The Death of Sir Winston Churchill
- 24th January 1965 -
Having suffered a stroke on 15th January, Winston Churchill lay dying in a downstairs bedroom in his house in Hyde Park Gate, Kensington. His doctor, Lord Moran, gave daily bulletins on his health. Just after 8am the BBC announced the news that he had died that morning with his family by his side. Crowds started to gather outside his home and TV and radio programmes were cancelled or re-scheduled to make way for tributes to the war time leader. He was to lie in state in Westminster Hall for 3 days, an honour not given to a statesman since the death of Gladstone in 1898. His funeral would be at St. Paul’s Cathedral and his body taken by boat and train to the parish church at Bladon, Oxfordshire, near Blenheim Palace, where he was born. Over 321,000 people filed past the catafalque in total silence, queuing for hours for the privilege. The Prime Minister at the time, Harold Wilson, paid tribute, saying:
"Sir Winston will be mourned all over the world by all who owe so much to him. He is now at peace after a life in which he created history and which will be remembered as long as history is read." The greatest giant of twentieth century politics had left the world stage.
First elected as a Conservative M.P. in 1900 to the seat in Oldham he soon became concerned about the party’s commitment to social justice and joined the Liberal Party in 1906, winning the seat of Manchester North-West. In 1908 he won the seat of Dundee - perhaps explaining his love of Dundee cake. He became President of the Board of Trade that same year, his first cabinet position, as well as marrying Clementine Hozier. It was whilst holding this position that he introduced the first minimum wage, set up labour exchanges for the unemployed and introduced unemployment insurance. He also helped introduce the ‘People’s Budget’ that introduced new taxes on the wealthy to pay for his social reforms.
During World War 1 he became the First Lord of the Admiralty building up the nation’s navy as well as starting the first Royal Navy Air Service. So keen was he to see the effectiveness of the airplane that he learnt to fly. After the disaster at Gallipoli however he resigned and saw active service on the Western Front before returning to the cabinet as Secretary for Munitions.
In 1919 he became Secretary for the War and Air as well as taking on the portfolio of the Colonial department. However, in 1922 he lost his seat in Dundee and the Liberal party became very divided. 2 years later he was back in Parliament, this time for the constituency of Epping and this time having re-joined the Conservatives. Mistrusted by many in the party for his earlier defection he did not care. He once said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime, in your life.” He remained the M.P. for Epping until 1945.
He was somewhat surprised to be made Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924 in the Baldwin government, a position previously held by his father, Randolph. He returned Britain to the gold standard but fell out with the Conservative leadership over trade tariffs and Indian Home Rule in 1929, leaving the government. The following years have been described as his wilderness years, much of which he spent writing, including his vast opus, ‘A History of the English Speaking Peoples’.
In the 1930s, armed with privileged information from inside the government he foresaw the rise of Nazi Germany and the re-arming that was going on in that country. He was, largely, a lone voice, accused of being a war monger. He was right and in 1939 war broke out again between Britain and Germany and the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had ‘brokered’ a deal with Hitler in Munich, appointed Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty again, on the outbreak of war. “Winston is back” was a familiar cry around Whitehall. Churchill also became the chairman of the Military Coordinating Committee in April 1940 and then, when Chamberlain resigned in May, King George VI asked him to lead the National Government as Prime Minister. It seemed as if his destiny had arrived. On becoming Prime Minister he said that, “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.”
Ill health was not far away. Prime Minister for the first time at 70 was going to take its toll and twice during the war, in 1941 and in 1943, he suffered mild heart attacks. His work load and appetite for travelling around was huge but these illnesses were carefully hidden from the public. He was to remain Prime Minister until nearly the end of World War 2, being defeated by Clement Atlee and a forward looking Labour Party in the election in July 1945, although he won his own seat in the newly established seat of Woodford. In 1946 he made his famous Iron Wall speech in the US warning of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. He served as Leader of the Opposition until the Conservatives won the next election in October 1951 returning as Prime Minister until he resigned due to ill health in April 1955. He continued as a backbencher until illness forced him to quit in October 1964.
He retired from public life and was seen less and less often, making a rare appearance on his 90th birthday. Churchill once said, “I am ready to meet my maker. Whether my maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter!”. His doctor, Lord Moran said that Churchill had told him that, “I do not believe in another world; only in black velvet – eternal sleep.” On the day of his death the Queen, Elizabeth II, said this:
"The whole world is the poorer by the loss of his many-sided genius while the survival of this country and the sister nations of the Commonwealth, in the face of the greatest danger that has ever threatened them, will be a perpetual memorial to his leadership, his vision, and his indomitable courage."
When most others had given up in the dark hours of 1940 Churchill stood alone against an evil so huge and powerful that most thought it could not be defeated. In 1941 he said: “Do not let us speak of darker days; let us rather speak of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are great days—the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.”
“We shall go forward together. The road upwards is stony. There are upon our journey dark and dangerous valleys through which we have to make and fight our way. But it is sure and certain that if we persevere – and we shall persevere – we shall come through these dark and dangerous valleys into a sunlight broader and more genial and more lasting than mankind has ever known.”