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View from the Whispering Gallery of St. Paul's, published in The Weekend Telegraph the morning after Churchill's funeral. Photograph : Gerry Cranham

Farewell To Greatness

Prestige for a new magazine, opportunities for two young photographers, and the reputation of National Geographic were at stake
during the media coverage of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965. Graham Harrison looks back. Black and white photographs David Hurn.

‘These pages recall his last days, on which the whole world paid tribute to all his days, and when he went back, away from the crowds to the quiet of the country churchyard. The little church had hardly changed. But the world was unrecognisable.’ The Weekend Telegraph, January 31st 1965.

There is a letter marked “Personal and Top Secret” that can be read on the internet. Beneath the address Buckingham Palace, and the date November 5th 1953, a young Queen instructs her Government that if her Prime Minister should die he should be given a public funeral on a scale befitting his position in history, “Commensurate,” the monarch suggests, “with that given to the Duke of Wellington in 1852.”

Unbeknown to the nation Sir Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime leader who was at the time serving his second term as Prime Minister, had suffered a crippling stroke, and the British establishment was agreeing that a state funeral – an honour reserved for the British monarch and few others – would be appropriate should Churchill die.

But although paralysed on his left side, the Conservative leader showed his old tenacity and recovered enough to choose his own time of departure from the premiership.

Churchill eventually resigned as Prime Minister – to the great relief of his successor Anthony Eden – in April 1955. Impossible today, a Prime Minister’s illness had been kept secret from the public, and from the pages of the British press for nearly two years.

Sir Winston Churchill left parliament for a decade-long retirement that was to be increasingly dogged by ill health. In the autumn of 1964 it was apparent that the life of 90 year old statesman was drawing to a close, and the world’s press considered how it should mark the passing of the man who’s single minded will had carried Britain through it’s darkest hour, and who had inspired much of the world with his oratory.

In the Art Deco offices of the conservative Daily Telegraph on London’s Fleet Street, the decision was taken that two special issues of the new colour supplement, The Weekend Telegraph would be published to honour Sir Winston.

The first special issue was to be an obituary. The second, titled Churchill : Farewell to Greatness was to be a sixteen page full colour record of Churchill’s funeral. Both were to be entirely free of advertisements.

Under the proprietorship of Michael Berry (Baron Hartwell and 3rd Viscount Camrose, disclaimed) The Weekend Telegraph colour supplement was to get the backing it required. Michael Berry’s father, William (1st Viscount Camrose) had been a financial supporter of Churchill after the war, and one of his closest friends.

FIVE DAYS TO PREPARE

Sir Winston Churchill died in his London home on the morning of Sunday January 24th 1965.

At 8:00 pm that evening Prime Minister Harold Wilson broadcast to the country, “Her Majesty The Queen has expressed the will of the nation in her wish that Sir Winston be accorded a State funeral. The service in St. Paul’s Cathedral where lie the heroes of an earlier war for Britain’s survival, the Lying-in-State in Westminster Hall, the ancient heart of the Palace of Westminster, will provide the fitting surroundings for the honour we as a nation pay to his memory. But the deepest tribute, the deepest gratitude to him will be in our own hearts and minds.”

As soon as the details of the funeral were released Fleet Street could focus its own preparations. There were just five days in which to prepare everything.

At The Weekend Telegraph editor, John Anstey, immediately raised the issue with the Telegraph management that to be published on January 31st, the day after the funeral would be a great coup for the new magazine.

With a normal deadline of eight weeks this was not going to be easy.

Alexander Low, the magazine’s picture editor in 1965, recollects that the added challenge was that the supplement was not printed in Britain as were their rivals The Sunday Times and Observer magazines, but by Burda in Germany.

“The quality of German magazine printing was superior to the British,” recalls Low, “but there were going to be enormous logistical problems in getting the photographs, layouts and copy to Germany the same day as the funeral. Then of printing one million copies in full colour overnight and getting them over the Channel for distribution around Britain by breakfast time the next morning.”

But the Telegraph directors were persuaded to print the new supplement overnight to try and outplay their competitors, and the supplement’s small editorial and production staff began working into the night in preparation.

