Remembering when Sir Winston came to town...

Last month was the 75th anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill's visit to Daventry town centre, coming to drum up support for the forthcoming General Election.

Friday, 3rd July 2020, 12:00 pm
Sir Winston Churchill (library picture)
Sir Winston Churchill (library picture)

One of the young schoolboys who lined the streets on June 25, 1945, to see him, was Edward Whitehead.

His family first lived in North Road, in Daventry, before moving to High Street, in the house that is now Barclays Bank in the town centre.

The son of a former BBC engineer, Mr Whitehead sent in his recollections of that memorable day to the Daventry Express...

An expert chronicler would be able to identify the exact time, but 75 years ago today (June 25) I really did see Winston Churchill in Market Place.

It was, of course, part of the 1945 General Election campaign, of which I had no inkling yet, though it was forced on my attention later.

My series of recollections starts a little earlier, on May 8. That day, as I was playing in the playground of the Abbey School, a shabby little old man came to the railings facing on to Market Square and uttered just two words: “It’s over.”

I guessed what he meant and called the form mistress, Miss Swanell. After clarification and exchange with him, she told me to go and tell the headmaster. I did and without further delay he rang the school bell. I was a bit surprised that he took the decision to assemble the school and announce a couple of days’ holiday on just my say so, but later realised he must have heard confirmation on the radio which he brought to school. This was something exceptional in those days, bearing in mind portable radios were at least 10 years in the future and a wireless set was a rather heavy piece of domestic furniture.

It has came back to me only recently how the favourable development of the military situation had been reflected for maybe weeks in our playground games. Instead of out-and-out fights, some of us would retreat behind a fortification, a bench or something, and be “surrounded”. We would be called on to “surrender” and after holding out for an honourable time against this pressure, we did, coming out with hands up. We would be marched off to a narrow space near the air raid between the junior school hall and the projecting wings of the building, which I can still see on Google Earth (the shelter has gone, of course). Our captors did not know quite what to do with us then, so the game would break up. With chivalry and humanity, ‘prisoners’ were never biffed or thumped ... once you had surrendered you were safe! My playmates must have learnt this form from newsreels going to the cinema. We had no convincing weaponry to play with as new toys were not made during the war and most of our few, if any, were pre-war relics.

It must have been the next day I was out on an errand in the High Street when loudspeakers in the street announced the king would speak. King George VI, no less, whose photograph hung in the junior school hall, which we boys occasionally were to salute, whilst the girls curtsied before his queen.

I was struck by the way everyone in the street suddenly stopped still, stood to attention or with an attitude of respect. And then the king spoke. I was astonished to hear him stutter, right at the start. He was a vulnerable human being like us!

Everything I have learnt about him since has confirmed my opinion that he was the best man for the head of state, helping set the national mood of that difficult time.

Some weeks later, unexpectedly, one day in class, the thrilling prospect was sprung on us that we were going to be able to see Mr Churchill! At the due time we were trooped out to stand on the school side of Market Square.

My sister, in the very juniors, sat on the kerb in front of us. After all were assembled, and in due time, the great man came.

What a letdown!

I had expected him to be at least preceded by a marching band of the Royal Marines (who, as I remember, had paraded in Daventry in those times) and the conquering hero to be appropriately arrayed in splendid uniform and maybe a cloak of scarlet and gold.

Instead he was standing in a beaten-up, open car of the Conservative Association with a tinny loudspeaker, instead of massed bands.

He was a surprisingly small, portly, stooped, oldish man wearing a dull grey overcoat. But he spoke.

Was it stirring Churchillian victory rhetoric? I don’t think so, I could not really tell what he said, or rather to a child, it had no significance, it was in adult-boring language.

So I remember only his four concluding words: “Vote for Manningham-Buller!”

I did not at the time notice our mum opposite, standing on the steps of the Burton Memorial monument. Earlier that day a neighbour had asked ‘are you going to hear Churchill speak today?’ Thinking she meant on the radio, mum had replied ‘no, I’ve heard Churchill speak quite enough already, thank you’. When she discovered he was actually coming to Daventry, she decided it was an occasion not to be missed.

Later, a picture of Churchill on this occasion was published in a local newspaper (Mercury & Herald, June 29) in which her face is recognisable in the background.

“Only time I’ve ever been in the press,” she said, and she kept the newspaper cutting for years.

Once back in school, Miss Swanell (a young teacher in her first job out of training college) called for everybody to say what they thought of the event. There was a tremendous gushing, everybody saying how wonderful this great man was.

I was uncharacteristically silent. To me, they had all seen something I hadn’t, or they had not seen what I had.

So when Miss Swanell asked for my thoughts, I could not tell a lie: “He’s fat!”

Shock! Horror! I was told: “You can’t say that! The important qualities were moral, you had to see the greatness of the man. Oh, Edward, why do you always have to be different?”

It was not the last time I was ever to hear those words.

I knew then, or soon after, that Mr Manningham-Buller was the candidate of Churchill’s party . I could see his name and picture in the window of the Conservative Association in the High Street, which I passed every day.

Pretty soon that was the only place I could see it as Labour Party stickers covered every lamppost or other space in the town, exhorting a vote for Mr Williams.

In addition to this evidence of strong support for him in the town, he also appeared to be popular in our playground.

War games had turned into peace games; one would be waylaid and demanded who you were going to vote for... and I soon learned that it was very much in my interest to say “Williams”.

The rest is history. Mr Manningham-Buller actually won the seat, but Churchill didn’t win the General Election.

In the High Street news-agent there appeared a photograph of Mr Attlee with the king, and one of his government.

Apart from the king, they all looked even more drab and dingy than Mr Churchill had.