The Real Churchill’s London (Part 2)

by Richard Langworth on 17 July 2016

London: The Evening Standard published an article on Churchill’s “favourite spots in the capital” (16 June 2016). It offered only Pol Roger champagne, the National Liberal Club, Romeo y Julieta cigars, a Churchill bar, Paxton & Whitfield’s cheese shop, Austin Reed’s menswear and Brown’s Hotel. With the exception of the National Liberal Club this assortment would more aptly be entitled “Churchill’s household staff’s favourite shopping places.” The real Churchill’s London, “Spinning Top of Memories,” is that official biographer Sir Martin Gilbert. The text is online. There you may read “of Ungrand Places and Moments in Time.” These are spots which figure crucially in the Churchill story.

41 Cromwell Road, London


41 Cromwell Rd. (Don Greater photo)

This large house just opposite the Natural History Museum belonged to Churchill’s brother Jack. From here, after deciding to leave the government in November 1915, Churchill departed for the trenches. Through Autumn 1916, Cromwell Road housed both Churchill brothers, their wives and children, and their mother Lady Randolph. Here Clementine received Winston’s long, plaintive, sometimes despairing letters from the front. Sir Martin drew attention to these “very private letters never intended for publication”…..

It was 28 March 1916, a wintry day. The Germans were sending yet another methodical artillery barrage along the British front line. Churchill calculated that the fifth or sixth shell would hit the ground quite near to where he was standing. Indeed it did. As he wrote his wife: “Twenty more yards to the left and no more tangles to unravel, no more anxieties to face, no more hatreds and injustices to encounter. A good ending to a chequered life. A final gift, unvalued, to an ungrateful country, an impoverishment of the war-making power of Britain which no one would ever know, or measure, or mourn.”

Metropole Building

In London, Sir Martin thought, one should visit places where Churchill found himself at important moments in history. One of these is the Metropole Building, where he served as Minister of Munitions in 1917-19. At the time it was a requisitioned hotel. Here Churchill was looking out his window at Northumberland Avenue at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, as Big Ben began to chime the hour that would signal the end of World War I.


Metropole Building

I looked at the broad street beneath me. It was deserted. From the portals of one of the large hotels absorbed by Government Departments darted the slight figure of a girl clerk, distractedly gesticulating while another stroke of Big Ben resounded. Then from all sides men and women came scurrying into the street. Streams of people poured out of all the buildings. Northumberland Avenue was now crowded with people in hundreds, nay thousands, rushing hither and thither in a frantic manner, shouting and screaming with joy.

I could see that Trafalgar Square was already swarming. Around me in our very headquarters, in the Hotel Metropole, disorder had broken, out. Doors banged. Feet clattered down corridors. Everyone rose from the desk and cast aside pen and paper. All bounds were broken. The tumult grew. It grew like a gale, but from all sides simultaneously. The street was now a seething mass of humanity. Flags appeared as if by magic. Streams of men and women flowed from the Embankment. They mingled with torrents pouring down the Strand on their way to acclaim the King. Almost before the last stroke of the clock had died away, the strict, war-straitened, regulated streets of London had become a triumphant pandemonium.

And Churchill wondered as he stood there: Was this really the end? Or was it merely another chapter in a “cruel and senseless story? Will a new generation in their turn be immolated to square the black accounts of Teuton and Gaul?” Alas we know the answer.

11 Morpeth Mansions


Morpeth Mansions, with the Churchill flat circled. (Don Greater photo)

Not part of Sir Martin’s triptych, though he spoke of it on other occasions, was Morpeth Mansions. A flat here was the London home of Winston and Clementine Churchill from late autumn 1931 until war in September 1939.

It is hard to exaggerate the historic importance of this residence. (And it does have an historical plaque.) Here Churchill kept made surreptitious rendezvous with informants who, at risk of their careers, gave him secret reports on German rearmament. With these he urged the government to rearm, and the government did respond, but insufficiently.

Morpeth Mansions frequently saw meetings of The Focus: distinguished citizens opposed to appeasement, hoping to ward off conflict through preparedness—frustrated, in the end, by a reluctant government. Here Churchill and his colleagues gathered as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had left for Bad Godesberg to meet Hitler on 22 September 1938, a preliminary to the Munich Agreement.

Harold Nicolson, the last to arrive, was waiting for the lift when Churchill paid his cabbie and hurried in. They ascended together. Nicolson said: “This is hell.” Churchill muttered: “It is the end of the British Empire.” According to Nicolson’s diary, Churchill told The Focus that the Cabinet had demanded “a firm stand,” insisting on German demobilization, supervision of the Sudetenland transfer to Germany by an international commission, refusal to discuss Polish or Hungarian claims on Czech territory, and a German guarantee of Czech borders.

“Almost in chorus, his guests said: ‘But Hitler will never accept such terms!’ Winston replied, ‘In that case, Chamberlain will return tonight and we shall have war.’ In that event, one peer pointed out, ‘It will be inconvenient having our Prime Minister in German territory.’ Winston shook his massive head and growled, ‘Even the Germans would not be so stupid as to deprive us of our beloved Prime Minister.'”

Of course war was averted, and after a final meeting with Hitler ad Munich, the Prime Minister returned promising “peace for our time.” It lasted less than a year.

Number Ten Annexe


Number Ten Annexe. Circled are the rooms where Churchill really fought World War II. (Don Greater photo)

Most Churchillians have been to the Cabinet War Rooms, the underground London bunker, now a museum, designed to shelter the government during the Blitz. But Martin Gilbert directed us to walk across the street to St. James’s Park and look back:

“Cast your eye from the entrance on the War Rooms slightly to the right. You’ll see a doorway well above ground. To the right of that doorway you will see a set of six windows ending in a curved window at Storey’s Gate. Those are the actual rooms in which Winston Churchill slept and worked during the second World War.”

Prosaic, perhaps, next to the evocative War Rooms—but in fact he hated being sent there “like a rat in a  hole,” and spent, it seems, only three nights of the 1562 nights of the war. It was these ground floor rooms, Number Ten Annexe, from which the war was conducted. He was here when he did not slip back, as he so often did, to No. 10 Downing Street itself, where most of the Cabinets were held. If you look closely you will even see the holes where the metal shutters were affixed. Churchill did not want, after all, to be blasted out of his rooms, so the shutters were there to be closed during the bombing.”

Number Ten Annexe is of course valuable real estate nowadays, too valuable for a museum. But from those above ground rooms came many of Churchill’s great speeches, directives and decisions. Next time you go by, have a look up at them. Please tell me if a blue historic plaque has finally been affixed to them. Last time I checked, it still wasn’t there.

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