Just a brief note to remind readers that next Friday, January 30, marks the 50-the anniversary of the day the great city of London, England, fell silent as a gun carriage carrying a flag draped coffin rumbled through its ancient streets.
It was estimated that one million people lined the streets between Westminster Hall and St. Paul’s Cathedral that day as Big Ben chimed a quarter to the hour at 9:45 am and then fell silent as the United Kingdom paid final tribute to Sir Winston Churchill, the man who had kept them “bloody but unbowed” through the tumultuous and often fearful years of the Second World War World War.
On January 15, 1965, “the Last Lion”, already in frail health, was struck by a major stroke. Ten days later, on Sunday, January 25, the voice that had once held a Commonwealth of Nations together in times of great trouble, fell into what poet Christina Rossetti once described the “silence more musical than any song”.
For three days, by order of Queen Elizabeth, the former Prime Minister lay in state in Westminster Hall, next door to the House of Commons where he had spent much of his life. In three days 300,000 walked past his coffin in the same silence they would later take to the streets. Among the thousands was a nine year old lad named Justin Welby. He remembers holding his mother’s hand – and the palpable silence broken only by the gentle shuffle of feet. The young lad will be officiating during the 50th anniversary memorial service next weekend as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Fifty years ago Patrick O’Donovan, writing for The (Sunday) Observer newspaper on January 31, eloquently described the silence of the million or more people who had lined the streets to say farewell the day before: “The route was lined with young soldiers, their heads bowed over their automatic rifles in ceremonious grief. The bands played old and slow tunes. The drums were draped in black. The staffs of the drum-majors were veiled. They moved slowly, steadily, at a curious inexorable pace, and it looked as if nothing could ever stop them. The great crowd watched with an eloquent and absolute silence.”
O’Donovan wrote the gun carriage carrying Churchill’s coffin and body rumbled “past hotels and steamy restaurants and newspaper offices and pubs surrounded by this extraordinary silence that could not be broken even by the bands and the rhythmic feet. It was a silence, not of grief but of respect…”
It is estimated 350 million watched Churchill’s funeral on global TV; that 112 Kings, Queens and Presidents of other nations plus 3,000 other guests of rank and 7,000 servicemen and women walked with The Last Lion from Westminster hall to St. Paul’s then to the banks of the River Thames where a small vessel waited to take the coffin a short run to rendezvous with the train that would take him “home” to Oxfordshire. As the vessel passed the giant cranes of the London docks the gantry on each one slowly bowed in salute. Fifty years later it remains an extraordinary emotional sight.
Readers too young – or too old – to remember that eventful day will find a feast of photos and stories on YouTube or with a quick click on Google.
And be sure to track down O’Donovan’s Observer piece. It’s a classic and could help a few under 50’s to better understanding of the times parents and grandparents lived in and through.