The Sordid History of Churchill’s Collected Works

The Sordid History of Churchill’s Collected Works


Excerpt­ed from “The Sor­did His­to­ry of the Col­lect­ed Works,”  my essay for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. To read the orig­i­nal arti­cle with more pho­tos and an appen­dix on the var­i­ous texts, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is nev­er giv­en out and remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.


In 1973, on the eve of the Churchill Cen­te­nary, word broke of the first col­lect­ed edi­tion of Sir Winston’s pub­lished works. Edit­ed by Fred­er­ick Woods, The Col­lect­ed Works of Sir Win­ston Churchill was “lim­it­ed to 3000 copies.” The price was £945, then about $2500. The pub­lish­er was the “Library of Impe­r­i­al His­to­ry,” a com­pa­ny appar­ent­ly found­ed to mar­ket the books.

Aes­thet­i­cal­ly, the set seemed mag­nif­i­cent, bound in calf­skin vel­lum with the titling in 22 ct. gold, print­ed on “500-year archival paper,” page edges gilt, silk page mark­ers, mar­bled end­pa­pers. (They proved to be col­or sep­a­ra­tions, not mar­bled paper, a minor dis­ap­point­ment.) Each vol­ume was housed in a dark green slip­case stamped with the Churchill Arms.

The 1750 orig­i­nal sets actu­al­ly sold were accom­pa­nied by num­bered book­plates. (Ken Carter)

The spec­i­fi­ca­tions were titan­ic: five mil­lion words, 19,000 pages, 90 pounds, requir­ing 4 1/2 feet of shelf space. The Col­lect­ed Works were pro­mot­ed with impres­sive tes­ti­mo­ni­als. Lady Churchill, who wrote the Fore­word to Vol­ume I, said the books would have giv­en Sir Win­ston “enor­mous pleasure.”


Pub­lic opin­ion was less uni­form. Dal­ton New­field, edi­tor of the Inter­na­tion­al Churchill Soci­ety jour­nal Finest Hour, edi­to­ri­al­ized: “Tri­umph? No—Tragedy.” Most peo­ple, he wrote, “will nev­er own this won­der­ful work…. Few libraries will find $2500 for an edi­tion so expen­sive. Clear­ly the Works are cant­ed toward the speculator.”

He also ques­tioned the claim that “a sub­stan­tial part of the proceeds…will be used to fur­ther the work of the Churchill Cen­te­nary Trust, Churchill Col­lege and the U.S. Churchill Foun­da­tion.” His doubts proved valid, for there is no record that those char­i­ties ever ben­e­fit­ted. The price also ran­kled. By con­trast, New­field not­ed, the Ency­clo­pe­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca had three edi­tions from $998 to $5000. But “all who want to use this valu­able ref­er­ence will be able to buy it for just under $500, and EB will knock anoth­er $100 off if you trade in any old edi­tion. What a contrast!”


New­field also raised prob­lems of schol­ar­ship. Most of the works were being reset and reed­it­ed. Some texts were tak­en from lat­er edi­tions, which dif­fered rad­i­cal­ly from the orig­i­nals. The worst offend­er was The Riv­er War, which appears in the Works only as an abridg­ment, a far cry from the orig­i­nal text. The World Cri­sis, with its valu­able shoul­der notes, looks at a glance like an off­print of the First Edi­tion. In fact it was reset, reed­it­ed and its maps redrawn.

In all, only eight vol­umes and half of a ninth con­tained the orig­i­nal text and pag­i­na­tion. Sev­en vol­umes were off­print­ed from lat­er edi­tions. The oth­er 18 1/2 vol­umes, though improved with uni­form type and bet­ter maps, bear no resem­blance to the orig­i­nals. They are of lim­it­ed val­ue for foot­notes or ref­er­ences, since the Col­lect­ed Works are so rare that few can access them.

