The Real Churchill’s London (Part 2)

The Real Churchill’s London (Part 2)

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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