Posts Tagged ‘Churchill’

Winston Churchill refused to pay £197 tailor’s bill, archives reveal

December 3rd, 2015

The 130 handwritten books detail hundreds of high-profile clients and their orders, from British aristocracy to European royalty, actors, authors and the toast of high society.

File photo: Alex Cook performs a fitting at Henry Poole on Savile Row in central London, 2010

Thought to be the longest surviving record of any tailor in the world, it includes orders from General de Gaulle, Prince Otto von Bismarck, Benjamin Disraeli, Napoleon, Queen Alexandra and Wilkie Collins.

Surviving an oil bomb falling on Savile Row in 1940 and left to gather dust for decades, they have now been rebound and are to be open to the public for the first time.

Among the records are details of Sir Winston’s wardrobe, after Henry Poole began making his clothes as a child at Blenheim Palace.

He went on to order formal apparel as the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, a Privy Councillor, President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, Secretary of State for War, Chancellor of the Exchequer and an Elder Brother of Trinity House.

By 1937, however, his outstanding bill was at £197.

James Sherwood, the historian tasked with examining the archive, said: “We continued to make clothes for him until just before the Second World War, when he fell foul because he didn’t want to pay his bill.”

Mr Sherwood added Henry Poole was not the only establishment which struggled to get Sir Winston to pay, added: “He said it was for morale, it was good for us to dress him and he wasn’t aware we were short of cash.

File photo: Tailors work on bespoke suits at Henry Poole on Savile Row in central London in 2010

“He never did pay, and never came back – he never forgave us.”

Sir Winston was not the only customer who did not pay on time, with Henry Poole leaving so much debt when he died that his belongings had to be auctioned off.

The company ledgers reveal that Edward VII, then the Prince of Wales, also made “infrequent payments on account that accumulated over years” for clothing, including the prototype short dinner jacket he commissioned for informal evenings at Sandringham.

King Edward VII, as Prince of Wales

After Poole’s death, a bill was sent to him at Marlborough House who paid the balance but, so offended, he withdrew his custom for 22 years until his 1901, when he patronised Poole’s Livery Department.

The Henry Poole & Co archive shows each and every garment made since 1846 for clients including Count Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Bram Stocker, Lillie Langtry and Serge Diaghilev.

Actress Lillie Langtry

The 5th Earl of Carnarvon took a Henry Poole three-piece-suit with him to explore Egypt, Emperor Napoleon III gave the shop its first Royal warrant, Queen Alexandra bought her family gifts, and Buffalo Bill was dressed up for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

Records for Lillie Langtry, the actress, show that her orders were to be paid for by a Mr Frank Gebhart, the millionaire thoroughbred trainer with whom she was having an affair.

The archive also includes the signatures of some of the most famous faces of the day, from actors to authors.

Charles Dickens, not famous for his own dress sense, is known to have paid off the debts of his eldest son Charles Dickens Jr, after he had run up a substantial bill with the tailors.

Charles Dickens Jr

His authenticated signature can be found on a cheque from his Coutts & Co account.Other authors visiting the shop include Bram Stoker, who first appears in the records in 1895 while he was writing Dracula, and Wilkie Collins, who places orders from 1863.

Actors appearing in the records include Sir Henry Irving, who regularly used the tailor. He was captured for posterity in a Henry Poole frock coat for a sculpture by Sir Thomas Brock RA .

Other unusual additions to the records include Madame Tussauds, which used Henry Poole to make all its uniforms and livery for waxworks of the European Royal families.

The archive, said to chart the “rising and waning fortunes of Henry Poole’s illustrious clients”, will be available to view by appointment on Savile Row from today.


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Nazis defaced portrait with cigar to mock Churchill

October 24th, 2015

During the Second World War, the house was taken over by Nazi officers, with its content left to their mercies.

Research shows one or more used a lighted cigarette to burn a hole through the canvas near to Sir Jesse’s painted mouth, inserting a cigar into the charred hole to mock Sir Winston’s own smoking habits.

Sir Jesse Boot, founder of Boots Company

When they were defeated, the house returned to the family and the picture was returned to the Boots headquarters in Nottingham in the 1950s.

It was only then that the damage was noticed.

The painting, now fully restored, has been loaned to the National Portrait Gallery by the company, where it is on display.

Secret of Winston Churchill’s unpopular Sutherland portrait revealed

Its history has now been pieced together from the Boots archive, and released to the public as part of a new project into the medics of the late Victorian era.

The project is intended to showcase the individuals who “pioneered social reform and made life-saving advances and discoveries in the diagnosis and cure of illness”.

