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.