Tony Kilmster recalls the Valiant Years
‘Almighty Father, we thank Thee for the gift to the world of Winston Churchill and for all that he did for our country and many others.’
Archbishop Michael Ramsey.
I find it hard to believe that forty years have elapsed since Sheila and I woke early one January morning in 1965, dressed adding extra clothing and drove at about 5.30 am to London to witness the Lying-in-State of Sir Winston Churchill in Westminster Hall. I parked the car in Parliament Square thinking the queue would not be a long one at that early hour and we would be able to drive away long before London’s rush hour began. How wrong can one be! We had to find the tail of a seemingly never-ending queue which was – at that moment – outside Lambeth Palace on the other side of the river. It was a bitterly cold January – indeed neither of us have ever felt colder than we did that day. Slowly but inexorably the queue crossed the bridge and wound, snake-like, through the gardens alongside the Victoria Tower and overshadowed by familiar parliamentary edifices onwards to New Palace Yard from which we gained access to Westminster Hall. It was there that the body of England’s greatest leader lay on a magnificent catafalque adorned with his insignia of a Garter Knight – and guarded by motionless army officers at its four corners beside giant, cold but stately candles. We filed through slowly, silently and reverently – two of some 300,000 to do so. Many made the sign of the cross as here they took their farewells.
It was long planned that he should rest in Westminster Hall in the lead up to the State Funeral. It is said Churchill had taken a great interest in the arrangements for his own funeral making his choice of hymns – among them Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the Coming of The Lord – and the military bands that would march in his procession. I was working in the Film Industry at the time and about two years before the great man’s death I lunched with Tommy Cummins, Editor of Pathe Newsreel. Over lunch Tommy told me that lighting brackets had been fixed discreetly in Westminster Hall so that they would be ready instantly for Operation Hope Not. Westminster Hall was begun in 1097 and completed in time for a Whitsun feast in 1099 – but that day under its soaring roof this most awesome part of the Palace of Westminster was like a hushed cavern.
What memories of the great man went through my mind that cold January morning? To be perfectly honest I don’t now remember – but seeing him in the flesh on various occasions was like bonding with history incarnate. On 8th February 1950, as a hero worshipping enthusiast, I had been to the Ninian Park Football Ground in Cardiff to hear him address a huge rally during the General Election that year. To have been hem-touchingly close to him as he left was electrifying. The last occasion I saw him in person was at a Conference in the Empress Ballroom, Blackpool early in October 1954. The Observer commented the next day that the Conference ‘was endlessly delighted with him’. Like many others I had wondered if his retirement was imminent but in fact he continued in office as Prime Minister until the following April. I think at the Lying-in-State I must have recalled the reply (when asked about any fear of death) that he gave on one of his birthdays: “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter”.
Of course Westminster and service to the nation were in Churchill’s blood. The Queen in her message to Parliament called Churchill ‘a national hero’. Attlee, his wartime deputy and post-war successor, described him as ‘the greatest Englishman of our time – I think the greatest citizen of the world of our time’. Churchill’s death, though expected, stunned everyone. To quote words written by Joseph Hall in the 17th century : ‘He commands, without tyranny and imperiousness; obeys, without servility: and changes not his mind with his estate. The height of his spirits overlooks all casualties; and his boldness proceeds neither from ignorance nor senselessness: but, first, he values evils and then despises them. He is so balanced with wisdom, that he floats steadily in the midst of all tempests. Deliberate in his purposes; firm in resolution; bold in enterprising; unwearied in achieving; and, howsoever, happy in success; and, if ever he be overcome, his heart yields last – The Valiant Man.’
And our car? By the time we got back to Parliament Square at about 8.30am it had, understandably, been towed away by the police, or whoever, as an obstruction – not in those far off and calmer times a potential terrorist ‘plant’. On enquiring of a policeman where it would have been taken I learned of a car pound on the South Bank to which I repaired by taxi. There I was asked where I had left it and why. I was thereupon informed that – out of heartfelt respect for all Churchill had meant to the nation – there would be no charge whatsoever and I could go ahead and drive the car away!
Tony Kilmister, formerly National Chairman of the Prayer Book Society, lives in Northwood, Middlesex