It includes portraits and information on people such as Havelock Ellis, who raised the profile of the scientific study of sexuality, Florence Nightingale, and Frederick Treves, who worked with Joseph Merrill, the ‘Elephant Man’.

• Churchill presented himself as a ‘swashbuckling hero who would rescue any damsels’

Sir Jesse Boot, 1st Baron Trent, was the son of John Boot, the founder of the chemist, and is credited with transforming it into a national retailer.

Dr Peter Funnell , head of research programmes at NPG, said: “The Later Victorian Portraits Catalogue is the result of in-depth and wide ranging scholarship, which provides the first comprehensive pictorial and biographical account of pioneers in the field of medicine and health.”

It is available online now.


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Churchill: the Nation’s Farewell, BBC One review: ‘bland’

January 28th, 2015

Jeremy Paxman’s regular commute to totemic moments of British history continues. He’s done the British Empire and the Great War, and for this trip in the time machine, he journeyed back half a century to the state funeral of Winston Churchill.

Churchill: the Nation’s Farewell (BBC One) was part reconstruction of the big day, part tour of a gigantic personality. But it also attempted to measure his lingering relevance to notions of nationhood, and wondered what Churchill might have made of the modern Britain in defence of whose future freedoms he stood alone in 1940.

Beyond bromides about the symbolic passing of an older Britain, there were rather more questions than answers. Could this be because Paxman has had quite enough of listening to other people’s opinions? Or is it becauseit’s difficult for us to stomach the new nice post-Newsnight Paxman? Among those he blandly quizzed were participants in the funeral – trumpeters, pall-bearers, a bell ringer, the verger where Churchill is buried in Oxfordshire. For some reason Paxman seemed keen to know whether everyone had cried (yes, though knees also knocked).

Guest star was Boris Johnson, Churchill’s latest hagiographer, who attested that Winston would be “a terrific blogger and a self-Googler of epic proportions”. Various descendants remembered the day – “We were swept along on this tidal wave of splendour,” blubbed Nicholas Soames – but they weren’t interviewed by Paxman.

In the end, Paxman nailed his colours to the mast and said what no one else could (or, in the case of Johnson, would): that for all Churchill’s flaws, “in this age of political miniatures there is no one who can hold a candle to him”. After an entire career grilling “lying b——-” (Paxman’s famous words), he should know.

Not that everyone revered the saviour of the nation. The programme’s coup was an interview with one of the Port of London dockers who dipped the jibs of the cranes as the coffin was taken up the Thames. It remains a moving image 50 years on. But the dockers wanted no part of it, and had to be paid to make this spontaneous gesture. The only union rep at the funeral was from the National Union of Bricklayers.


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Churchill embodied Britain’s greatness

January 23rd, 2015

When the airplane was in its infancy – barely 10 years after Wilbur and Orville Wright had taken off from Kitty Hawk – he was repeatedly going aloft in these hair-raising contraptions. And when his instructors were killed, and when his family and friends were begging him to desist, he continued to fly. He got lost in a storm over France in 1919, and almost perished. He had a serious crash in Buc aerodrome in France, when the plane’s skis hit the edge of a concealed road at the end of the runway, and the machine did a somersault – like a shot rabbit, he said – and he found himself hanging upside down in his harness. The following month he had an even worse crash at Croydon – smashing into the ground so hard that the propeller was buried, his co-pilot knocked out.

You read these accounts of disaster and you wonder what was going on in his head, that made him continue with something so obviously risky. Why did he push it? Why, when he served in the trenches in the First War, did he go out into No Man’s Land not once but 36 times, going so close as to be able to hear the Germans talking? Yes, he wanted to be thought brave, and yes, to some extent he was a self-invented person. But in the end the man he created was the real Churchill.

He dared to say things that no one would dare say today, and to behave in ways that would terrify the milquetoast politicians of the 21st century. When Bessie Braddock, the Socialist MP, told him he was drunk, he really did retort that she was ugly, but he would be sober in the morning. On being told that the Lord Privy Seal was waiting to see him, it seems that he really did growl out – from his position on the lavatory – that he was sealed in the privy and could only deal with one shit at a time. During one of his many infuriating conversations with Gen de Gaulle, in the depths of the war, he really does appear to have used his superb and menacing franglais: “Et marquez mes mots, mon ami, si vous me double-crosserez, je vous liquiderai.”

