Winston Churchill died 50 years ago on 24 January 1965. In the days that followed his death, 300,000 people filed past where he lay in state at Westminster. His coffin, draped with a Union Jack, was borne through London's streets on a gun carriage and ferried up the Thames in the barge Havengore. An especially touching detail was the salutation of the cranes – the Thames-side construction jibs were tilted forward, one by one, as the barge sailed by, as if bowing in respect.
Next Friday, at 12.40pm, the same Havengore will sail up the Thames once again, carrying members of Churchill's family from St Katherine's Pier to Westminster. Tower Bridge will be raised, Scottish pipers will play and a four-gun salute from HMS Belfast will mark the Havengore's passage, accompanied by a flotilla of boats. A wreath will be laid at Westminster Abbey's marble memorial stone, originally unveiled by the Queen in 1965, shortly after Churchill's death. A commemoration service at the Houses of Parliament will be broadcast to crowds on the river bank.
It will all be properly respectful of the great statesman who led the British nation through the darkest days of the 20th century. It will be dignified and tasteful – which is a lot more than can be said about the rest of the Churchill heritage industry, which is now in full swing. I was a schoolboy in 1965, and can remember seeing Churchill mugs and tea towels on sale, even a biscuit tin. A documentary on his life, called His Finest Hour, was in cinemas, and we who narrowly missed the war were packed off to see it.
But these were nursery slopes of commemoration compared to what's available now. Did you know you can pick up a "Rare Official Copy of Sir Winston Churchill's Death Certificate" on eBay for £1,200? Lovely. And there are treats galore for collectors of Winston kitsch and Churchill tat. Goviers of Sidmouth offers a whole array of "British-made commemoratives" that include an 11in figurine of Churchill making a V-sign on a doorstep (£545), a dispirited-looking Winston Churchill Bulldog, and a china cat in psychedelic orange called Jock VI of Chartwell (£145) .
The UK Post Office cashed in on the anniversary back in October, offering six first-class stamps bearing Churchill's finest scowl for £3.72 (incl. VAT). It has now gone one better by putting his face on a 50th Anniversary £5 coin. The war hero looks uncomfortably squashed. "Churchill is instantly recognisable, though his portrait exceeds the boundaries of the coin," the PO smoothly explains. "This man was larger than life, impossible to capture in the usual confines of coin design." At his family home from 1922, Chartwell, an exhibition of Churchilliana is full of eccentric items.
You can examine a pair of spurs "gifted by Lady Churchill as a thank you to the Duke of Norfolk" who, as Earl Marshal, organised the State Funeral. You can marvel at the "Remington noiseless typewriter" Churchill made his secretaries use "so he could dictate without any distraction". At Blenheim Palace, where Churchill was born, they're rather feebly hosting just a "special walk" around the Park on Saturday, pointing out the Temple of Diana where he proposed marriage to Clementine.
When it comes to cashing in, the Stafford Hotel in St James's, London, takes some beating. They offer a package costing £550, for one night at the hotel ("thought to have been one of Churchill's favourite establishments during his time in office"), tickets to the Churchill War Rooms in Horseguards, a copy of Boris Johnson's The Churchill Factor, a bottle of Pol Roger ("a style of champagne Churchill himself drank"), a chocolate cigar and a 10 per cent discount at a nearby cigar shop. Classy.
Umpteen locations around the country are being dusted down and presented as Churchill-related, however flimsy the pretext. You can visit the coffin museum in Birmingham where they made his casket, or the cottage on the Isle of Wight where Churchill's parents stayed when they got engaged, or Claverton Manor in Bath, where Churchill gave his first political speech in 1897, or even the Scarborough Art Gallery, to see the letter he wrote to the mayor commiserating with him about the German shells that hit the town in the First World War.
Of course, Churchill-associated stuff has been making money for years. A company called Paul Fraser Collectibles publishes a regular update for slightly weird fans. Did you know that a set of Churchill's false teeth went for £17,480 at a Bonham's auction in 2010? (Where did the lucky purchaser keep them? In a glass by his bed?) That a cigar half-smoked by Churchill fetched £4,500 in the same year? That a sofa "said to have once been owned by Churchill" was auctioned for £7,500 in 2009? The company, which monitors "market performance" of collectibles, assures its readers that "the growing value of Churchill's memorabilia over the past years provides us with considerable optimism for the long-term future of the market."
As for his papers, photographs and drafts of his famous speeches – in 1971, the British government refused to pay the asking price of £100,000 to own them. By 1995, they'd thought better of it and bought the lot for £12.5m. There was an immediate outcry. Many felt that the papers should have been given to the nation as part of its history – weren't official papers the property of the state? – or, at least, sold for a less exorbitant sum. It was also angrily noted that the sale price didn't include copyright to the material, which would allow anyone to quote from it without having to pay a fee.
The Churchill family, however, hung on to the copyright. They still do. However much you may be inspired by them, you can't quote from his speeches or reproduce his stirring prose in print without going through the estate and paying £175 per thousand words. On Saturday and next week, we'll be doffing our caps to the 20th century's most celebrated statesman – but we'll also be taking part in the most lucrative commemorative bunfight of the 21st.Reuse content