Mr. Churchill, the War Rooms, Chartwell, and Me:
A contemporary picture featuring Mr. John James Evans as Winston Churchill (Credit: Imperial War Museum)
Two Tales about Mr. Winston Churchill, the War Rooms, Chartwell, and Me:
1. In 1992, I was charged with running an event in London for my Fortune 500 employer. This was to be an evening dinner for the Board of Directors and the local London executives. It was meant to be special. I checked several venues around town, many of which were perfectly acceptable, elegant restaurants, but I didn’t find anything that fit the memorable category.
I took an afternoon off from my search to indulge my interest in British history, with a short tour of London that ended up in The Cabinet War Rooms, on Horse Guards Road, near Parliament and Westminster Abbey, in the heart of ceremonial London.
These underground, concrete bunkered rooms, over 20 of them, were built 10 feet underground to protect the Prime Minister and the British Government against enemy attack. They were opened in 1939 and regularly accommodated Mr. Winston Churchill, his War Cabinet, and the Chiefs of Staff, during this great peril, until peace finally came in 1945. They worked there, ate there, slept there – in short, often lived there – as necessary during Hitler’s bombing campaigns against London.
These rooms have been restored and furnished to their original World War II look and feel, and opened to the public in 1984. Naturally, I had to see them.
They are a heavily fortified, underground, office complex. The exterior is unadorned and could pass for the ground floor of any large building in the area.
Inside, the rooms are expertly furnished with every little touch. Churchill’s cigar butt is in the ashtray by his bed. The Map Room has the “latest” enemy movements identified with colored arrows showing advances, retreats, and causalities. The Transatlantic Telephone room is open to be seen. It houses the secret telephone equipment developed by Bell Telephone Laboratories which, for the first time, allowed direct voice contact between Mr. Churchill and President Roosevelt. It employed the most significant scrambler of its time, in some thirty, seven foot tall cabinets, weighing 80 tons. It was never hacked. The Cabinet Room has military papers and files left on the original table, as though the meeting staff had just taken a momentary tea break in the canteen where meals were served to one and all.
On the wall is a prominently displayed plaque, engraved with Queen Victoria’s famous dictum to another staff in another war: “We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They do not exist.”
It was like stepping back in time. It was wonderful. I had an idea: The gentlemen attending the dinner were about my age, so they clearly remembered World War II; what if we held our dinner here? I spoke to the officials and learned, yes, it could be rented for an evening after closing hours. Yes, dinner could be served there. In fact, the wait staff could be dressed in British uniforms as the servers would have been back in the day. It could be a perfect recreation of a Churchill Staff dinner during the early 1940’s.
I pushed the envelope: “What about Mr. Churchill?” They smiled, and told me about Mr. John James Evans, the character actor who specializes in Mr. Churchill recreations. He had appeared as Mr. Churchill on stage, in the movies, and on several BBC television specials. I made the arrangements, and then went forth to find Mr. Evans.
It wasn’t hard to do. He lives just outside London. I reached him by phone, told him my plan, and asked him to participate. We negotiated the deal and agreed that we would meet and work on updating one of Mr. Churchill’s speeches to be relevant to a modern business community. Everything was settled.
On the evening, our guests arrived, filled with a sort of personal wonder. The guards at the blast proof doors were in uniform, passes were checked, and our guests were escorted into the main corridor for a guided tour. Big Band music played softly in the background. We saw first hand the locale and detail of England’s war planning during the darkest days of the war. Then, we had cocktails in the canteen, complete with contemporary dinner service, uniformed attendants, and lantern lit tables. Occasionally, a faint siren could be heard in the background. A marvelous dinner followed, centered on an English roast beef.
The evening was shaping up to be a great success; but the best was yet to come. After dinner, our CEO stood up, struck his glass with a spoon to gain attention, and said simply, “Gentlemen, the Prime Minister.”
Through the side door, huffing and puffing on his cigar, as he leaned on his cane and made his way to the front along the narrow aisle between tables, came Mr. Churchill himself. He was perfect. His homburg was perched atop his head; he wore a long black suit jacket with a boutonnière, over the waistcoat, which displayed the heavy gold watch chain across his considerable girth. He looked and acted the part. No, he was Winston Churchill for that moment in time. One of the guests had his feet stretched out into the aisle as he gazed in wonder at this approaching apparition. Churchill came up to him, leaned over and snarled, “Move your bloody feet.” The man replied, “Yes, sir,” and did so promptly.
