Winston Churchill and Wiltshire
Among the numerous national anniversaries we are commemorating in 2015 (which includes those for World War 1, World War 2 and, of course, Magna Carta) is one that perhaps will get less attention, which is the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill who died on the 24th January 1965. The Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre has received a few enquiries on possible Churchill connections with Wiltshire and so I thought I would dig a little deeper by doing what all good Archives & Local Studies Managers do … ask my colleagues if they knew of any! So here is what they have come up with so far.
Clearly as a man with connections Churchill no doubt visited numerous notable friends and families in the county that we do not yet know of, perhaps including those whose archives we hold. However, the earliest reference appears to be in 1914 with a more unexpected connection. Churchill was a keen early aviator and despite his family’s fears of the danger of airplanes at that time, he was one of small group of people to learn to fly these machines and certainly the first politician. There is an image held by the Science Museum of Winston Churchill preparing to fly at Upavon, home to the Army Flying Corps. You can find out more about his love of flying and view the image at:
During and following the First World War Churchill was a prominent politician. He had become an MP in 1900 and having first attached himself to the Conservative Party he crossed the floor of Parliament to join the Liberal Party in 1904. He served at various times as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, President of the Board of Trade and First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1915 he resigned from government to serve on the Western Front, but returned to government in 1917 as Minister of Munitions, then Secretary of State for War in 1919 and Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1921 in the coalition government.
We have several letters within our archives at the History Centre to and from Churchill that can be found in the political papers of Viscount Long of Wraxall, who was an MP and, like Churchill, held several prominent positions during a long political career.
The topics covered in the letters are varied and touch upon some of the important issues of the time. In 1917 the Home Front and food production was on people’s minds and though it may seem a minor detail to us now, Long’s correspondence with Churchill about the ‘improper use’ of milk churns by the local railway company and their failure to ‘book them back to their owners’ highlights the importance the government placed on efficient planning for the war effort. A further letter also in 1917 shows that Churchill, now Minister of Munitions, was concerned with Britain’s relationship with Canada and maintaining Canadian support for the war effort, especially with a backdrop of rumours that military conscription was about to be introduced in that country. There had been some disquiet over the attempted removal of Sir Joseph Wesley Flavelle, a Canadian businessman, as Chairman of the Imperial Munitions Board. Churchill moved to dampen the crisis, reassured Flavelle and explained that it was for financial reasons that the government had cut down on the manufacture of munitions in Canada.
After the war in April 1919 Churchill was writing to Long concerning the war dead, saying ‘I read with pain your letter to General Fabian Ware about the condition of British cemeteries in France …. I have now arranged that 1500 cemetery workers shall start from the country in the next week or ten days. This will be enough to keep the cemeteries in order.” But with regard to 160,000 isolated graves, Churchill said “I do not see how I can provide the 15,000 men necessary to collect those bodies into the regular cemeteries” and instead committed 5,000 men to work on it through the summer and autumn.
Other subjects that occupied the two men that year included the appointment of the governor of Malta, upon the resignation of another Wiltshire man, Lord Methuen. Churchill appears to be in favour of the appointment of Sir Ian Hamilton even though Hamilton had been removed from his command during the war owing to his troops’ loss of confidence in him. Churchill thought this incident should not permanently disqualify Hamilton.
In June 1920 both Churchill and Long had turned their attentions to the situation in Ireland. In a letter marked secret and personal Long writes that a small committee, including Churchill, had been set up to “periodically meet to review the position in Ireland with the object of reporting to the cabinet” and providing suggestions to the Irish Government, which might also include “the views of leading Irishmen in London.” Close to home Long was again writing to Churchill, but this time suggesting possible uses of the vacant Trowbridge Barracks in 1920, which included a headquarters for the Wiltshire Yeomanry and stabling for the local hunt.
Churchill lost his seat in Parliament 1922, but returned in 1924 as a Constitutionalist and subsequently as a Unionist, aligning once again with the Conservative Party and became Chancellor of the Exchequer.
During the 1920s and early 1930s Churchill seems to have been an occasional if not regular visitor to Wilton House, where he painted the Palladian Bridge that spans the River Nadder on numerous occasions and also painted the Long Gallery in the house itself. The paintings are in the possession of the National Trust.
Following his years in the political wilderness on the outbreak of the Second World War Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty and a member of the War Cabinet and succeeded Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May 1940. He returned to Wilton House during the war as it was used as the headquarters of the Allied Command during World War ll. The Double Cube Room became the top secret Operations Room, where Churchill, Montgomery and Eisenhower conducted some of the planning for the D-Day invasion with their general staff. Churchill also visited Lopcombe Camp, Larkhill, in 1940 and went to Netheravon in 1942 to watch a demonstration of parachuting and gliding.
Do you know of any other Churchill connections with Wiltshire and Swindon? If so, please share it with us.
Terry Bracher, Archives & Local Studies Manager
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