Subscribe now and receive weekly newsletters with educational materials, new courses, interesting posts, popular books, and much more!
A Walking Tour of Winston Churchill’s Historic Whitehall
No. 10 Downing Street, Whitehall. (Photo: Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC/MOD, available for reuse under the Open Government License)
In June 1919, the Hillsdale College Cruise around Britain was followed by three days of Churchillian activities. Hillsdale President Larry Arnn conducted a walking tour of Whitehall venues intrinsic to the Churchill story. His discussion is summarized below, and the reader may enjoy duplicating the walk.
(1) National Liberal Club
Our tour begins at the National Liberal Club, on the corner of Whitehall Place and Whitehall Court. It overlooks the Thames and is directly adjacent to our hotel, the Royal Horseguards. The Club was founded in 1882 by Victorian Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. It was London’s first major gentlemen’s club to admit women. Also, from its launch, it embraced members irrespective of ethnicity, social status, or religion.
Winston Churchill, then a member of the Liberal Party, joined the National Liberal Club in 1906, He resigned in November 1924, one month after joining the Conservatives under Stanley Baldwin. He gave ten speeches there between 1905 and 1943, and continued to lunch there as a guest during the Second World War. There is a very fine portrait by Ernest Townsend of Winston Churchill dressed in his First Lord of the Admiralty uniform in the club’s main entrance hall.
Sir Martin Gilbert loved tell a droll story involving Churchill’s close friend, the arch-Conservative F.E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead. “One day before the First World War, Birkenhead was walking from his legal chambers at the Temple to the House of Commons. Suddenly he felt the need for a gentleman’s facility. So he went into the National Liberal Club, which he was passing at that moment. The Club porter quickly recognized this prominent figure in the Tory Party. ‘Excuse me, Sir, but are you a member of this Club? Surely not!’ To which Lord Birkenhead replied, ‘Club? I thought it was a public convenience.'” (The Club today cheerfully celebrates this well-known anecdote with a framed caricature.)
(2) Board of Trade
Across Horse Guards Avenue stands the very large Ministry of Defence Whitehall Building. Earlier it housed the Board of Trade. In 1908, Prime Minister H.H. Asquith offered Churchill the Presidency of the Board of Trade. He was only thirty-three, the youngest cabinet minister in over forty years. According to a then-rule, Churchill had to be reelected by his constituency, Manchester North West, before he could join the cabinet. He lost by only 429 votes, then found a new constituency in Dundee, Scotland, which represented until 1922.
As President of the Board of Trade, Churchill had to deal with major strikes—four in his first year. He worked to establish a system of Labour Exchanges, which would put laborers in touch with employers, and vice versa. He also set up a Standing Court of Arbitration, which proved a successful means of settling industrial and trade disputes. In August of that year, Churchill invited Clementine Hozier to Blenheim Palace. They were there three days together before he could muster up the courage to ask her to marry him. She said yes, and they married on 12 September 1908.
That year, Churchill gave no fewer than ninety-six speeches and traveled nearly 5400 miles by train. He gave ninety-nine speeches the following year. In March 1909, Churchill proposed the Trade Unions Bill, his first major piece of legislation, which established minimum rates of pay and standards of work conditions in the clothing industry. Churchill’s Whitehall office was at the Board of Trade until the General Election of 1910. Afterward he accepted the appointment of Home Secretary.
As we round the corner onto Whitehall, we passing the very place where King Charles I stepped out from the first floor of what is now called the Banqueting House onto a scaffolding to be executed.
(3) Ministry of Defence
As you walk toward Westminster, the big building overlooking the Thames with the copper roof is the Ministry of Defence Main Building in Whitehall. Architect Vincent Harris won the competition to design the building in 1915. For a number of reasons, the building was not fully completed until 1964. Twenty-four years earlier, in 1940, Churchill created the post of Minister of Defence upon his appointment as prime minister. This was one of the most important first actions he took as Prime Minister. He had learned from the disaster of the Dardanelles Campaign that he had been wrong in trying to carry out a major and cardinal operation of war from a subordinate position.
