The Death & Funeral of Churchill

Great Britain - Scott #729 (1974)
Great Britain – Scott #729 (1974)

On January 24, 1965, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill KG OM CH TD PCc DL FRS RA died at his London home nine days after suffering a severe stroke. He was 90 years old. He died 70 years to the day after his own father’s death. Churchill was a British statesman, army officer and writer who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1955. Over the course of his career as a Member of Parliament (MP), he represented five constituencies in both England and Scotland. During his time as Prime Minister, Churchill led Britain to an allied victory in the Second World War. He was Conservative Party leader from 1940 to 1955. In 1953, Churchill won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his lifetime body of work, the prize cited “his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.

Churchill was born at his grandfather’s home, Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, on November 30, 1874. A direct descendant of the Dukes of Marlborough, his family were among the highest levels of the British aristocracy.His paternal grandfather, John Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough, had been a Member of Parliament (MP) for ten years, a member of the Conservative Party who served in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. His own father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had been elected Conservative MP for Woodstock in 1873. His mother, Jennie Churchill (née Jerome), was from an American family whose substantial wealth derived from finance.

Joining the British Army in 1895, Churchill saw action in British India, the Anglo–Sudan War and the Second Boer War, gaining fame as a war correspondent and writing books about his campaigns. Moving into politics, before the First World War, he served as President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary and First Lord of the Admiralty as part of Asquith’s Liberal government. During the war, Churchill departed from government following the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign. He briefly resumed active army service on the Western Front as a battalion commander in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. He returned to government under Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions, Secretary of State for War, Secretary of State for Air, then Secretary of State for the Colonies. After two years out of Parliament, he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Baldwin’s Conservative government of 1924–1929, controversially returning the pound sterling in 1925 to the gold standard at its pre-war parity, a move widely seen as creating deflationary pressure on the UK economy.

Winston Churchill in the Canadian Parliament, December 1941 by Yousuf Karsh
Winston Churchill in the Canadian Parliament, December 1941 by Yousuf Karsh

Out of office during the 1930s, Churchill took the lead in warning about Nazi Germany and in campaigning for rearmament. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he was again appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. Following Neville Chamberlain’s resignation in May 1940, Churchill became Prime Minister. His speeches and radio broadcasts helped inspire British resistance, especially during the difficult days of 1940–1941 when the British Commonwealth and Empire stood almost alone in its active opposition to Adolf Hitler. He led Britain as Prime Minister until after the German surrender in 1945. After the Conservative Party’s defeat in the 1945 general election, he became Leader of the Opposition to the Labour Government. He publicly warned of an “Iron Curtain” of Soviet influence in Europe and promoted European unity. He was re-elected Prime Minister in the 1951 election. His second term was preoccupied by foreign affairs, including the Malayan Emergency, Mau Mau Uprising, Korean War and a UK-backed Iranian coup. Domestically his government laid great emphasis on house-building. Churchill suffered a serious stroke in 1953.

Aware that he was slowing down both physically and mentally, Churchill retired as Prime Minister in 1955 and was succeeded by Anthony Eden, who had long been his ambitious protégé (three years earlier, Eden had married Churchill’s niece, Anne Clarissa Spencer-Churchill, his second marriage). Shortly preceding his resignation, Churchill experienced an extended bout of somnambulism, a condition to which he was prone. Upon his resignation, the Queen offered him a dukedom but he declined the offer.

Over the ensuing years, Churchill spent less time in Parliament, occasionally voting in parliamentary divisions but never again speaking in the House. He continued to serve as MP for Woodford until he stood down for the last time at the 1964 General Election. His private verdict on the Suez Crisis was: “I would never have done it without squaring the Americans, and once I’d started I’d never have dared stop”. In 1959, he became Father of the House, the MP with the longest continuous service: he had already gained the distinction of being the only MP to be elected under both Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II.

On July 27, 1964, Churchill was present in the House of Commons for the last time, and one day later, on July 28, a deputation headed by the Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, presented Churchill with a Resolution which had been carried nemine contradicente by the House of Commons. The ceremony was held in Churchill’s London home at 28 Hyde Park Gate, and was witnessed by Clementine and his children and grandchildren. It read:

That this House desire to take this opportunity of marking the forthcoming retirement of the right honourable Gentleman the Member for Woodford by putting on record its unbounded admiration and gratitude for his services to Parliament, to the nation and to the world; remembers, above all, his inspiration of the British people when they stood alone, and his leadership until victory was won; and offers its grateful thanks to the right honourable Gentleman for these outstanding services to this House and to the nation.