He imposed his own exuberant and uninhibited style on events. Who else could have wandered naked round the White House, or appeared before the US press corps wearing a bizarre purple romper suit of his own design, tailored by Turnbull and Asser? He truly did begin the day with champagne, or a glass of whisky and water, and then go on all day to consume quantities of booze that would have felled a bullock. He could have a three course dinner accompanied by champagne, white wine, red wine and brandy – and then go into his office at 10 pm, and start dictating vast periods of prose, much of it brilliant and original.

He didn’t just pose with cigars, or wave them around for Freudian effect. He smoked with a gusto that would today be unforgiveable – perhaps 250,000 in his lifetime, mainly Romeo y Julietas. The stubs were collected and given to the gardener at Chartwell (the poor chap died of cancer).

He seemed to be running, in other words, on a type of high-octane hydrocarbon that was available to no one else; and it was this energy, combined with his boldness, that produced his astonishing political fertility.

Our children are taught roughly what he did in the Second World War – but we have been in danger of forgetting his crucial role in helping to win the First. It is no exaggeration to say that he was one of the fathers of the tank – whose battlefield breakthroughs were eventually of critical importance; and it was his sedulous preparation of the Fleet, as First Lord of the Admiralty – not least the historic geo-strategic decision to convert the dreadnoughts from coal to oil – that meant England never lost control of the Channel.

His legacy is everywhere in the modern world. He helped to found the modern welfare state, pioneering unemployment insurance and other social protections in the years before the First World War. He was instrumental in the creation of modern Ireland, of Israel, of the map of much of the Middle East. He was one of the very first, in the Thirties, to adumbrate the idea of a “United States of Europe” – though he was ultimately ambiguous about exactly what role Britain should play.

It is Churchill’s shaping mind that still dominates our thinking about the world role of Britain – at the centre of three interconnecting circles: the Atlantic alliance, the relationship with Europe, and the relationship with the former Empire and Commonwealth.

Yes, of course he made catastrophic mistakes. He cannot be entirely exculpated for Gallipoli; he misread the public mood over the Abdication; it is hard to read some of his remarks about Indian independence without a shudder of embarrassment. But in these very disasters we see his boldness and determination to stick with the course he had embarked on, even if everyone was saying he was wrong.

And it was precisely that stubbornness and that bravery which was required in 1940. Think yourself into that smoke-filled room in May, that fateful meeting of the seven-strong War Cabinet. France had fallen; Europe had been engulfed by the Nazis; the Russians had done a nauseating deal with Hitler; the Americans were standing on the sidelines. Britain was alone, and the pressure to do a deal was overwhelming. The City wanted it; much of the media wanted it; Halifax wanted it; Chamberlain wanted it; Labour would have gone along.

It was Churchill and Churchill alone who was decisive in ensuring that Britain continued to fight. It was Churchill who was crucial to bringing America in – more than two years later. If Churchill had not been Prime Minister in 1940, there seems little doubt that Britain would have made an accommodation with evil – letting Hitler have his way and plunging Europe into darkness and barbarism. No one else round that table had the guts to do what he did; and it is to him, therefore, that the world owes thanks for the eventual victory over Nazism, and the 70 years of peace that have followed.

The more you study Churchill, the more I hope you will share my conviction that there has been no one remotely like him before or since.


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The Churchill files: How the Telegraph covered Sir Winston’s death

January 23rd, 2015

On January 15, 1965, Winston Churchill suffered a severe stroke. The long-retired former Prime Minister was now 90 years old, and so his death nine days later was not a surprise. But Britain’s mass media, including the Telegraph, followed him ever step of the way. Read on to see how.


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The death of Winston Churchill was the day the Empire died

January 20th, 2015

Another famous writer, the novelist V?S Pritchett, thought he could discern, “an undertone of self-pity. We were looking at a past utterly irrecoverable.” (To what extent is illustrated by a 2014 survey of British teenagers, 20 per cent of who thought Churchill was a fictional character.)

On learning of Churchill’s death, the man responsible for organising his funeral, the Earl Marshal, the 16th Duke of Norfolk, Bernard Fitzalan-Howard, put into effect a plan that was codenamed “Operation Hope Not”. Ever since Churchill had suffered a stroke while at No 10 in 1953, meticulous arrangements had been made for his funeral.

The Queen instructed Norfolk that the occasion should be “on a scale befitting his position in history”, thus guaranteeing that it would be the grandest state funeral for a commoner since that of the Duke of Wellington in 1852, even overshadowing William Gladstone’s in 1898.

The arrangements for the funeral had to be constantly updated due to Churchill’s great longevity. Lord Mountbatten joked of how “the problem was that Churchill kept living and the pallbearers kept dying”.

