Remembering Churchill’s Funeral and How They Had to Bribe London’s Dockworkers

It’s a scene that anyone of a certain age will remember. On this day, 30th January, in 1965, the nation bid farewell to former Prime Minster, Winston Churchill. As his coffin was conveyed across the Thames, the cranes on the docks began to bend as if spectators of the procession, bowing their heads in respect.

But what the history books don’t tell you is that the dockworkers despised Churchill. They didn’t want to mark his passing in such a respectful way, indeed they shouldn’t even have been at work.

Churchill passed away, at the age of 90, on Sunday January 24th, 1965. Six days later, he became the only ‘commoner’ (a term used to denote someone not of royal blood – there was nothing common about Churchill, who was born into a wealthy aristocratic family at Blenheim Palace) to be honoured with a state funeral in the twentieth century – a funeral which had been carefully planned under the codename ‘Operation Hope Not’ as far back as 1953. His coffin lay in state at Westminster Hall for three days, with the funeral ceremony itself taking place at St Paul’s Cathedral. It was Churchill’s wish to be buried alongside his father, in the family plot at St Martin’s Church, Bladon, not far from Blenheim. The coffin was taken to Tower Pier, whereupon it was transported along the Thames by boat, MV Havengore, to Waterloo Pier where it met a special train at Waterloo Station to take it to its final destination. On the day, London saw its largest military procession since the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, whilst an estimated audience of 350 million – a tenth of the world’s population – watched the service on their televisions in households across the globe.

Churchill’s funeral took place on a Saturday. By the time he was being transported across the Thames, it was an afternoon and the dockworkers of London’s port, with its busy wharves and warehouses, would have long since clocked off for the day. Seemingly the establishment, who had planned the service and procession in meticulous detail for twelve years remember, had clearly overlooked this small detail. Their stunt – and it was a stunt, as striking and respectful though it may appear – was at risk of not happening at all. Liaisons between civil servants and the Pool of London began in earnest, but overtures to the dockers themselves resolutely failed. These were working class, unionised men remember, many would have voted for Attlee’s groundbreaking Labour government in 1945; a landslide election that saw the nation resolutely turn its back on the status quo of Tory inequality that Churchill represented in favour of socialism, the welfare state, nationalised industry and a free health service. Many would have long memories, recalling Churchill’s contempt for the working man and his reliance on pitting troops of armed soldiers and gunboats against them during every trade dispute the country had seen during his political career. In the end, the only thing that could secure the dockers participation was money. Promised overtime, the crane-drivers agreed to remain on duty to lower their jibs as the boat passed by. It’s important to remember that this memorable moment is nothing but a lie the establishment had to buy – an empty gesture from workers to the memory of a man they despised as much as he despised them.

 

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