London: The Evening Standard intriguingly offers an article on Churchill’s “favourite spots in the capital.” In “The London Life of Winston Churchill” (16 June 2016), readers are invited: “Browse the gallery above to find Churchill’s favourite London spots.”
The accompanying gallery, alas, offers only 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. The remark is not located in his published books, articles, speeches and documents.)
With the exception of the National Liberal Club (see below), this assortment would more aptly be entitled “Churchill’s household staff’s favourite shopping places.”
Happily, however, the real Churchill’s London, “Spinning Top of Memories,” was described in 1985 by his official biographer, the late Sir Martin Gilbert. The text is online, posted by The Churchill Centre. Here you may read “of Ungrand Places and Moments in Time.” These are the spots that figure crucially in the Churchill story.
It was the first Gilbert speech I’d heard, and I listened mesmerized, at both the intrigue of the story and the great biographer’s command of facts. Here is the briefest review—which I hope will send you in search of the full text. Better yet, seek out the illustrated paperback published at the time, on either Amazon or bookfinder.com. The places are still there. Some now have blue historical plaques, which were not affixed at the time.
12 Bolton Street, London
His first bachelor flat was furnished in part by his friend and mentor, Sir Ernest Cassel—a fact which would later get Churchill into 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 World War II, tell us much about Churchill’s magnanimity.
London Magazine, Hyde Park
Recently 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,” Sir Martin told us. Churchill’s determined action in seeing it safely guarded was a key factor in convincing Prime Minister H.H. Asquith to give Churchill a fighting department—the Admiralty—which he headed from 1911 to 1915.
Ho Chi Minh’s Veggies
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 World War I 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!
“Yes,” 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 recently explored the likely dates of the Churchill-Lloyd George dinner at the Carlton Hotel. (It is unlikely to have been the night war was declared, August 4th; more likely the 2nd or 3rd.) I tracked Ho’s activities at the time. The details are in Finest Hour 161, which can be downloaded as a pdf (page 41).
Sir Martin Gilbert never much cared to indulge in the “what ifs” of history, but I had a smile out of him with this one. Suppose on that fateful night, Churchill had said to Lloyd George, “My dear David, these are the best string beans I’ve ever tasted. We must find and hire the cook and make him our chef for the rest of his career.” Would history have been different?
Its ultimate usage 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 disposition maps, still bearing the fleet dispositions in May 1915.”
Charing Cross Hotel, London
It’s a four-star Amba hotel now, but a century ago it was a down-at- the-heels place to which few would pay attention. Yet this was where Churchill’s First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord Fisher, holed up when he disappeared from the Admiralty in May 1915. Fisher was 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.”
Continued in part 2…