Old Kerfuffles Die Hard: The Churchill Papers Flap is Back

Old Kerfuffles Die Hard: The Churchill Papers Flap is Back

Boris John­son, who has sought com­par­i­son with Win­ston Churchill, denounced spend­ing nation­al lot­tery mon­ey to save the wartime leader’s per­son­al papers for the nation,” chor­tled The Guardian in Decem­ber. (The Churchill Papers cov­er 1874-1945. Lady Churchill donat­ed the post-1945 Chartwell Papers to the Churchill Archives in 1965.)

In April 1995 John­son, then a colum­nist for the Dai­ly Tele­graph, deplored the £12.5 mil­lion pur­chase of Churchill Papers for the nation. The lot­tery-sup­port­ed Nation­al Her­itage Memo­r­i­al Fund, said John­son, was frit­ter­ing away mon­ey on point­less projects and ben­e­fit­ing Tory grandees. John­son added: “…sel­dom in the field of human avarice was so much spent by so many on so little …”

The Memo­r­i­al Fund replied the Churchill Papers were a nation­al heir­loom under threat of being sold out­side the coun­try. John­son snort­ed that they had sim­ply “run out of sport­ing and artis­tic projects to endow.” His “unsen­ti­men­tal approach to Churchill’s records may seem sur­pris­ing giv­en that in 2014 he pub­lished a eulo­gis­tic biog­ra­phy of the for­mer Con­ser­v­a­tive pre­mier,” wrote The Guardian. 

I remem­ber the Great Churchill Papers Flap very well, hav­ing pub­lished arti­cles about it back then. It is the same tem­pest in a teapot today that it was in 1995. Except that nowa­days, Churchill and his mem­o­ry are fair game to grunt­ing mobs and virtue-sig­nal­ing nan­nies. So the whole busi­ness is again some­how newsworthy.

A threat to Britain’s heritage

Sir Mar­tin Gilbert, Churchill’s fore­most biog­ra­ph­er, called the Churchill Papers “the largest sin­gle pri­vate repos­i­to­ry of recent British his­to­ry.” Their acqui­si­tion, he said, was “an imag­i­na­tive stroke of nation­al pol­i­cy.” Among oth­er tri­umphs, the Papers inform thir­ty-one vol­umes of Win­ston S. Churchill, the longest biog­ra­phy on the planet.

Schol­ars have long mined these fif­teen tons of doc­u­ments. Many indi­vid­ual items have been repro­duced. It was the pos­si­bil­i­ty that they might be sold to an over­seas buy­er, Gilbert explained, that focused con­cern on their phys­i­cal future:

The first alarm involved cer­tain spe­cif­ic doc­u­ments, such as Churchill’s wartime speech­es, which clear­ly con­sti­tute part of the nation­al her­itage. Pho­to­copies and repro­duc­tions are all very well, but the actu­al pieces of paper are what mat­ters. The orig­i­nals alone con­vey the full sense of his­tor­i­cal drama.

The idea that Churchill’s final draft of “we will fight on the beach­es” would end up in a library over­look­ing a beach in the Pacif­ic, or some oth­er dis­tant shore, was not attrac­tive. As a result of the deci­sion to use Nation­al Lot­tery mon­ey to secure the Churchill Papers, it is not only let­ters writ­ten by Churchill that are to be pre­served in this coun­try and guard­ed, as hith­er­to, in the spe­cial­ly designed archives of Churchill Col­lege, Cambridge.

Sir Mar­tin explained that “Churchill’s Papers” are very much more than his own notes and mono­graphs. Of course they include hand­writ­ten or typed man­u­scripts of books and speech­es, if not copies of his own let­ters. He also kept every let­ter that he received. “These let­ters, writ­ten to him, con­sti­tute the real his­tor­i­cal val­ue of this collection.”

