This is a guest post written by Associate Curator of Railways, Russell Hollowood.
At 7am on 24 January 1965, Sir Winston Churchill’s immediate family gathered around the great man’s death bed, and by 8am the BBC had broadcast the news of his death to a waiting world. The effect on the world’s media was electric; however, the reaction of government officials was a model of calm efficiency.
First, Churchill’s body was embalmed and made presentable for the three days’ lying in state Westminster Hall. As official mourners, headed by the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, made statements of sorrow; ordinary men and women showed the depth of their grief. In bitter winter weather they queued for hours to pay their last respects. In the three days over 300,000 people from Britain and across the globe braved the cold to say farewell to the great statesman.
The night before the funeral, many people camped along the route to be sure of securing a spot. London Transport ran extra trains and buses to cope with the crowds and the world’s media prepared for the biggest state funeral in living memory.
On Saturday 30 January 1965, Churchill’s coffin was laid on the gun carriage used for Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901; his body was then drawn through the streets of London by naval ratings, as military bands played out the nation’s grief. Thousands stood in respectful silence as the cortège made its serene progress to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Led by Her Majesty The Queen, representatives of 110 nations paid their final respects to Britain’s wartime leader. The service concluded with the sounding of the Last Post, then silence inside the crowded cathedral, with each mourner alone with their thoughts, followed by the Reveille, and the bells of St. Paul’s ringing out the grief of the nation.
The end of the funeral triggered a new modern phenomenon – a mass surge in power demand, as millions went to put the kettle on. The National Grid almost collapsed under the strain.
The state funeral was concluded with a procession from St. Paul’s Cathedral to Tower Hill. The mournful solemnity of the cortège was punctured by a 90 gun artillery salute, one for each year of his life. Winston’s body was then conveyed onto the barge Havengore by the Earl Marshal of England, the General Officer Commanding London District and the Chiefs of Staff, flanked by an honour guard of the Royal Marines and a naval pipe band.
As the funeral barge passed Hay’s Wharf, the Dockers spontaneously lowered their cranes to salute the great man. No greater tribute could be offered than by the men who were his political enemies and yet were wholly in touch with his blind determination to fight on, despite the many cultured voices who said Britain should make peace in the summer of 1940.
Once the flotilla arrived at Festival Pier, Sir Winston’s body was conveyed to Waterloo station by motor hearse. Awaiting the funeral party was a special train consisting of four Pullman carriages, one van and a Pullman brake van. The locomotive selected was former Southern Railway Battle of Britain class locomotive Winston Churchill. Driver Hurley, Fireman Lester and Guard Horwill, along with a host of senior railway officers stood ready for departure. Just in case of any issues, Battle of Britain Class locomotive No. 34064 ‘Fighter Command’ was scheduled to be on standby.
Thankfully for British Rail, everything ran like clockwork and Sir Winston Churchill was laid to rest in his family’s vault at St. Martin’s Church in the Oxfordshire village of Bladon.
Find out more about our Churchill’s Final Journey display here