Visitor’s Guide to the REAL “Churchill’s London”

Visitor’s Guide to the REAL “Churchill’s London”

(Updat­ed from 2016.)

Some years ago the Evening Stan­dard offered Churchill’s “favourite spots in the cap­i­tal.” We have seen these tourist guides before. In “The Lon­don Life of Win­ston Churchill” (16 June 2016), read­ers were invit­ed to “browse the gallery above to find Churchill’s favourite Lon­don spots.”

The accom­pa­ny­ing gallery offers a bot­tle of Pol Roger cham­pagne, the Nation­al Lib­er­al Club, a box of Romeo y Juli­eta cig­ars, a restau­rant with a Churchill bar, Pax­ton & Whitfield’s cheese shop, Austin Reed’s menswear, and Brown’s Hotel. (“I don’t stay in hotels, I stay in Brown’s,” they claim he said, with­out attribution.)

With the excep­tion of the Nation­al Lib­er­al Club, this array would more apt­ly be enti­tled “Churchill’s house­hold staff’s favourite shop­ping places.”

Sir Martin to the rescue

Hap­pi­ly, the real Churchill’s Lon­don, “Spin­ning Top of Mem­o­ries,” was described long ago by his offi­cial biog­ra­ph­er, the late Sir Mar­tin Gilbert. The text is online. Here you may read “of Ungrand Places and Moments in Time.” These are loca­tions gen­uine­ly cru­cial to the Churchill story.

It was the first Gilbert speech I’d heard, and I lis­tened mes­mer­ized, at both the intrigue and the great biographer’s com­mand of detail. Here is the briefest review—which I hope will send you in to the full text. Bet­ter yet, seek out the illus­trat­ed book­let pub­lished at the time, on either Ama­zon or The places are still there. Some now have blue his­tor­i­cal plaques, which were not affixed at the time.

12 Bolton Street

Young Winston’s first bach­e­lor flat was fur­nished in part by his friend and men­tor, Sir Ernest Cas­sel. That fact lat­er caused Churchill trou­ble. After the Bat­tle of Jut­land, he was accused of mak­ing false state­ments about the result to enrich his Jew­ish bene­fac­tor, Cas­sel. It was all non­sense, of course. Churchill dis­pensed with it quick­ly. But the way he han­dled his accuser, Lord Alfred Dou­glas, and lat­er for­gave him on the out­break of the Sec­ond World War, tell us much about Churchill’s magnanimity.

London Magazine, Hyde Park

LondonRecent­ly refur­bished as an up-mar­ket restau­rant, this unas­sum­ing build­ing near the Ser­pen­tine fig­ured large in the Churchill saga. Sir Mar­tin explained that in 1911, when war threat­ened with Ger­many over the Agadir Cri­sis, this was the muni­tions mag­a­zine for the defense of London:

In his mind’s eye—and this was one of his great attributes—Churchill had imme­di­ate­ly con­jured up…the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a small group of Ger­mans, pos­si­bly Ger­man agents in Lon­don, seiz­ing this mag­a­zine, and destroy­ing it.

Churchill’s deter­mined action in see­ing it safe­ly guard­ed was a key fac­tor in con­vinc­ing Prime Min­is­ter H.H. Asquith to give him a fight­ing department—the Admiralty—which he head­ed from 1911 to 1915. Thanks to his mas­sive reforms and admin­is­tra­tive reor­ga­ni­za­tion, when war came “the Fleet was ready.”

Ho Chi Minh’s Veggies

“My dear David, these are won­der­ful string beans. Let us hire the cook.” (Wiki­me­dia)

New Zealand House, the mod­ern build­ing at the bot­tom of Hay­mar­ket, is just a stand-in for the for­mer Carl­ton Hotel—about which Sir Mar­tin had an amaz­ing tale. On one of the nights before war was declared, in August 1914, Churchill and Lloyd George dined here. And one of the cooks, or one of the wait­ers (accounts vary) was Ho Chi Minh!

“It’s true,” Sir Mar­tin explained, “Ho Chi Minh had been in Lon­don as a veg­etable cook on the out­break of war, when he had gone to the French Embassy in Lon­don to vol­un­teer his ser­vices to fight, as a patri­ot­ic Indo-Chi­na­man (as they were then called). He was turned down, crossed the Chan­nel to Paris, and began his career of dis­gruntle­ment and revolution.”

