Saturday, 12 December 2009

Reigate's famous centenarian parrot, Charlie

It had to happen.

I gave my illustrated talk on "Churchill's Secret Reigate" in November to a very appreciative audience of Churchill Fellows, Churchill fans and local people, with the promise that I would repeat it in January for those we didn't have enough seats for that day.

Many thanks to Major-General Jamie Balfour for introducing me and to Randolph Churchill who spoke to us afterwards, and there was time for several questions.

Perhaps it was inevitable. I had carefully avoided the subject of Charlie the parrot because I know that Winston Churchill's daughter Mary, Lady Soames, had commented several years ago that it was too tiresome for words!

However, this is what people wanted to ask about.

Yes, I was very non-committal in my replies but, knowing that I shall be doing the talk again to a larger audience, and also publishing my research some time soon, it seemed like a GOOD IDEA to go and do a little bit of investigating of my own about Charlie the parrot.

So off I went on a dull and dreary afternoon to Heathfield Nurseries on Reigate Heath where Charlie lives. It is a beautifully tranquil setting with its trusty old greenhouses, pots of bulbs, a huge, health-giving aloe vera plant and bucketfuls of deep yellow and orange chrysanthemums. It shares its name with Heathfield, the spacious mansion next door that was the home of movie magnate and miller, J Arthur Rank. His father Joseph was the richest man in England, by the way, so he would have had his pick of excellent locations in which to make their family home. A devout Methodist and Sunday School Superintendent, J.Arthur was also a great fan of Churchill. He was one of the group of people who contributed to the purchase of Chartwell some time post-war, so that Churchill could live out his days there. But I digress.

To my delight, I met the manager of the Nurseries, Sylvia. She already knew about the talk I had given - her customers had been talking about it! She simply gave me the story of Charlie the parrot so there seems to be a simple explanation of why there have been so many denials and rumours over the years. I see there is even a Wikipedia page about Charlie (and as usual it needs a bit of modification to set the record straight).

This is what I gleaned from my conversation with Sylvia.

For a start, Charlie is a female. She is a blue and gold macaw. She is not the same Charlie Parrot that lived at Dabner's pet shop in Redhill, nor the Charlie Parrot that lived at the Reigate pet shop, Gay Dogs (the name has since been changed...). In the words of Monty Python, both of those Charlies are deceased, no more.

She has lived at Heathfield Nurseries since about 1995, and she shares her light and airy modern conservatory with her good friends Rosie, an African Grey and Daisy, a Bare-eyed Cockatoo. They certainly all look pretty perky and in good health, with the radio playing music in the background. In warmer weather, Charlie is happy to go walkabout around the nurseries and doesn't ever fly off, so it appears that she is very settled there in her old age of about 106, and is counting her blessings, perhaps! Rosie often snuggles up to her affectionately. In all this time Charlie has been a single girl - no mate and not had a chance to breed. Her glistening rich blue head feathers are a bit of a contrast to her rather bald chest because she has developed a habit of plucking out those feathers. According to the vet, she is unlikely to stop now. Perhaps it's a fashion statement.

So how did she come to live in Reigate? What tales would she tell us if she could? These days, she is keeping quiet.

Sylvia assures me that Charlie was one of the birds bought for Winston Churchill's menageries at Chartwell from Mr Dabner's pet shop in Surrey Street, Croydon. This outdoor location at Chartwell could explain why Lady Soames doesn't recollect seeing the macaw there.

She showed me a large black and white photograph of Churchill from the Getty archives, with a cockatoo on his left shoulder and a macaw - Charlie?, on his right. This had been given to her by one of the newspapers that featured the story a few years ago.

In 1965, when Mr Churchill had passed away, Charlie was returned to Mr Dabner and she lived there in the pet shop in Croydon for the next thirty years.

HOWEVER.... if you remember Surrey Street from all those years ago, as I do, you would recall a thriving open street market, bulging with fruit and veg, and ringing with the raucous sounds of the traders and market boys that jostled for business. Dabner's pet shop would certainly not have been able to offer a peaceful, serene outdoor setting that Charlie was used to. She would have had to endure prodding and teasing, and no doubt, many lessons in swearing, the cursing of Hitler and Churchill impressions from those mischievous young lads! How undignified for such a glamorous and high class bird used to much more refined versions of the English language!

And what was the result of this bad company for all those years? She must have become more and more unhappy. Sadly she was repeating profanities that we won't go into here. Unfortunately she became rather spiteful too in her behaviour, which was hardly surprising under those circumstances. By about 1995, Mr Dabner knew that Charlie needed somewhere peaceful with fresh air, and where better than his son-in-law, Mr Oram's nurseries in Reigate?

And we have a happy ending. Yes, the music and fresh air, good company and loving care in Reigate have cured her! She no longer swears. She is evidently a popular bird with her feathered friends and the public alike - and so she should be after her long and colourful life.

How silly everyone was to believe that it was Churchill that had taught her to swear, when it was likely those foul-mouthed cheeky 'monkeys' on the Surrey Street market were having fun at her expense. It is a shame their taunts made her so ill and unhappy but there is a lesson to be learned there, don't you think?

