As Winston Churchill lingered for several days between life and death 50 years ago this month, the crowd near his home located at 28 Hyde Park Gate in Kensington, seldom dipped below 250 people, even in the middle of the night, and no matter what kind of weather London in January had to offer. Beyond that, newspapers around the world had the story of Winston Churchill’s life-threatening illness on page-one.
President Lyndon Johnson sent a message: “We are all very sorry for your illness and we are praying for a rapid and complete recovery. All of us continue to look to you for wise counsel and judgment.”
Meanwhile, the other Churchill news coming out of Washington, D.C. was an announcement, by the English-Speaking Union, that the proposed statue of Churchill that was to stand astride the dividing line between the British Embassy and American soil would indeed include a cigar. There had been strong opposition to this from some members of the society—but ultimately 80 per cent of them voted in favor of the familiar Winstonian appendage.
Former President Eisenhower sent word from his Gettysburg, Pennsylvania farm, “Mrs. Eisenhower and I are deeply distressed to learn that our old friend has been stricken with another illness.” Charles De Gaulle’s message described his own “feeling of shock” at Churchill’s decline. And world leaders began to instruct their aides to begin making travel and logistical plans in the event of a funeral to come.
While the headlines each day tried to communicate the same news in different ways—“Sir Winston Losing Ground,” “Condition of Sir Winston Worsens,” “Churchill Clinging to Life,” it seemed as if the world stopped, or at least slowed down spinning on its axis.
Likely Churchill never knew that he had stopped a strike from his sickbed, but such was the case. School teachers in Great Britain had been prepared to walk off the job that day over a pay dispute, but cited the great man’s illness as the key to their decision to stage the protest “at a more suitable time.” Certainly, this move by labor would have amused the long time Tory leader.
The expressions coming out of the Soviet Union were predictably colder. Radio reports in Moscow tended to be terse and limited. For its part, the official newspaper for Soviet defense, Krasnaya Zvezda, included language calling Churchill, “the godfather of the Cold War,” and indicating that the Briton had not been forgiven for his 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri, and the reference to an “Iron Curtain.”
By Thursday, January 21st, Dr. Moran was reporting that his famous patient was at a low point. Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, told many that the great man was approaching death. By this time, however, the crowds were gone, due not to diminishing concern, but because Lady Churchill had requested it. Fresh fallen snow marked the area recently clogged by people on the narrow dead end street.
Even the press had been moved back a block or so, something Mrs. Churchill deeply appreciated. Anthony Montague Brown, one of Churchill’s secretaries and who had been the bearer of Lady Churchill’s request that everyone move away from the area around the house, walked over to where the reporters were now gathered and read an appreciative message: “I would like to thank you for the speed with which you complied with Lady Churchill’s request. She was very touched, She has been feeling the strain.” The journalists nodded affirmatively, almost bowing in respect.
The Friday news was more of the same, though there was a stir of sorts when the home directly behind 28 Hyde Park Gate caught fire. However, even the three fire engines responding to the blaze did their part to respect the need for quiet—they arrived at the scene without sounding sirens or bells.
Later that Friday, Lady Churchill was summoned to the telephone for a call from her grandson, Winston. Her face broke into a broad smile—the first for her in a long time—as she learned of the birth of their third great-grandchild, a boy born at Westminster Hospital. The child was premature but doing quite well, the proud father reported, adding that his wife, Minnie, was fine, as well. Clementine shared the joyous news with everyone and then went into her husband’s room and whispered it in his ear. But the great man, though breathing, was likely never aware of the blessed event. And soon Clementine’s smile was again absent from her face.
The next day was Saturday and someone noted that the next day would be the anniversary of the death of Winston’s father. The comment that he had made a dozen years earlier—about how he would die on the same date—was also recalled and rehearsed. Could it be, they wondered, that the great man was mustering all the courage and fortitude he had left to make it until the page of the calendar and hands of the clock moved to the point of his personal prophecy?
Long after the household went to bed that night, Clementine visited Winston’s room around 1:00 AM. She held his hand and sat silent next to him for a bit before heading back to bed. By the time she returned to his room about six hours later, it was clear than there had been a change for the worse. The family was summoned. Less than 30 minutes later, Randolph arrived with his son, Winston, joining Mary, Sarah, and Clementine in the drawing room. A few minutes later Lord’s Moran and Brain came in.
One of the nurses put out a tray of coffee. Everyone stood by in somber silence.
A little before 8:00 AM, Roy Howell appeared and cleared his voice while repeating, “I think you had all better come in.” They formed a line and one by one went to his bed, some knelt immediately, some whispered to him. Eventually all those in the room knelt prayerfully.
And just as a clock down the hallway finished pealing eight times marking the morning hour on Sunday, January 24, 1965, the Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill drew his last breath and, as the ancient scriptures often said, was “gathered unto his fathers.”
[I am currently working on a novel set against the backdrop of Churchill’s death and funeral. It’s titled, “THE CHURCHILL FUNERAL PLOT.” Coming soon — stay tuned! – DRS]