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Letter from Churchill to the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, on women's suffrage, 21 December 1911
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, which granted the right to vote for women of property over the age of 30. Despite women’s suffrage being debated in the public sphere as early as the mid-nineteenth century, the formalised suffragette movement did not begin in earnest until 1903 when the Women’s Social and Political Union came into being.
The attitudes within the reigning Liberal Party to women’s suffrage were not consistent. For some sympathisers in the party, a woman’s responsibility and liberty as a citizen justified the right to vote. As women were subject to the same laws as men, then this meant that they ought to have the same stake in parliament. Yet in reality the Liberals’ stance was less than clear. It was thought (or had been decided) that most women did not want the responsibility of the vote, and that that the suffragettes were nothing more than a loud and disruptive minority. The leader of the Liberal party, Herbert Henry Asquith, was a long term opponent of women’s suffrage, a sentiment which he maintained during his term as Prime Minister.
In this source Churchill highlights three major reservations about women’s suffrage: his doubt over the real wishes of women around the country, the effect such a change in voting demographics would have upon the country, and whether the wider population had ever been asked at all. The vastly expanded electorate was an experiment that many in government did not want to risk. Churchill’s own support for women’s suffrage at this time was minimal, and as a frequent target of militant suffragette action, he did not have a great deal of sympathy for the cause.
The changing positions of women during the First World War was a significant factor in accelerating women’s suffrage. While suffragette campaigning was suspended during the war, around two million women replaced men in employment between 1914 and 1918. Women took up employment at munitions factories, railway stations, and as firefighters, postal workers and bank tellers. The major contribution made by women on the home front was cited as a major reason by members of parliament who supported the motion to include women in the bill, including Churchill. While it would not be until 1928 that women would receive the vote on the same terms as men, the 1918 act was undeniably a major milestone in the timeline of gender equality.
We shall fight on the beaches
Churchill’s ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech on 4 June 1940 is a eulogy to the British war effort that has been immortalised in popular memory of the Second World War. As a newly appointed Prime Minister, Churchill’s first month in office was defined by the Dunkirk evacuation. Over 300,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated in a sensational rescue mission. The success was down to a combination of German errors and the brilliant execution of the evacuation plan. However, the fact remained that, with France now fallen, Britain had become an attractive target for German invasion.
In this speech, Churchill’s aim was to counter the jubilant public reaction provoked by the evacuation from Dunkirk, and bring the discussion back to reality. As Churchill famously warns in the speech, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”
The circumstances required Churchill to balance two delicate points in his speech: the danger of an impending Nazi invasion, and the need to rally public support for the war effort. In the aftermath of the evacuation, despite intense relief for the return of British soldiers, Mass Observation reported profoundly low morale in many British regions.
Churchill’s complex use of language has been dissected thoroughly in the years since the speech was made. Through repetition, intricate sentence structure and metaphor, this famous speech has retained its impact through to the present day.
Allegedly, in the immediate aftermath of his speech, Churchill turned and whispered to a colleague: “And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that’s bloody well all we’ve got!”
Clementine Churchill's Aid to Russia Fund
Letter from British Counsellor in the Soviet Union on the impact of Clementine Churchill's visit, 10 May 1945
Clementine Ogilvy Spencer-Churchill, born Clementine Hozier in 1885, was the wife of Winston Churchill for 57 years. As beloved wife and mother, as confidant, advisor and remonstrator, the role she played in her husband’s life was a significant one. As a political force in her own right, however, Clementine Churchill often demonstrated qualities of charisma, insight and organisational skill, vital to the role of statesperson.
A cause which has been referred to as her greatest achievement was the Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund, of which she served as Chairman in the Second War. During this time, approximately 16,825,000 of Russia’s citizens died, which amounted to a staggering 15% of its population. There was a great deal of sympathy in Great Britain for the plight of the Russian people. Clementine herself was particularly troubled by the inordinate burden borne by the Soviet Union.
Clementine rallied support from the wealthy and celebrity musicians, along with factory workers and school girls willing to knit scarves, gloves and hats. The Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund quickly raised £1 million in the period from mid-October to December 1941, rising to a massive £8 million by the end of the war. This went towards essential supplies such as clothing and blankets, medicine and medical equipment including X-ray installations, and first aid kits. To amass such support from a country which was itself struggling with wartime shortages was a considerable achievement.