I hope this version of events is a lot closer to the truth, and no need to be included in my talk on Churchill's SECRET Reigate. After all, it is in the public domain and Charlie is world-famous!

I took a photo of Sylvia with her picture of Churchill, and will return in the warmer weather to meet Charlie close up. I look forward to taking some colour photos when she is out and about, enjoying some of our English sunshine on Reigate Heath.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

WW2 70th anniversary at the Cabinet War Rooms

Reigate's very own Myra Collyer is a star at age 85. She worked during the war in the Cabinet War Rooms as a shorthand typist and was then talent-spotted for her artistic ability to become an assistant to Churchill's three draughtsmen - doing headings for the maps, and nameplates for the ever-changing Admiralty staff upstairs.

It is 70 years on since the start of the war, and 25 years on since the Cabinet War Rooms were opened to the public. There is a new exhibition based on the memories of the people who worked there. The evening celebratory party was great fun and a privilege to attend - my photo album is a joy to behold, with Lady Thatcher, Dame Vera Lynn, and Jon Snow meeting the people who were there, helping to win WW2 and our freedom from tyranny. If only reporters could get their facts right. Jon Snow wore one of his many colourful ties for the occasion but he arrived late and wrote in his blog that her name is Gloria and she is 88. No sir ...... do the decent thing and correct your mistake.

Here's my photo album:

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

D-DAY 65th anniversary


Members of the Royal Family who are unable to make it to the Memorial event in Normandy would be very welcome instead to visit Reigate, Surrey where the D-Day landings were masterminded in utmost secrecy by Montgomery and his team! Perhaps the President of France didn't realise this when he was planning his own celebrations for 6th June this coming weekend.

It's such an exciting international story including the top-secret bunker mined deep into Reigate Hill via the old chalk quarry. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Churchill had first thought of it on one of his many visits, decades beforehand. I was up there this morning on a beautiful sunny June day and really, the view southwards across Surrey and Sussex towards France is fantastic. There are many links with the Royal Family in the town's history too, and this new research is all ready to be revealed.

So in the absence of any huge publishing deals, exclusive broadcasting rights and general razamatazz, I shall be giving an illustrated talk about "Churchill's Secret Reigate" on Sunday 15th November at 2pm for the Churchill Fellows Association (Surrey and W Sussex region) at the hotel which is right beside the chalk quarry and Monty's Battle HQ - I have copies of the War Office drawings with that very title BATTLE HQ to prove it.

The location is highly accessible - on the A217 just half a mile south of Junction 8 on the M25.

Churchill Fellows are invited to reserve a place for themselves and their named guests.
Tel: 01737 217013
Email: grace[at]
No Press please.

Do book early to avoid disappointment. There will be several treasured artefacts on display and key people to meet.

I shall be giving this talk free of charge, so it will be an opportunity for you to make a donation towards the research expenses and CHASE children's hospice.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

I have since checked out the Martin Bormann story with two cemetery managers, the book 'OpJB' by Christopher Creighton (John Ainsworth-Davis), some photographs, news reports, letters and the report of a funeral director who had known him locally. I am of the opinion that the man living by Wray Common, Reigate for many years was a "Martin Bormann double" trained for the purpose by the secret service as cover for when Martin Bormann was sent out of England to South America.

OpJB stands for Operation James Bond.

Reigate was in fact used as a secret location and also as an official HQ for South Eastern Command. There were lots of mansions taken over by the War Office for stationing personnel, as offices and meeting rooms.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Nazi lookalike in Reigate? A good place to be.

I was given this information last week about Martin Bormann living in Reigate after the war! What do you think? There are various pointers scattered on the internet too, involving Prime Minister Winston Churchill and even Ian Fleming, writer of the James Bond 007 spy novels.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Canadian troops in Reigate WW2


I gather that the Canadian Army troops stationed in Reigate as part of the GHQ Reserve were

(1) the “Hasty Pees”: the 1st Batallion of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, Ontario. Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex is their Colonel in Chief. He visited them in 2005 and there are some wonderful photos at

(2) the Royal Canadian Regiment. The Duke of Edinburgh is their Colonel In Chief. They were in Reigate in October-Nov 1940, then January-March 1941.

There is also a reference online to a Canadian liaison officer, Captain J G Stewart of the Canadian Grenadier Guards.

Now that I have given my first public illustrated talk about 'Reigate - SECRETS of the war years', I have put together a brand new A3 hardbound presentation photograph book that tells the story and shows what the town looks like today. If anyone is interested in viewing it or obtaining a copy, do get in contact. The number is +44 (0)1737 217013.

Thursday, 2 April 2009


Here's the view north from the top of Reigate Priory Park - just where Winston Churchill would have sat in contemplation a century before.

You can almost see it all mapped out! Over to the east -

Little Gatton where Eisenhower was stationed,

the Reigate Hill chalk quarry and lime kilns where the secret bunker would go plus anti-aircraft guns,

Underbeeches where Monty was stationed,

the area for Monty's pigeon loft,

Beeches Wood with tree cover for the motorbike dispatch riders to camp,

and Broadleas where Churchill stayed occasionally to write his speeches.