Churchill himself played relatively little part in planning the event, although he promised Harold Macmillan, “there will be lively hymns” and said to his private secretary, Anthony Montague Browne: “Remember, I want lots of military bands.” He got nine.

Churchill’s body lay in state in Westminster Hall for three days and nights, his coffin draped with a Union Jack on which rested his insignia of the Knight of the Garter. No fewer than 320,000 people filed past the catafalque that was guarded by members of the Services who stood statue-still, their heads bowed in respect and homage.

Even more people might have come had the thermometer not dipped below zero. Indeed on the day of the funeral itself, there were even casualties among the police horses on duty. The Salvation Army and Women’s Volunteer Service handed out soup, tea and sandwiches, further inspiring memories of wartime.

Across the country, flags flew at half mast, newspapers printed lengthy obituaries, black armbands were worn, football matches were rescheduled, shops closed, the National Association of Schoolmasters even cancelled a strike. Nothing was allowed to spoil what everyone knew would be an extraordinary historical occasion.

No fewer than 28 wartime bombs had fallen on St Paul’s Cathedral, one of them a massive five-hundred-pounder, yet Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece miraculously survived, partly due to its courageous and committed fire-watchers. The famous photograph of its dome standing undaunted above the fire and smoke of the Blitz still has the capacity to move Britons, and the church that survived Hitler’s bombers was the obvious place to stage the ceremony.

One break with precedent was the decision of the Queen to attend personally, a special mark of royal favour as sovereigns do not usually attend non-family funerals. In all six sovereigns, six presidents and 16 prime ministers were present that day.

On the morning of the funeral, Big Ben struck 9.45am but thereafter remained silent for the rest of the day. The great procession left New Palace Yard on its slow journey via Whitehall, Trafalgar Square, the Strand and Fleet Street up to St Paul’s. The gun carriage on which the coffin rested was pulled through the streets by 120 Royal Navy blue-jackets, a reminder of Churchill’s two terms as First Lord of the Admiralty. The sight as it left the Palace of Westminster was likened by one spectator to that of a great warship leaving harbour. Other troops in the procession, which included detachments of no fewer than 18 military units, marched carrying their rifles reversed. It took four majors of the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars to carry all of Churchill’s orders and decoration behind the gun carriage.


The funeral service in St Paul’s Cathedral

As the cortège passed the Cenotaph in Whitehall, 100 flags carried by men and women of the wartime resistance movements of France, Denmark, Norway and Holland were raised in a final salute. (After the coffin had passed, a group of Danish under-cover soldiers laid a wreath of lilies at the Cenotaph. When asked for their names by a journalist, one answered, before slipping back into the crowd, “We were unknown at war, it must be the same now.”)

In all, some 350 million people watched on television worldwide; indeed the American TV audience was larger than for President Kennedy’s funeral 15 months earlier. No fewer than 112 countries were represented at St Paul’s. Only China refused to send an envoy, while the Republic of Ireland chose not to broadcast the occasion live.

Laurence Olivier contributed to the ITV coverage, but it was Richard Dimbleby’s commentary on the BBC that won the most plaudits. After the ceremony, President Eisenhower and the Australian prime minister Sir Robert Menzies made impressive broadcasts to the American people and the Commonwealth respectively.

Just as Churchill had promised, there were indeed some “lively” hymns. Hymns were not sung at Wellington’s funeral because they were considered unsuitable for solemn occasions, but 113 years later they were a central feature in Churchill’s. His half-American parentage, as well as his belief in the potency of the English-speaking peoples, were reflected in the choice of The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, while his lion-hearted personal and political courage were recalled by Who Would True Valour See and Fight The Good Fight With All Thy Might. At the end of the service, the congregation sang the National Anthem, heard the Last Post and then the Reveille, and the Dead March from Handel’s Saul was played on the organ. The coffin was carried out of the Cathedral to the withdrawal hymn, O God, Our Help in Ages Past. The pageantry was solemn, superb, sublime.

One of the most evocative images of the day was of “the Captains and the Kings” standing on the West steps of St Paul’s watching the coffin of the Great Commoner being taken on to its next destination, Temple Pier on the River Thames. Charles de Gaulle standing tall in his military greatcoat and kepi, Prince Philip in his Admiral of the Fleet uniform saluting the coffin, the gorgeous gold uniforms of Garter King of Arms and his fellow heralds, the massed ranks of world statesmen: it all made an unforgettable historical tableaux. As one of the papers put it: “It was an act of history in itself.” (And one that cost the taxpayer £48,000, the equivalent of £650,000 today.)


