June 4, 2013

Finest Hour 143, Summer 2009

Page 20

Top Cop in a Top Hat

Churchill As Home Secretary, 14 February 1910-25 October 1911

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By Richard A Devine

Mr. Devine is a member of the Chicago law firm of Meckler Bulger Tilson Marick and Pearson. He served as State’s Attorney of Cook County, Illinois from 1996 to 2008. This article is based on his remarks to Churchillians of Chicagoland. In its preparation, the author gratefully acknowledges the advice and assistance of Linnet Myers.

The traditional image of Winston Churchill is that of the courageous wartime Prime Minister, or the lonely voice in the 1930s warning about Nazi Germany, or perhaps that of the twice-First Lord of the Admiralty. Few think of Churchill in the role of law enforcer, but for approximately twenty months in 1910 and 1911, that’s essentially what he was.

Roy Jenkins described the Home Office as “a plank of wood out of which all other domestic departments have been carved. Ministries like Agriculture, Environment and Employment have left big holes in the coverage of the Home Office. Apart from its central responsibility for police, prisons and the state of the criminal law it also retains a pile of semi-archaic responsibilities, often merely for the reason that no one has thought it worth while to put in a bid for yet another item….”1

Churchill was appointed Home Secretary when he was 35: the youngest person other than Robert Peel to hold the position. The then-wide ranging office made him a police superintendent, the head of prisons, a key decision-maker on clemency and commutation questions, and the head of probation services, to name a few of his duties. He was the “Top Cop” and more.

The Home Office then had responsibility for the regulation of working conditions and administration of workmen’s compensation, but then, as now, public safety issues made the headlines: By the time his service as Home Secretary was over, Churchill had been assailed by striking workers, attacked by women suffragists, challenged by decisions on capital punishment, and blamed for the fiery and dramatic deaths of anarchist robbers. As with most of his life, when Winston was around, things were far from dull.

Though Churchill had little background in law enforcement, he was a man of ideas who never hesitated to express them at length and with vigor. The Permanent Under-Secretary for the Home Office, Sir Edward Troup, captured a glimpse of his chief which prefigured the comments of Churchill’s generals in World War II:

Once a week or oftener, Mr. Churchill came into the office bringing with him some adventurous or impossible projects; but after half an hour’s discussion something evolved which was still adventurous, but not impossible.2

Strikes and Strikers

Given Churchill’s irrepressible nature, it is not surprising that he was a major player in significant events. There was a good deal of labor unrest, and in May 1910, a dispute erupted at the Newport docks. Feelings ran high. One of the employers, F.H. Houlder, said approvingly that in Argentina they would send in “artillery and machine guns” to handle the matter properly.3

To help maintain order local officials requested that the Home Office agree to the dispatch of both troops and additional police. Churchill agreed to provide 250 foot and fifty mounted policemen. Troops were kept in readiness nearby, but Permanent Under-Secretary Troup notified the War Office that Churchill was “most anxious” that the military not be used.4

Neither police nor troops were needed. The Mayor of Newport telegraphed the Home Office on 22 May that the dispute had been settled by negotiations. Even though law enforcement was largely in the background, it was generally agreed that the Home Office had played a responsible role in resolving the Newport labor dispute.5

In November, 1910, there was a major dispute in the Rhondda Valley, Wales concerning different pay scales for miners, about 25,000 of whom went on strike. Even though the Chief Constable of Glamorgan had about 1400 police officers under his command, he asked for troops and additional police. Troops were sent to the area but held in reserve. The responsibility for maintaining law and order was left with the local constabulary and the 300 Metropolitan police officers ordered to the area by Churchill.

On 7 November rioting broke out in Tonypandy, one of the towns in the Rhondda Valley. Sixty-three shops were damaged, and one person was killed by accident. According to later reports, the police behaved with restraint, utilizing only rolled-up mackintoshes in attempting to control the rioters.

Churchill was both criticized and praised for the handling of the disorder at Tonypandy. The Times charged him with weakness in failing to call in the troops, while the Manchester Guardian argued that his decision probably “saved many lives.”6

Interestingly, in later years Churchill was criticized for authorizing the use of troops at Tonypandy when, in fact, he had not done so. (One commentator believes Tonypandy is erroneously referenced because it is one of the few Welsh towns the English can pronounce.)7

In June 1911, strikes broke out in the Southampton docks and spread to other locations. As the situation deteriorated, there were fears of a possible national railway strike. This led Churchill to suspend the rule that troops could be provided only at the request of the local civic authority. He authorized the deployment of forces at the discretion of military commanders in the area.

