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‘We nearly dropped Churchill’s coffin’

Lincoln Perkins (in the middle of the image) carried Churchill's coffin with seven other men
Image caption Lincoln Perkins (in the middle) carried Churchill's coffin with seven other men

On 30 January 1965, millions of people watched the state funeral of Winston Churchill take place at St Paul's Cathedral, but what was it like for the soldiers who carried his coffin that day?

"I was telling Sir Winston Churchill, 'don't worry sir, we'll look after you,' and of course I was really talking to myself, but apparently I was talking out loud because you could actually feel him sliding off the shoulders," says Lincoln Perkins.

On a freezing cold January day, 25-year-old L/Sgt Perkins, along with seven other soldiers, had been given the honour of carrying the wartime hero's coffin. But as they climbed the steps to the entrance of St Paul's Cathedral a disaster nearly happened when the 82-year-old former prime minister Lord Attlee faltered in front of them.

"Half way up the second flight… Lord Attlee stumbled going in to St Paul's and we had to come to a stop and [the coffin] did actually slide off the two front shoulders of the two bearers. It was very lucky that we [had] the two gentlemen at the back who were what we called 'pushers,' who pushed us up," says Perkins.

They had not practised with a similar weight and Perkins says he and the bearer party had not expected the coffin to be so heavy.

"The coffin, we were led to believe by the undertakers was lead-lined," says Perkins.

After Attlee's stumble on the steps, it was difficult for the soldiers to regain their momentum and lift the coffin at such a steep angle, but they did get their composure back.

"If we had have dropped him... I don't know what it would have been, very embarrassing, but we didn't," says Perkins.

Churchill was the only "commoner" in the 20th Century to have received the honour of a state funeral and more than a million people lined the streets of London to see the procession of his coffin from Westminster Hall, where he lay in state, to St Paul's Cathedral.

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Media captionThe soldiers carrying Churchill's coffin avoid a near disaster

"That event, the funeral, the lying in state, the great crowds, they represented the passing of the old Britain," says journalist Martin Bell, who reported on the funeral at the time for the BBC.

The coffin processed through the London streets from Westminster Hall on a gun carriage before the bearer party took over the responsibility of carrying it at the entrance to St Paul's.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Winston Churchill's coffin arrives at St Paul's Cathedral

Although all eyes were on the coffin, the officer in charge of the bearer party remembers the soldiers had to concentrate on the task at hand.

"Strangely enough you are very focused on what is going on in front of you, and your eyes are not swivelling around seeing too much. But it was patently obvious that every side of the road the crowds were 10-12 deep, very sombre, and very respectful of the coffin as it passed them," says Anthony Mather, who was only 23 at the time.

Planning for the funeral had begun in 1958, and Perkins remembers how it was only after Churchill had become very ill that orders had been given to the soldiers to start rehearsing the funeral on the streets of London rather than inside the barracks. They had to practise in the early hours of the morning when the streets were empty.

Churchill died on 24 January 1965 after suffering a stroke, and it was the week before his death that Perkins finally discovered whose coffin he had been training to carry.

"I think once we learnt who he was, it seemed to hit home that we were going to carry a very famous statesman, and then it sunk in, wow, this is a guy that everybody knows and what he's done for the country during the war time," says Perkins.

Image caption Lincoln Perkins says he suffered from a bad back after carrying the coffin

He believes he and his fellow soldiers were probably chosen for the task because of their height. "The two front boys were 6ft (1.83m), the next two were 6ft 2in (1.88m), then 6ft 3in (1.9m) and 6ft 4in (1.93m). It went smallest to the largest at the back," says Perkins.

After their near catastrophe on the steps of St Paul's, the bearer party carried the coffin down the aisle of the cathedral and laid it on the catafalque. It was only then that Perkins had time to look up and realise the full grandeur of the funeral.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Royal Family and many dignitaries attended Winston Churchill's funeral at St Paul's Cathedral

"When I turned round all you could see was a cathedral full of people and everybody was amazed at all the kings, queens, heads of states from all over the world actually sitting on the first two or three rows on either side of the cathedral," says Perkins.

More than 3,000 people attended the funeral service at St Paul's including five monarchs, 16 prime ministers and six heads of state.

When the service had ended, the coffin was put back on to the gun carriage and taken to Tower Hill. The bearer party then placed it on a boat, the Havengore, which carried Churchill's body down the Thames to Waterloo station. Although it was a huge physical strain to carry the coffin, the soldiers had refused to release their charge at this point.

"The coffin was taken off the gun carriage and actually taken across a very, very small bridge. It was spoken about that we would change bearer parties because it was such a long way that we had actually carried him by then, but being true Grenadiers we said, 'No we want to carry on and finish the job.'"

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Churchill's coffin was placed on board the Havengore at Tower Pier after the state funeral

At Waterloo station they handed over responsibility to the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars who placed the coffin on a train to the Oxfordshire village of Bladon where Churchill was buried next to his parents.

It was not until Perkins had gone off duty that he realised the damage he had done to his spine.

"It wasn't until we actually finished and got back to barracks and showered down that we realised that we could hardly walk with no weight on. It was easier to walk with the weight on than it was with the weight off, and I still remember that I suffered from a bad back for a long, long, long time after that."

Perkins says he suffered crushed vertebrae and a curved spine from bearing the weight of the coffin. He is still very proud of his role today in Churchill's funeral, but would he do it again?

"Oh yes I'd do it again," says Perkins, "but on the other side, straighten my spine."

Churchill: The Nation's Farewell will be broadcast on Wednesday 28 January at 21:00 GMT on BBC One. Or catch up later on BBC iPlayer.

Colour footage AP/British Movietone News