Churchill’s coffin transported through Parliament Square towards St Paul’s Cathedral

Because, unlike Nelson and Wellington, Churchill had chosen not to be buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, the coffin was taken aboard the launch Havengore, to the booms of a 19-gun salute. As it set off upstream, pipers played the haunting lament Flowers of the Forest, and then 16 RAF Lightning aircraft swooped low in a fly-past. From Temple Pier, the coffin was taken to Waterloo station, and from there it travelled to Hanborough by train. The private burial took place in Bladon in Oxfordshire, near to Blenheim Palace, where Churchill was born in 1874. (Lady Churchill had gently talked him out of his original intention, which was to be buried on the croquet lawn at his country house, Chartwell, in Kent.)

In 1965, London was still one of the world’s greatest seaports, its docks served by vast cranes stationed on innumerable quays. When the Havengore passed these giant structures at Hay’s Wharf, on the South Bank, their operators dipped the tops of each in turn, as even these enormous machines bowed their heads in tribute to the nation’s dead chieftain.

For many, it was the most moving moment of the day. When Noël Coward saw it he burst into tears – for him, the whole funeral was “a great and truly noble experience”. In his history of the funeral, Churchill’s Final Farewell, Rodney Croft records how the 36 crane drivers involved had willingly given up their time without asking for overtime pay. Sir David Burnett, the managing director of the company that owned the machines, arranged to cover their expenses anyway.

American visitors to Britain were shocked at the supposedly buttoned-up Britons crying in public. The writer Laurie Lee observed: “Not since the war has there been such emotion.” John Lukacs, an American historian who visited Britain specially for the spectacle, also recorded how, “in the crowd lived the spirit of 1940, there was a great democratic upsurge of Englishmen, with men in bowler hats and elegant women standing with the cockneys and stevedores”.

The pallbearers did not, in fact, carry the coffin at any stage – Clement Attlee was 82 years old at the time and several others were in their seventies – but they did march before it down the aisle. (The casket itself was hewn from English oaks on the Blenheim estate, and it took 12 white-gloved Guardsmen to carry it up the West steps of St Paul’s.)

The 10 official pallbearers included such important wartime figures as Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, General Lord Ismay, Marshal of the RAF Lord Portal, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Mountbatten of Burma, Field Marshal Lord Slim and Field Marshal Lord Alexander of Tunis.

The split-second timing of the ceremony left even De Gaulle impressed, who spoke with genuine feeling about the efficiency with which the Earl Marshal had organised the vast enterprise. Churchill’s widow, Clementine, in the opinion of everyone present and the words of one reporter, “carried herself like a queen”. As she retired to bed after that exhausting, hugely emotional day, she told her daughter, Mary Soames: “It wasn’t a funeral, it was a triumph!”

By the end of the week, no fewer than 100,000 people had filed past the grave at Bladon churchyard in Oxfordshire, an astonishing number considering how freezing it was. Buried between his parents and his brother in the Spencer-Churchill family plot, his grave is still visited by thousands of people from around the world every year.

Invited to mourn with the Spencer-Churchill family was Churchill’s last private secretary, Anthony (later Sir Anthony) Montague Browne. The whole occasion brought on in him, “black melancholy thoughts of the decline and decay of so much of what Churchill had stood for. Well might the nation mourn him.”

As if to underline this moral decay, when Montague Browne got back to London after attending the private family burial at Bladon, he discovered that his flat had been burgled.

For more information on Churchill 2015, visit www.churchillcentral.com; and on Winston’s living legacy: www.wcmt.org.uk


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Sir Winston Churchill honoured with £20 commemorative coin

January 16th, 2015

Ahead of the collectors’ item going on sale, Sir Winston’s great-grandson Randolph Churchill, with his seven-year-old son John, visited The Royal Mint in Llantrisant, south Wales, to strike one of the solid silver coins.

He said: “This year marks 50 years since the death of my great grandfather and 75 years since his finest hour on becoming wartime Prime Minister.

“It is fantastic to see so many and such varied activities taking place to celebrate everything that he achieved during his long life.

“We need to ensure that his legacy is sustained for the benefit of future generations.

“It is an honour to have the opportunity to play a part in these commemorations, and I am delighted to strike one of these special coins which will serve as a unique reminder of a great man.

“To do so with my young son is a special honour which encapsulates the important link between past, present and future.”

Shane Bissett, The Royal Mint’s Director of Commemorative Coin and Medals said the mint first produced a commemorative coin bearing an image of Sir Winston Churchill to mark his death in 1965.