The strikes ended with the intervention of Lloyd George. On 22 August 1911, Churchill spoke in the House of Commons, defending his actions. He said it had been vital to keep the railroads running to protect the food supply, arguing that a national railway strike would have hurled the whole area into an “abyss of horror which no man can dare to contemplate.”8 He believed that the Metropolitan Police were not a strong enough force to prevent or quell disruptions that might have occurred anywhere in the country. Churchill acknowledged that there was some loss of life but argued that, in the long run, lives were saved.9

Mobilizing the military outside of normal procedures upset a number of people in Churchill’s Liberal party, despite the Home Office’s measured response to previous labor problems. In this instance his oratorical strengths may have contributed to an image more anti-labor than his actions suggest.

The Battle of Sidney Street

Churchill’s work in law enforcement was not confined to labor disputes. In December 1910, a group of foreign anarchists was discovered digging a tunnel into a jewelry shop in London. The police arrived on the scene, and during the ensuing confrontation three police officers were killed and two were wounded. The criminals escaped but were traced on January 3rd to a house on London’s Sidney Street. The police on the scene were armed but needed heavier weapons, so they requested approval from the Home Office to use an armed platoon of Scots Guards. Churchill was summoned from his bath to be briefed on the events at Sidney Street and to sanction the use of the military.

Although some believed he’d have been wiser to stay in his tub, Churchill decided to go to the scene himself. He arrived at Sidney Street—not surprisingly a conspicuous presence. His level of involvement in directing the police has been the subject of debate, but Churchill always maintained that he left the management of the siege to the officer in charge.

At some point a fire started in the building the suspects had occupied. Churchill confirmed a police order to the fire brigade to let the house burn rather than risk the lives of fire-fighters to protect those of criminals. (Churchill denied that he gave the initial order.) Eventually two bodies were found in the building. One or two of the criminals were never accounted for, including the leader, “Peter the Painter,” who escaped and was never heard from again.10

A newsreel camera captured Churchill at the scene, and one of the newspapers had a picture of him in top hat and fur collared coat, along with that of a photographer who was covering the event. Referring to the photo, Arthur Balfour stated in the House of Commons:

He was, I understand, in military phrase in what is known as the zone of fire—he and a photographer were both risking valuable lives. I understand what the photographer was doing, but what was the Rt. Hon. gentleman doing?11

Churchill conceded that Balfour’s comment was not without some justification.

Suffragettes and Dirty Curs

One of the characteristics Churchill brought to public life was stating his views with clarity. He was not one to be all things to all people or to adopt a position because it was the least offensive. Churchill’s record on the issue of women’s suffrage could not, however, be said to fit that description.

The issue was emotional and resolution more complex then one might first think from the vantage point of the 21st century. It was not simply a matter of giving the vote to females on the same basis as males. In the early 1900s the male vote was limited to householders. If the same standard had been applied to women, the vote would have been given to only a small percentage of unmarried or widowed women.12

With the hope of finding a way through a difficult issue, a Conciliation Committee was established in the spring of 1910. The Committee’s leadership was seeking to remove the issue from the clamor of partisan politics and find a solution that would be acceptable to a majority in the Commons. Churchill was approached and agreed to the use of his name as a supporter of the undertaking.

The result of the Committee’s work was introduced in the House of Commons in July 1910. Despite his support of the Committee, Churchill spoke against the bill. This resulted in a heated exchange of correspondence between WSC and H.N. Braidsford, Honorary Secretary of the Committee, who referred to his conduct as “treacherous.” Churchill replied that his support had been limited to the creation of the Committee, not any end product. Further letters followed.

Braidsford and Lord Lytton claimed that Churchill had made positive comments to them about the specific proposal in private meetings. Churchill pointed out that in addition to being private, those were preliminary discussions and that Braidsford and Lytton should have understood that his final views had to await analysis by experts in the Home Office.