Churchill spent much of his retirement at his home Chartwell in Kent. He purchased it in 1922 after his daughter Mary was born.
Churchill spent much of his retirement at his home Chartwell in Kent. He purchased it in 1922 after his daughter Mary was born.

Churchill spent most of his retirement at Chartwell House in Kent, two miles (3 km) south of Westerham. As Churchill’s mental and physical faculties decayed, it is often suggested, he began to lose the battle he had fought for so long against the “black dog” of (clinical) depression. However, the biographical evidence, when carefully and comprehensively studied, suggests that “black dog” is more accurately interpreted as Churchill’s metaphor for the temporary, non-disabling psychological reactions of worry and anxiety that he manifested throughout his career following severely adverse difficulties and setbacks. The unfailing remedy for him at such times, which he discovered in 1915, was painting; later on, he added bricklaying at Chartwell to his armamentarium. In advanced old age, his faculties too impaired to enable him to paint, he found some solace in the sunshine and colors of the Mediterranean. He took long holidays with his literary adviser Emery Reves and Emery’s wife, Wendy Russell, at La Pausa, their villa on the French Riviera, seldom joined by Clementine. He also took eight cruises aboard the yacht Christina as the guest of Aristotle Onassis. Once, when the Christina had to pass through the Dardanelles, Onassis gave instructions that it was to do so during the night, so as not to disturb his guest with unhappy memories.

In 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, acting under authorization granted by an Act of Congress, proclaimed Churchill the first Honorary Citizen of the United States. Churchill was physically incapable of attending the White House ceremony, so his son and grandson accepted the award for him. As his family life grew more despondent (he was unable to resolve the love-hate relationship between himself and his son) Churchill was also to suffer a further two strokes during the 1960s.

On January 15, 1965, Churchill suffered another stroke, this time a severe cerebral thrombosis that left him gravely ill. He died at his home nine days later, at age 90, shortly after eight o’clock on the morning of Sunday, January 24, 1965. After his death, Churchill’s body was embalmed at his London home by Desmond Henley.

Churchill’s funeral plan had been initiated in 1953, after his first major stroke, under the name Operation Hope Not. The purpose was to commemorate Churchill “on a scale befitting his position in history”, as Queen Elizabeth II declared. The funeral was the largest state funeral in world history up to that time, with representatives from 112 nations; only China did not send an emissary. In Europe, 350 million people, including 25 million in Britain, watched the funeral on television, and only the Republic of Ireland did not broadcast it live.

Sir Winston Churchill's funeral train passing Clapham Junction
Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral train passing Clapham Junction

By decree of the Queen, his body lay in state in Westminster Hall for three days and a state funeral service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral. This was the first state funeral for a non-royal-family member since 1935.

The procession moved to Tower Pier where the coffin was taken on board the MV Havengore. Naval ratings ‘piped the side’ and the Royal Marine band played the musical salute due to a former First Lord of the Admiralty, “Rule Britannia.” As his coffin passed up the Thames, dockers lowered their crane jibs in a salute. The Royal Artillery fired a 19-gun salute (as head of government and as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports), and the RAF staged a fly-past of sixteen English Electric Lightning fighters.

The state funeral was the largest gathering of dignitaries in Britain, as representatives from 112 countries attended, including French President Charles de Gaulle, Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, Prime Minister of Rhodesia Ian Smith, former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, and many other heads of state, including past and present heads of state and government, and members of royal families the world over. The Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Robert Menzies, then the longest serving Commonwealth Prime Minister (who had known Churchill intimately in wartime), paid tribute to his colleague as part of the funeral broadcast, as did President Eisenhower.

The coffin was then taken the short distance to Waterloo station where it was loaded onto a specially prepared and painted carriage as part of the funeral train for its rail journey to Hanborough, seven miles northwest of Oxford. The funeral train of Pullman coaches carrying his family mourners was hauled by Battle of Britain class steam locomotive No. 34051 Winston Churchill. In the fields along the route, and at the stations through which the train passed, thousands stood in silence to pay their last respects. Churchill’s funeral van — former Southern Railway van S2464S — is now part of a preservation project with the Swanage Railway, having been repatriated to the UK in 2007 from the United States, to where it had been exported in 1965.