In Churchill’s words, “The Minister of Defence represents the Service Ministers in the War Cabinet, and he, in the name of the War Cabinet and subject to its accord, directs the conduct of the war. The Minister of Defence is also Prime Minister, and he can therefore exercise his general function of superintendence and direction without impinging upon the constitutional responsibilities of the Service Minister.” Prudence is the highest virtue of the statesman, and this is virtuous statesmanship at its finest.
(3/4) Palace of Westminster / Westminster Abbey / Churchill Statue
You would have an excellent view of the Palace of Westminster were it not for the scaffolding encasing Elizabeth Tower. Remember that Big Ben refers not to the tower but to the great bell inside. The clock tower was named Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to mark the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. The Chamber of the House of Commons is in the Palace of Westminster. In his ninety years on earth, Winston Churchill held a seat in the Commons for sixty-two years and fifteen days. He was elected to Parliament aged twenty-five on 1 October 1900. His longest gap without holding a parliamentary seat was from November 1922 to October 1924.
Look to the south west corner of the intersection and you will see the Churchill statue, facing Parliament. This was sculpted by Ivor Roberts-Jones and unveiled by Churchill’s widow Clementine in 1973. Queen Elizabeth spoke at the ceremony. Its 12 feet high and is made of bronze. This is really the heart of Churchill’s Whitehall.
Look past the statue and you will see Westminster Abbey. Queen Elizabeth requested a memorial plaque be placed in the entrance in honor of Winston Churchill. It reads “Remember Winston Churchill—in accordance with the wishes of the Queen and Parliament, the Dean and Chapter placed this stone on the twenty fifth anniversary of the Battle of Britain, 15 September 1965.”
His Majesty’s Treasury moved into the large, white building on your right in 1940. The government head of the Treasury is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Although Churchill never worked in this building, he was Chancellor from November 1924 to June 1929 during the premiership of Stanley Baldwin. In 1930, Churchill commented about his tenure. “Everybody said that I was the worse Chancellor of the Exchequer that ever was. And now I’m inclined to agree with them. So now the world’s unanimous.”
Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had been an undistinguished Chancellor of the Exchequer. He referred to decimal points as “those damned dots.” Winston, capturing his father’s frustration, said of his Treasury advisers, “They all talk Persian.” Churchill believed in balanced budgets, Free Trade, and reductions in public expenditure wherever possible.
He also returned Britain to the Gold Standard, which he thought privately in 1945 was the biggest blunder of his life. While ultimately responsible for the return to Gold, Churchill was following the unanimous advice of the top financial experts at the time. This failure of the bank people, in addition to the foolish decisions by British generals Churchill witnessed during the Boer War and World War I, led him seriously to doubt the wisdom of experts in the future. This distrust revealed itself in the way Churchill ran the British war effort during his first premiership.
(6) Home Office
Between Downing Street and King Charles Street in Whitehall is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Main Building. Until 1978, the south east corner of the building housed the Home Office, where Churchill served as Home Secretary from February 1910 to October 1911. The Home Secretary is in charge of the police, prisons, and prisoners. Churchill, who had been a prisoner in South Africa during the Boer War, worked hard to improve prison conditions. He said of the prisoners, “They must have food for thought: plenty of books—that’s what I missed most—except of course the chance of breaking bounds and getting out of the damned place, and I suppose I mustn’t give them that!”
(7) Colonial Office
The wooden door across from the Whitehall Cenotaph leads into the old Colonial Office, where Churchill served as Secretary of State for the Colonies from February 1921 to October 1922. One of his first actions was to assign T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) as his chief adviser on the Middle East. The same year, The Churchills’ 2 year 9 month old daughter, Marigold, died of septicemia of the throat. She is buried at Kensal Green cemetery in London. It was also in 1921 that Churchill met Professor Frederick Lindemann, one of his closest advisers and friends during the Second World War.
(8) War Office
Construction on the massive Old War Office Building took five years and was completed in 1906. The building has about 1100 rooms on seven floors. In 2016, the building was sold to a private group for more than £350 million for conversion into a luxury hotel and residential apartments.
Soon after the end of the First World War, Churchill served here as Secretary of State for War and Air. His daunting task was to oversee the demobilization of the two and a half million men in the British army and also the policing of the German occupation zone. His strategy for demobilization is summarized in his statement: “Let three out of four go, and pay the fourth double.”