He added: “Churchill holds a significant place in Britain’s history as a great leader, soldier, artist and writer, not only acting as Prime Minister on two occasions but also leading the country twice through the dark days of war.

“His image, reputation and legacy are instantly recognisable all over the world; therefore it is only fitting that he takes pride of place on The Royal Mint’s third £20 for £20 coin.”

The mint’s coin comes as part of Churchill 2015 – an international celebration of the life and legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.

Organisers say they hope it will keep his memory alive as well as educate and inspire future generations.


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How Churchill gave us tanks, radar, DNA…and a velvet green air-raid suit

December 3rd, 2014

Churchill was the first Prime Minister to insist on a scientific advisor, and under his leadership, scientists were given unprecedented access to the government and funding.

“Which other Prime Minister had a scientist continually at his elbow?” said Andrew Nahum, lead curator of Churchill’s Scientists.

“During the war the question was never how much will it cost? It was can we do it and how soon can we have it? This left a heritage of extreme ambition and a lot of talented people who were keen to see what it could provide.

“And a lot of people had gained huge skills and competence through radar work and munitions and nuclear projects in the war, which formed a new science which was ambitious and proactive. There was a huge store of practical talent at that time.

“It’s why in post-war Britain we suddenly have the discovery of DNA and proteins, x-ray crystallography and how nerves signal. There is a very obvious trajectory from war time science to major breakthroughs in peacetime.”

Churchill owed much of his vision to science fiction rather than science. He was a close friend of the author HG Wells, and said that The Time Machine was ‘one of the books I would like to take with me to Purgatory.’

He wrote articles entitled “Death Rays” and “Are there Men on the Moon?” while also coming up with elaborate battlefield contraptions which he dubbed ‘funnies.’

Most of his ‘funnies’ never made it, literally, off the ground. A project to design ‘aerial mines’ had to be abandoned as did his rocket propelled wheel dubbed ‘The Great Panjandrum’ which was scrapped after regularly running amok. Likewise Project Habbakuk aimed to build a floating air-craft from an ice-berg and scientists were established at Smithfield meat market in London to test out different combinations of sawdust and ice. The scheme was eventually deemed ‘impractical because of the enormous production resources required and technical difficulties involved.’

Churchill even invented a green velvet ‘siren suit’ – a one-piece outfit devised by him and designed to be put on in a hurry during air raids.

But he was also responsible for many revolutionary ideas. It is likely that Wells showed Churchill the possibility of tanks, which the author described in the title of his 1903 short story ‘The Land IronClads.’ Churchill became the ‘godfather’ of tanks, and as First Lord of the Admiralty saw their benefits long before the Army caught up. It is why the first examples were known as ‘Her Majesty’s land ships.’

He also saw the importance of keeping Britain soldiers and civilians healthy during the war and set in motion projects to determine the best diets and exercise regimes for peak physical performance.

Food scientists Robert McCance and Elsie Widdowson tested the austere war diet on themselves, and journeyed to the Lake District to determine the beneficial effect of fell-walking. They recorded their findings in The Compostition of Foods – a book that remains the standard work on nutrition and exercise.

Churchill had little science education but was fascinated with the subject, particularly how it might be harnessed to benefit society. While serving in India he ordered numerous scientific works, including Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, which he studied in detail.

“His schooling was patchy and when he got to India he began to feel his lack of education so he had huge crates of books shipped over,” added Mr Nahum, “He described himself as having an empty and hungry mind with a fierce set of jaws.”

He was fascinated by radioactivity, believing that the way in which atoms degenerated suggested ‘the breakup of empires and independent states.’

And he was also the first British prime minister to foresee the potential of the nuclear age.

As early as 1914, Wells had spoken of a future reality of “atomic bombs” and writing in The Strand Magazine in 1931, Churchill , expressed confidence that scientists would one day be able to harness nuclear energy and pondered the challenges its “tremendous and awful” powers would present to mankind.

He was instrumental in setting up Britain’s nuclear project alongside his scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann whom Churchill dubbed ‘The Prof’. However the US would eventually win the atomic race with the Manhattan Project.

In later years Churchill went on to found Churchill College at Cambridge to further science and technology in Britain.

Churchill’s Scientists opens at The Science Museum on January 23rd to mark the 50th anniversary of his death.


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How Churchill gave us tanks, radar, DNA…and a velvet green air-raid suit

November 30th, 2014

Churchill was the first Prime Minister to insist on a scientific advisor, and under his leadership, scientists were given unprecedented access to the government and funding.