Reviewing the correspondence gives a sense that Braidsford and Lytton were most offended by Churchill’s taking an active role in the debate and using his oratorical skills against a cause they strongly supported. They might have understood and accepted a quiet neutrality, but were upset by WSC’s statements and opposing vote.

For Churchill’s part, he was deeply upset that private conversations had been used against him in public, especially by Lytton, who had been a personal friend. It also bothered him that supporters of suffragettes would accuse him of treachery when he had offered help to a group that had badgered and bullied him during the course of several election campaigns.

Churchill wrote a private memorandum on 19 July 1910, outlining his recollections of his meetings and conversations on the suffrage issue. At paragraph 15 he noted that in a meeting he had told Braidsford he could not vote for the bill but also “expressed his intention of not voting against the Bill.”13

This suggested he wasn’t going to vote at all—but he changed his mind two days before the proposal’s second reading. He decided to speak and vote against the measure for two reasons. First, research by his staff and his own study of the bill revealed serious problems that made it a bad piece of legislation and “deeply injurious to the Liberal cause.”14 Second, he understood that both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer would oppose the proposal in public. Because emotions ran high, and there had even been threats of violence, Churchill said he would have considered it cowardly to have sat on the sidelines.

Whatever Churchill’s rights and wrongs on the Franchise Bill, he managed to alienate a number of people, including some supporters. In a political sense, he owed nothing to the suffragettes. As he noted, they had long made his life miserable by regularly disrupting his speeches. Yet he had given his support to the Committee, so his subsequent conduct, even if justified in the particulars, left him open to the claim that he was saying one thing and doing quite another.

The Franchise Bill ultimately failed, and it soon became clear that Parliament would not take up the issue any time in the near future. This led to a demonstration in Parliament Square by suffragettes and their backers on what came to be known as Black Friday (18 November 1910). Not surprisingly, feelings continued to run high, and eventually there were clashes between the police and demonstrators. Over 100 arrests were made.15

There was substantial criticism of how the police handled the situation, including a letter from Churchill himself, who wrote the head of the Metropolitan Police expressing his concern that officers had been slow in making arrests. It was true that the police did not act quickly to arrest the demonstrators, but that approach was consistent with past practice. At the last minute Churchill had suggested a change in that practice but too late, according to the police commander, to get the message to the officers on the scene.

Press accounts focused on police excesses in first trying to control the crowd and then in making arrests. Even though Churchill promptly ordered the release of the arrestees, many suffrage leaders blamed him for the violence and even accused him of ordering the releases to prevent the truth from being stated in court.

A few days later, as the so-called Battle of Downing Street took place, Churchill again appeared at a demonstration in support of votes for women, and ordered the arrest of a participant. A few days later Hugh Franklin, a suffrage backer, attacked Churchill with a whip, shouting “Take that, you dirty cur!”16 Franklin was charged with assault and sentenced to six weeks in prison. Suffrage continued as a problem for the Liberal Party until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 put the matter on the back burner.

Prisoners and Sentences

Among the Home Secretary’s duties was reviewing death sentences considering mercy. Churchill took this obligation seriously and, by all accounts, gave close attention to each of the forty-three capital cases presented for review. He reprieved twenty-one, which was a higher rate than the 40 percent reprieved during 1900-09.17

Even though Churchill was not reluctant to show mercy in individual cases, he remained a supporter of the death penalty throughout his life. He did, however, view the ultimate punishment in a rather unusual light. In a letter to Sir Edward Grey he stated, “To most men— including all the best—a life sentence is worse than a death sentence.”18

If this seems odd, it fit Churchill’s persona. He led an adventurous life and appeared to have no fear of being killed. A long term of imprisonment would have been much worse than death for a man of his temperament. Whether “most men” felt that way is another question.

To the Home Secretary’s responsibility for England’s prison system Churchill brought a unique perspective— he was the only Home Secretary who was ever incarcerated. In My Early Life he entitled the chapter on his 1899 captivity by the Boers “In Durance Vile.”

At the time Churchill took office, England was sending a large number of people to prison. In 1908-09 over 180,000 people were incarcerated, over half for failure to pay a fine, and a third for drunkenness.19 The great percentage of convicts were from the poorer classes, a fact which did not escape Churchill’s notice.

