The Oddities, Eccentricities and Strange Habits of British Prime Ministers

Whichever way you look at it, Britain is a successful country.

As Irish comedian Dara O’Briain puts it in his analysis of England, we come “about fifth in almost everything”. GDP, tourism, years spent in education and Olympic medals when the games aren’t held in London – in all of these, Britain comes somewhere between fourth and fifth, which – as O’Briain also notes – is really quite impressive in a world with about 200 countries in it.
You might wonder what kinds of people have captained such a country to its place in the modern world. Were they bold, courageous, visionary and inspiring? Were they shrewd, cunning and quick to see which way the winds of change were blowing? Perhaps they were down to earth, wise and in touch with the common man? Maybe some of them even combined a few of these noble traits. While some of the above may have been the case, what does also seem to have been true is that Britain’s prime ministers have been really quite odd.

To a certain extent, of course, power leads to strange habits. President Obama shares with Mark Zuckerberg the desire to avoid decision fatigue (as the name implies – having made so many decisions you lack the energy to make more) and both avoid it by wearing more-or-less the same outfit and eating more-or-less the same thing every day. This is normal behaviour for people who need to make good decisions or risk damaging the lives of millions, but would be a little strange in those of us who aren’t presidents or CEOs. But some of the oddities and eccentricities of British prime ministers have been a little stranger than that. Things like…

1. Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, carried a dagger-tipped umbrella

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, is a rare example of someone whose biography doesn’t usually begin with the fact that he was prime minister. In fact, at the time of writing, it takes until the fifth paragraph of his Wikipedia page before it’s mentioned that he was prime minister twice over (though admittedly he only held the office for two years). His political career inevitably takes second place to his triumph over Napoleon at Waterloo – possibly because while he was a brilliant military tactician, he was not a popular prime minister, losing a vote of no confidence in 1830 at a time when the ‘Swing Riots’ were spreading through southern England.

However, he should be given credit for a stylish response to a political challenge: when his political opponent, the Earl of Winchilsea, described Wellington’s support for Catholic emancipation as “an insidious design for the infringement of our liberties and the introduction of Popery into every department of the State”, Wellington challenged him to a duel. When they met to duel, Wellington fired his pistol far wide of Winchilsea; Winchilsea did nothing on the command to ‘fire’, then fired straight upwards into the air. Wellington claimed he missed deliberately, but this has been subject to debate, as he was known to be a poor shot. Winchilsea, with commendable bravery (or very little faith in Wellington’s ability to aim) appeared to have decided ahead of time not to try to shoot Wellington, and gave him a pre-prepared letter of apology for his remarks.
It’s clear that Wellington lived in violent times, which helps explain his eccentric decision to carry a dagger concealed in his umbrella. Spencer Perceval, a previous prime minister, had been assassinated in 1812, just sixteen years before Wellington took the job. Whether Wellington ever had cause to use the umbrella in anger isn’t known.
Image is a button that reads, "Browse all EFL and English Culture articles."

2. Gordon Brown ate four KitKats a day, then switched to nine bananas

Few British prime ministers can beat Richard Nixon for odd food choices. The former US president enjoyed cottage cheese and pineapple (normal enough so far) covered in ketchup (eww). Meanwhile, it would probably be quite enjoyable to dine with Winston Churchill, who enjoyed the finer things like chocolate eclairs and oysters. Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher both cut carbs to lose weight, with Thatcher filling up on 28 eggs per week to see her through. The current prime minister, David Cameron, seems to have no concerns about his figure – he reportedly enjoys malt loaf fried in hazelnut butter, dusted with sugar, which it has to be said sounds utterly delicious.

But probably the strangest eating habits come from the prime minister who preceded Cameron, Gordon Brown. His route to the premiership was rocky – he and Tony Blair fought over who was going to get the top job, and then Brown was a thorn in Blair’s side until Blair finally handed over the reins in 2007, only for Britain to be plunged into a financial crisis that contributed considerably to Brown’s failure to get re-elected. With headlines like “fat Prime Minister Gordon Brown should lose weight, says diet expert” (the Mirror, August 2009), it’s not surprising that Brown decided to try and get in shape ahead of the 2010 election. To do this, he ditched his three- or four-a-day KitKat habit and switched in eating colossal quantities of bananas, leading to a plethora of articles comparing the merits of the two.

3. Margaret Thatcher slept for only four hours a night

Margaret Thatcher projected an image of formidable confidence, and one part of that was in her ability to cope on just four hours of sleep every night. It meant she was, in the words of her biographer John Campbell, “the best informed person in the room”. It also posed a challenge for her successor, John Major – while Thatcher would keep her colleagues up until the early hours of the morning, Major had a more normal sleep cycle and found it exhausting to try to keep up with the civil servants who had spent 11 years getting accustomed to Thatcher’s regime.

