Churchill, the Queen and the Press Club

Article excerpt

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.

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.

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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. …