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Was Winston Churchill G. A. Henty’s Biggest Fan?

What Churchill Learned from Henty Could Very Well Have Saved Western Civilization.

A steady stream of G. A. Henty’s “high adventure” books of historical fiction found great popularity and a hungry audience in his day. The books were especially popular among the young boys and men of the rising generation in the late 1800s and early 1900s. So why did these works appeal so strongly to the heart and mind of that era? Why did they capture the imagination of so many, including some who would grow to be the greatest leaders of their times?

Bill at the Churchill War Room and Museum in London

The defining traits of Henty’s works were adventure, bravery, courage and Christian virtue. Henty’s style and knowledge were only enhanced by his first-hand experience of travel and military activity. When these noble and exciting attributes are combined with the vivid and engaging skill of a master storyteller such as Henty, popularity should be no surprise.

Henty’s robust writing style appealed to a broad audience, and one of his readers, interestingly, was a young Winston Churchill. His fascination with Henty has often been noted, and it is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that Churchill twice borrowed a title from Henty for his own later writings[1]. “A Roving Commission” first served as the title for a chapter in Churchill’s treatment of the Boer War and later was used as the subtitle and then title of different editions of his own autobiography, suggesting a strong personal identification with the spirit embodied in Henty’s works.

Another telling piece of evidence of Henty’s role in Churchill’s early development is found in an inscription by Churchill in a Henty book. This Henty book (“For the Temple: a Tale of the Fall of Jerusalem”) was given as a gift by Churchill when he was sixteen to his younger brother Jack, who was eleven at the time, with a personal note inscribed to mark the occasion. Though the exact date of the gift is not marked, there is a reasonable likelihood that this is the earliest known inscription by Churchill in any book[2].

When we look at Churchill’s own life experience and writings, we can quickly see the kindred spirit that would naturally connect with Henty’s own. Both Henty’s and Churchill’s early careers followed similar paths, with both in the fighting ranks and serving as war correspondents.

In fact, one of the key events that brought Churchill into national prominence is reminiscent of the adventures of Henty’s stories and might fit nicely alongside of them as an addition to his writings. While serving as a war correspondent, Churchill was captured by the Boers and held as a prisoner of war. His boldness and courage, however, rose to the occasion, and he escaped from his prison, traveling 300 miles through enemy territory to reach safety.

Churchill then showed further affinity with Henty by his following decision to relate the tale of his adventurous escape in written form. Churchill, of course, was both an avid reader and became a renowned writer himself. Throughout his life and career, he made masterful use of the English language both in writing and in speech to inspire and lead his people. Churchill learned the great art of language from his reading and had a great appreciation for the skill of those who captured its power and wielded it as a positive force.

While we can trace important points of connection with Henty in Churchill’s earlier career, the great pinnacle of his life was, no doubt, his steadfast and courageous leadership during the great trial of World War II. At such a dark time in his nation, when the people were on the edge of hopelessness, Churchill arose boldly, provided hope and a resilient will to resist tyranny. His steadfast assurance gave confidence to a despairing English people and the world. His words inspired belief and revived the spirits of those who felt defeat was immanent.

This entire picture and description of Churchill’s heroism in World War II became a remarkable “archetype” of Henty’s own heroes. For him, the Henty books he read as a young man seemed to provide a “template of commitment” to strength and courage… even a sense of destiny… that proved so vital to his life and role in history. Churchill recognized how these very same influences of his earlier life shaped and prepared him for this role, as seen in his famous self-assessment:

I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”

There is no doubt that the influences we encounter when we are young have a large part in shaping and forming who we are. Churchill felt that these influences and experiences in his life provided the perfect preparation he needed to stand fast during his time of greatest testing. Henty’s works were one of those shaping forces.

This might give us good reason to stop and think about the influences that are at work in the lives of kids today. Obviously the stakes are high. What values are being inculcated, upheld and promoted in their lives?

The truth is that God has hardwired us to become what we think about most of the time. Jesus said it best, “As ye believe, so shall it be done unto you”. Belief and faith change our vision and allow us to see new possibilities. In a time when so many kids stumble in darkness, providing character building influences and experiences in your child’s life can be life changing.

Churchill became the man he was in good part due to influence of Henty’s worldview. If we’re to expect the next generation to stand fast when they are called to service and leadership we must provide strong and deliberate influences. Trials will come, and own children’s character will be tested and revealed in those difficult times.

Could there possibly be a more important task than the preparation of our kids for the challenges ahead?

Our goal at Heirloom Audio is to provide tools that equip parents and grandparents for this great adventure.

[1] Churchill, Winston. “My Early Life: 1874-1904.” Introduction by William Manchester. Touchstone. New York, NY. 1996.

[2] See the description of this book in its auction listing at http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2001/english-literature-history-childrens-and-illustrated-books-and-drawings-l01317/lot.8.html.


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About Bill Heid


  1. What a great article! I was recently trying to
    Figure out a way to teach history from Churchill’s “History of the English Speaking Peoples” to a homeschool co-op. Since that proved to be too large an undertaking for a 10-week class, I decided to do it in a series of classes with the additional help of…drumroll…Henty Boks! So next fall I will start with Beric the Briton! I’m so excited and I can’t wait to incorporate Heirloom Audio Productions into the class!

  2. Great article. Something that you guys may already know, is that Henty apparently mentioned Lieutenant(at the time) Churchill in one of his books which featured the Boer War. I think it was ‘The Young Colonists’. Just thought that might be of interest to any readers, too.

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