Throughout a long and eventful life, monumental biographies of him have been written, and practically no part has gone unrecorded. I only wish here to add my own impressions of what I witnessed on that historic day.
To verify the accuracy of the newspaper speculation I telephoned Sir Winston's London home from where a secretary confirmed what the papers were saying and advised me not to arrive at the House any later than half-past two. I arrived in the Central Lobby at two o'clock and wasted no time in completing a green card to request an interview with my friend Hugh Rees, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Swansea West. After handing in my card at the desk I took a seat beside the statue of Sir Stafford Northcote, 1st Earl of Iddesleigh whose descendents I had lived with for a short while in Shropshire during the war.
"Hats off strangers!" The voice of the policeman echoed through the lobby and I with everyone else stood silent and still to witness the Speaker's solemn procession on its way to the House of Commons chamber. The procession passed and I resumed my seat. The lobby was full of M.Ps. and for a while I amused myself trying to decide from what they were wearing, which party each one belonged to. Most of the Tories wore black jackets and pin-striped trousers which was almost a sort of uniform. They contrasted sharply with the easily identifiable Labour Members' drab suits, drab shirts and uninspiring ties which were clearly not of the club or old school.
"Mr. Edward Gill" The voice of a policeman calling my name echoed around the lobby. I went to the desk and was given a ticket which read "Admit One to the Diplomatic Gallery." What followed was beyond my wildest expectations. I was briskly ushered to the House of Commons chamber where M.P's were gathered. Through the war scarred Churchill Arch, which is all that remains of the chamber bombed in the war, I could see the packed Government benches. There, sunk in the seat below the gangway, traditionally reserved for the most senior back-bencher and Father of the House, was the figure of Sir Winston Churchill, framed in the arch that now bears his name.
I doubt if there are many now living who were in the House of Commons on the 27th July 1964 to witness Churchill's last day in Parliament. Fortunate I was to be the very last person he passed by as he left the Chamber on that final day and I have written about it in my book 'Another World’
I went through the Churchill Arch and was shown to a private pew to the right near the Bar of the House. It was almost down at floor level directly opposite the Speaker's Chair so I could not have been better placed.
Sir Winston was as ever, immaculately dressed in a black parliamentary suit with the long white cuffs of his shirt protruding from the sleeves of his jacket. He was wearing the familiar dark spotted bow tie, with a white handkerchief cascading from his breast pocket, and a gold watch chain hung like a garland across the front of his waistcoat. It was everyone's vision of Churchill.
His eyes moved slowly around the chamber, occasionally catching sight of a friend or an old parliamentary foe. Perhaps in his mind he was re-living some memorable moments of battles fought long ago; of triumphs and what must have seemed at the time, less glorious moments of failure.
It was just after three o'clock when questions to the Prime Minister started. They followed the usual pattern and as they proceeded I could hear an audible murmur coming from Churchill, though I could not hear what he was saying, if indeed he was saying anything at all. Prime Minister's Questions were followed by a statement from the Foreign Secretary who was about to leave for Moscow.
Sir Winston glanced at his Order Paper and decided it was time to leave. Here in the House of Commons, the final page of the long and distinguished parliamentary career of Churchill the Statesman was about to be written. Characteristically, the House appeared to ignore it, but there was in the air an awareness that all whose privilege it was to be present, were witnessing a unique moment in history.
Helped to his feet by two senior colleagues, each one supporting an arm, he moved slowly forward as his reluctant legs carried him along the green carpeted floor to the Bar of the House where, unhurried, he turned to face the Speaker and bow to the Chair to take his last leave of the House he had served for so many years. He was standing an arm's length from where I was sitting and I can proudly claim that I was the last person he passed by as he finally left the Chamber.
Shortly after Sir Winston's departure I decided to leave and go to his home at 28 Hyde Park Gate, where press reporters and cameramen were already waiting. With my small cine camera poised at the ready I managed to make my way to the front of the waiting media men who were jealously guarding their right to hold pride of place. While we were waiting, Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, one of Sir Winston's oldest friends, came down the street and entered the house. She was closely followed by Lady Churchill.
A few minutes later a black limousine drove up to the house. The police cleared a space around the front door and Sir Winston was helped from the car. Heavily supported by two of his staff he just about managed to walk from the car and up the steps to the doorway. While he did so, I noticed that the press photographers refrained from taking their pictures until he was ready. Not at that time being privy to press protocol I knelt at his feet and proceeded to film this historic event. With a large cigar in his mouth, Sir Winston looked down and glared at me as though to say "What the hell do you think you are doing down there?" When the appetite of the press had been satisfied, Sir Winston was taken indoors and everyone left the scene.
Not until I got home did I realise the door of my camera film compartment was slightly ajar. I could not believe my bad luck; I had probably lost all my film. As a vital historical record, this film was important to me and I 'phoned his house again on the
following day. "Is Sir Winston leaving for Chartwell today?" I enquired. "Yes, at about two o'clock" I was told. Determined to shoot the film again, I was outside the house well before the appointed time. His black limousine was waiting outside with the standard of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports fluttering on the bonnet.
Shortly after two o'clock the door of the house eased open and Sir Winston appeared on the steps. He was wearing a light grey suit with a grey homburg hat, and smoking a large cigar. Again I started to film as the great elder statesman was helped down the steps and into his car. I continued to film until his car left the cul-de-sac. Within a week my films were processed and to my surprise and delight both films were perfect. I had preserved on film a supreme moment of history.
Six months later Sir Winston was dead. He died on Sunday 24th January 1965. A few days later I again returned to Westminster and in bitter cold weather stood in a queue for over four hours to see him lying in state in Westminster Hall.
It is not the privilege of many to observe at close quarters the great men and women who have filled the pages of history. I sometimes envy those who lived through the times of historical giants such as Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Cromwell, Handel, Wren, Nelson and Queen Victoria, during whose reign Churchill was born. But I count myself fortunate in having lived through the age of Winston Churchill and know generations as yet unborn who, to quote the words of William Shakespeare:
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill
1874 - 1965
‘Blazoned in honour! For each generation
You kindled courage to stand and to stay;
You led our fathers to fight for the nation, Called "Follow up" and yourself showed the way.
We who were born in the calm after thunder
Cherish our freedom to think and to do;
If in our turn we forgetfully wonder,
Yet we'll remember we owe it to you.'
Final verse of Harrow School song added for Sir Winston Churchill's ninetieth birthday and first sung on 28th November 1964.
(this excerpt is copyright to Edward Gill and may not be duplicated or used without his express permission).
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