"He knew how much was riding on this": Winston Churchill's "finest hour" speech among a million documents in archive of former Prime Minister

By Ben Miller | 30 November 2015

Letters to Stalin, Gandhi and HG Wells among million-document Churchill archive

A black and white photo of former british prime minister winston churchill outdoors
The final page of Churchill's celebrated finest hour speech, delivered in parliament and then broadcast on June 18 1940© Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust / Estate of Winston S Churchill, courtesy Curtis Brown, London
On what would have been his 141st birthday, a vast archive of letters written by Winston Churchill, including correspondences with other world leaders and a copy he annotated of his powerful “finest hour” speech at the height of the Second World War, has been recognised by the United Nations.

Curators at Cambridge University’s Churchill College say the bulk of the “priceless” collection reflects Churchill’s stand against Adolf Hitler and fascism. The papers, which range from an early letter to his mother to the speech which coined the term “iron curtain”, were passed to the college by his widow, Clementine, in 1969.

A photo of a yellow piece of paper covered in black ink and signatures
The first page of Churchill's earliest surviving letter, written to his mother and postmarked January 4 1882. Churchill was seven years old© Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust / Estate of Winston S Churchill, courtesy Curtis Brown, London
“As you move from first draft to finished speaking notes the speech undergoes a transformation,” says Alison Packwood, of the Churchill Archives Centre, pondering the stirring address given by the newly-appointed Prime Minister to the House of Commons on June 18 1940.

“The page is covered with his handwritten annotations in red and blue ink. It highlights how much care and attention Churchill put into this speech.

“He knew how much was riding on this. The country was facing a huge national crisis. France had capitulated and Britain was facing the prospect of attack and invasion.

A photo of a yellow piece of paper covered in black ink and signatures
The seating plan from the Potsdam conference, dedicated to Churchill and signed by President Truman and Marshal Stalin (July 23 1945)© Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust
“The final note is set out in a blank verse format, set out like the Book of Psalms. It looks like poetry, it brings it to life.

“It gives him, I think, the rhythm – it enables that great Churchill oratory. Nowhere is that more evident in this speech than in the very final page, that great crescendo.”

More than a million documents make up the archive, which has now joined Magna Carta, the Bayeux Tapestry and Iran’s Persian epic poem, the Shahnameh, on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. Packwood calls the collection “unique and irreplaceable.”

A black and white photo of a man wearing a hat and beret
Churchill the war leader (circa 1945)© Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust
“It is the evidence that underpins the story of one of the most remarkable leaders of the modern era, whose stand against fascism in 1940 helped shape the world of today,” she feels.

“It includes his original annotated notes for his famous international broadcasts and correspondence with the great politicians, military leaders, authors, scientists and thinkers of his age.”

One of those leaders was Joseph Stalin, of the Soviet Union, who Churchill called for a summit with during the 1950s. Three US Presidents, the destructive power of the hydrogen bomb, British policy across the world, painter Walter Sickert and actor Laurence Olivier were also among those related to.

“It is a fantastic privilege and a very great pleasure to see the Sir Winston Churchill Archive inscribed at as part of the Memory of the World,” says Dr Alice Prochaska, the Chair of the overseeing Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust.

“This amazing documentary resource brings benefit to scholars, schools and citizens. It is a legacy to future generations from one of the world’s greatest leaders and a source of endless fascination and inspiration for students and citizens in every nation.”

The papers were transferred to the centre from Oxford’s Bodleian Library more than 40 years ago.

Ten of Churchill's correspondents

  • Franklin D Roosevelt US president between 1929 and 1932

  • Harry S Truman Post-war US president

  • Dwight D Eisenhower 34th US President and a key ally of Churchill, despite their disagreements

  • Charles De Gaulle French leader for more than a decade from 1958

  • Joseph Stalin Soviet Union leader for more than 30 years

  • Mahatma Gandhi Leader of the independence movement in British-ruled India

  • Jawaharlal Nehru The first Prime Minister of India, appointed in 1947

  • HG Wells Prolific sci-fi writer and the man behind The War of the Worlds

  • Walter Sickert English artist who depicted Churchill in 1927

  • Laurence Olivier Revered actor who was knighted in 1947

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three places to follow in the footsteps of Churchill in

Churchill War Rooms, London
Visit Churchill War Rooms to discover the original Cabinet War Rooms, the wartime bunker that sheltered Churchill and his government during the Blitz. Explore the historic rooms to experience the secret history that lives on underground.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
Sir Winston Churchill was born in the Palace in 1874 and a permanent exhibition about him is located next to his birth room – both are included in the Palace tour. He is buried in a simple grave in the nearby church at Bladon. A separate exhibition, ‘Churchills' Destiny – the story of two great war leaders’, celebrates the achievements of Winston and his great hero and ancestor, John Churchill.

The Library and Museum of Freemasonry, London
Items belonging to famous and Royal Freemasons, including Churchill and Edward VII, are on display here, together with examples from the museum's extensive collection of prints and engravings, photographs and ephemera.
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