State refused to pay £100,000 for Churchill archive

Two decades of wrangling by the heirs of Sir Winston Churchill in attempts to capitalise on his legacy have been laid bare in official papers made public yesterday.

Two decades of wrangling by the heirs of Sir Winston Churchill in attempts to capitalise on his legacy have been laid bare in official papers made public yesterday.

Files released by the National Archives in Kew, west London, reveal efforts by the wartime leader's grandson and principal beneficiary - also called Winston Churchill - to persuade the Conservative government to buy Sir Winston's archive of personal papers. The collection was eventually bought in 1995 with £12m of National Lottery money amid public controversy, not least because by that time Mr Churchill was himself a Tory MP.

However, the files show that the archive, which included Sir Winston's own copies of some of his greatest speeches, could have been acquired by the state 24 years earlier for £100,000.

The first attempt to sell the papers, which were held in trust on the younger Churchill's behalf, was made in 1971, six years after the death of the former prime minister.

The trustees were at the time trying to raise funds to build an archive centre at Churchill College, Cambridge, to provide a permanent home for the collection.

One of the trustees, Sir Winston's former private secretary Sir Jock Colville, wrote to the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Burke Trend, saying that the younger Churchill was anxious not to lose out financially as a result of the arrangement.

Sir Jock said: "He says that, although he sincerely wishes the papers to go to Churchill College, once they are there neither he nor his heirs could very easily reclaim them, and they are in fact the most valuable asset he possesses."

Sir Jock said that an attempt to persuade a wealthy American donor to buy the archive for $250,000 (£139,000) and then present it to Churchill College had failed and so he suggested the government could step in.

He said: "Would you like to think over the possibility of HMG making the offer of, say, £100,000, or perhaps £120,000 to acquire the entire ownership of the Churchill papers?"

In response, Sir Burke pointed out that many of the documents in the collection were official papers and therefore already belonged to the state. He said: "Any question of trying to buy the Churchill papers would come up against insuperable difficulties."

That was the end of the matter until April 1989 when Pam Andrews, an official at the Cabinet Office historical section, learned that the trustees had appointed Sotheby's to value the collection. She had been tipped off by the historian Correlli Barnett, who was the keeper of the archive centre at Churchill College, where the collection had been held.

The trustees wanted to transfer ownership of the collection to the British Library in order, they said, to prevent it being broken up and sold abroad. In return, the government would be asked to pay a "fair sum", out of which the trustees would make an endowment to the archive centre at Churchill College, where the collection would remain. The "fair sum" that they were asking for was £15m.

Mark Blythe, a lawyer in the Treasury Solicitors Department, advised that there would be "nothing intrinsically difficult from a legal point of view" with such an arrangement.

The negotiations stalled, so the family enlisted the help of the former Conservative Party chairman Norman Tebbit, who wrote to the prime minister, John Major, in March 1991. He pointed out that the trustees had to sell the collection "in the interest of the beneficiary", but wanted the archive to remain intact. He said: "That would require a negotiated private sale with the state. I am told the sum would not be huge."

No further details of the negotiations are contained in the file. A final note from Mr Blythe states that "Mr Tebbit is simply the messenger" and that there would be further discussions with the trustees.

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