The conservation of Winston Churchill’s life insurance policy

Published: 10 Mar 2015

Author: Lorraine Finch
The conservation of Winston Churchill’s life insurance policy

Lorraine Finch, Fellow of 2006, is a conservator of archive materials. In 2009 she had the pleasure of carrying out the conservation of documents relating to two of Winston Churchill’s Life Insurance policies before they went on exhibition. Here she describes the process.

Of the documents I was asked to work on, the most interesting was a proposal for insurance against accidents that Sir Winston Churchill took out with the Accident Insurance Company, Ltd. in 1896, aged 21. He was 2nd Lieutenant in the IV Hussars and was about to serve in India.

The document had certainly had a hard life. It was torn, creased and had very damaged edges. Many of the tears had been previously repaired using either moisture sensitive tape, gummed paper or pressure sensitive tape (sellotape). There were residues of card in the corners on the back of the document which suggest that it had been stuck to a board at some time in its past. The document was also dirty with residues of dust and dirt. 

To make sure that the document was safe to handle and would not suffer further damage whilst on exhibition, it was surface cleaned using grated Mars eraser to remove surface dirt and dust. Next the residues of the dry adhesive from the pressure sensitive tape were removed by carefully scraping it off using a scalpel blade.

To remove the old repairs, the document was gently moistened using a process called humidification. It was placed in a sandwich made of wet capillary matting, symaptex, document sympatex and wet capillary matting covered with a sheet of transparent plastic, and left to absorb the moisture. After several hours the adhesive had softened enough for old repairs to peel away, and any remaining adhesive was gently removed using a dental tool. The document was then placed between blotters and weighted down to allow it to dry.

The next step of preparation for exhibition was to repair the document. This was done using shaped repairs made from lens tissue which were adhered using wheat starch paste. The document had a final humidification and flattening, and then it was mounted ready for exhibition.

Churchill certainly needed his insurance. On several occasions, during battle, he was almost killed. He wrote to his mother on 19 September 1897:

I rode my grey pony all along the skirmish line where everyone else was lying down in cover. Foolish perhaps but I play for high stakes and given an audience there is no act too daring or too noble. …. I will write again if all goes well, if not you know my life has been a pleasant one, quality not quantity is after all what we should strive for.

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