The first imperative on the picture desk of the The Weekend Telegraph was to secure photographers to cover the solemn occasion. Low managed agreements with thirty-six of the best names in photography, among them Erich Lessing, Erich Hartmann, Bert Hardy, George Rodger, Patrick Thurston and Gerry Cranham, and two young photographers David Hurn and Adam Woolfitt.

The picture desk then signed up processing labs, taxis and dispatch riders. The labs had to be able to process and duplicate colour transparencies well and very quickly. The taxis and dispatch riders were needed to transport photographers between locations, and processed and unprocessed film between photographers, processing labs and The Telegraph’s offices.

The next step for the picture desk was to get the best ROTA positions. ROTA positions are official fixed places at major events, or along the route of an event. Often there is space for just one or two photographers, a TV camera or a movie camera.

Strictly controlled, ROTA places are allocated in advance by agreement between the picture editors of the various press organisations. For Churchill’s funeral most if not all of the passes were to go to the British press.

Any newspaper or agency allocated one of these positions for a photographer must, as quickly as possible supply duplicates of their images to all the other news organisations on the ROTA. In the case of Churchill’s funeral both the processing and the duplication of the colour transparencies required by the Sunday magazines had to be done in two hours.

Preparing for the crowds : Parliament Square at 5:00 am on the morning of the funeral. The police estimate was that one million people lined the streets of London that day. Photo © David Hurn/MAGNUM

FINDING THE BEST POSITIONS

In the cold and wet of an English winter London was preparing for a rare occasion, a state funeral for a commoner. Like Nelson and Wellington before him, Sir Winston Churchill was to be honoured like a dead monarch, and hundreds of thousands of people were expected to line the funeral route.

To decide on the best positions for his photographers, Alexander Low walked the funeral route from Westminster Hall, where Churchill’s body would lie in state to St. Paul’s Cathedral where the funeral service would be held, and on to Tower Pier where the public funeral would end.

From Tower Pier Churchill’s coffin would be taken on a final journey up the Thames to Festival Hall Pier and Waterloo Station from where it would travel by train to Oxfordshire and a private burial in the small parish churchyard at Bladon.

Alex Low decided that the two most important positions for photographs were going to be the Queen Anne Statue, at the bottom of the steps facing the entrance to St. Paul’s Cathedral where all the world dignitaries would gather at the end of the service, and the Whispering Gallery in St. Paul’s with a bird’s eye view of the service itself.

“We got the Whispering Gallery, but the Queen Anne Statue went to a small Fleet Street picture agency,” said Low.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ARRIVE

Two days before the funeral four men dressed in Burberry raincoats, two or three wearing stetson hats and all with battered black Nikons hanging from their shoulders walked into Alex Low’s office at The Weekend Telegraph. Editor John Anstey described them later as looking like gangsters from Chicago.

The arrivals were National Geographic’s Director of Photography Robert E. Gilka just flown in from Washington DC, and three of his photographers.

In London to prepare their own special issue on the statesman’s funeral, Gilka wanted to arrange a deal with the Telegraph. He suggested National Geographic have first choice of the Telegraph’s original transparencies. It was agreed that in exchange the Telegraph could have the first choice of Geographic’s pictures, and a sizeable fee.

Bob Gilka had much to organise, “Our first problem was to get insurance to cover us for every building we were shooting from,” he recalls.

Thinking back to 1965, Bob also remembers being woken at two or three in the morning by the sound of marching boots from the street below. His room at the Savoy overlooked the funeral route where the British military were perfecting their performance for the state occasion.

“Those bloody sailors were hauling the gun carriage through the night,” recalls Gilka, “what dedication the British have to their government, and to their royalty!”

CUT TO RIBBONS

In his damp basement studio in London’s Covent Garden, Adam Woolfitt had just hung up the telephone after agreeing to shoot Churchill’s funeral for The Weekend Telegraph magazine when the door bell rang.

There on the threshold in his Burberry raincoat stood the National Geographic’s Director of Photography.

In the days preceding the funeral Bob Gilka was following up on photographers suggested to him by Alex Low, and had turned up to see Woolfitt’s work. But all Adam had were the remains of thirty rolls of Ektachrome from which had been edited all the best material. The plastic sheets were in ribbons and because he had no light box Woolfitt recalls Gilka had to hold the flimsy cut sheets of transparencies one at a time up to the light coming through the basement window.