In this document, Counsellor Frank Roberts offers glowing words of praise for Clementine’s conduct during her tour of the Soviet Union in 1945, proclaiming that “No country has ever had a better Ambassadress”. For the magnitude of her achievement with the Aid to Russia Fund, she was awarded Order of the Red Banner of Labour, a Soviet decoration, as well as the Distinguished Red Cross Service Badge from the Soviet Red Cross. In June 1946, Clement Attlee made her a Dame for this work. According to her daughter, Mary Soames in Clementine Churchill: the Biography of a Marriage, she had been delighted that she had been able to “help a little”, but would never come to style herself as Dame.
1. Telegram from Foreign Office to Washington reciting text of message to Dr Chaim Weizmann, 30th October 1942
2. Letter from Churchill to Sir George Ritchie, 23rd February 1921
The Balfour Declaration, though short in length, was one of the most significant and controversial documents in modern history. Written by Arthur Balfour, then Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, to prominent Jewish figure Lord Walter Rothschild in 1917, the letter stated that Britain would support ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ but at the same time not ‘prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine’. This declaration had long-lasting consequences, resulting in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict which remains a subject of intense debate.
Both of these documents from the Churchill Archive show Churchill engaging with this sensitive issue. The first is a telegram sent on behalf of Winston Churchill to Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organization, on the 25th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and in the midst of the Second World War. In the telegram Churchill writes that his thoughts are with Weizmann on the anniversary, and expresses sympathy ‘for your suffering people and for the great cause for which you have fought so bravely’. Churchill’s insistence that his message not be published shows his understanding of the sensitivity of this issue.
In a letter written to his constituency chairman in Dundee, Sir George Ritchie, in 1921, Churchill shows his concerns relating to the situation in Palestine, which was under British administration. He explains that he has been asked to leave Britain to attend a conference ‘on questions connected with our responsibilities in the Middle East’ – implementing the Balfour Declaration as well as agreements made at Versailles. He describes his undertaking as not to ‘build up a costly and vainglorious Middle Eastern Empire’ but to recognise Britain’s ‘responsibilities in regard to the Arabs and the holy places’.
Following the civil war between the Arab and Israeli populations of Palestine, Britain’s mandate came to an end in May 1948; the Israeli Declaration of Independence occurred soon after, resulting in the Arab-Israeli War and the ongoing conflict in the region.
Churchill’s Passport (1918-1920)
In January 1919, just two short months after the end of the First World War, one of the deadliest conflicts in global history, delegates from 32 countries attended the Paris Peace Conference. The central figures of the conference were the leaders of Britain, France and America: David Lloyd George, Georges Clemençeau and Woodrow Wilson. Included in the British delegation, along with Lloyd George, was Churchill, who had just that month been appointed Secretary of State for War and of Air. As Minister of Munitions in Lloyd George’s wartime cabinet, Churchill was heavily invested in the outcome of the Paris conference.
In this passport of Churchill’s, dated from 1918-20, many diplomatic trips are documented, some under his former role as Minister of Munitions and others under his new position as Secretary of State for War and Air. Churchill’s arrival in Paris for the conference is particularly worthy of note – stamped with the date ’22 Jan 1919’, with ‘Travelling to France’ written above. During the conference, Churchill voiced deep concerns about the harsh treatment of Germany in the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. His warnings would take on a weightier meaning in the years to come.
The fateful ties between the Paris Peace Conference and the root causes of the Second World War are highlighted in one unusual coincidence; the Hotel Majestic, which hosted the British delegation for the duration of the conference, would also come to serve as the headquarters of the German military command during the Nazi occupation of Paris.
Letter from Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill detailing his report from Harrow School
In 1888 the thirteen-year-old Winston Churchill was attending Harrow School, a prestigious boarding school in Middlesex, London. Although Churchill was an intelligent boy, his difficulty focusing on subjects he wasn’t interested in – such as Latin – meant he struggled with a poor academic record. He entered Harrow in the lowest class and with the lowest grades, much to the disappointment of his father. Churchill was, however, fascinated by geography and history and was considered one of the best history students in his division.
In this letter to his mother, written from Harrow in June 1888, Churchill details his school report from the previous week. In mathematics he has done ‘decidedly better’ and his conduct is ‘decidedly improved’, although his work is ‘irregular’. He even boasts about coming third in class one week despite having done only half the work. The letter shows Churchill facing many of the struggles of a normal schoolboy: he begs his mother not to be cross with him, promises to work harder, and assures her that he has kept his room tidy since she last visited. ‘I am not lazy & untidy but careless & forgetful,’ he writes.