This was the last state occasion to be commented upon by Richard Dimbleby, who died of testicular cancer in December 1965. The funeral also saw the largest assemblage of statesmen in the world since the funeral of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Later in 1965, a memorial to Churchill, cut by the engraver Reynolds Stone, was placed in Westminster Abbey.

Because the funeral took place on January 30, people in the United States marked it by paying tribute to his friendship with Franklin D. Roosevelt because it was the anniversary of FDR’s birth. Those who attended a service at Roosevelt’s grave at his home in Hyde Park, New York, heard speakers at the service talk about the coincidence of the date in the records of two leaders who shared history.

Churchill's grave at St Martin's Church, Bladon. Photo taken on October 1, 2004.
Churchill’s grave at St Martin’s Church, Bladon. Photo taken on October 1, 2004.

At Churchill’s request, he was buried in the family plot at St Martin’s Church, Bladon, near Woodstock, not far from his birthplace at Blenheim. In 1998, his tombstone had to be replaced due to the large number of visitors over the years having eroded it and its surrounding area. A new stone was dedicated in 1998 in a ceremony attended by members of the Spencer-Churchill family.

Named the Greatest Briton of all time in a 2002 poll, Churchill is among the most influential people in British history, consistently ranking well in opinion polls of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom. However, his strongly outspoken views on race and British imperialism has often been criticized. His highly complex legacy continues to stimulate intense debate amongst writers and historians.

According to Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Archives Centre, even during his own lifetime Churchill was an “incredibly complex, contradictory and larger-than-life human being,” who frequently wrestled with those contradictions.

Notably, his strongly held and outspoken views on race, Judaism and Islam have frequently been highlighted, quoted and strongly criticized. However, historian Richard Toye has observed that in the context of the era, Churchill was not “particularly unique” in having strong opinions on race and the superiority of white peoples, even if many of his contemporaries did not subscribe to them. Though a firm supporter of the Zionist movement, Churchill retained casually antisemitic views in common with many of the British upper classes.

While staunchly opposed to labor unions and holding Communist agitation responsible for the Labour movement during the 1920s, he supported social reform, if more in the spirit of Victorian paternalism. From early on, his reputation as an unbending imperialist was well established. At the November 1921 cabinet meeting where a final decision on a proposal to retrocede Weihaiwei to China was to be made, he, alone with George Curzon, another uncompromising imperialist, adamantly opposed the proposal, no matter how worthless the territory was known to be. He lamented Britain’s historic readiness to barter away places such as Java and Corfu, asking “Why melt down the capital collected by our forebears to please a lot of pacifists?”

Churchill’s attitudes towards and policies regarding Indians and Britain’s rule of the subcontinent are frequently criticized, and have left a lasting and highly contentious mark on his legacy. Historian Walter Reid, who has written admiringly about Churchill’s premiership and “absolutely crucial role during the Second World War,” has however acknowledged that Churchill “was very wrong in relation to India, where his conduct fell far below his usual level.” Reid further observes that while it remains “tough to give a nuanced view on Churchill in a few words,” Churchill’s efforts and those of several fellow back-bench parliamentarians in the 1930s to manipulate the 1935 Government of India Act further entrenched religious and political divisions amongst Hindus, Muslims and the Indian princely rulers.

Royal Mail poster announcing the Churchill Centenary stamps to be released October 9, 1974.
Royal Mail poster announcing the Churchill Centenary stamps to be released October 9, 1974.

On October 9, 1974, Great Britain released four stamps to mark the centennial of Winston Churchill’s birth (Scott #728-731). These were denominated 4½ pence (depicting Churchill  in a Royal Yacht Squadron uniform in 1942), 5½ pence (Churchill as Prime Minister in 1940), 8 pence (Secretary of War and Air, 1919), and 10 pence (War Correspondent in South African Light Horse Regiment, 1899). The stamps were designed by Collis Clements and Edward Hughes and were printed by Harrison & Sons Ltd using photogravure with 100 stamps per sheet, perforated 14×14½ with “all-over” phosphor tagging.

Great Britain - Scott #728-731 (1974): first day cover
Great Britain – Scott #728-731 (1974): first day cover

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