Putting the last sheet down Gilka asked Woolfitt if he would shoot Churchill’s funeral for National Geographic. Told that Woolfitt had just committed himself to the Telegraph, Bob Gilka said that was a pity and departed.

Adam Woolfitt was left to ponder how he had turned down the opportunity of a lifetime because of a £65 retainer from The Telegraph.

Waiting for the cortege to pass. Photo © David Hurn/MAGNUM

PHOTOGRAPHING A FUNERAL

As dawn broke on the cold, blustery Saturday morning Gerry Cranham passed through two security checks in St. Paul’s Cathedral and climbed the 259 steps to the famous Whispering Gallery where he made the final adjustments to his four Nikon Fs – one with an 8 mm Fisheye Nikkor – which he had to set up that morning. “I used clamps on everything,” he recalls, “as I didn’t want to drop a lens on General De Gaulle 100 feet below.”

“I gave Gerry the key position of the Whispering Gallery because he had produced some extraordinary long telephoto, wide angle and fisheye images,” said Alex Low, “and because he was always 100% reliable.” “I had to be,” said Gerry, “I had five children to feed.”

Cranham recalls that he encountered a young French paparazzi who did not have permission to be on the St. Paul’s ROTA and he asked security, “Where the hell has he come from ?” And got him removed.

Three thousand mourners gathered beneath Gerry Cranham in the cathedral that day. Among them fifteen heads of state, six monarchs and Magnum’s Erich Lessing who was co-ordinating the agency’s coverage of proceedings. Lessing without permission to photograph inside the cathedral had slipped in towards the end of the service with a Leica M3 hidden beneath his overcoat. He caught images of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, De Gaulle and Queen Elizabeth II as they left the service. “I walked out with the last ones and took some group pictures on the steps,” recalls Lessing, “I shot half a roll, no more.”

On one of the days leading up to the funeral Lessing’s Magnum colleague Erich Hartmann, who was living in London at the time, photographed the lying in state.

Not wanting a ROTA shot of Westminster Hall the Telegraph agreed to Hartmann’s suggestion of him joining the mile long que to file past Churchill’s coffin. Hartmann had shot several stories for the Weekend Telegraph using filters to create special effects. Having waited in line with his wife and two children he shot using high speed film and a filter on his camera as they filed past the coffin.

A WONDERFUL PIECE OF THINKING

On the day of the funeral flags billowed at half mast in the chill east wind. At 9:35 am a bearer party of the Grenadier Guards, with whom Sir Winston Churchill had briefly served in the First World War, carried his coffin from Westminster Hall to the gun carriage that had been used for the funeral of Queen Victoria, and for the funerals of successive English monarchs Edward VII, George V and George VI.

In 1901, during the funeral of Queen Victoria the horses drawing the gun carriage had become restive and Royal Navy sailors lining the route took over the drag ropes, and the tradition began of naval ratings drawing the gun carriage at state funerals.

As Big Ben struck 9:45 the naval ratings eased the gun carriage from the north door of Westminster Hall and the funeral cortege began to march in slow time along Whitehall to Trafalgar Square.

From St. James’s Park boomed a 90 minute gun salute fired by the Royal Horse Artillery, one volley for each year of Churchill’s life.

As the procession moved along The Strand towards Fleet Street the Telegraph’s Patrick Thurston took a single frame from an open window. Using a 35 mm Widelux camera Thurston pointed straight down on the procession to produce a unique 140˚ image that was to be used not just by the Telegraph, but as a fold-out in National Geographic. Adam Woolfitt, also contracted to The Weekend Telegraph that day describes Thurston’s image as a wonderful piece of thinking.

On Fleet Street the cortege passed the newspaper offices of The Daily Telegraph. Nearby, Erich Hartmann’s wife Ruth and their two children looked down on the procession from the office windows of John Hillelson, Magnum’s London agent. Ruth recalls the stillness of the occasion, “Although thousands of people lined the streets it was quiet, like Whitehall at eleven o’clock on Rememberance Day.”