It appears Churchill was unhappy throughout his time at Harrow, and wrote several letters – including this one – begging his mother to visit him, although she seldom did. Churchill graduated from Harrow in 1893 and after three failed attempts was accepted into the Royal Military College in Sandhurst, eventually leading to his successful military career.
Passchendaele remembered 100 years on
The Battle of Passchendaele, or the ‘Third Battle of Ypres’, was fought on the Belgian salient between 31 July and 10 November 1917. Resulting in 325,000 Allied casualties and 260,000 on the German side, it is notorious among First World War battles for the number of lives lost and the terrible circumstances faced.
Continuous shelling and relentless rain forced the troops to operate in swamp-like conditions so bad that men and horses drowned and artillery was lost. This account from CHAR 8/190* tells us that ‘all the tin baths that could be found were sent up so that the men could obtain sleep in them more or less dry’ and ‘even guns in considerable numbers were swallowed up by a sea of mud’.
Passchendaele was finally captured on 6 November, resulting in a gain of just five miles over three months. The wisdom of the campaign was disputed at the time for a myriad of reasons relating to the weather, location, strategy and the extent of the human cost. It remains highly controversial to this day.
Churchill's first political speech
Winston Churchill is renowned for his oratory. His speeches during the Second World War cemented his reputation as a war leader and many of his phrases have now become iconic. Despite this legacy, Churchill was not a born orator. He worked hard to master the art of speech-giving, and understood the power that words could have on an audience.
At the age of 22, despite being a serving officer at the time on leave from his regiment, Churchill delivered his first political speech. This was in July 1897 to the Bath Primrose League, an organization founded by Churchill’s father and dedicated to promoting Conservatism. Despite such a receptive audience, Churchill ensured he was well-prepared and that his speech was carefully crafted. As this newspaper report demonstrates, the speech was positively received and resonated with its audience.
Churchill also wrote an unpublished article around this time on the power of oratory where he set out his views on what made a good speech and the techniques that can enhance a speaker’s art (CHAR 8/13/1-13).*
*You will need to have access to the Churchill Archive to view these documents. Find out more about getting access here.
Letter from King George VI to WSC appealing to him not to accompany the troops on D Day
The D-Day landings, codenamed Operation Overlord, took place on 6 June 1944. US General Dwight D. Eisenhower led the campaign, which involved forces from the United States, Great Britain, Canada and Free French forces – almost 160,000 men – landing on five different beaches at Normandy to drive back the German forces occupying France. Before the landings, Churchill announced that he would sail on the HMS Belfast to watch events unfold.
Four days before D-Day, King George VI wrote to Churchill appealing him not to go to sea. In his letter the king states that as a sailor and the head of the British Army he would like to attend D-Day himself, but has agreed to stay; would it be right for his Prime Minister to take his place? Churchill’s presence on the HMS Belfast, King George argued, would ‘be a very heavy additional responsibility to the Admiral & Captain.’ Churchill was persuaded to stay at home.
The invasion of Normandy began at night with airborne attacks, and this was followed early in the morning by troops landing from the sea. The Allies fought their way through France in the following months, resulting in the Liberation of Paris on 25 August and the retreat of the Germans across the Seine on 30 August. D-Day was a decisive victory for the Allies.
Explore more documents written by, or connected with, the Sovereign or other members of the British Royal Family in Treasures from the Royal Archives
Telegram from Churchill to Stalin coordinating arrangements for VE Day
On 8 May 1945 in Britain, Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced the end of the war with Germany. This ended nearly six years of a war that had claimed millions of lives.
The ceasefire was signed at 2.41 am on 7 May at the American advance headquarters in Rheims. The BBC announced this to the British public on the same day, alongside the statement that Victory in Europe Day would be a national holiday.
Two days before Germany surrendered, Churchill wrote a telegram to Stalin coordinating plans for VE Day. The aim was to synchronise the timings for the announcement in Britain, the US and Russia. See Truman’s original message at CHAR 20/217/86*, and Stalin’s reply to Churchill at CHAR 20/218/13*. However, despite the surrender being signed in Rheims, Stalin insisted that the treaty be ratified in Berlin the following day. This resulted in Russia celebrating VE Day on 9 May, one day later than the rest of Europe.
*You will need to have access to the Churchill Archive to view these documents. Find out more about getting access here.
Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Churchill
When Princess Elizabeth was born in 1926 it was not anticipated that she would ever become queen. Her father, Prince Albert, was the second son of the King and she was third in line for the throne. However just ten years later circumstances would drastically change. After King George V died in 1936, Elizabeth’s uncle, Edward VIII, succeeded him, only to abdicate later that very year. Her father was crowned as King George VI in 1937, and at the age of eleven Princess Elizabeth was suddenly first in line to the throne.
King George VI’s early reign was shadowed by the possibility of war. Two years after his accession to the throne, war was declared and in 1940 Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. Despite George’s early reservations about Churchill, the two men quickly developed one of the closest relationships between a monarch and Prime Minister in history. Churchill had good relations with the whole family, illustrated here by this letter which demonstrates Princess Elizabeth, aged fifteen, thanking Winston and Clementine for thinking of her at such a perilous time in British history.
After becoming Queen in 1952, Elizabeth too developed a close working relationship with Winston Churchill. They bonded over their shared passion for horses, racing and polo. Later in her life when asked which Prime Minister she enjoyed meeting with most, she replied ‘Winston of course, because it’s always such fun’.
The Iron Curtain
On 5 March 1946 Winston Churchill delivered a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri entitled the ‘Sinews of Peace’. Following the Second World War, Churchill had lost the general election and was no longer Prime Minister. Yet he was still an influential figure and President Truman himself was instrumental in securing Churchill’s invitation to speak at Fulton.
Despite the wartime alliance between the USSR, the United States and the United Kingdom, Churchill declared in this speech that an ‘iron curtain’ had descended over Europe. He warned of this Russian threat and called for greater Anglo-US cooperation to combat this by referencing again the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries that had become so important during the Second World War.
Although the phrase ‘iron curtain’ had been used before, Churchill’s use in the speech immediately attracted international attention and catapulted the phrase into common currency. It became so influential that some Russian historians have dated the beginning of the Cold War to this speech.
This document is a telegram from Churchill to President Truman in May 1945, expressing his concern over the future strength of the Soviet Union in Europe and what is going on behind the 'iron curtain' of the Soviet Front.
Churchill and the development of the Atomic Bomb
In 1924, Winston Churchill wrote a newspaper article that speculated on the development of explosive weapons. He posed the question, ‘Might not a bomb not bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power?’ These weapons would be realised just decades later.
British scientists were already aware of the potential to utilise atomic energy for military purposes by the beginning of the Second World War. However they struggled to convince the government of this. After Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, Lord Cherwell warned him of the dangers of letting the Germans develop weapons from this technology ahead of the UK, and Churchill ensured this research was given the highest priority. The codename given to this project was Tube Alloys.
From 1942, the Manhattan Project was also researching this area, and Tube Alloys soon became subsumed within this project. Concerned that British contributions would not be recognised, Churchill came to an agreement with President Roosevelt in 1943 (the Quebec Agreement) which clearly outlined the terms of this coordinated development and intelligence.
However, this shared interest would not last. Roosevelt died suddenly in April 1945, and Churchill lost the general election just months later. By 1946 the US Congress passed the McMahon Act which stipulated that the US would no longer share atomic intelligence with any other country. This was a disappointment to the British government, and Churchill was critical for the Attlee administration for letting it happen. Although Britain initiated its own atomic weapons programme in 1947, it is likely that the McMahon Act meant that it took much longer to create than might otherwise have been the case.
Resigning from the army at the age of 24, Churchill made his first attempt to enter Parliament by running for Conservative MP in the Oldham by-election in 1899. Although this initial effort was unsuccessful, he returned just one year later and won the seat in the general election, beginning a political career that would span almost sixty years.
Throughout his career, Churchill held most of the major offices in state, including Prime Minister (twice), First Lord of the Admiralty, Home Secretary, Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, President of the Board of Trade, Minister of Munitions and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He made his mark on politics in many ways, including being the youngest serving Cabinet minister for half a century.
In December 1941 he delivered a speech to an American audience which summed up his long and fascinating political career in one line, stating ‘I am a child of the House of Commons’.
- Find out more about Churchill’s extraordinary political career in Chartwell’s winter exhibition
Churchill hit by a taxi in New York
Winston Churchill had a near brush with death in December 1931. Visiting the United States to deliver a series of lectures, Churchill was in New York when he tried to cross the road and momentarily forgot that American cars drove on the right. Mistakenly perceiving the road to be safe, he stepped out and was hit by a taxi driving around 30 mph.
