Churchill’s Death 50 Years Later: Saying Goodbye to Grandpapa
The former prime minister was given a state funeral, the first for a commoner since the Duke of Wellington.
By Celia Sandys in the Wall Street Journal
Birthdays for my grandfather, Winston Churchill, were always a big family occasion. The first one that I can remember clearly was his 80th in 1954, when there was a huge event in Westminster Hall. The purpose was for both houses of Parliament to mark the day with tributes and the presentation of the portrait by Graham Sutherland, which had been commissioned as a gift for him.
The rumor was out that the image was less than flattering. I remember my parents discussing how he had disliked it when he had seen it two weeks earlier. He did, however, rise to the occasion and accepted it saying, “It is a remarkable example of modern art.” As usual he had chosen the perfect words. The portrait was never seen again.
Ten years later we celebrated his 90th birthday at his Hyde Park Gate home. He had left his beloved Chartwell for the last time the month before. As we raised our glasses of Pol Roger to toast him, the unspoken thought was that the final meeting could not be long delayed.
Six weeks later, on Jan. 10, 1965, he suffered a stroke, the effects of which worsened over the next few days. On the evening of Jan. 15, I received a call from his personal secretary, Anthony Montague Browne, to tell me that my aunt Sarah was on her way from Rome. She would be arriving at Heathrow in the early hours of the morning and had asked if she could stay with me.
I remember driving like the wind to get to Heathrow in time and then having to run the gantlet of a huge crowd of journalists before we could get out of the airport. The press had only heard of my grandfather’s condition a few hours before and so were hungry for information.
We went straight to Hyde Park Gate and found Grandpapa sleeping peacefully with his cat, Jock, curled up beside him. I don’t know if Jock ever left the bed, but every time I was there the cat lay curled up by his master.
It was clear that the inevitable was about to happen. We were all sad; for ourselves, not for him. Anyone who had spent time with him during the past few years knew he was ready to go.
During the next nine days we had two urgent calls to go to Hyde Park Gate when it seemed the end was near, but each time he rallied. Otherwise during this period we visited once or twice a day, as much for my grandmother Clementine as for him.
Initially we had to struggle through the crowds of press and concerned onlookers who filled the little cul-de-sac day and night. After a few days, in response to a request from my grandmother, the bystanders moved to the main road and our visits became much easier.
Early on the morning of Jan. 24 we received what was clearly the final call from my other aunt, Mary. Sarah and I raced to Hyde Park Gate. There we joined Mary, my grandmother, my uncle Randolph and my cousin Winston.
Clementine sat holding Grandpapa’s hand with his doctor, Lord Moran, sitting beside her; Randolph and Winston stood on the other side, while Sarah, Mary and I knelt at the foot of the bed. Also in the room were two nurses, whose work had finished, and Anthony Montague Browne.
No one made a sound except Grandpapa who breathed heavily and sighed. Then there was silence. It seemed as though time stood still until Clementine asked Lord Moran, “Has he gone?” He nodded.
Seventy years to the day and almost to the minute since his father, Lord Randolph, had died, Winston Churchill had slipped imperceptibly away.
We sat down to a subdued breakfast and listened to the radio as the announcement of his death was broadcast. Some years earlier the queen had decided that her first prime minister was to have a lying-in-state and a state funeral. This was the first time such an honor had been granted to a commoner since the funeral of the Duke of Wellington over a century before.
More than 300,000 people queued in the freezing cold along the Embankment, across Lambeth Bridge, back along the Thames and across Westminster Bridge to file past the catafalque in Westminster Hall, the oldest surviving part of the Palace of Westminster, where my grandfather had spent so much of his working life.
On the day of the funeral we gathered in Westminster Hall for the journey to St. Paul’s Cathedral. The men of the family together with Anthony Montague Browne, who had served his master faithfully and lovingly to the end, walked behind the coffin, which was borne on a gun carriage.
The women rode in the queen’s carriages. My grandmother, Sarah, and Mary were in the first carriage. My sister Edwina and I rode in the second. We had rugs and hot-water bottles to keep us warm on a very cold day. We were so close to the crowds lining the streets that we could have touched them. The emotion in their faces I will never forget.
When we arrived at St. Paul’s, we were told that the queen had said we should not curtsy to her so we filed into our seats opposite the royal family. After the service, as we got back to our carriages, the queen and her family joined on the cathedral steps with monarchs, presidents, wartime colleagues and political allies to say goodbye to the man they had come to honor.
The carriages took us to Tower Pier where, after Grandpapa had been piped aboard, there was a 17-gun salute. We boarded the Port of London Authority’s survey vessel, MV Havengore, for the journey to Waterloo Station. As we sailed off we could hear the band playing “Rule Britannia.”
The crane drivers on the quay side dipped the heads of their cranes in salute. This was the only unscripted part of the day and one of the most moving. The RAF flew overhead.
Along the entire route from Waterloo to Long Hanborough, the railway was lined with people of all ages, some waving, some crying, some saluting, all of them silently saying goodbye. Finally we reached the small churchyard at Bladon, the burial place of Winston’s parents and his brother Jack, and within sight of Blenheim Palace, where he had been born 90 years before.
Ms. Sandys is an author, speaker and television presenter on the subject of her grandfather. This op-ed is adapted from an article in the forthcoming issue of the quarterly magazine Finest Hour, published by the Chicago-based Churchill Centre.