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21. 'CHURCHILL CLUB: MEMBERS ONLY'

The potentialities of the Church House as a modern office building with conference halls in Westminster had for some time been apparent to His Majesty's Government, and certain enquiries regarding it had previously been made by the Ministry of Works. When it was seen how well it had stood up to its ordeal during the air-raid on 14 October 1940 and the protection it offered to those working and sheltering in it, a requisitioning order was served on the morning of 16 October, almost before the full extent of the damage could be ascertained. From then onwards the Church House, in the infancy of its new conception, was to fulfil a historic national purpose. Preparations were immediately put in hand for it to be treated as an 'Annexe' to the Palace of Westminster should the necessity arise for the Houses of Parliament to meet otherwise than in their accustomed place. For security reasons the staff involved were advised that the building was being prepared for emergency use should Westminster Abbey be destroyed.

An anti-blast wall protects the Dean's Yard entrance in wartime.
An anti-blast wall protects the Dean's Yard entrance in wartime.

The Council were fortunately able to move the offices of the Corporation back into 5a Dean's Yard, from which they had only recently been transferred to the new building; but they were not able to make any arrangements for the tenants, all of whom therefore had to seek a new home on their own account.

The Entrance Hall in 1940 equipped as the Vote Office.
The Entrance Hall in 1940 equipped as the Vote Office.

The period of the Corporation's exile from its new home began with the task of, quite literally, picking up the pieces. In reducing its activities to a wartime level, the various committees were suspended, the Club was closed down and the furnishings were put into store. Much later it was discovered that there had been considerable pilfering of the linen during the period of requisitioning and some of the furniture was also unaccounted for.

The woolsack in the House of Lords (Convocation Hall).
The woolsack in the House of Lords (Convocation Hall).

Throughout the course of the War, Parliament assembled at the Church House during three main periods: at various times in November and December 1940, and between April and June 1941 (during which time the House of Commons Chamber was destroyed) and June and August 1944 (when London was threatened by V1 flying bombs). Many Members of Parliament disliked their emergency accommodation, finding the labyrinth of corridors around the partly demolished Assembly Hall almost impossibly confusing.

Winston Churchill's office (Room 144)
Winston Churchill's office (Room 144).

The first meeting of Parliament at Church House was held on 7 November 1940, for the purpose of testing the suitability of the arrangements. The House of Commons sat in the Hoare Memorial Hall and the Lords in the Convocation Hall, and it was here on 21 November that King George VI, accompanied by the Queen and the Dukes of Gloucester and Kent, opened the 1940-41 session of Parliament.

As in 1939 a simple ceremony was used, with little of the picturesque ceremonial traditionally associated with a full State Opening of Parliament. The Imperial Crown was carried on a purple-covered salver by a member of the House of Lords and many of those present were in uniform. His Majesty, in the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet, forsook the Imperial Crown and instead wore his service dress cap to read his short speech from the Throne, in which he spoke of the close cordial relationship between Britain and the United States of America: 'It is good to know in these fateful times how widely shared are the ideals of ordered freedom, of justice and security.'

Following the State Opening, the House of Commons retired to the Hoare Memorial Hall. A commemorative panel, unveiled in 1948, records part of the speech by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, on this occasion:

Today, in inaugurating the new Session of Parliament, we proclaim the depth and sincerity of our resolve to keep vital and active, even in the midst of our struggle for life, even under the fire of the enemy, those parliamentary institutions which have served us so well, which have proved themselves the most flexible instruments for securing ordered unceasing change and progress: which, while they throw open the portals of the future, carry forward also the traditions and glories of the past and which, at this solemn moment in the world's history, are at once the proudest assertion of British freedom and an expression of an unconquerable national will.

The House of Commons and Speakers Chair (Hoare Memorial Hall)
The House of Commons and Speakers Chair (Hoare Memorial Hall).


The Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, and Winston Churchill unveil the panel commemorating the use of the Hoare Memorial Hall as the House of Commons Chamber
The Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, and Winston Churchill unveil the panel commemorating
the use of the Hoare Memorial Hall as the House of Commons Chamber,
28 April 1948. (with Dr Fisher, Centre)

Later, on the night of 10 May 1941, London suffered a particularly heavy air-raid, the Palace of Westminster was deliberately attacked and the House of Commons chamber was completely destroyed. Parliament moved into the 'Annexe' and, on the following Tuesday, the House of Commons assembled in the Hoare Memorial Hall as before. The Speaker's robes and the mace had escaped destruction and Speaker Fitzroy sat in a chair copied from the original. The Prime Minister reassured the House that 'the work of our Parliamentary institutions will not be interrupted by enemy action'; a third building (the Park Lane Hotel) was being prepared 'in case anything should happen to this one.'

The Prime Minister was not so forthcoming in answering Members' questions about Rudolf Hess's dramatic but enigmatic flight to Scotland the previous weekend, adding nothing to the bare facts released earlier that Hess had baled out from his plane and had suffered a broken ankle.

It was also in the Hoare Memorial Hall that the Prime Minister announced the sinking of the Bismark and the loss of HMS Hood off Greenland, on 24 May 1941:

Great as is our loss in the Hood, the Bismark must be regarded as the most powerful as she is the newest battleship in the world, and this striking of her from the Germany Navy is a very definite simplification of the task of maintaining the effective mastery of the Northern seas and the maintenance of the Northern blockade.

Winston Churchill inspects the damage done by a flying bomb in Tufton Street. July 1944.
Winston Churchill inspects the damage done by a
flying bomb in Tufton Street. July 1944.
(Illustrated London News)

Later in 1942 the House of Lords agreed to vacate their chamber at the Palace of Westminster in favour of the Royal Robing Chamber, thus making way for the House of Commons to return to the Palace but to occupy the Lords' Chamber. However, fate intervened once again in 1944, when both Houses were forced to return to the 'Churchill Club' (as the Church House was sometimes described) during the months of June, July and August when London was the special target of flying bombs. Answering Members' questions on 6 July on the subject of these attacks, the Prime Minister replied:

It may be a comfort to some to feel that they are sharing in no small degree the perils of our soldiers overseas and that the blows which fall on them diminish those which in other forms would have smitten our fighting men and their Allies. But I am sure of one thing, that London will never be conquered and will never fail and that her renown, triumphing over every ordeal, will long shine among men.

From the Book "The Church House 1888-1988 - A Moment in the Life of the Church"
Published by the Corporation of the Church House in their Centenary Year