Retro: Sheffield honours Churchill with freedom of city

Winston Churchill on Town Hall balcony - 16 April 1951
Winston Churchill on Town Hall balcony - 16 April 1951
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tWearing the crown of victory and with the cheers of liberated Europe probably still ringing in his ears, Winston Churchill arrived for a two-day visit to Sheffield on April 16, 1951.

Ready to receive the honorary Freedom of the city, he was greeted at the Midland railway station by the red-robed Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, Alderman and Mrs Keeble Hawson, the Town Clerk John Heyes and the Chief Constable G E Scott).

At this time, Churchill, approaching 77, was the Conservative Leader of the Opposition and would not be returned for a second time as Prime Minister until October 1951. His previous visit to Sheffield was in November 1941 when he toured armament works.

Smiling broadly, and smoking a cigar, Churchill was driven to the town hall through a gathering of around 1,000. On the building’s top step he paused, took off his hat and bowed to the crowd.

Appearing on the blue-draped balcony, he gave the V-sign and wished the people of Sheffield good luck.

He left the town hall at around 4.15pm for the Grand Hotel. Then, at 7.15 he walked across Balm Green to the carriage entrance of the City Hall.

Even for only a few seconds’ glimpse of Mr and Mrs Churchill, Sheffielders were willing to stand for half an hour in the bitter cold to see the couple go to into the building for the freedom presentation.

There were cheers every yard of the way but so orderly were the crowds that many of the policemen on duty – including special constables – were not needed.

Some people stayed and huddled in doorways to escape the penetrating wind to hear the speeches relayed by loudspeakers into Holly Street.

In the City Hall Artists’ Room the Lord Mayor presented the platform guests to Churchill and while the Oval Hall was assembling the city organist played.

The honorary freedom ceremony began with the lord mayor leading Churchill to the platform and, after singing by Sheffield schools, the town clerk proudly read the city council resolution conferring the freedom on Churchill.

The lord mayor asked Churchill to sign the Roll of Honorary Freemen, after which there was a presentation of a Sheffield-made 250-piece cabinet of cutlery containing an illuminated scroll embodying the city council resolution.

Ruth Hawson, daughter of the lord mayor and lady mayoress, presented a bouquet to Mrs Churchill.

After more singing it was time for Churchill’s acceptance speech and he was welcomed with a burst of prolonged applause. The lord mayor said the city had been sparing in granting the honorary freedom of the city. The roll contained only 36 names covering over 50 years.

Before the outbreak of war, continued the lord mayor, Mr Churchill had already a record of which any man could be proud and to which few could hope to achieve.

To be the son of a famous father and the descendent of a great historical figure could sometimes be disadvantageous either in public or in business but Mr Churchill’s early career speedily showed that the gifts so generously bestowed upon his forebears were also his in full measure.

After speaking of Churchill’s talent as a historian and suggesting this had helped him making the right decisions for the nation, the lord mayor inevitably led on to say Churchill was greeted in Sheffield as the leader and great architect of victory in the Second World War.

He said: “It has been said of you he is not a man to rise to an hour. The hour had to rise to him. The hour rose when in May 1940, the Nazi hordes were overwhelming Western Europe, and you with universal acceptance took over the conduct of our affairs, offering us in those words which have become immortal: ‘nothing but blood, toil, tears and sweat’.”

Easing into the acceptance speech, Churchill emphasised the war had been a great struggle and Sheffield had played a great part.

Steel with all its refinements and variations, intricate as they were, was one of the greatest features in Sheffield life.

He spoke of Sheffield’s steel and engineering contribution to the Battle of Britain and said the citizens, workmen and artisans of Sheffield could look back upon their mighty contribution with unfailing pride.

In Sheffield 1,000 Churchill Tanks were made and they improved continually. A most remarkable effort that was.

He humorously observed they were not called the Churchill tank until after a very serious defect had appeared. That was not in their handiwork but in the design.

But he did not concern himself in detail with the design because he would have been stepping from the sure ground of daily life into those very intricate and precarious paths in which the experts of Sheffield revelled.

Hundreds thronged the steps of the city hall at the close to cheer, whistle and wave as Churchill, smiling cheerily, slowly descended to the cars.

Scores of others lined the route to the town hall where a private dinner was to be staged. As the cars moved off, the ranks broke and people ran behind.

“Now that he’s here we must see as much of him as we can,” said one woman.

“Doesn’t he look grand for his years,” said another.

The Churchills were guests at the Cutlers Hall the following evening. At 11.48pm, Churchill, widely regarded as being among the most influential people in British history, left the Sheffield Midland station for London.