The funeral cortege stopped at the foot of the stone steps in front of St Paul’s, the guardsmen lifted the coffin from the gun carriage and carried it up to the cathedral entrance. At 10:49 the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl Marshall of England led the pallbearers through the great west doors and up the nave as the choir began to chant, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

The launch ‘Havengore’ leaves Tower Pier on the high tide as the cranes of Hays Wharf dip in salute. Photo © David Hurn/MAGNUM

THE CRANES DIPPED IN SALUTE

Half an hour later the Last Post was sounded, then Reveille, and the funeral service was over. The bearer party returned the coffin to the gun carriage, and to the slow march of muffled drums the procession made its way to Tower Pier for the final part of the public funeral.

“And then they come,” wrote Nigel Buxton who watched from Tower Bridge for The Weekend Telegraph,“Down the slope, over the cobbles, under the trees come the pipers, playing their lament. If the pictures are true they will show purple-grey and green and brown, and the black of the bearskins: and if the memory is kind it will let us keep this hour for the rest of our lives.”

The River Thames was at high water, the floating pontoons almost level with the banks. A 19 gun salute boomed from the Tower of London as the coffin was transferred to the Port of London Authority launch Havengore. A Royal Navy bosun piped the coffin aboard, the mooring ropes were cast off, rule Britannia was played and the cranes of Hay’s Wharf dipped in salute.

The moment was caught by David Hurn who had cycled to the funeral route from his Bayswater flat and had been wandering among the crowds since 4:00 am.

Hurn recalls, “I saw the cranes begin to bow without realising the significance, I’m not sure if many photographers caught it. It was a wonderful gesture.”

“The country was mourning the passing of a major figure, this was British history. A photographer doesn’t get many days like that in their life,” says Hurn who believes he would produce better images were he to cover a similar event today, “with photography you gain a little more experience every time you take a photograph.”

As the Havengore sailed upstream towards Festival Hall Pier the former US President, General Dwight D. Eisenhower broadcast on the BBC, “Upon the mighty Thames, a great avenue of history, move at this moment to their final resting place the mortal remains of Sir Winston Churchill. He was a maker of history.”

Things were less sedate at The Weekend Telegraph where news had come in that Paris Match had organised a team of motor cycle riders with pillion passengers who were grabbing all the ROTA films as they came out of the drying cabinets.

The bikes were then racing to London Airport and a waiting Boeing 707 which Paris Match had converted into editorial offices where they were ready to lay out the magazine on the flight back to Paris.

Immediately Alexander Low instructed all of the labs processing film for The Weekend Telegraph to bar anyone from seeing their ROTA pictures, and to send the films straight to the Telegraph’s offices.

This caused an enormous rumpus with their competitors on the ROTA, and Low recalls having a huge row with Mark Boxer on The Sunday Times Magazine. But the block ensured the supplement’s pictures were safe, and in consequence The Weekend Telegraph’s competitors got their ROTA copies as agreed, rather than them being lost altogether.

Around 3:30 pm – by which time Churchill’s mortal remains had arrived in Oxfordshire – Bob Gilka walked into The Telegraph building carrying a bundle of transparencies shot by his photographers, which he had just collected from a Soho lab. Images suitable for The Weekend Telegraph were quickly selected.

Among the National Geographic transparencies on Low’s lightbox were some which appeared to be taken from the Queen Anne Statue ROTA position. The position that had been given to the small Fleet Street agency.

Surprised, Alex Low asked Gilka how Geographic had got them, but Gilka would not say.

SHOOTS AND LEAVES

Guarding the winding lanes leading to the parish church of St. Martin’s, Bladon in the Oxfordshire countryside were 600 police officers. It was cold, but still light when the coffin arrived. The Revd. John Fearn, only two months into his new post as Curate of the parish, and Priest in Charge of Bladon, recalls how the British press respected the wishes of Sir Winston’s family not to photograph the burial. But Paris Match he remembers had different ideas.

As far as Revd. Fearn knows only one useable photograph of the burial was taken by anyone.

To get it Paris Match had two men hidden in a tree overlooking the churchyard. As the burial took place one of the men jumped from the branches to be chased by the police, leaving his companion undisturbed to take the photograph.

