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Greatest Briton?

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Sir Winston Churchill was a world leader, statesman and local MP. Ahead of a talk at Wanstead Library about the iconic politician, Jef Page, president of the Ilford Historical Society, reviews the life of a man he believes was the ‘greatest Briton of all’

Winston Spencer Churchill (1874–1965) was a larger-than-life character, lucky to be born in Blenheim Palace with a massive silver spoon in his mouth, son of the beautiful American heiress Jennie Jerome (he worshipped her) and Lord Randolph Churchill.

Winston attracted both tragedy and attention – hardly surprising as he liked smoking massive seven-inch long Cuban Havana cigars and stuck up a V-sign second to none.

From being reviled in Tonypandy, South Wales where, as Liberal Home Secretary, he sent troops onto the streets during the miner’s strike (1910–1911) and promoted the disastrous Gallipoli and Dardanelles campaign in 1915, he led Britain to victory and triumph in 1945. He almost seemed to like war. He fought at the battle of Omdurman (1898), as a journalist was at Spion Kop (1900; as was Gandhi) and escaped from a prisoner of war camp during the Boer War. And he got himself onto the front line of the Western Front during the First World War. A world-renowned statesman, when asked what his favourite period of his long life was, he immediately replied without hesitation: “1940,” when Britain stood alone during the Second World War and he became Prime Minister. He said history would be kind to him – because he would write it – and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was bumptious, pushy, an adept ‘string-puller’. Lord Beaverbrook (Max Aitken, owner of the Daily Express) said of Winston that on the crest of a wave he had the makings of a dictator.

John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, more recently questioned Churchill’s status as a hero following a 2002 BBC poll in which he had been voted the greatest Briton of all.

Wanstead and Woodford’s MP from 1924 to 1964, just months before his death aged 90, a skilful artist and bricklayer, he suffered periods of “black dog” depression. Out of office, depressed and mistrusted by the Conservative Party (Winston had been Home Secretary and a member of the Liberal Party from 1904 to 1924), he was considered a political adventurer. His cavalier attitude to party loyalty during the 1930s left him isolated and his was a lone voice against the rise of Fascism, Hitler and the Nazis. So, when in 1939 he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, they sent out just a two-word telegram to all ships: “He’s back”. He had changed sides from the Liberals to Conservative, winning the seat of Epping in 1924. But in Britain’s darkest hour in 1940, after the failure of Neville Chamberlain, Churchill was the only man the Labour Party, led by Clement Atlee (he lived on Monkhams Avenue, Woodford from 1921 to 1931), would serve under in the wartime coalition cabinet and government. Yet, this success didn’t stop Winston being immediately voted out of office as soon as the war was won, though he did return again as prime minister in 1951.

Churchill didn’t visit the constituency much and he didn’t have a home in the borough. However, he got on well with Conservative politician and businessman Sir James Hawkey (1877–1952) and in 1955 it was Churchill who came here to open the hall named after Hawkey (Winston laid a foundation brick in 1954). Hawkey was chairman of Woodford Urban District Council (UDC) from 1916 to 1934 and the newly merged Wanstead and Woodford UDC from 1934 to 1937, and later three-times mayor.

During the war years (1939–1945), it was his wife Clementine who really nursed the constituency. Winston said “my most brilliant achievement was my ability to persuade my wife to marry me”. Clementine nursed him through his “black dog” periods, helped the PDSA to care for animals in Woodford during the war, attended many fetes, balls and constituency meetings, especially during the Blitz, and in 1951 opened the door to the 1,000th new house built in the borough.

Churchill’s statue on Woodford Green was unveiled in 1959 by Viscount Montgomery. Was Churchill worthy of his number one spot as the ‘Greatest Briton’? Definitely!

Jef’s talk – which has been organised by Vision RCL – will take place at Wanstead Library on 13 November from 2pm to 3pm (free). For more information, call 020 8708 7400
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Jef Page
Ilford Historical Society
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