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Manitoba History: Churchill, the Queen and the Press Club

by Sheilla Jones
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 70, Fall 2012

After 125 years, the Winnipeg Press Club has collected its share of tales, some of them tall ones, but some, like the story of Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria, might actually be true.

The Winnipeg Press Club regularly held dinners with guest speakers in downtown restaurants, and had done so right from the club’s very first year in 1887, particularly if there was a notable political or journalism figure in town. Winston Spencer Churchill certainly fit the bill, not for this political career but for his adventures as a war correspondent for the London Morning Post. Churchill was in Winnipeg to give a talk on Monday, 21 January 1901.

A young Winston Churchill as a Boer War correspondent for London’s Morning Post. He had lots of stories to share with Winnipeg’s news fraternity when he spoke on 21 January 1901.
Source: W. S. Churchill, Frontiers and Wars, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode.

The next morning, at Government House in Winnipeg, Churchill was awaiting news, along with the rest of the British Empire, of the imminent death of Queen Victoria. The 27-year-old had been elected a Member of Parliament in England on 1 October 1900 and was scheduled to take his seat in February on his return to London. He had received a cable from London only days earlier advising him that the death of the monarch would not, much to his relief, trigger a new election. [1] Churchill simply couldn’t afford to spend his limited funds refighting the last election. He needed money, and that was why he was in Winnipeg.

Dispatches from Osborne House on the Isle of Wight where the Queen was on her deathbed were front-page news on Tuesday morning. The Tuesday morning newspapers reported the Queen’s imminent demise.

“The Queen’s strength still continues to diminish,” read the headline, in full caps, in the Tuesday edition of The Morning Telegram. [2] “The Queen kept alive by stimulants, and may live until Thursday,” the Manitoba Free Press announced on the front page of its morning paper. [3]

In the same newspapers that carried the news of the Queen’s impending death, Churchill was also reading the reviews of his sold-out talk the previous night at the Winnipeg Theatre on the corner of Adelaide and Notre Dame.

“Mr. Spencer Churchill: A stirring lecture from Lord Randolph’s son on the war in South Africa”, ran the headline on the page 5 review in The Morning Telegram; [4] “Winston Churchill on the War: A record-breaking audience hears the talented correspondent relate his exploits” headed the Manitoba Free Press page 6 story. [5]

Churchill had been touring since the previous summer, giving a lecture called, “The War as I Saw It.” It was an action-adventure story about his capture and escape in South Africa, where he was covering the Boer War for the London Morning Post. He was an international celebrity.

As the story goes, on 15 November 1899, Churchill was aboard a troop train when it was attacked by Boer artillery. The train derailed and blocked the British retreat.

Chaos ensued, and troops began to panic. With the consent of the commanding officer … Churchill stepped in. Amid flying bullets Churchill had the train’s engineer clear the tracks by ramming the derailed cars out of the way, directed the transfer of injured troops to the engine’s tender, and rode back with them to the nearest station. Churchill then headed back to the ambush scene on foot to assist those still pinned down by Boer fire. [6]

However, Churchill was captured and taken to a makeshift prison in Pretoria. He demanded to be released, protesting that he was just a reporter. He managed to escape about a month later, heading for a train for Portuguese East Africa where he would be safe. That was also part of the adventure.

After a nine-day ordeal of surreptitious travel under harsh conditions on foot and on trains, after keeping a vulture at bay, hiding in a rat-infested mine shaft, among dirty coal sacks, and in a shipment of wool, Churchill finally made it to neutral territory. On December 23 he entered British-controlled Durban, where he was given a hero’s welcome. [7]

Churchill’s celebrity status led to two offers, one of which was to run for a seat in Parliament, the other a tour in the United States to share his war experience. [8] He did run for Parliament and won his seat, and he accepted the offer of a North American tour. The tour was arranged by Maj. James Pond who was also an agent for Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain, and for the most part, it was a success. On his stop in Toronto, Pond and Churchill had a falling out, with Churchill threatening to pack up and go home. The tiff was resolved, but Churchill was further aggrieved by hecklers at some of his lectures in the US, as Americans were not always on the British side in the Boer War.