One of about 20 red moroc­co copies sold by an unknown New York­er who acquired the remain­der stock. These dif­fered from the orig­i­nals in spine design (omit­ting the LIH logo), blind blocked cov­er frame, and mar­bled end­pa­pers. (Churchill Book Collector)

The reset works were also sig­nif­i­cant­ly edit­ed. While in this may have improved or mod­ern­ized the text, it cre­at­ed enor­mous dif­fer­ences from the orig­i­nal. If edi­tor Woods could change “Cur­rachee” to “Karachi,” was he not also tempt­ed to change whole pas­sages? “I con­cede that WSC’s works can stand a lot of edit­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly his maps and quo­ta­tions,” wrote New­field. “But such edit­ing, of course, makes the issue use­less for stu­dent and scholar.”


The title Col­lect­ed Works was itself mis­lead­ing, since only Churchill’s books and some of his speech­es were includ­ed. Fore­words and con­tri­bu­tions to oth­er books, con­tri­bu­tions to press and peri­od­i­cals, and most speech­es were omit­ted. The Library of Impe­r­i­al His­to­ry react­ed to this crit­i­cism when it issued, in 1976, the Col­lect­ed Essays of Win­ston Churchill, a four-vol­ume com­pi­la­tion of most major arti­cles, fore­words and con­tri­bu­tions not in the Works. Pur­chasers of the Works were allowed to add the four-vol­umes of Essays, and a less expen­sive bind­ing of the Essays was offered. The Essays, still not reprint­ed a half cen­tu­ry lat­er, are a true con­tri­bu­tion to the Churchill canon. They will be described in a sep­a­rate article.


Short­ly after pub­li­ca­tion the price rose to £1060 in Britain and $3000 in Amer­i­ca. This did noth­ing to encour­age sales. By ear­ly 1976, all signs point­ed to some­what less than the sell-out the pub­lish­ers had promised. In a much plain­er prospec­tus issued that year, it was admit­ted that only 1750 of the autho­rized 3000 sets were sold. Sets were being bound only as orders were received.

By the late 1970s the com­pa­ny declared bank­rupt­cy. The receivers relo­cat­ed their offices from Lon­don to Roy­al Tun­bridge Wells, and fit­ful efforts were made to dis­pose of fur­ther sets, with­out much success.

By 1982, when I attempt­ed to locate the Tun­bridge peo­ple, both they and the stock of the Works and Essays had van­ished. It was rumored that the stock had been bought and moved to New York. But when a New York book­seller col­league went per­son­al­ly to the loca­tion, he found an “accom­mo­da­tion address.”


For years, as a Churchill book­seller, I tried to redis­cov­er the thread of the “great ven­ture.” Final­ly I found a firm of Lon­don solic­i­tors who had been involved in the liq­ui­da­tion. They had no clue as to the where­abouts of stock, but referred me to the bindery, Robert Hart­noll Ltd. in Bod­min, Cornwall.

Suc­cess! For the past few years Hart­nolls had been ware­hous­ing enough left­over sheets to make up sev­er­al hun­dred sets. The unknown New York entre­pre­neur had appar­ent­ly bought the sheets and per­suad­ed the bindery to make up 20 sets of Col­lect­ed Works in red moroc­co. The bind­ings dif­fered in detail with the orig­i­nal, and lacked the orig­i­nal publisher’s spine logo. But there were enough unbound sheets left to sat­is­fy my clients who want­ed them.

Alas, the process of mak­ing the Works avail­able was a test of will, time and patience. UK law moves slow­ly, and Hart­nolls were told that sev­en years must pass before they could con­sid­er the books theirs to sell. Oth­er­wise, the own­er might resur­face and accuse them of deal­ing in stolen property!

I kept at them: “Isn’t there some way you can meet the law and still sell the stock?” In 1987, three years after I had locat­ed the trove, they thought of one: Sell books, but keep the pro­ceeds in an escrow account for the pre­scribed num­ber of years. In this way Hart­nolls would meet the let­ter of the law while the Churchill world would get the books many wished to own.