Mr. Churchill took the lectern and delivered his perfect Churchillian speech, modified to the business interests of the people in the room. It took about 10 minutes, but seemed much shorter. He then made as to go, but the diners stopped him with their applause. They asked him to take a few questions. He muttered about that, and then agreed to do so. He was very knowledgeable, and answered their questions well and in character. At the end, someone asked him what other parts he played. Mr. Churchill smiled and replied, “Never strip away an actor’s character. You might be distressed to find nothing significant underneath.” He received another round of applause for that.
Then he was gone. Nightcaps were served, cigars were smoked, as the guests relived the experience, and then they were bussed back to their hotel.
It was probably the most memorable event I have ever run. I still occasionally hear back from the attendees via cards and emails remembering their memorable evening in London, in the War Rooms, with the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
2. I have always admired Mr. Churchill, and so I decided to do the “hat trick” and visit all three of Churchill’s memorable haunts: The War Rooms, the BlenheimCastle of his youth, and the Chartwell Estate of his later years. I visited Chartwell next.
The Churchill Estate at Chartwell (and me)
Chartwell is a wonderful, bucolic spot in the country where Churchill wrote, painted, erected his famous hand made stone wall, and tried to live mainly in peace. It is on a hillside above a small village. We toured the grounds, his art studios, looked inside the estate, and tried to get a feel of the great man in retirement.
After a few hours, we drove down the hill again into the village where I had decided to check out its pub and its bookstore, in that order.
The pub was fun, and we shared an ale or two with fellow tourists and a few locals. The bookstore was better yet. In the bookstore on High Street, I met the owner: Major Alan Taylor-Smith (Ret’d). Major Taylor-Swift was a “townie” and proud both of his professions (soldier and bookseller), and of his lifelong association with Chartwell. He was extremely knowledgeable of Mr. Churchill, and also full of the local history and the local Churchill stories – the little stories, the ones that don’t make the history books. He loved to share them. This was my favorite:
“The road from the village to the Chartwell estate back then was a rugged, uphill country road that passed by a Gypsy camp in a roadside open field. Whenever Churchill’s car labored up the hill, the Gypsies could hear it coming, and an old woman would come to the edge of the road and yell something to him as he slowly drove past. With the windows up to keep out the road dust, he could never make out what she said – but she said it every time he passed by.
“Finally, one warm afternoon, his curiosity could take it no longer. When she came to the side of the road, he instructed his driver to stop. Churchill rolled down the window and asked, ‘Madam, what is it you say to me each time I pass?’
She replied, ‘Why don’t you get off your fat arse and walk?’
Churchill thanked her, and drove on.”
Major Taylor-Swift told me he was planning a book of these local stories, which most of us had never heard before. I thought that was a wonderful idea, said I’d like to buy the first copy, shook hands and left Chartwell with many happy memories.
That was 1992. I have since retired, and spent my time reading and writing and working on a few book projects of my own. In January, 2013, I was getting my papers in order, and I found the business card given me by Major Taylor-Swift. The whole story came back to me in a flash. I went on-line, found the village, contacted the local chamber of commerce, and learned that Major Taylor-Swift was retired, and living quietly with his family. They put me in touch and, within hours, I heard from his daughter-in-law. She was amused, I think, that I had remembered the event, the story, and the possibility of a book. It turns out the book was never written, although notes and recordings were made. The family felt sad that these stories had never been published, but that’s the way of it.
I had another idea: Would they entrust me with the project? Would they grant me access to the notes and recordings and see if I could mold and edit them into book form? It would be the Major’s book of course, with perhaps an “as told to”, or “with”, credit for me. They agreed to discuss the matter and let me know. I’m waiting to hear.
So – there are my two Churchill stories. I have not yet visited BleinheimPalace, the third leg of Mr. Churchill’s lifelong residence stool, but I still intend to. I haven’t received a decision yet on the Major’s book, but I’m sure I will hear.
I’ll keep you posted on both stories.