The enthusiastic audience that greeted Churchill in Winnipeg on Monday night, his only stop in western Canada, and his comfortable accommodation at Government House suited Churchill much better. Still, Churchill had advised the organizers beforehand that if the Queen should die before his talk, he would be obliged to cancel his talk out of respect for the monarch. [9] The queen lived on, and the sold-out event was a great success, given his financial concerns. The Free Press later reported:

Over 500 came, bringing out the STO—standing tickets only. Before the curtain went up the young lecturer put his eye to the peephole and asked reporters in the wings to estimate the worth of the house. This was the son of Lord Randolph Churchill, seventh Duke of Marlborough. Surely, he was above money. [10]

Churchill was not, of course, above money. However, Queen Victoria did not survive the day on Tuesday, and the awaited official bulletins arrived at the Winnipeg newspaper offices shortly after 12:30 PM, announcing that the Queen had died at Osborne House at 6.30 PM, London time. [11] The newspapers were ready for the announcement, and prepared to put out an extra of the Tuesday edition with a new front page, announcing the Queen’s death. Flags in Winnipeg were promptly being lowered to half mast. But where was Churchill?

This part of the story, up until the noon hour on 22 January 1901, is true and well documented. What happened after is part of the Winnipeg Press Club lore, and could very easily be true. Or not.

According to writer Christopher Dafoe, “Winston Churchill is said to have been speaking to a Press Club dinner in 1901 when news of the death of Queen Victoria arrived. As it was known the queen was on her deathbed, Churchill had warned the club that in the event of her death he would have to cancel his speech. This, he explained, would be protocol for a member of parliament.” [12]

Dafoe said this story had been told to him by his uncle Ted, [13] son of John W. Dafoe, both of whom were long-time editors at the Free Press. John Dafoe was still in Montreal when he was offered the job as Free Press editor in early January 1901, [14] having left Winnipeg in 1892, and he didn’t move back to the city until later in 1901. Dafoe wasn’t in town for the Churchill event, but his colleague Walter Payne, the long-time managing editor of the Free Press [15] and the president of the Winnipeg Press Club in 1901, certainly was. [16]

According to the story told by Christopher Dafoe, Payne was at the Press Club event where Churchill was speaking to the assembled newsmen—who would likely have been quite interested in the adventures of a war correspondent—when Payne was handed the cable, addressed to Churchill, informing him of the royal demise. If this were the case, the Press Club event would have to have been at lunch time rather than dinner time, because flags flew at half-mast and the shop keepers on Portage Avenue were already hanging up black draperies and placing pictures of Queen Victoria in their shop windows by early afternoon.

The cable, according to Ted Dafoe, “remained in Payne’s pocket until the speech was over. Churchill, he later recalled, chuckled when he spotted the time lag in the delivery of the message, and said he would have done the same thing had he been the dinner chairman facing the loss of a distinguished speaker.” [17]

Churchill, as he so often did, wrote to his mother that Tuesday. “So the Queen is dead. The news reached us at Winnipeg and this city far away among the snows—fourteen hundred miles from any British town of importance—began to hang its head and hoist half-mast flags.” [18]

He made no mention of a lunch or dinner with the Press Club in that letter, but that does not mean it did not happen. It is entirely plausible that it did, but there does not appear to be any historical record available that would verify it. The lore about Churchill, the Queen and the Press Club might well be true.

Notes

1. St. Paul Press, 23 January 1901, page 2.

2. The Morning Telegram, hereafter MT, 22 January 1901, page 1.

3. Manitoba Free Press, hereafter MFP, 22 January 1901, page 1.

4. MT, 22 January 1901, page 5.

5. MFP, 22 January 1901, page 6.

6. Randolph S. Churchill, 1966, Winston S. Churchill: Youth 1874–1900, vol. 1, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, page 448.

7. Celia Sandys, 1999, Churchill: Wanted Dead or Alive, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, pages 93–98.

8. Todd Ronnei, “Churchill in Minnesota,” Minnesota History, Fall 2001, page 348.

9. MFP, 22 January 1901, page 6.

10. Winnipeg Free Press, 23 January 1965.

11. MT Extra, 22 January 1901, page 1.

12. Christopher Dafoe, “The Press Club: Beer and Uplift”, Torch on the Prairies, The Nor’Westers, Winnipeg, 1988, page 3.

13. Personal communication, 15 April 2012.

14. David John Hall, Clifford Sifton: A Lonely Eminence, 1901–1929, Volume 2, UBC Press, Vancouver, page 21.

15. MFP, 9 November 1922, page 34.

16. MFP, 5 November 1900, page 6.

17. Dafoe, 1988, op. cit., page 3.

18. Churchill, Winston to Lady Randolph Churchill, 22 January 1901, quoted by Todd Ronnei, op. cit., page 353.

Page revised: 27 November 2017

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