Thatcher isn’t the only politician to have got by on remarkably little sleep. Churchill was said to have managed on just four hours a night as well (but this was combined with lengthy afternoon naps, which wouldn’t work so well in the modern political climate). Bill Clinton also got by or four or five hours sleep a night while he was US president, though this seems to have been a struggle for him; he described himself as a “functional insomniac” and kept going on 20-minute power naps during the day. Barack Obama sleeps for what seems in this context to be a positively indulgent six hours a night. Donald Trump claims to sleep for only three or four. On the other extreme, George W Bush and Calvin Coolidge slept for nine hours per night or more. The 24-hour news cycle of modern political campaigns rewards people who can manage on little sleep, and aides describe the process as “incredibly taxing”, with the days blurring into one another the closer the election gets.

4. Winston Churchill spent a large part of one visit to the White House naked

Winston Churchill could quite easily claim the title of Britain’s most eccentric prime minister. As his frequent appearances in this article already demonstrate, it could easily enough be dedicated entirely to him. Though he was prime minister just 60 years ago, some of the stories of his life seem to fit better with the stranger days of early 18th century politics. He took 60 bottles of assorted alcoholic drinks with him when he went to cover the Boer War as a war correspondent for the Morning Post. He ended up as a prisoner of war, but escaped by scaling a wall and hiding in a mine shaft for three days. And he liked to wear a green velvet ‘siren suit’ – an all-in-one garment that was effectively a onesie.

But possibly the most startling story about Churchill is about the time when, at the height of the war late in 1941, he paid a 24-day visit to the White House – and spent a sizeable amount of time naked. In the words of the White House’s Chief Usher, JB West, he wore “the jumpsuit or nothing” – the jumpsuit being one of his specially designed one-piece ‘siren suits’, some of which looked quite smart, like a military uniform, and others of which looked remarkably like a toddler’s romper suit. But in his room, he often chose to wear nothing at all. It’s not as if his room was a place of particular privacy where nobody but the nosiest of fellow White House residents would see him. West noted that “the servants never quite got over seeing him naked in his room when they’d go up to serve brandy.”

5. Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, gave several of his children near-identical names

Anyone trying to memorise the names of British monarchs will soon get used to endless repeating names. The tradition of naming children after their grandparents leads to confusion – particularly in Scotland, where lists of monarchs end up being endless rows of Jameses and Marys. Among Prime Ministers, there was William Pitt the Elder and William Pitt the Younger; Pitt the Younger was Pitt the Elder’s son. It’s pretty obvious that we have greater diversity in first names now than was the case two hundred years ago, but the extent to which this is true can be surprising.
Take Charles Grey and his 15 children: Louisa Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Caroline, Georgiana, George, Charles, Frederick William (a brief burst of creativity as he started having sons), Mary, William, George (yes, he had two sons called George and a daughter called Georgiana, born in 1802, 1809 and 1801 respectively), Thomas, John, Francis Richard, Henry Cavendish (more creativity) and finally William George.

Counting middle names, that’s three Georges, three Williams and two Elizabeths – while producing 15 children in 23 years is undoubtedly tiring, it does seem that Lord and Lady Grey could have thought of a few more names between them. But then, Lady Grey was called Mary Elizabeth, her parents were William and Louisa, and Lord Grey’s parents were Charles and Elizabeth. Grey’s paternal grandmother, however, was called Hannah, a name that seems oddly neglected among his brood of children, given the Great Eighteenth Century Name Shortage the family seem to have lived through.
It is worth noting that in other respects related to names Lord and Lady Grey were more successful; they both gave their titles to varieties of tea.

6. William Pitt the Younger drank a bottle or more of port every day

Being prime minister is a high-stress job, and so it’s perhaps unsurprising that many turn to drink to steel their nerves or calm themselves down. Jim Callaghan gave up alcohol while he was prime minister, but he was a rare exception – posing with a pint is often a required part of campaigning in the UK, and swapping it for an orange juice wouldn’t quite give the same everyman effect. Herbert Asquith drank so much he was nicknamed ‘Squiffy’. The most legendary drinker was – inevitably – Winston Churchill, though how much alcohol he actually got through is a matter of debate; just as Thatcher emphasised her lack of need for sleep to seem superhuman, so Churchill cultivated the image that he could drink anyone under the table. Though he started the day with a whiskey, this was so watered down that it was nearer mouthwash. All the same, when Rab Butler, Chancellor of the Exchequer, visited Downing Street for dinner in 1955, he was given so much brandy that in despair of being able to drink it all, he poured out some into his shoes.

The prime minister who got through the most alcohol was probably not Churchill, but Pitt the Younger. Pitt was the youngest person to ever become prime minister, and served for the second-longest term, remaining in the position for 18 years. At the age of just 14, as an undergraduate at Cambridge, Pitt had fallen seriously ill, and his doctor recommended he drink a bottle of port every day. While this sounds bizarre now, it was entirely standard medical advice at the time. But in the words of a contemporary, Pitt “liked a glass of port very well, and a bottle better” – and on some days he would drink as many as three. A bottle of port then was nearer half a bottle now, as bottles were thicker and the drink often diluted. All the same, this would amount to at least 7 units of alcohol per day by modern reckoning, or three and a half times the recommended maximum weekly alcohol consumption for men in the UK. It probably contributed to his early death.
The road to high political office is undoubtedly difficult. But it’s reassuring to know that while politicians are required to be presentable, have squeaky-clean personal lives, make good speeches and do up their ties or risk opprobrium, eccentricity appears to be no impediment.