ONE MILLION COPIES PRINTED OVERNIGHT

The next morning, Sunday January 31st 1965, the Weekend Telegraph had achieved it’s goal and the million copies of The Weekend Telegraph special issue Churchill : Farewell to Greatness had made it over from Germany and was on the breakfast tables of the nation.

National Geographic’s deadline was less tight, and Bob Gilka had time to return to The Weekend Telegraph offices near Fleet Street where he went through the Telegraph’s transparencies and selected the ones he wanted to take with him to Washington the next day.

While Bob Gilka was editing the pictures Alex Low again asked how National Geographic had managed to take the photographs from the Queen Anne Statue. Again Bob declined to say.

To add to the mystery the Telegraph discovered that the small agency originally granted the ROTA position had no pictures at all from the Queen Anne Statue. And refused to explain why.

Three and a half years were to pass before Low found out what had actually happened.

HISTORY AND PHOTO HISTORY

Greatness can have its way of touching us. That grey winter day described by The Observer as the last day London was capital of the world, turned out to be the catalyst for dramatic change in the lives of two young British photographers.

Adam Woolfitt, who thought he had turned down the opportunity of a lifetime, had in fact only postponed it by six weeks. He was astonished when a letter arrived from Washington booking him to work on the National Geographic Society book, This England. With that letter began a twenty year relationship with the society that took him across the globe.

It was also a life-changing time for David Hurn. Hurn had got to know a number of Magnum photographers since he started supplying John Hillelson’s Fleet Street agency in the late 50s. But Churchill’s funeral was the first opportunity for him to work alongside so many of them. Five or six Magnum photographers including Cartier-Bresson (who was shooting for the Sunday Times newspaper) were in town for the funeral. Hurn’s work impressed them and he was invited to become an associate of Magnum Photos that same year. Two years later in 1967 he was elected a full member of the prestigious agency.

For The Weekend Telegraph what they managed on the night of January 30th 1965 would seem almost as much of an achievement now as it did over forty years ago. Cheryl Newman, Photography Director at today’s Telegraph magazine, says they usually work to a three week lead time, although they are managing a week and a half at the moment. She muses at the idea of asking the production staff and printers to turn round an issue overnight.

As for the Telegraph’s rivals in 1965, The Sunday Times and The Observer magazines, their special issues on Churchill’s funeral were published on 7th February, a week after The Weekend Telegraph.

But what about that ROTA position on the Queen Anne statue ? How did it mysteriously disappear from the grasp of the small agency to which it had been allocated and fall into the hands of National Geographic ?

In 1968 Alexander Low was travelling across America with his wife working on photographic assignments for The Weekend Telegraph. On reaching Washington they called Bob Gilka in his National Geographic office. Gilka invited the couple to join him for lunch at a little Italian restaurant around the corner from the National Geographic building. It was a Tuesday, and every Tuesday Bob gave lunches for visiting photographers. The occasion was relaxed and during the meal Low again asked Gilka how National Geographic got the pictures from the Queen Anne statue.

Low recalls that conceding enough time had elapsed for him to reveal what had happened, Bob Gilka said that prior to Churchill’s funeral he too had walked the funeral route looking for positions for his photographers, and that he too had realised the crucial importance of the ROTA position on the Queen Anne Statue which had been given to the small Fleet Street agency.

Former US President, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Churchill’s wartime confederate and friend was in London for the funeral. As well as broadcasting for the BBC Eisenhower was writing for National Geographic.

The former President was asked if he could use his influence to arrange for National Geographic to be given the pass for the ROTA position on the Queen Anne statue.

Eisenhower telephoned Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and National Geographic were given the British pass.

Bob Gilka adds that one of his photographers, Joseph Schererschel, got a pass as a road sweeper in front of St. Paul’s and hid his camera under his coat.

“Everything,” recalls Gilka, “was magnificent theatre.”


See the PHOTO HISTORIES slide show A Shared Emotion.



• Order a copy of Operation Hope Not, the original documents for Churchill’s funeral from the British National Archives


• The National Geographic special issue Sir Winston Churchill, with an introduction by General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower was published in August 1965.

Paris Match, L’adieu a Churchill was published on February 6th 1965.

Clerical Errors by John Fearn (2005) is published by Arima.


‘Farewell to Greatness’ text © Graham Harrison.
Black and white photographs © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

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