner. Her Recipes from Number Ten appeared in 1958 with an affectionate foreword by Clementine, who went through the text with a black pen putting the accents on, as Landemare had learned French phonetically from her husband. Over the next decade her style of cookery came to seem ever more old-fashioned, and the prewar world was fading fast. The era of Formica and hostess trolleys had dawned, with Fanny Cradock on TV cooking in a ballgown. Chartwell had been given to the National Trust. The last years of Landemare’s life weren’t happy. Writing to Churchill, who had sent her one of his books, she said that she would enjoy it ‘as I have already done your war books, and it gives me such pleasure in the many hours of leisure I have, since I gave up my life’s ambition’. Her life and its ambitions were not much appreciated by Yvonne. The first in the family to stay on at school, she had risen to become a shorthand typist for a chartered accountant. Like her husband, Ted Higgins, she was ‘left-leaning’. The Higginses disapproved of the hierarchical world in which Landemare had served and even more, perhaps, of the fact that she had enjoyed it.

Her granddaughter, with whom she had a warmer relationship, recalled that when Landemare visited she was not asked about her life, or encouraged to cook, though she taught Edwina some recipes before she left for university. When Ted and Yvonne moved to Stanmore, Landemare gave them her savings to build a granny flat, where she lived from 1967. Clementine Churchill was a regular visitor. Thanks to Upstairs, Downstairs and the efforts of the National Trust, stories of life in service began to be of general interest. Bakewell interviewed Landemare for an episode of Times Remembered on BBC Two. Kathleen Hill, one of Churchill’s secretaries, urged her to write her memoir. In it she made a small stand against her son-in-law and his insistence that hers were ‘the bad old days’. ‘Driving in a car you see … no beauty. Their only concern is petrol and if their car is as good as their neighbour’s.’ Not long after Ted and Yvonne had persuaded her the memoir was a waste of time, Yvonne became ill and Landemare moved to a nursing home. She was there when she heard of Clementine’s death. Mary Soames sent her a glass rose in a globe and an angora cape as keepsakes. Landemare wrote back to say that she was lonely. She had outlived the Churchills, and she outlived Yvonne by some months. She was 96 when she died in her sleep. In 1985 the Cabinet War Rooms opened to the public and when the kitchen was recreated, Edwina donated her grandmother’s copper pans, including the one from Café Voisin.

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Vol. 42 No. 17 · 10 September 2020

Rosemary Hill’s piece about Churchill’s cook reminded me of stories told by my grandmother, Lillian Bird, about her time in service (LRB, 16 July). She entered a large Hertfordshire house in 1907 at the age of 14 as a ‘tweeny maid’. One of her tasks was to hold bowls for the ladies of the house into which they could vomit up their lunches and teas to make room for the next huge meal while preserving their narrow waists. She soon left service, fleeing with her husband, a gardener at the house. I don’t recall seeing this aspect of country-house life in Downton Abbey.

Michael Prior
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

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