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Bristol's Churchill (Nonesuch autumn 2015)

Churchill's installation

Students celebrate Churchill's installation as Chancellor in 1929 (DM250/2) University of Bristol Library, Special Collections

Bomb damage in Great Hall

The Great Hall of the Wills Memorial Building after bomb damage in December 1940 (DM252/2) University of Bristol Library, Special Collections

Churchill confers honorary degrees

Churchill conferring an honorary degree on Ernest Bevin in 1945 (DM254/76) University of Bristol Library, Special Collections

5 November 2015

A bogus tribunal, an undischarged incendiary and timeless words of encouragement: there’s more to Churchill’s stint as Bristol’s Chancellor than meets the eye.

Innumerable words have been written about Sir Winston Churchill, Britain’s Prime Minister from 1940-45 and 1951-55, and widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the 20th century. Yet few accounts amplify his 36-year stint as Bristol’s Chancellor, a gap that the University has set out to plug in the year of the 50th anniversary of his death.

With a background in 20th-century cultural history and archival research, Dr Sophie Hatchwell (PhD 2015), a teacher in the Department of History of Art, was well placed to begin investigating primary sources relating to Churchill’s chancellorship. In both Bristol’s Special Collections and the archives of Churchill College, Cambridge, she uncovered a wealth of material, some of it previously uncatalogued, including letters, meeting minutes, speech typescripts, photographs, newspaper reports and degree ceremony programmes.

Leap in the dark

One of Hatchwell’s finds was a transcript of a letter, dated April 1947, from Churchill to The Nonesuch, at that time ‘the magazine of the Union of the University of Bristol’. In his dispatch, the Chancellor encourages students to use the opportunities afforded them by their university education to ‘fulfil the great destiny and traditions of our land’.

This letter, with its ringing endorsement of the student experience, offers an intriguing insight into Churchill’s complex attitude to higher education. In his autobiography, Churchill describes himself as an ‘uneducated man’; he didn’t go to university, and while he regretted this to some extent, he was also wary of intellectuals and academics.

‘Given this ambivalence, it’s a surprise that Churchill should have agreed to become Chancellor of a university in the first place,’ concedes Hatchwell, whose research in part addressed the circumstances behind the appointment. Neither did Churchill have any particular ties to Bristol. Indeed, on a visit to the city in 1909 to give a talk to the Anchor Society at Colston Hall, the Cabinet minister was struck with a riding whip by suffragette Theresa Garnett when he stepped off the train at Temple Meads.

Sir William McCormick, a renowned academic administrator, first proposed Churchill for the role of Chancellor; McCormick’s involvement with the University Grants Committee, which was responsible for distributing Treasury funding to British universities, brought him into contact with Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The then Vice-Chancellor of Bristol, Thomas Loveday, pursued the idea. Despite his initial reluctance, Churchill agreed to become the University’s senior officer in 1929. The appointment proved be an astute, if not bold, move for the young institution. 

A man for all seasons

Churchill was popular with students from the start. After the installation ceremony, students carried him through the streets on their shoulders to the Victoria Rooms, home to the Students’ Union at the time. Here he took part in a mock trial where he was arrested, tried and imprisoned for failing to provide the students with tea and buns (news footage of the event is available online at The performance ended with the students carrying off his effigy. Later, when Churchill asked Loveday what his responsibilities would be, the Vice-Chancellor replied: ‘everything and nothing’.

The University stood by its Chancellor throughout the 1930s, even though Churchill’s political star was waning and he was concerned mainly with reviving his career in government. But he was always appreciative of Bristol’s support. During the Second World War, when he was back in office, now as Prime Minister, he maintained links with the city through his Cabinet colleague Ernest Bevin, a local man. When the Wills Memorial Building was damaged by incendiaries in 1940, he wrote a letter of commiseration to Loveday. 

Delving into Churchill’s involvement with the University during the war, Hatchwell was able to shed more light on events previously documented but lacking in detail, including the Chancellor’s visit to Bristol in 1941 for an honorary degree ceremony. Although the University hadn’t planned to hold ceremonies during the war, Churchill suggested honouring Robert Menzies, the Prime Minister of Australia who was visiting Britain at the time, and John Winant, the newly appointed American ambassador, to help foster international relations.

The night before the event, Bristol was hit by its worst air raid of the war and the Wills Memorial Building sustained further damage. Dismissing smouldering rubble and what turned out to be an unexploded bomb, Churchill insisted that the ceremony go ahead, in a display of ‘fortitude and phlegm’. It was held in the smaller but intact Reception Room next door to the decimated Great Hall. Crowds gathered outside the building to cheer the emerging graduates and University officers. Churchill was deeply moved by this show of support, and on the train back to London shielded his face with a newspaper to hide his tear-filled eyes.

