Fireman recalls day he had a role in Churchill’s final journey

Jim Lester
Jim Lester
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As well as being arguably Britain’s greatest ever leader, Churchill was one of the finest orators of the 20th century.

The enduring gratitude that the nation feels towards the former British Prime Minister and wartime hero who stood tall and defiant when the country needed him the most was once again evident today as a number of events were held to mark the 50th anniversary of his iconic funeral including a flotilla on the River Thames.

Churchill was laid to rest in the family vault at St Martin’s Church in the village of Bladon and his body was conveyed to the county on a train from London’s Waterloo station to Hanborough in Oxfordshire, pulled by Southern Railway’s number 34051 Battle of Britain class locomotive, named Winston Churchill in his honour.

The full train - the locomotive and tender, a parcel van that bore the coffin and a luxury Pullman carriage called Lydia that carried family and funeral guests - was reunited at the National Railway Museum in York today for the first time in 50 years.

Among those attending events in York, was Jim Lester, 72, from Hampshire, who at the age of 22, was chosen to act as fireman on the locomotive hauling the funeral train, working with driver Alf Hurley.

“The crowds were immense,” Mr Lester said.

“The crowds were just stood quietly there were many many soldiers in their uniforms all saluting. You felt that something really special was happening that day. It was moving but you could not be affected by it because you had a job to do,” Mr Lester added.

The full train will be displayed in the museum until May 3 as part of an exhibition, Churchill’s Final Journey.

Sir Winston would have been “surprised but thrilled” at the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of his state funeral, his great-grandson said, as he laid a wreath to begin a day of events paying tribute to arguably Britain’s greatest prime minister.

Randolph Churchill said it was a “proud day” as he stood before the statue of the wartime leader in Parliament Square.

A remembrance service was held at the Houses of Parliament in recognition of Sir Winston’s unswerving dedication to his country. Later in the day crowds gathered at London’s Tower Bridge to remember the great war leader and watch a flotilla recreate his final journey on the River Thames.

While the numbers yesterday could not match those of 1965, people still lined the banks to reflect and acknowledge the nation’s debt to its great wartime leader.

Among them was Susan Potter, who grew up in London and was a girl when Churchill was Prime Minister. Now living in Australia, she said: “Churchill is so famous in my life. He wasn’t perfect but we owe him a lot, even today.”