By Freddie Machin
We opened the autumn tour of Winston on the Run at the Chipping Norton Theatre, a stone’s throw from Winston’s birthplace and the seat of the dukedom he never inherited, Blenheim Palace. Merely by dint of dates and programming the show opened to an Oxfordshire audience, many of whom, we discovered during the post-show presentation knew a great deal already about Winston. I am delighted to say that we have in fact been invited for tea at Ditchley, Churchill’s hideout half a century after he hid out down our mineshaft, during the Second World War.
The theatre at Chipping Norton was built in 1878 as a Salvation Army citadel. ‘These stones were laid by one hundred of those who through great persecution boldly and conscientiously served their God’ reads the foundation stone inside the auditorium. It is a beautiful space with a very intimate feel despite the depth of the raised stage. The theatre is much the envy of the theatrical community and has become one of the highlights of the touring circuit. Catherine and William Booth, founders of the Salvation Army are buried not far from where I live in London, their mission when they began in 1865 was to bring salvation to the poor, destitute and hungry by meeting both their physical and spiritual needs.
This was not an uncommon assignment during the Victorian era, 1878 is the same year as my football team, Everton, was established. Begun as a Catholic team to give the local boys somewhere to focus their energies, St. Domingo FC began playing on what is now Anfield – the home of Everton’s closest rivals (just a few hundred yards today). Shelter, the housing charity still operating today, was also founded in the 19th century, contributing to a whole culture of philanthropy, alms giving and helping those in need.
This evangelism spread along with British imperial ambitions, colonialism aiming to elevate and ennoble what were presumed to be sinful and barbaric societies. Colonial administrators and Christian missionaries around the world were preaching about an ordered and sophisticated society, to nations lacking the development seen in Britain under Christianity.
In Winston on the Run, we suggest that the war in South Africa might indeed be the catalyst that makes Churchill question how right and good British implementation of that mission actually was. Winston’s attitude was that winning the war would ultimately be for the good of the defeated as well as the victors. But what the Empire found itself up against in South Africa was a capable and fierce adversary determined to protect its own identity and independence, whatever the cost.
British forces found the Boer communities so resilient that they resorted to rounding up the women and children and detaining them in camps in an attempt to break their spirits and the back of the war. These were not the first camps of their kind, but helped to set a precedent that would have an even graver outcome half a century later.
It turned out not to be the just and righteous walkover that Great Britain was accustomed to (and was expecting). In fact, it would be an embarrassment; our first war fought in Khaki instead of the red coats of the Zulu wars just a few years before and a blot on the apparently flawless history of Britain.
Warfare was changing and the British Empire’s unquestioned primacy had received a knock to its confidence and credibility. Queen Victoria had reigned over an incredible fifth of the earth’s surface and almost a quarter of the world’s population owed her allegiance during the 1800s but the turn of the century would usher in a new epoch. Born in 1874, Winston was resolutely a Victorian but following Victoria’s death in 1901 would come a new Edwardian period, characterised less by peace and goodwill but by war.