Sir Winston Churchill: How Oldham shaped WW2 leader

Winston Churchill Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Churchill was 25 when he stood in the 1899 Oldham by-election

As every schoolchild knows, Sir Winston Churchill was the prime minister who led Britain to victory in World War Two - but his political journey began in the most unexpected of places and with the most unexpected of outcomes.

In 1899, Harrow and Sandhurst educated Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, whose father was the third son of the Duke of Marlborough, stood for election in the northern industrial mill-town of Oldham - and lost.

As he put it in a letter, the defeat left him "with those feelings of deflation which a bottle of Champagne represents when it has been half-emptied and left uncorked for a night".

The by-election was called after the town had lost its two Tory MPs - one had died and the other resigned due to ill health - and Churchill had stood with the hope of replacing one of them like-for-like.

Allen Packwood, the Director of the Churchill Archives Centre, says his candidature was "a marriage of convenience", which served both sides well.

The Oldham Conservatives got a man with a weighty name - his father Lord Randolph Churchill had been Chancellor of the Exchequer - and Churchill, as a young man "desperate to follow in his famous father's footsteps", had what he saw as an open door into politics.

He initially wrote about his confidence in the campaign and how he had spoken to meetings of up to 2,500 people.

But before polling day, the Conservatives introduced the Clerical Tithes Bill, which proposed the Church of England be funded by local rates.

In Churchill's opinion, it was this "stupid" bill which led to Oldham - a fortress of non-conformist Christianity - electing two Liberal candidates instead.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A formidable public speaker, Churchill drew huge crowds when he made speeches

Defeated, Churchill was undiminished and he set about continuing a profile-raising mission he had begun long before his Oldham campaign.

He had used his time in the Army to "make both money and a name for himself", Mr Packwood says, publishing reports of his exploits in Cuba, India and Sudan in newspapers and books.

"In the aftermath of his defeat, Churchill returned to his day job as a roving war correspondent, travelling to South Africa to cover the Boer War for The Morning Post.

"On 15 November 1899 he boarded an armoured train [that] was ambushed and, after a heroic defence in which he helped most of the train to escape, Churchill was captured.

"He was taken to a makeshift prison. Not penned up long, he jumped over the wall on 12 December and on to a passing train."

In an odd coincidence, he was helped in his African escape by a coal miner from Oldham.

"Churchill was alone and on the run in Africa, which must have been the last place on earth that he expected to meet someone from the town," says Mr Packwood.

"But for three days, he was hidden in a coal mine [by an] Oldham native Dan Dewsnap.

"Churchill later described how Mr Dewsnap locked his hand 'in a grip of crushing vigour' and said 'They'll all vote for you next time'."

Churchill's early years

Image copyright Getty Images
  • Born at Blenheim Place in 1874, Winston Churchill was the son of Lord Randolph Churchill and the American heiress Jennie Jerome
  • He was educated at Harrow and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, and was sent to India with a cavalry commission in 1895
  • He won early fame as a war correspondent, covering the Cuban revolt against Spain in 1895, and British campaigns in the Northwest Frontier of India in 1897, Sudan in 1898 and South Africa in 1899
  • He had authored five books by the age of 26

Source: The Churchill Centre

That prediction proved to be correct, as Mr Packwood says Churchill's escape "made him a national hero and the incident was enough to ensure his celebrity status".

When he returned to Oldham to speak in July 1900, he was greeted by brass bands and massed crowds. Churchill wrote the town had "almost without distinction of party accorded me a triumph".

"I entered in a procession... and drove through streets crowded with enthusiastic operatives and mill girls."

He went on to give a well-received talk at the town's theatre, which saw his mention of Mr Dewsnap's role in his escape met with a cry from the audience that "his wife's in the gallery".

Mr Packwood says this "warm reception may have been instrumental in persuading Churchill to stand for Oldham again" in the 1900 General Election.

That said, he had already written to his mother two months before, saying that he had "very nearly made my mind to stand again in Oldham... they have implored me not to desert them". He had also lost by less than 1,500 votes in 1899.

Sure enough, buoyed by a campaign that focused on the "apparent British success in the Boer War", the 26-year-old Conservative candidate garnered enough of the Liberal majority's second votes to be returned as the town's second MP.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Churchill's time in Oldham gave him chance to come into contact with the working classes

Yet Churchill, as an ambitious politician, was rarely seen in the town. "Churchill certainly raised the profile of Oldham - he was not shy of the limelight - but his base was certainly London," says Mr Packwood.

However, that did not stop the town having an effect on the new MP, not least because before he arrived in the town, he had lived a privileged life.

"Oldham gave Churchill his first experiences of dealing with visceral poverty," Mr Packwood says.

"This almost certainly steered him towards social reform and he subsequently worked with [future Liberal prime minister] David Lloyd George on unemployment insurance."

It also led him to take the most serious political move of his early career when in 1904, he crossed the floor of the House of Commons and joined the Liberal opposition. after falling out with the Conservatives over the issue of free trade.

In December 1903, the local party committee passed a motion of no confidence and a month later he ceased to be the town's Conservative candidate.

Churchill the politician

Image copyright Getty Images
  • Beginning as a Tory MP in 1900, Churchill joined the Liberals in 1904 and went on to hold virtually all important ministerial posts, except foreign minister
  • When the Liberal Party collapsed in 1922, Churchill was temporarily out of office, but he was re-elected as an independent in 1924 and then became a Conservative again, when Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin asked him to be Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • In 1939, Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty, before replacing Neville Chamberlain as prime minister the following year
  • After Labour's general election victory in 1945, Churchill became leader of the opposition, before returning to power in 1951
  • He retired as prime minister in 1955 and stood down as an MP at the age of 89 in 1964

Source: The Churchill Centre

Instead, he crossed the floor and two years later, moved on from Oldham, standing as the Liberal candidate in Manchester North West.

There, he swept to victory, and the rest, as Mr Packwood says, is history.

"Oldham was very much the first rung on the ladder," he says.

"It got Churchill into politics and into Parliament and gave him his first experiences, not only of campaigning and public speaking but also of political in-fighting and manoeuvring.

"In later life Churchill looked back fondly on his time at Oldham, remembering 'the warm hearts and bright eyes of its people', and writing that 'no-one can come in close contact with the working folk of Lancashire without wishing them well'."

In 1941, with the outcome of World War Two still hanging in the balance, the town became one of the first to recognise Churchill's achievements, electing him as a Freeman of Oldham.

And 23 years later, as the great leader's health failed, Oldham's mayor sent a message of thanks and congratulation from the town.

His message was signed on behalf of all the town's population "whose parents launched you on your parliamentary career".

Whatever the falling-out during his time as the town's MP, by his death, Churchill's "warm" feelings for Oldham had turned out to be mutual.

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