Then there's Colley Pit which was still being mined throughout the war until the 1960s.

No wonder he stopped writing about Reigate in his diaries -his plans for the town were all TOO SECRET.

What you can't see are the sandstone caves - right in the middle of town. Very handy for wartime.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

No secret now - 'Monty's hideout'

Here's a magnificent view south from the top of the chalk downs of Reigate Hill, taken in 1927 by famous Reigate photographer Francis Frith. By 1941 there was a massive secret underground bunker right below this very spot - 350 ft. long, and it is still there to this day, not on the Ordnance Survey maps!

Photo of Reigate, view from Reigate Hill 1927, ref. 79690

Reproduced courtesy of Francis Frith.

Here is the view west, from the direction of his home a few yards away. It was a very industrious chalk quarry and lime kiln business up above a few very high class Victorian homes and estates.
.Photo of Reigate, snowy view under Hill 1890, ref. 26738

Reproduced courtesy of Francis Frith.

Since the turn of the century, Winston Churchill was a frequent visitor along the main road south from London towards Reigate Priory on business and for weekend house parties. Was he on the look-out for a perfect secret WW2 Battle HQ location? Yes of course. The chalk quarry abandoned for safety reasons would provide a top-secret Battle HQ/control centre (with expert mining into chalk, of all things!). The very top of that cliff is a magnificent vantage point south - throughout the war and for evermore.

Montgomery was a national celebrity after the North Africa success. He was given the South Eastern Command here in Reigate (plus Battle HQ now installed) to plan something very special indeed to win the war. And yet, with his health-conscious insistence on 5-mile cross country runs every week, he was very soon familiar with the quiet country lanes all around.

The HQ was closely guarded round the clock. 3 small cottages beside the main road on Reigate Hill were secretly fortified with gun holes and interior sandbags to window level for defence against the German invasion plans! The large houses were commandeered for accommodation and offices.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Masters of disguise


The next talk and slide show is booked for 18th March. The title is Reigate - secrets of the war years 1939-1945. It will be full of little snippets of information that have escaped the history books but noted for posterity - even in old exercise books, video and tape recordings.

One of my treasures for this is a German Air Force aerial reconnaissance photograph, issued to pilots, navigators and bomb-aimers in regional volumes with perforated 'tear out' pages. After 65 years it has only yellowed a bit with age. It is fascinating to compare with 21st century 'Google Earth' aerial photography of the town.

The Luftwaffe instructions were: "Zum Verbrauch! Mitnahme von Ausschnitten des Bildteiles zum Feindflug gestattet" which effectively translates as "To be used! You are allowed to take these photographs with you on raids".

Ha ha! In fact there were all sorts of things going on out of sight, underground, in old tunnels and new tunnels, under the trees, in grand old mansions and villas, in this deceptively quiet and countrified area 21 km from the Tower in London.

There was so much trickery! There was even an actor resembling Field Marshal Montgomery sent on a trip to Gibraltar to fool the enemy of his whereabouts just a few days before the D Day landings. The plans worked exceedingly well, thanks to secret intelligence and special agents.

There are more snippets emerging, of the pioneering film magnate and miller, J Arthur Rank who was superintendent of the Sunday School, and one of his pupils who went on to be a radio expert - very handy in wartime for keeping code-cracking wireless equipment in working order.

I'll stop for now, otherwise there will be no surprises for the Rotary talk!

Thursday, 22 January 2009

A really big secret


If you have ever had this magnificent silver cup sitting on your mantelpiece, then either you are in the Board Room of Reigate Grammar School or you were awarded it one year. It's the Mitchiner Cup.

And who was Mitchiner? Well he was a 'notable' Old Reigatian - a star pupil, a top consulting surgeon, a Major-General in the Territorial Army, Honorary Surgeon to George VI and Elizabeth 2 and a lot more besides - until his early death aged 64 in 1952. And the rest of the story is a secret. I am offering to tell people about this 'funny little man' - the methods and medicines that he used with such great success and taught many a student doctor in his time - the lives he saved, secretly, and the confidences he kept, secretly and forever. This was all in the days before methicillin (of MRSA fame) was discovered, just down the road in the village of Betchworth. We are so lucky that there are still a few of his former students still alive who remember him personally, and with such affection and respect.

Great tales!

My presentation is called Bowels & Bullets so if you are interested, do please get in touch. The number is 01737 217013. You would think a huge charitable organisation like the Wellcome Trust would jump at the chance to highlight the lifetime's work of this great chap, but no - they even expected to find it freely available on the internet! No fear. I wasn't born yesterday!

This is what people are saying:

Age Concern: "they loved your talk and were talking about it"

"they would like another talk"

"most impressive slideshow"

Private View: "I am inspired"

"I can hardly wait to tell my daughter all about it this evening"

"It was very nice to have a reminder of the connecting themes"

"Fascinating - definitely makes you think!"