“Which other Prime Minister had a scientist continually at his elbow?” said Andrew Nahum, lead curator of Churchill’s Scientists.

“During the war the question was never how much will it cost? It was can we do it and how soon can we have it? This left a heritage of extreme ambition and a lot of talented people who were keen to see what it could provide.

“And a lot of people had gained huge skills and competence through radar work and munitions and nuclear projects in the war, which formed a new science which was ambitious and proactive. There was a huge store of practical talent at that time.

“It’s why in post-war Britain we suddenly have the discovery of DNA and proteins, x-ray crystallography and how nerves signal. There is a very obvious trajectory from war time science to major breakthroughs in peacetime.”

Churchill owed much of his vision to science fiction rather than science. He was a close friend of the author HG Wells, and said that The Time Machine was ‘one of the books I would like to take with me to Purgatory.’

He wrote articles entitled “Death Rays” and “Are there Men on the Moon?” while also coming up with elaborate battlefield contraptions which he dubbed ‘funnies.’

Most of his ‘funnies’ never made it, literally, off the ground. A project to design ‘aerial mines’ had to be abandoned as did his rocket propelled wheel dubbed ‘The Great Panjandrum’ which was scrapped after regularly running amok. Likewise Project Habbakuk aimed to build a floating air-craft from an ice-berg and scientists were established at Smithfield meat market in London to test out different combinations of sawdust and ice. The scheme was eventually deemed ‘impractical because of the enormous production resources required and technical difficulties involved.’

Churchill even invented a green velvet ‘siren suit’ – a one-piece outfit devised by him and designed to be put on in a hurry during air raids.

But he was also responsible for many revolutionary ideas. It is likely that Wells showed Churchill the possibility of tanks, which the author described in the title of his 1903 short story ‘The Land IronClads.’ Churchill became the ‘godfather’ of tanks, and as First Lord of the Admiralty saw their benefits long before the Army caught up. It is why the first examples were known as ‘Her Majesty’s land ships.’

He also saw the importance of keeping Britain soldiers and civilians healthy during the war and set in motion projects to determine the best diets and exercise regimes for peak physical performance.

Food scientists Robert McCance and Elsie Widdowson tested the austere war diet on themselves, and journeyed to the Lake District to determine the beneficial effect of fell-walking. They recorded their findings in The Compostition of Foods – a book that remains the standard work on nutrition and exercise.

Churchill had little science education but was fascinated with the subject, particularly how it might be harnessed to benefit society. While serving in India he ordered numerous scientific works, including Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, which he studied in detail.

“His schooling was patchy and when he got to India he began to feel his lack of education so he had huge crates of books shipped over,” added Mr Nahum, “He described himself as having an empty and hungry mind with a fierce set of jaws.”

He was fascinated by radioactivity, believing that the way in which atoms degenerated suggested ‘the breakup of empires and independent states.’

And he was also the first British prime minister to foresee the potential of the nuclear age.

As early as 1914, Wells had spoken of a future reality of “atomic bombs” and writing in The Strand Magazine in 1931, Churchill , expressed confidence that scientists would one day be able to harness nuclear energy and pondered the challenges its “tremendous and awful” powers would present to mankind.

He was instrumental in setting up Britain’s nuclear project alongside his scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann whom Churchill dubbed ‘The Prof’. However the US would eventually win the atomic race with the Manhattan Project.

In later years Churchill went on to found Churchill College at Cambridge to further science and technology in Britain.

Churchill’s Scientists opens at The Science Museum on January 23rd to mark the 50th anniversary of his death.


World War Two

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The day Churchill saved Britain from the Nazis

October 16th, 2014

The question before the meeting was very simple. Should Britain fight? Was it reasonable for young British troops to die in a war that showed every sign of being lost? Or should the British do some kind of deal that might well save hundreds of thousands of lives?

I don’t think many people of my generation are fully conscious of how close we came to such a deal. There were serious and influential voices who wanted to begin “negotiations”.

It is not hard to see why they thought as they did. The War Cabinet was staring at the biggest humiliation for British armed forces since the loss of the American colonies, and there seemed no way back.

Everyone in that room could imagine the consequences of fighting on. They knew all about war; some of them had fought in the Great War, and the hideous memory of that slaughter was only 22 years old. There was scarcely a family in Britain that had not been touched by sorrow. Was it right – was it fair – to ask the people to go through all that again? And to what end?

It seems from the Cabinet minutes that the meeting more or less kicked off with Halifax. He went straight to the point.