He studied prison issues for several months after taking office. On 20 July 1910, he told the House of Commons that one of the main principles for a good prison system was to “prevent as many people as possible from getting there.”20 Some 90,000 people had been sent to prison in 1909 for failure to pay fines. Many would never have gone to prison at all if they had been given a reasonable period of time to pay their fines. Churchill advocated extending the time for payment. Even though his proposal didn’t become law, the concept of more time was accepted as national policy, reducing the number of people sent to prison.

The changed approach had a dramatic effect on those charged with drunkenness. In 1908-09 over 62,000 were imprisoned for failing to pay fines imposed for that offense. By 1918-19 the number was only 1600.21

Churchill also worked to extend the Children’s Act to those who were 16-21 years old, placing a greater emphasis on rehabilitation and alternative punishments such as “defaulters drill” for petty offenses. He was reluctant to send any young person to prison unless a serious offense was involved. To his credit, Churchill’s attitude was affected by the reality that those who were sent away were almost always sons of the working class. He pointed out that many of the same acts, if committed by a young man at Oxford, were not punished in any way.22 As a result of Churchill’s efforts, far fewer young people entered the country’s prisons.

One of Churchill’s duties was to write regular memos to the King on House of Commons activities. Though this falls outside the law and order category, it is worth a discussion because of WSC’s approach to the task.

On 10 February 1911, Churchill wrote the King: “…as for tramps and wastrels there ought to be proper labour colonies where they could be sent….it must not, however, be forgotten that there are idlers and wastrels at both ends of the social scale.”23 Greatly offended, George V concluded that WSC’s view was “very socialistic.”24 The King’s reaction prompted a series of notes between Churchill and Lord Knollys, the King’s private secretary. At one point Churchill suggested that the duty of updating the King should perhaps “be transferred to some other minister.” He finally calmed down when the King, through Lord Knollys, assured him that he wanted Churchill to continue, and that his letters were “always very interesting.”25

The exchange was enough for Knollys to comment that Churchill “means to be conciliatory I imagine, but he is rather like ‘a bull in a china shop.'”26 Knollys might have overstated things, but there’s no denying that wherever Churchill served, there was action and controversy.

Summing Up

Even though his time as Home Secretary was a brief and little-known part of his public life, Winston was still Winston. The issues he faced provoked controversy and intense feelings. His actions prompted both praise and stinging criticism. Even when his actions were reasonable and temperate, his oratorical flourishes could at times leave the impression he was following an extreme course.

Whatever else might be said about Churchill’s time at the Home Office, there can be no dispute that his unique personality and strong views guaranteed interesting times. After approximately twenty months as Home Secretary, the controversial Churchill went on to become First Lord of the Admiralty—and times remained as interesting as ever.


1. Roy Jenkins, Churchill (Macmillan, 2001), 170.

2. Paul Addison, Churchill on the Home Front 1900-1955 (London: Pimlico, 1995), 128.

3. Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume II, Part 2, 1907-1911 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), 1172.

4. Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, vol. II, Young Statesman 1901-1914 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967), 358.

5. Ibid., 363.

6. Ibid., 364.

7. “Leading Churchill Myths,” Finest Hour 140, Autumn 2008, 11.

8. Young Statesman, 367.

9. Ibid., 371-372

10. Ibid., 394.

11. Ibid., 395.

12. Addison, 132.

13. Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume II, Part 3, 1911-1914 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), 1452.

14. Ibid., 1453.

15. Addison, 136.

16. WSC, Companion Volume II, Part 3, 1911-1914, 1459.

17. Addison, 119.

18. Young Statesman, 403.

19. Ibid., 373.

20. Addison, 114.

21. Young Statesman, 375.

22. Ibid., 376.

23. Ibid., 418.

24. Ibid., 419.

25. Ibid., 423.

26. Ibid., 423.

Other Sources

Winston S. Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2009).

Ted Morgan, Churchill: Young Man in a Hurry (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982).

Donald Rumbelow, The Siege of Sidney Street (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973).

Maxwell P. Schoenfeld, Sir Winston Churchill: His Life and Times (Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 1986).


Churchill Centre: “Action This Day, A Daily Chronicle of Churchill’s Life; Young Statesman: 1901-1914” (http://www.winstonchurchill.org).

Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge: Chartwell Papers, CHAR 12: Home Office (http://www.chu.cam.ac.uk).

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