I searched for the like­ly dates of the Churchill-Lloyd George din­ner. It is unlike­ly to have been the night war was declared, August 4th. More like­ly it was on the 2nd or 3rd.) I tracked Ho’s activ­i­ties at the time.  The dates coin­cide perfectly.

Sir Mar­tin nev­er much indulged in the “what ifs” of his­to­ry, but I coaxed a smile out of him with this one: Sup­pose on that fate­ful night, Churchill said to Lloyd George, “My dear David, these are the best string beans I’ve ever tast­ed. We must hire the cook and pro­mote him to a head chef for the rest of his career.” 

Admiralty House

Churchill's London
The Music Room, Admi­ral­ty House. (UK Open Gov­ern­ment Licensed reproduction)

Its ulti­mate fate is uncer­tain nowa­days, but the great build­ing is still there, and fea­tures large in the saga. “Not only did Churchill write his great speech­es of the ear­ly months of the First World War there, but also the first great speech­es of the Sec­ond,” Sir Mar­tin explained.

“Fight on the Beach­es” was writ­ten in Admi­ral­ty House because, being a kind-heart­ed man under­neath the gruff exte­ri­or, Churchill did not want to dis­lodge the sick and dying Neville Cham­ber­lain pre­cip­i­tate­ly from 10 Down­ing Street.

At the Admi­ral­ty, Gilbert con­tin­ued, Churchill arranged some of the oak pan­el­ing to swiv­el open, dis­play­ing maps of all the oceans and the loca­tions of all British ships. “The idea was that if some­one came through the room, a well-mean­ing young naval offi­cer, or, dare one imag­ine it, a politi­cian, he could shut the pan­el and the naval dis­po­si­tions would be hid­den from view.”

Near­ly a quar­ter cen­tu­ry lat­er, in Sep­tem­ber 1939, he returned to the Admi­ral­ty. He strode into the room. “He went up to the pan­el­ing and pulled it open. And there, exposed to view after twen­ty-four years, was the last of his maps, still bear­ing the fleet dis­po­si­tions in May 1915.”

Charing Cross Hotel

The Char­ing Cross Hotel; known to few, it played a dis­as­trous role in the Churchill story.

It’s a four-star Amba hotel now, but a cen­tu­ry ago it was a down-at- the-heels back­wa­ter to which few paid atten­tion. That made it ide­al for Churchill’s First Sea Lord, Admi­ral Lord Fish­er, to hide when he dis­ap­peared from the Admi­ral­ty in May 1915. Fish­er was at log­ger­heads with Churchill over the Gal­lipoli cam­paign. His abrupt res­ig­na­tion caused the cri­sis that would dis­miss Churchill from the Admiralty.

Ordered to return to duty “in the King’s name,” Fish­er was nowhere to be found. Secret­ly, he had holed up at the Char­ing Cross Hotel, with close rail access to the south-of-Eng­land home of his lady friend, the Duchess of Hamil­ton. Sir Mar­tin Gilbert explained:

Churchill, who was a shrewd per­son, many years lat­er met the Duchess and told her: “If only I had known about your friend­ship with Fish­er then, I would have gone to see you. You were the only one who could have per­suad­ed him to go back to the Admi­ral­ty.” So have a look at this hotel, which was in a way so dis­as­trous to Churchill’s fortunes.

41 Cromwell Road

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 Churchill received Winston’s long, plain­tive, some­times despair­ing let­ters from the front. Sir Mar­tin drew atten­tion to these “very pri­vate let­ters nev­er intend­ed for publication”….

“Twenty more yards to the left…”

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 advised, 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 req­ui­si­tioned by the gov­ern­ment. 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 the First World War….

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.

“Was this really the end?”

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?” We now know the answer.

11 Morpeth Mansions

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

Not part of Sir Martin’s talk, 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 a 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. 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.

“It is the end of the British Empire”

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. William Man­ches­ter wrote:

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.”

As we know, war was avert­ed. After a final meet­ing with Hitler at Munich, the Prime Min­is­ter returned promis­ing “peace for our time.” The peace 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)

Many have vis­it­ed 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 then 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 icon­ic War Rooms—and he deeply dis­liked the place. Sir Mar­tin continued:

He said he felt “like a rat in a  hole.” He spent, it seems, only three nights there in the 1562 nights of the war. These unas­sum­ing ground floor rooms were the cen­ter of the war effort. Churchill was at the Annexe when he did not slip back, as he often did, to 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 at them. Please tell me if there is a blue his­toric plaque. Last time I checked, it still wasn’t there.

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