Suffering a severe head wound and fractured ribs, Churchill was rushed to Lenox Hill Hospital. Yet this was after he had spoken to the police, claiming all responsibility for the accident and absolving the taxi driver of any wrongdoing. He spent the next several weeks recovering.
Following the event, Churchill wrote to his close friend Frederick Lindemann with an unusual request. Lindemann, otherwise known as ‘the Prof’ was an English physicist who Churchill would come to rely on heavily for advice during the Second World War. Churchill wanted to learn the science behind his crash; specifically what the impact of a motor car weighing 2,400 pounds and travelling 30 mph would be when it crashed into a stationary body of 200 pounds. Lindemann soon replied with the answer, which Churchill then used in an article he wrote about the event, titled ‘My New York Misadventure’.
Churchill and King George VI
Despite being initially reluctant for Winston Churchill to succeed Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister, King George VI was persuaded to accept him in May 1940. This led to what has been described as the ‘closest personal relationship in modern British history between a monarch and a Prime Minister’.
A royal who had never expected to become King, George VI rose to the occasion during the Second World War, visiting Allied armies on several battle fronts and providing much needed morale-boosting visits around the home front with the Queen. He earned great respect and admiration during this period and was greatly loved by his public.
Yet in the post-war period of the early 1950s, George’s health began to decline as he battled with lung cancer and other ailments. The King’s death on 6 February 1952 was met with widespread mourning, and as the news spread, cinemas and theatres closed out of respect and flags were raised at half-mast across the country.
The following day, Churchill delivered an incredibly moving tribute to the late King which was broadcast to the nation. This speech described George’s bravery, his devotion to his country and how the King was so greatly loved by his people. Lasting fifteen minutes, Churchill’s words sang the praises of the late King, and lastly introduced the new successor to the Crown, Queen Elizabeth, ending his speech, ‘God save the Queen’.
Churchill’s claim for libel against the Daily Mirror
In October 1951 the Daily Mirror published a series of articles about Winston Churchill. Written in the lead up to the General Election of that year, these articles were negatively focused on Churchill’s foreign policy and, as a result, on his ability to lead the country with a Conservative government.
The Daily Mirror articles claimed that if the Tories won the election they would be too reluctant to ‘pull the trigger’ of a third world war. Instead they argued that Churchill was ‘too ready to let somebody else decide’, namely Russia or America, and that the world would be ‘safer with Attlee’.
Following this, the paper repeated the claim from New York magazine, The Nation, that Churchill would present Stalin with a ‘peace ultimatum’, and that if this failed he would authorise an ‘all-out German rearmament’.
Churchill claimed these reports were published ‘falsely and maliciously’, and accordingly claimed for libel against the paper.
'The Tragedy of Europe'
On 19th September 1946, Winston Churchill addressed an audience at the University of Zurich about what he called the ‘tragedy of Europe’.
Delivered in the aftermath of the Second World War, this was a time when many countries were still struggling to rebuild after the conflict. Churchill acknowledged that the guilty must be punished, but he also declared that Europe must look to the future rather than dragging forward the hatred and pains of the past.
Churchill warned that although this war was now over, Europe must come together to prevent any future terror on this scale. The solution he proposed to keep the peace was to ‘recreate the European Family’. France and Germany would have to work together to achieve this, and to take the lead in creating a Council of Europe. This would be the crucial first step in achieving what Churchill termed a ‘kind of United States of Europe’.
- Read more about Churchill and Europe in our Collection Highlight
Clementine and Winston (or 'Kat' and 'Pug')
Although Winston and Clementine first met at a ball in 1904, it was not until they were re-acquainted at a dinner party four years later that their romance began. In a whirlwind courtship, Winston proposed to Clementine just months after the dinner when sheltering from a rainstorm in the grounds of Blenheim Palace on 11 August 1908. They were married one month later.
A woman of shrewd intelligence and strong will, Clementine was the ultimate partner for the iconic political leader. Winston relied heavily on Clementine for both emotional support and advice, and while they would encounter difficult times, the couple maintained a close and supportive relationship which lasted throughout their marriage.
Winston and Clementine wrote to each other frequently throughout their lives, sometimes even when living under the same roof. They developed pet names of Kat’ and ‘Pug’, and would often sign off their letters with animal drawings, such as in this letter which was written by Clementine when on a skiing holiday away from Winston in 1938.