Winston Churchill: Remembering the nation's farewell

The pallbearers on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral Image copyright other

It was the day Britain came to a standstill, the world watched and an era passed.

The day of Winston Churchill's funeral - 30 January 1965.

Not since the extravagant state funeral for Wellington, in 1852, had a commoner been given such a grand send-off.

Although Churchill was a man known for his eloquence with words, his funeral is perhaps best summed up in numbers.

A million mourners lined the route in London, while 25 million people in the UK - just under half the entire population of the country - saw it on television. About 350 million viewers, a tenth of the world's population, watched around the globe.

Historical presence

Most of those would have seen it in black and white on the BBC, the richness of the visual pageantry enhanced by the distinctive words of Richard Dimbleby. The commentator was facing his own mortality, a victim of the cancer that would claim his life later the same year.

Barry Barnes, from Blackpool, chose to witness Churchill's funeral in person.

"I remember the cold and the quietness", says Barry, " Despite all those people, it was very hushed".

Barry was just 17, but even for a teenager, Winston Churchill was an important person. The war had only been over for 20 years, rationing for 11.

Image caption Barry Barnes was one of the many people who lined Churchill's funeral route

For young people like Barry, whose parents had lived through Churchill's inspirational wartime leadership, the hinterland of the former Prime Minister's historical presence was vast and meaningful.

"He was old, he had made mistakes, but it was a moment I will never forget", Barry says.

The service at St Paul's Cathedral attracted 112 foreign leaders, but still managed to convey the intimacy of a family funeral.

Churchill's grand-daughter, Celia Sandys, was among the mourners in St Paul's.

"It was sad, and very moving", she says.

She later recalled the epic journey that followed, down the Thames, when Churchill's coffin was conveyed on board the teak barge, the 'Havengore'.

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

It was a voyage that generated perhaps the most iconic and touching image of the day: the cranes of London's docks lowering their gibs, in an act of unparalleled synchronized reverence.

Celia says members of her family could barely believe the sight.

"It was very special", she says.

She had come to know Churchill well in his later years, often travelling with him.

"Not long before he died, I remember him down on his knees playing with a train set, but by the end he was tired of life, he was ready to go", she said.

It was a rather more sumptuous locomotive awaiting Churchill's coffin at Waterloo station on the day of his funeral.

Barry De Morgan, the adjutant of the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars, was in charge of the bearer party whose role was to place the coffin on the train.

Image caption Barry De Morgan remembers both the state funeral and the family burial

Newsreel footage captures Barry's nervous demeanour. They had practised, he says, but his men found the coffin heavier than they had expected.

"You don't think about your fears at a moment like that ", he says. "What I remember is that the crowds were silent. It was very sombre, but a very nice end".

After the delicate manoeuvre to put the coffin on the train, Barry and his party travelled to Bladon, near Oxford, for the private family burial.

The contrast between the splendour of the London state occasion and the tranquil setting of an English country churchyard could hardly have been greater.

'Poignant requiem'

Though the strain of heavy hearts bore down on those present, there was, briefly, a moment of levity, according to Barry De Morgan.

During the lowering of the coffin into its plot, he says, one of the pall bearers snagged his uniform on a rope.

Later, the sheepish figure at the centre of this mishap approached Barry to inform him that one of his medals was missing.

Mortified by the prospect of the offending item being interred along with the great man, Barry quickly headed back to the graveside and recovered it from its unintended resting place, thereby averting an embarrassing footnote to the historic day.

"It's amusing now", says Barry, "less so, then" - an observation Churchill, himself, would probably have agreed with.

For historians, Churchill's funeral provided the opportunity to officially bookend an extraordinary life.

Those like Professor Sir David Cannadine, one of Britain's most prominent authorities on Churchill, argue he was a complicated man, who had enemies, but in the final 10 years of his life, "came to be loved, even revered".

But he describes Churchill's funeral as "a poignant requiem for Britain".

Amid the entirely justified homage, Professor Cannadine says that the event exposed a less comfortable reality for Britain.

He says it represented the symbolic moment when any residual claim to empire ended, "and, as a country, to this day, we're still not sure where we're headed".

That aside, I asked Professor Cannadine if, as a distinguished scholar, he lends his intellectual weight to the ultimate accolade to emerge from Churchill's funeral, that he was the greatest Englishman who ever lived.

"I won't quarrel with that", he replied.

BBC History: The life of Winston Churchill

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