As Secretary of State for Air, Churchill successfully policed Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) using almost exclusively aircraft. By doing this, he released several army divisions and saved £40 million a year. After the end of the First World War, many politicians called for disbanding the RAF. Churchill objected intensely. His use of the RAF in Mesopotamia proved its value and ensured its permanence as a vital arm of the British military.
(9) Corinthia Hotel / Ministry of Munitions
The luxurious Corinthia Hotel in Whitehall formerly housed the Ministry of Munitions. From July 1917 to January 1919, Churchill was Minister of Munitions. This was the subject of Dr. Arnn’s doctoral dissertation. Not long before, Churchill had returned from the front-lines in Belgium, where he had commanded the Royal Scots Fusiliers. The ministry employed 12,000 civil servants, and an incredible two and a half million workers nationwide. It was the biggest purchasing business and industrial employer in the world.
Churchill completely reorganized the sections of the Ministry, and by the end of the war, the number of civil servants under Churchill’s leadership more than doubled. Churchill likened himself as one riding “comfortably on an elephant, whose trunk could pick up a pin or uproot a tree with equal ease, and from whose back a wide scene lay open.” During his tenure as Minister of Munitions, he began his practice, which he would employ daily during World War II, of demanding information on a single sheet of paper.
Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force Douglas Haig acknowledged: “Only in 1918 was it possible to conduct artillery operations independent of any limiting consideration other than that of transport.” This was due to the exponential increase in production of guns and gun-carriages during Churchill’s post as Minister of Munitions.
(10) Trafalgar Square / Nelson’s Column
From the south end of the famous and grand Trafalgar Square rises the 148-foot-tall Nelson’s Column. On top is a statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, whose outnumbered fleet crushed the combined French and Spanish fleets at the naval Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. He was forty-seven years old, and was mortally wounded during the battle. The Royal Navy was never again seriously challenged by the French fleet in a large-scale engagement. During his second stint as First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill named one of the office cats “Nelson.” He declared Nelson “the bravest cat I ever knew. I once saw him chase a huge dog out of the Admiralty.”
(11) Admiralty Arch
Admiralty Arch was commissioned by King Edward VII and designed by Aston Webb, who also designed the Victoria Memorial and the new façade of Buckingham Palace. Construction was completed in 1912, a year after Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. It served as the official residence of the First Sea Lord, professional head of the Royal Navy. It plays an important role as the entrance from Trafalgar Square to The Mall. The central archway is reserved for use by royalty.
On 25 October 1911 Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. His close friend, Violet Asquith, whose father, the Prime Minister, had made the appointment, remembered: “Never, before or since, have I seen him more completely and profoundly happy.”
He began right away making major reforms to the Royal Navy. He created a Naval War Staff, which he divided into three sections: Operations, Intelligence, and Mobilization. With hard argument, he secured increased the navy budget from £39 million to £50 million per annum. He ordered the construction of new, Queen Elizabeth-class battleships with 15-inch guns, the largest caliber that had ever existed afloat. He also transitioned the navy’s fuel from coal to oil, which made ships lighter, faster, and permitted them to stay at sea longer.
Churchill strengthened the North Sea Fleet, which proved immensely consequential when war broke out. He introduced better pay for the Navy’s 136,000 seamen, promoted promising and capable senior officers, forced mediocre admirals into retirement.
* * *
He created the Royal Naval Air Service and pioneered the launching of planes off of the decks of ships. Some military historians see Churchill as the father of the modern aircraft carrier. He also presided over the creation of the first British signals intelligence agency. He reviewed all incoming intelligence before processing by committee.
Whitehall contains a plethora of venues significant to Churchill’s years at the Admiralty. People tend not to remember these accomplishments. Nevertheless, they made the Royal Navy ready for war, and ensured swift victory over the German fleet.
Instead, unfortunately, his first term in the Admiralty is synonymous with the failed Dardanelles Campaign. We will not go into the details of that campaign on this tour. But know that one of the last officers to leave the beaches of Gallipoli was a future prime minister, thirty-two-year-old Clement Attlee. Although a political opponent of Churchill’s, Attlee always supported Churchill’s Dardanelles strategy. Had the fleet succeeding in forcing the Straits, Turkey very well may have dropped out of the war, and Russia’s full military weight would have fallen exclusively upon Germany’s eastern front. The war may have ended sooner than it did. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of young men would have returned home alive.