Churchill's story for the ages


Archive: A huge collection of the British prime minister's papers promises to keep historians busy for decades to come.

May 06, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE, England - In more than 1 million pieces of paper, contained in some 2,500 boxes, locked behind a 6-inch-thick steel door, lies one of the greatest stories ever told.

This is where Britain's "finest hour" never ends and the "Iron Curtain" truly begins, where a child's tear-stained letters meld with a wartime leader's inspirational speeches: It's where former Prime Minister Winston Churchill's papers are kept for eternity at 66 degrees, 50 percent relative humidity.

As the British prepare this spring for their first general election of the 21st century, researchers still come to sift the buried treasure in the papers of the man deemed the nation's greatest 20th-century leader, at the Churchill Archives Center at Cambridge University's Churchill College.

Born in 1874 when Queen Victoria ruled an empire, prime minister for King George VI and his daughter Queen Elizabeth II, enemy of Adolf Hitler's, ally of Franklin D. Roosevelt's, Churchill led a remarkable life that was remarkably documented.

It's all here, from a childhood report card noting "Winston has no ambition" to accounts of the cavalry charge at Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898, from the 1930s "wilderness years" when he was politically isolated to his 1965 state funeral when he was universally praised. Churchill was a historian and an adventurer, a soldier, politician, journalist and Nobel Prize-winning author who hoarded nearly every scrap of paper from his eventful life and times.

"He's an archivist's dream," says Allen Packwood, the acting keeper of the archives. "He kept everything, including his cigar bills. His documents include correspondence with anyone who was anyone from the Boer War to the Cold War."

For someone who lived to age 90 and who has been written about so much, there might be the sense that there is little left to say about Churchill. But when it comes to Churchill studies, the world has seen nothing yet.

With a recently completed computerized catalog containing about 70,000 descriptions scheduled to be placed on the Internet, and plans to put the entire cache of papers on microfilm, researchers will one day be able to search the papers at libraries around the world. Historians as far afield as Sydney, Los Angeles and Boston will have access to the papers without having to set foot in Britain.

Piers Brendon, the former keeper of the archives and author of a newly reissued Churchill biography, writes that with the new tools available, "Churchill's place in history is about to become still more of a battlefield."

Churchill's credentials as an iconic figure and bridge between Britain and his mother's home in America are also likely to be strengthened. The Churchill Archives Center is working to put some of the prized papers on show in Washington and several other American cities in 2003.

"Churchill crosses party lines in the United States," Packwood says, noting that Churchill is admired by both President Bush and former President Bill Clinton. But in Britain, "he has a long domestic record that colors the view."

There has even been controversy over the papers, when the bulk of them was "purchased" for the nation in 1995 for $20 million, in one of the first big cash outlays produced by Britain's National Lottery.

Churchill's papers had been divided into two parts. The Chartwell papers covered his life until 1945 and were held by a family trust. The post-war papers were left to his widow, Clementine, who gave them to Churchill College.

The country bought the Chartwell papers to keep them from going on the open market. That the deal occurred only weeks before the 50th anniversary of V-E Day left a sour taste in many.

"When Churchill left office in 1945 he walked away with a lot of material that would have been classified official or semiofficial today," Packwood says. "But the rules were not the same then, and who was going to stop Churchill at the height of his powers? The collection does undeniably contain a lot of private and personal material."

To find Churchill through his papers, head to the outskirts of Cambridge, to a modern college campus that carries on his interest in the future by luring science and engineering students. Four full-time archivists, two assistants, one administrator and a professional conservator maintain material at the Churchill Archives Center that is kept in acid-free folders.

The center also holds more than 500 other collections of papers, including those of Neil Kinnock, former leader of the Labor Party, and Margaret Thatcher, Britain's only female prime minister and, along with Churchill, the dominant political player of the past 60 years of British politics.

"For the researcher, the problem is the sheer amount of material to deal with," Packwood says. "From our point of view, the challenge is managing that material."

There are nine desks in the reading room, open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. On a recent rainy afternoon, three researchers were scrutinizing documents.

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