Churchilliana: Return to Glory for an Icon or Two (Update)

Churchilliana: Return to Glory for an Icon or Two (Update)

Icon of war: the old War Office, Whitehall

(Updat­ed from 2016). Home to Sec­re­taries of State for War Lord Hal­dane, Lord Kitch­en­er, David Lloyd George and Win­ston Churchill, it was a key venue in two glob­al con­flicts. But in 2016 the old War Office build­ing was sold to devel­op­ers of a five-star hotel and res­i­den­tial apart­ments. That work is expect­ed to fin­ish in 2022, and res­i­dents are being sought.

Built in 1906 for £1.2, mil­lion, the Grade II-list­ed prop­er­ty changed hands for £300 mil­lion. The buy­ers were the Hin­du­ja Group, in part­ner­ship with a Obras­con Huarte Lain Desar­rol­los (OHLD), a Span­ish indus­tri­al company.

The demise of the old War Office was unavoid­able. At 580,000 square feet, it had become a cost­ly white ele­phant, fis­cal­ly unsus­tain­able. Dec­la­ra­tions of war are out of fash­ion. We don’t even have War Min­istries or War Depart­ments. Nowa­days, their func­tions are per­formed by a “nicer icon” like the Min­istry of Defence or the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty. At any rate, the need for a build­ing this big in the 21st cen­tu­ry is past. Unless of course all hell breaks loose, in which case it won’t matter.

Preservation, of sorts

Full marks, then, to the British gov­ern­ment, which grant­ed a 250-year lease pro­vid­ing that “the her­itage and secu­ri­ty of the build­ing is well man­aged.” And to the Hin­du­ja Group, which “reached out” to the past by declar­ing: “We will make every effort to hon­our the her­itage and restora­tion of this nation­al mon­u­ment, ele­vate its sta­tus and recon­nect it with the pub­lic.” (The build­ing had long been closed to the pub­lic.) The com­pa­ny has worked with a team of experts includ­ing His­toric Eng­land and Muse­um of Lon­don Archaeology.

Nowa­days, every­thing is “icon­ic,” a word great­ly abused. Along with “issues” (the Polit­i­cal­ly Cor­rect sub­sti­tute for “prob­lems”) and “reach­ing out,” (which replaces “con­tact­ing” in the Age of Nice­ness). See: “Some Issues with ‘Issues.’” But if any­thing is icon­ic, this grand build­ing qualifies.

So does anoth­er, not far away, though rather more modest….

Icon of valor: St. George’s RAF Chapel

In 2016 the fate of this mon­u­ment in Kent was uncer­tain. The Dai­ly Mail reported:

With its mag­nif­i­cent stained-glass win­dows, it stands as a fit­ting memo­r­i­al to the Bat­tle of Britain pilots who gave their lives to save the nation from Nazi inva­sion. But the ornate­ly fur­nished chapel Sir Win­ston Churchill insist­ed should remain a “per­ma­nent shrine to the glo­ri­ous Few” may be closed down and board­ed up. Defy­ing the wartime leader’s express wish­es, defence chiefs have decreed that the £50,000-a-year cost of run­ning St. George’s Chapel of Remem­brance is an ‘inap­pro­pri­ate’ use of resources.

The loss of St. George’s Chapel would have been trag­ic. Big­gin Hill is an “icon,” from where the Roy­al Air Force sal­lied forth to beat the “Hun raiders” (as Churchill called them) out of the day­light air and to win the Bat­tle of Britain. For­tu­nate­ly, it was saved by a char­i­ty, the Friends of St. George’s RAF Chapel. Work­ing with Brom­ley Coun­cil and the Min­istry of Defence, the Friends care for the beau­ti­ful build­ing and its Gar­den of Remem­brance. Reg­u­lar and spe­cial ser­vices occur, and vis­i­tors are most wel­come. Ser­vices run Sun­days at 9:30am. A spe­cial ser­vice with retir­ing Archdea­con Paul Wright occurs at 10:30am on Novem­ber 14th.

The work of the Friends is extra­or­di­nary. Aside from ser­vices and spe­cial events, they offer pick­ups to res­i­dents with­in five miles of Big­gin Hill who can­not get to ser­vices them­selves. “Mem­bers of the Com­mit­tee also vis­it, meet and offer sup­port, to our mem­bers who are old­er or infirm, lone­ly or tem­porar­i­ly inca­pac­i­tat­ed.” Mem­ber­ship costs only £15 or the equiv­a­lent per year. Dona­tions are wel­come. Send to FSGC Trea­sur­er, 39 Jail Lane, Big­gin Hill, West­er­ham, Kent TN16 3SE. By email, please con­tact the sec­re­tary, [email protected].

A worthy development


My per­son­al asso­ci­a­tion with Big­gin Hill dur­ing the Bat­tle of Britain lives in my mind. As a nation we have short mem­o­ries and it is well that Memo­ri­als such as this should bring to our remem­brance the cost of vic­to­ry in the days when one of our fight­er pilots had to be worth ten. They died with­out see­ing the reward of their efforts; we live to hold their reward invi­o­late and unfad­ing. —Win­ston S. Churchill, quot­ed on the Chapel website

I wore the uni­form when we didn’t often hear “thank-you for your ser­vice.” So I sup­pose we have matured  in our appre­ci­a­tion of those who served. Efforts like those of the Friends of St. George’s Chapel are com­pelling. The fliers of the RAF, who rose to con­front a seem­ing­ly invin­ci­ble ene­my in 1940, saved Britain, and much else besides. They “held the fort alone,” as Churchill put it—”till those who hith­er­to had been half blind were half ready.”

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