The Churchill War Rooms
(Formerly the Churchill Museum)
by Kavitha Rao
It's hard for most of us to think of Winston Churchill as a baby, or as a naughty schoolboy. That's where the Churchill Museum comes in. This small but delightful shrine to Churchill makes the British bulldog come alive. The recently opened museum is actually part of the Cabinet War Rooms, a suite of subterranean rooms which served as Churchill's wartime headquarters during World War II. A ticket to the War Rooms buys you admission to the museum as well.
You enter to a classic quote from Churchill painted on the wall, "We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow worm." The first section shows Churchill as he is best known, in the garb of the "War Leader." There are photographs of him with soldiers in the trenches, recordings of his famous speeches, the famous caricature of Churchill as a belligerent bulldog, even German propaganda depicting Churchill as a heartless monster responsible for starving children. So far, so very well known. But the subsequent sections of the museum -- "Young Churchill", "Maverick Politician," "Wilderness Years" and "Cold War Statesman" -- may surprise you.
The "Young Churchill" section is a window into Churchill's privileged but lonely childhood. There's the baby Winston's solid silver rattle, and his collection of toy soldiers, which turned out to be more important than many people realise. It was the sight of him playing with his soldiers on the floor of Blenheim Castle that persuaded his father to put him down for a career in the army. Despite being born into aristocracy, Churchill had a desolate childhood, and was sent away to the elite boarding school of Harrow very young. The Harrow punishment book shows that Churchill received 7 strokes of the cane for "breaking into premises and causing damage." Not what you would expect from the man voted by a BBC poll in 2002 as the greatest Briton ever.
There's more well-known Churchilliana in the rest of the museum. You can see his bowler hat, his bow tie, his beloved well-chewed Havana cigar, and his outrageous red velvet "siren suit." There's his 1953 Nobel Prize, received for his four-volume History of the English Speaking Peoples. Also on display is the iconic 1941 photograph by Yousuf Karsh, of a stern Churchill with a frivolous polka dotted bowtie.
But the museum also sheds light on Churchill's little-known idiosyncrasies. Churchill's diary reveals a punishing and eccentric schedule. He usually worked in bed until noon, dressed in a silk nightshirt, while his aides came and went. He also frequently worked until 3.00 am, and his staff was expected to work with him. Churchill's close ties with the royalty of the day are also highlighted. A letter from George VI reveals that Churchill had originally wanted to be present at the D-day landings. George VI persuaded him to change his mind, arguing that "if a bomb should remove you from the scene, it would be a serious matter for the country and the Empire."
His human side is revealed, in a series of tender love letters to his wife Clementine and in many pictures of his four children. Churchill was a keen painter -- he credited painting with helping him overcome the "black dog of depression" -- and the museum displays several of his paintings. There are also mementoes of his time in the trenches, including a periscope he used in the Boer war.
There's an attempt made to reveal some of Churchill's weaknesses, such as his steadfast opposition to giving India its independence. The notes for his famous speech against Mahatma Gandhi are displayed. "Mr Ghandhi, a seditious fakir, striding half-naked up the steps of Viceregal palace to parlay on equal terms with representatives of the Emperor." There is evidence of his irascible temper. A letter from Clementine remonstrates with him for the "deterioration in his manner towards his colleagues," who put it "down to the strain."
There were long periods in his life during which he was a political pariah. The museum offers mementoes of his time in the political wilderness during the 1930's and his heartbreaking defeat in the 1945 general election shortly after the war. And there is also much evidence of Churchill's poor judgement, such as his support for Edward VIII in his affair with divorcee Wallis Simpson. A telegram from Edward thanks him for his "great help and understanding." Edward eventually abdicated, and Churchill was much criticised for his encouragement of the wayward ruler. "Why shouldn't the king be allowed to marry his cutie?" asked Churchill at the time. He was answered by the playwright and comic Noel Coward, "Because England doesn't wish for a Queen Cutie."
The museum's star attraction is a touch-type screen, called the Lifeline, which allows the visitor to trace Churchill's life and the events of the war by touching electronic tabs. The 3-foot-wide, 40-foot-long digital display table, cost more than half a million dollars and is described as a "computerized filing cabinet." A random riffle through the year 1944, for instance, will reveal dramatic video clips, photographs and documents of the events leading to the D-day landings, and the role Churchill played.
The museum ends with a replica of the famous door of Number 10 Downing Street, where Churchill experienced the joy of victory in the war and the bitterness of defeat shortly thereafter. A fitting finale.
Editor's Note: In April 2010, The Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms changed their name to The Churchill War Rooms.
The Churchill War Rooms
King Charles Street
London SW1A 2AQ
- Churchill's Birthplace: Magnificent Blenheim Palace, by Marta Patiño
- Chartwell: Churchill's House of Refuge, by Richard Crowhurst
Kavitha Rao is a freelance writer who has lived and worked in Mumbai, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Tokyo. She currently lives in London, and doesn't think she will ever tire of it. Her articles on culture, travel, literature and lifestyles have appeared in the Daily Telegraph, Asiaweek, the South China Morning Post and the Far Eastern Economic Review, among others.
Article © 2006 Kavitha Rao