A great glory saved

Churchill’s orig­i­nal let­ters reside in 500 libraries and archives around the world. The Churchill Papers, how­ev­er, rep­re­sent the whole range British his­to­ry. Sir Mar­tin offered examples:

Here we have let­ters from David Lloyd George, set­ting out the most rad­i­cal pro­pos­als for social reform before the First World War. Here we have Lord Kitchener’s let­ters dur­ing the ear­ly months of the First World War, includ­ing the ill-fat­ed Gal­lipoli expe­di­tion. We see here the Irish lead­ers on both sides strug­gling for a com­pro­mise to end the civ­il war. Here, too are Labour lead­ers nego­ti­at­ing with Churchill, then Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer, to resolve the 1926 coal strike. Secret­ly, they vis­it­ed him at a house in Lon­don to work out a compromise.

Through­out the 1930s the Churchill Papers abound in let­ters from civ­il ser­vants, air­men and mem­bers of the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty. They sent secret infor­ma­tion, much of it from Nazi Ger­many, enabling Churchill to wage his cam­paign for greater rear­ma­ment. While his own let­ters con­sist in the main of car­bon copies, it is the orig­i­nals from oth­er peo­ple that are the great glo­ry of the papers saved for the nation.

A let­ter from his good friend Val Flem­ing (father of Ian) describes the slaugh­ter on the West­ern Front. There is a let­ter from his broth­er Jack describ­ing the first awful moments of the Dar­d­anelles cam­paign. Let­ters from his moth­er, Lady Ran­dolph Churchill, are full of the polit­i­cal gos­sip of 1916. There are let­ters from Admi­ral “Jack­ie” Fish­er urg­ing Churchill to return from the trench­es and break the gov­ern­ment. Churchill did return, but his efforts to harm the gov­ern­ment in debate were a dis­mal failure.

A rich seam of historical gold

“The Papers rep­re­sent every twist and turn of British polit­i­cal debate,” Sir Mar­tin con­tin­ued. Every file con­tains gems. “Hav­ing read and edit­ed them all, I can only con­clude that the Churchill archive will pro­vide in the future, as it is already doing, a rich seam of his­tor­i­cal gold.”  It is the rich­est seam out­side the Government’s own Nation­al Archives, which house Churchill’s volu­mi­nous war papers, and those of his four-year peace­time premiership.

Churchill and Eden at Spencer Wood, res­i­dence of the Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor of Que­bec, August 1943.
(Bib­lio­thèque et Archives nationales du Québec, pub­lic domain)

Every VE-Day, the Churchill Papers are there to prompt remem­brance of hero­ic times. A let­ter on VE-Day itself was sent to WSC from Antho­ny Eden: “All my thoughts are with you on this day which is so essen­tial­ly your day. It is you who have led, uplift­ed and inspired us through the worst days. With­out you this day could not have been.”

And among the hun­dreds of let­ters from Churchill’s chil­dren is one from his daugh­ter Mary, writ­ten when he was an old man long part­ed from pow­er or influ­ence: “In addi­tion to all the feel­ings a daugh­ter has for a lov­ing gen­er­ous father, I owe you what every Eng­lish­man, woman and child does, Lib­er­ty itself.” For this rea­son alone, Sir Mar­tin con­clud­ed, “the assur­ance that the Churchill Papers are to remain in Britain is to be welcomed.”

Controversy and rebuttal

Remark­ably in view their impor­tance, some his­to­ri­ans and media were out­raged that one-fourth of the Churchill Papers’ val­ue inured to pri­vate par­ties. They should have been donat­ed, they said. On which, a few observations:

1) In lat­er years, Churchill con­sid­ered how he could pro­vide for his fam­i­ly. Almost his only prop­er­ty of sig­nif­i­cant val­ue was his papers. A typ­i­cal Vic­to­ri­an, he willed them to his male heirs. How­ev­er, as his daugh­ter Mary told me, “all his depen­dents were pro­vid­ed for, and all were appre­cia­tive of what he did for them.”

2) Appraisals of the papers were £40 and £32.5 mil­lion respec­tive­ly. The gov­ern­ment took the low­er esti­mate, sub­tract­ed £10 mil­lion for any­thing offi­cial and £10 mil­lion for tax. That left £12.5 mil­lion. J. Paul Get­ty II gen­er­ous­ly put up £1 mil­lion and the Her­itage Lot­tery Fund £11.5 million—a frac­tion of their val­ue on the open market.