Local hero

Through her research, Hatchwell has gained an appreciation of Churchill’s complex character. ‘The sheer calibre of honorary degree recipients, for example, shows how politically tactical he was,’ she explains. And then there’s a softer side to the man, evident in his abiding fondness for Bristol. In 1954, in typically controversial Churchill fashion, and despite a full programme of 80th birthday celebrations having been planned for him in London, he exasperated government colleagues by choosing to spend time in Bristol, coinciding with the completion of the Queen’s Building.

It was during this last visit to Bristol that students showed their lasting affection for the Chancellor, presenting him with a surprise silver salver after his final address at Colston Hall. ‘He was such an inspirational figure,’ says Hatchwell. ‘From 1945 onwards, degree ceremonies over which he presided were always oversubscribed, and he received so many individual representations that the University eventually had to put measures in place to prevent students from contacting him directly.’

He also brought much prestige to the University. He was well liked by the public, and cultivated enduring links with local institutions such as the Society of Merchant Venturers. In 1945, he was awarded the Freedom of the City, a ceremonial honour bestowed as a token of appreciation for long and dedicated service. The award ceremony was accompanied by a celebratory parade through the city.

Words of wisdom

Hatchwell has relished the opportunity to delve into this previously under-researched area of Churchill’s life, and now plans to focus on archival research in her academic career. But the greatest satisfaction has come from sharing the research during commemorative activities hosted by the University throughout the year. ‘It’s extraordinary to uncover new information about such an important figure as Churchill, especially because of what it tells us about his local connections to the University and the city,’ says Hatchwell.

If the students who read the Chancellor’s letter in The Nonesuch drew inspiration from it and used their opportunities and experience to improve ‘any aspects of our nation’s life’, then Churchill – and the University – will have done their job. And while the words were written at a time when the country was struggling to recover from the economic and financial hardships arising from the Second World War, they still resonate in their espousal of the benefits of education and engagement – a clarion call to students to seize the day.

Churchill's 1947 letter to The Nonesuch

7th April, 1947.

It is with pleasure that I address myself to the students of Bristol University through the medium of their magazine “The Nonesuch”, representing as it does those extra-curricular student activities which form so important a part of a University training.

To you who read this message I would commend the vital work which you are doing in preparing yourselves for your life’s task. Apply yourselves to your studies with diligence, for it is the plain duty of all those who have the good fortune to obtain a University training to use it to make themselves as fully proficient in their branch of learning as their capabilities allow, so that the standard of work in all aspects of our nation’s life may be kept at its high level and raised even further. Apply yourselves with equal assiduity to all those student activities of debate and free social life without which you cannot develop the broad and balanced outlook on life which marks the cultured man and without which no life can be led to its fullest use.

I would say to you all, set before you a high purpose and ideal, and in the precious years you are so fortunate to have, use every means within your power to make yourselves fit servants of that purpose and ideal, so that from our university may come men and women with the power and resolve to fulfil the great destiny and I shall follow your activities with the greatest interest.

I wish you every success in the years to come, and may God prosper you in whatever branch of service to your fellow men to which you may be called.

Winston Churchill

Life and legacy

Phil Reed OBE (MA 1975) is Director of the Churchill War Rooms (CWR) in London, and has seen the museum more than double its visitor numbers over the past two decades.

‘When I first started managing CWR in 1993, it attracted only 200,000 visitors a year – now it has an audience of some 500,000 from all over the world,’ he says. Reed was closely involved in the inception of the Churchill Museum, the CWR’s permanent exhibition of the life and legacy of Churchill, which was opened by HM The Queen in 2005 to mark the 40th anniversary of Churchill’s death.

Ten years on, Reed reflects on the museum’s – and Churchill’s – enduring popularity: ‘The historic site in which Churchill met with his War Cabinet during air raids, and the Churchill Museum itself, continue to fascinate, inform and engage a growing number of people, many of whom know little or nothing about Churchill on arrival. While not in any way a “shrine”, the CWR has been a focal point for the memorialisation of Sir Winston in the past year, ever careful to avoid falling into the trap of idolisation and iconoclasm.’

Further information

Drawing on Hatchwell’s research, the historian Sir David Cannadine FBA, Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University, has written a book on Churchill’s unique relationship with the University. Heroic Chancellor: Winston Churchill and the University of Bristol 1929-65 was published by the University in August 2015.

Professor Sir David Cannadine also delivered a talk, ‘A different sort of Chancellor? Winston Churchill and the University of Bristol’, as one of a series of lectures covering various aspects of Churchill’s life. Listen to the Churchill 2015 lectures online