Sir Martin Gilbert

Burning Moments that Can Change History

East Bergholt, Suffolk

The country house ‘Stour’ was purchased in 1957 by Randolph Churchill, son of the Prime Minister, upon deciding to move from London. It’s still in private hands, and we were quite fortunate to be able to visit due to the generosity of its current owners, Mr & Mrs Kelly. The organisers of the tour, Richard and Barbara Langworth, had written the Kelly’s a letter regarding our trip and had persuaded them to host us with a lunch of sandwiches and sausage rolls.

Also organised for this stop was a tour and talk by Churchill’s official biographer Sir Martin Gilbert. Sir Martin started work as an intern for Randolph, working on ‘The Book’, as they called it, in this very house when he was just out of school in 1963. It was wonderful to hear the first-hand account of the goings-on in the house some forty years ago.

As Sir Martin told the story, Randolph had convinced his father’s trustees to allow him to complete the official biography of his father, Sir Winston. All of the archives were at that time held in a strong-room on the property, which has since been converted into a garage, with the heavy steel door is still on the rear of the building.

Randolph was a rather colourful character, to say the least. He could be offensive, particularly when he was drinking, which according to his physician Dr Marsh was every day. Dr Marsh also joined us at Stour for lunch.

Strong personalities certainly do seem to run in the family.

There were many stories told, but one that I found most interesting and certainly one that changed the course of history was one that Sir Martin told about an evening when Randolph was giving a dinner for his mother.

It was all arranged to be a very fine dinner. According to Sir Martin, Randolph had even dressed himself up from the normal rags he wore around the house and refrained from drinking the entire day.

Randolph had invited his mother, Clementine, for the weekend in order to try to convince her to allow him to use the personal letters of Sir Winston as part of the material for the biography.

All was set, and Randolph, as a sign of respect went to the train station himself to collect his weekend guest.

As they were having dinner, something terrible happened. Sir Martin considers it quite personal and private and wouldn’t disclose what exactly it was, but sadly, Clementine asked Gilbert to take her immediately back to the station.

As a gentleman, Sir Martin thought that he couldn’t possibly leave Lady Churchill on her own on the train so he accompanied her for the hour-long ride back to London.

During his employment with Randolph, he had come to know Lady Churchill, and during the train journey, she asked, ‘Martin, there are three possible things that I can do with these letters that Randolph would like to use. I could burn them all. I could have them sealed until 100 years after my death, or I could allow them to be used for the biography. What do you think I should do?’

Gilbert was truly shocked at the magnitude of the question posed to him as a young historian. He was also horrified at the thought of the papers being destroyed.

It didn’t take him long to convince her that they were a crucial part of ‘The Book’ and should be included.

And included they were.


One response to “Burning Moments that Can Change History”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Sounds like your having a jolly good time.

    Martin & Jeni