The Italian embassy had sent a message, he said: that this was Britain’s moment to seek mediation via Italy. This was not just a simple overture from Mussolini: it was surely a signal from his senior partner. Coiling itself round Whitehall and penetrating the heart of the House of Commons, it was a feeler from Hitler.

Churchill knew exactly what was going on. He told Halifax to forget it. Britain had been at war with Germany, and had been since September 1 the previous year. It was a war for freedom and for principle. The minute Britain accepted some Italian offer of mediation, Churchill knew that the sinews of resistance would relax. A white flag would be raised over Britain.

So he said no to Halifax. In another country, the debate might therefore have been at an end. But that is not how the British constitution works: the prime minister is primus inter pares – first among equals; he must to some extent carry his colleagues with him; and to understand the dynamics of that conversation, we must remember the fragility of Churchill’s position.

He had been prime minister for less than three weeks, and it was far from clear who were his real allies round the table. Attlee and Greenwood, the Labour contingent, were broadly supportive; and the same can be said for Sinclair the Liberal. But it was the Tories on whom he depended for his mandate – and the Tories were far from sure about Winston Churchill.

Neville Chamberlain, second left, meeting Mussolini in Rome

From his very emergence as a young Tory MP he had bashed and satirised his own party; he had then deserted them for the Liberals, and though he had eventually returned to the fold, there were too many Tories who thought of him as an unprincipled opportunist.

Halifax had been over to see Hitler in 1937 – and he had an embarrassing familiarity with Goering. But in his own way, Halifax was a patriot as much as Churchill.

He thought he could see a way to protect Britain and to safeguard the Empire, and to save lives; and it is not as if he was alone. The British ruling class was riddled with appeasers and pro-Nazis. It wasn’t just the Mitfords, or the followers of Sir Oswald Mosley.

In 1936 Lady Nelly Cecil noted that nearly all of her relatives were “tender to the Nazis”, and the reason was simple. In the Thirties, your average toff was much more fearful of Bolshevism, and communisms’ alarming ideology of redistribution, than they were fearful of Hitler. Indeed, they saw fascism as a bulwark against the reds, and they had high-level political backing.

David Lloyd George had been so dazzled by the Führer that he compared him to George Washington. Hitler was a “born leader”, declared the befuddled former British prime minister. He wished that Britain had “a man of his supreme quality at the head of affairs in our country today”. This from the hero of the First World War!

The Daily Mail had long been campaigning for Hitler to be given a free hand in eastern Europe, the better to beat up the bolshies. “If Hitler did not exist,” said the Mail, “all western Europe might now be clamouring for such a champion.”

The Times had been so pro-appeasement that the editor, Geoffrey Dawson, described how he used to go through the proofs taking out anything that might offend the Germans. The press baron Beaverbrook himself had sacked Churchill from his Evening Standard column on the grounds that he was too hard on the Nazis. Respectable liberal opinion – theatre types like John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike, GB Shaw – was lobbying for the government to “give consideration” to talks.

Of course, the mood had changed in the last year; feelings against Germany had hardened. All I am saying – in mitigation of Halifax – is that, in seeking peace, he had the support of many British people, at all levels of society. And so the argument went on, between Halifax and the prime minister, for that crucial hour.

It was a stalemate; and it was now – according to most historians – that Churchill played his masterstroke. He announced that the meeting would be adjourned, and would begin again at 7pm. He then convened the Cabinet of 25, ministers from every department – many of whom were to hear him as prime minister for the first time.

The bigger the audience, the more fervid the atmosphere; and now he made an appeal to the emotions. Before the full Cabinet he made a quite astonishing speech – without any hint of the intellectual restraint he had been obliged to display in the smaller meeting.

He began calmly enough: “I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man.”

And he ended with this almost Shakespearean climax: “And I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

At this the men in that room were so moved that they cheered and shouted, and some of them ran round and clapped him on the back.

Churchill had ruthlessly dramatised and personalised the debate. By the time the War Cabinet resumed at 7pm, the debate was over; Halifax abandoned his cause. Churchill had the clear and noisy backing of the Cabinet.

Within a year of that decision – to fight and not to negotiate – 30,000 British men, women and children had been killed, almost all of them at German hands. Weighing up those alternatives – a humiliating peace, or a slaughter of the innocents – it is hard to imagine any modern British politician having the guts to take Churchill’s line.

He had the vast and almost reckless moral courage to see that fighting on would be appalling, but that surrender would be even worse. He was right.

. Boris Johnson will be taking part in a Q&A with Gaby Wood on October 23 at Imperial College London


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