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Sir Winston Churchill addresses Bristol students

Bowden (far right) looks on as Churchill takes the stage

Winston Churchill giving his famous 'V' sign (20 May 1940)

1945 VE celebration street party in Bristol Paul Townsend, Brizzle born and bred

7 May 2015

Professor Drummond Bowden (MB ChB 1948) studied Medicine in Bristol during the Second World War. In 1945, he was elected President of the Students’ Union and the following year, on the heels of British victory, orchestrated a student address from Sir Winston Churchill (University Chancellor, 1929-65).

Through the Vice-Chancellor, I invited Churchill to address the student body – something that had never been done before. He readily agreed. Why did I do this? Less than twelve months earlier I had fought to defeat Churchill at the polls; now, as President of the Students' Union I was to welcome and honour him. I saw no inconsistency: we were paying tribute to a great man, the man who rallied Britain, pulled us through our darkest hour. Moreover, he was our Chancellor: of course we would honour him.

We planned a students' motor cycle escort for Churchill's car as he drove from Temple Meads station to the Victoria Rooms. Our enthusiasm was not shared by Police Chief Maby: his response? A blunt "no way".

The black limousine drew up at the front door of the Victoria Rooms. Winston got out, but all male eyes were on his daughter Mary: she was stunning. On the stage of the Great Hall, I stood to deliver my speech of welcome. It included a paragraph outlining the role of the union: "as important as lectures, it is an integral part of university education."

As [Churchill] rose to address the students, the hall erupted in thunderous applause: we may have voted him out of power but we loved him dearly. The formal session over, I led him to the bar; he took a glass of sherry and autographed my Union Week programme. (A valuable item, this autograph is locked away in my fireproof safe.)

Later, in black gown, I walked in the academic procession, and sat on the stage of the Great Hall just behind the Chancellor's chair. In his brief address to the academic assembly, a chuckling Churchill quoted my remark on the equality of union activity and lectures.

Then it was luncheon in the Reception Room. Excellent food and wines, port and a cigar, listening to Winston's witty anecdotes. Desperately late for the Intervarsity debate, I made my unsteady way back to the Victoria Rooms, waved my cigar, gave the V sign, took my place on the platform, fell asleep.

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Further information

This excerpt is taken from Bowden’s memoirs, Wessex, Wales and Beyond: 1941-1952, which are housed in Bristol’s Record Office. Historian Sir David Cannadine will talk about Sir Winston Churchill’s tenure as the University's Chancellor as part of the Bristol Talks series on Wednesday 17 June.

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