A renowned bindery spe­cial­iz­ing in Bibles, Hart­nolls was found­ed in 1960 and closed in 2019. Its work was spec­tac­u­lar, and it hap­pi­ly bound books to order. Many col­lec­tors opt­ed for moroc­co-bound Works, instead of vel­lum, which tends to dis­col­or and swell with age. To this day my own set, bound in cream moroc­co, “falls open like angel’s wings” (as Churchill said of his His­to­ry of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples), and smells like the inside of a Bent­ley. These and oth­er lat­er moroc­co bind­ings, with cloth end­pa­pers and gilt den­telles on the inside cov­er edges, are even more elab­o­rate than the orig­i­nals. They are won­ders of the binder’s art.

Over the years my friend and book­seller col­league Mark Weber and I sold the remain­ing avail­able sets. We sold about 20 sets bound in full cream moroc­co, using the orig­i­nal dark green slip­cas­es. Sev­er­al more sets were bound in vel­lum or red moroc­co. (The lat­ter car­ried the orig­i­nal spine mark­ings, LIH logo, and red book­cloth end­pa­pers.) Count­ing ear­ly and lat­er bind­ings, about 50 sets exist in red morocco.

The last set was elab­o­rate­ly bound in green goatskin, (Mark Weber photo)


Orig­i­nal adver­tise­ments showed the Col­lect­ed Works in a bespoke book­case topped by a ped­i­ment bear­ing the Churchill Arms. Sur­pris­ing­ly, the book­case was nev­er offered to the pub­lic and appar­ent­ly only one was built for adver­tis­ing pur­pos­es. Mark Weber dis­cov­ered it years later—originally owned by Sir Iain Maxwell Stew­art, a Scot­tish ship­builder. Sir Iain, who served on many boards, was a direc­tor of the Churchill Cen­te­nary Trust, which pre­sent­ed him with this unique­ly housed exam­ple. An impor­tant clue to final quan­ti­ty pro­duced is the attached brass plaque, which men­tions an edi­tion of 2000, not 3000 as orig­i­nal­ly advertised.

As sheets were run­ning out, Mark Weber com­mis­sioned one grand finale set of Col­lect­ed Works. Just  before his untime­ly death in 2016, Mark bound this last set in dark green peb­ble-grained goatskin. It fea­tures leather inner hinges, silk end­pa­per inserts and pre­mi­um cloth slip­cas­es with leather tops and bot­toms. As a final touch, Vol­ume I bears the sig­na­tures of Hart­nolls crafts­men, some of whom had worked on these sets since the mid-1970s.


The Col­lect­ed Works are less impor­tant than their spec­tac­u­lar appear­ance sug­gests. How­ev­er incom­plete, they do con­sti­tute the first col­lect­ed edi­tion. But lack­ing the orig­i­nal texts, they are not bib­li­o­graph­i­cal­ly com­pelling: “expen­sive reprints,” as one cyn­ic put it. Col­lec­tors pre­fer to hold a book in the form Sir Win­ston first gave it to the world—errors and all. The Col­lect­ed Works will nev­er replace first editions.

Dal­ton New­field was cer­tain­ly right to think the Col­lect­ed Works were “cant­ed toward the spec­u­la­tor.” In the late 1980s sets sold for about $2000 (38 vol­umes includ­ing the four Col­lect­ed Essays). That is rough­ly $5000 in today’s mon­ey, but clean sets today sell now for $8000 or more, and mint sets for dou­ble that, when you can find them. The lat­er moroc­co bind­ings are higher—$20,000 cur­rent­ly for a red “New York” set. The high­est price we know of (a bespoke bind­ing) is $27,500. Still, a $3000 annu­ity tak­en out in 1974 would prob­a­bly pro­duce bet­ter returns.


The author wish­es to thank Bar­ry Singer of Chartwell Book­sellers and Marc Kuritz, of the Churchill Book Col­lec­tor, for kind assis­tance in research­ing val­ues and bind­ing vari­a­tions, and for per­mis­sion to reprint some of the above images.

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