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Books, Arts & Curiosities – “Prudes on the Prowl”: A Rant Against Mrs. Ormiston Chant

revFinest Hour 163, Summer 2014

Page 44

By Ronald I. Cohan


Mr. Peter Ochs is developing a theatre piece, “Churchill and Hitler in Their Own Words,” which he hopes will open in Vienna in August. Among Churchill’s lines are: “Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.” Hitler, he assures us, is more prosaic: “Germany will even survive me!” (Did he really say that?)

But Mr. Ochs wished to include a much earlier Churchill speech, forty-five years before World War II—his first ever, in November 1895, in the promenade at the Empire Palace of Varieties in Leicester Square.

Churchill was quite taken with the promenade, situated just behind the dress circle. Not so London’s prudes, led by the formidably named Mrs. Ormiston Chant. The congregating of men and women, including ladies of the evening, and the drinking of alcohol, had elicited Mrs. Chant’s opprobrium. In response to her protests the London County Council ordered the theatre to erect a canvas screen between the promenade and the outer bars.

Churchill, then a Sandhurst cadet, was having none of this. On Saturday, 3 November, he was part of a crowd which rushed and destroyed the flimsy symbolic separation. “In these somewhat unvirginal surroundings,” he recalled, “I now made my maiden speech. Mounting on the debris and indeed partially emerging from it, I addressed the tumultuous crowd.” The Countess of Aberconway, who was there, recalled him saying: “Ladies of the Empire: I stand for liberty!”

“No very accurate report of my words has been preserved,” Churchill himself wrote later. “I discarded the constitutional argument entirely and appealed directly to sentiment and even passion, finishing up by saying ‘You have seen us tear down these barricades tonight; see that you pull down those who are responsible for them at the coming election.’ These words were received with rapturous applause, and we all sallied out into the Square brandishing fragments of wood and canvas as trophies or symbols. It reminded me of the death of Julius Caesar….”

Rather chuffed by the experience, Churchill wrote his brother Jack four days later: “Did you see the papers about the riot at the Empire last Saturday. It was I who led the rioters—and made a speech to the crowd. I enclose a cutting from one of the papers, so that you may see.”

While we do not have a transcript of Churchill’s exact words, I was able to produce the text of a letter written by Churchill on 18 October and published in the Westminster Gazette the following day, which prefigured the rebellion of November 3rd:

Sir,—In your article of the 17th inst, entitled “The Plimsoll Line in Respectability,” you are somewhat inclined to belittle the arguments of the “anti-prudes.” The improvement in the standard of public decency is due rather to improved social conditions and to the spread of education than to the prowling of the prudes.

Nature’s law metes out great and terrible punishments to the “roué and libertine”—far greater punishments than it is in the power of any civilised State to award. These penalties have been exacted since the world was young, and yet immorality is still common. State intervention, whether in the form of a statute or by the decision of licensing committees, will never eradicate the evil. It may make it more dangerous for the evildoer. But such a policy, while not decreasing immorality, only increases its evil effects.

Now, Sir, I submit that the only method of reforming human nature and of obtaining a higher standard of morality is by educating the mind of the individual and improving the social conditions under which he lives. This is a long and gradual process, the result of which is not to be obtained in our generation. It is slow, but it is sure. If mankind is allowed to work out its own salvation the improvement of the last forty years will be steadily maintained, until we finally realise Mrs. Ormiston Chant’s ideal.

In the meantime it is the plain duty of every Government to endeavour, as far as possible, to localise and minimise the physical effects of the moral evil. It is not a case of legalising and officially sanctioning immorality. The State should protect each member as far as possible from harm, and must govern men as they are and not as they ought to be. This is a duty which is recognised by every European nation. In England we have too long obeyed the voice of the prude. Well-meaning but misguided people, of which class Mrs. Ormiston Chant is a fair specimen, have prevailed upon Government to disclaim a responsibility which it was their bounden duty to accept.

This, then, Sir, is the point of view from which the “anti-prudes” approach the question. The difference between the disputants is one rather of method than of degree. Both are anxious to see England better and more moral, but whereas the Vigilance Societies wish to abolish sin by Act of Parliament, and are willing to sacrifice much of the liberty of the subject into the bargain, the “anti-prudes” prefer a less coercive and more moderate procedure.

If our impetuous reformers could only be persuaded to wait, and to take a broader and perhaps a more charitable view of social problems, they would better serve the cause they have at heart. But these “old women in a hurry” will not have patience, but are trying to improve things by repressive measures—a dangerous method, usually leading to reaction.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant WLSC

It was a remarkable piece of writing from a Churchill not yet 21. Abercromby’s quote is from Ralph Martin, Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill, vol. 1, The Dramatic Years 1854-1895 (New York: Prentice Hall, 1969), 253. Churchill’s remarks are from his autobiography, My Early Life (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1930), 71.


Mr. Cohen is the bibliographer of Sir Winston Churchill, President of the Churchill Society of Ottawa, and a Senior Fellow of Carleton Univrsity.

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