3) Tax­pay­ers did not pro­vide the £11.5 mil­lion. Lot­tery prof­its go to var­i­ous sports, arts, char­i­ties and Her­itage mate­ri­als. Almost always, Her­itage items are in pri­vate hands, so their acqui­si­tion often ben­e­fits pri­vate parties.

4) Com­par­isons to the post-1945 papers left to Churchill Col­lege are irrel­e­vant. Lady Churchill bequeathed them late in life, know­ing her chil­dren had been pro­vid­ed for. Had she been younger she could have sold them, and would have had every right to do so.

5) While the copy­right was retained (to doc­u­ments orig­i­nat­ed by WSC), this should be kept in per­spec­tive. Until Hills­dale Col­lege took them on, no pub­lish­er would under­write the final doc­u­ment vol­umes. Aca­d­e­m­ic pub­li­ca­tions, non-prof­it insti­tu­tions, even hos­tile biog­ra­phers, have used the mate­r­i­al with­out charge.

Why the uproar?

The rea­son for the flap has noth­ing to do with the rights of own­er­ship, and every­thing to do with mak­ing polit­i­cal hay and sow­ing scorn. Such activ­i­ties have vast­ly mul­ti­plied in the last quar­ter cen­tu­ry. The biog­ra­ph­er William Man­ches­ter was well aware of this when he mem­o­rably wrote The Times in 1995:

The con­tro­ver­sy over the sale of the Churchill Papers to the British nation, with pro­ceeds going to mem­bers of his fam­i­ly, is bewil­der­ing. One British his­to­ri­an in a U.S. news­pa­per labeled the trans­ac­tion “just tacky.” One won­ders why it is even newsworthy.

When out of office, Churchill, a pro­fes­sion­al writer, sup­port­ed his house­hold with his pen. His lit­er­ary estate was his prop­er­ty. He had every rea­son, both moral and legal, to expect that title to it would pass on to his sur­vivors through the trust fund which he estab­lished before his death. The sum of £12.5 mil­lion, how­ev­er raised, seems hard­ly exces­sive. The col­lec­tion would sell for far more than that in the Unit­ed States. But that would have raised a gen­uine storm, which would have been justifiable.

Some crit­ics believe that the Papers should have been donat­ed to the coun­try. That has a famil­iar ring. Authors are for­ev­er being told that they should give their work to society—that to expect mon­ey in return is, well, tacky. The ori­gin of this pre­sump­tion lies in a mis­ap­pre­hen­sion of the word “gift­ed.” Many believe that tal­ent is lit­er­al­ly a gift, which the writer should pass along. The fact is that writ­ing is very hard work, and that here, as else­where, the labor­er is wor­thy of his hire. Sure­ly any work­ing per­son should be able to under­stand that.

One thought on “Old Kerfuffles Die Hard: The Churchill Papers Flap is Back

  1. I have been research­ing the life of my grand­fa­ther H. Gor­don Thomp­son and I have a pho­to of him with Lady Churchill and Field Mar­shal Chet­wode at an event to sup­port the Red Cross Hos­pi­tal Aid to Chi­na in about 1940. I can­not find any oth­er ref­er­ence to this. Could you give me any advice on where to look.

    There is no men­tion of Gor­don (or H. Gor­don) Thomp­son in our dig­i­tal canon of 80 mil­lion words by and about Churchill, but quite a few for Field Mar­shal Chet­wode, whom you can find on Wikipedia.
    Was your grand­fa­ther involved with the British Red Cross? Chet­wode was Chair­man of the Exec­u­tive Com­mit­tee of the War Organ­i­sa­tion of the Red Cross and St John. It was he who formed the Aid to Rus­sia Sub-Com­mit­tee, of which he would be Chair­man, and Clemen­tine Churchill vice-chair­man. Also try the Churchill Archives Cen­tre.

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