London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1942. Macmillan edition, first printing. Hardcover. This Second World War reprint of then-Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill’s famous collection of character sketches is a finely bound presentation copy inscribed to “one of Churchill’s most persistent Labour Party critics.” The inscription, inked in five lines in blue on the blank recto preceding the half title, is “To | Emanuel Shinwell | from | Winston S. Churchill | 1943 April.”
The binding of this inscribed presentation copy is half red Morocco goatskin over red cloth-covered boards, the contents bound with gilt top edge, red and gold silk head and foot bands, and marbled endpapers. Condition of the binding is good plus, square, tight, and sound, though showing age and wear. There are abrasions to the leather at extremities, particularly the corners, bottom edges, and hinges, as well as various superficial scuffs. The spine retains strong, unfaded hue and bright gilt, with no appreciable color shift. The contents are clean, modestly age-toned but with no spotting or ownership marks apart from the author’s inscription. While we cannot definitively date the binding or attribute it to a specific binder, Churchill certainly was known to gift finely bound inscribed presentation copies of his books at this time and the binding certainly appears contemporary and consonant in style with other presentation bindings commissioned by Churchill for inscribed copies.
In April 1943, the British were on the cusp of their first decisive Second World War victory over Hitler’s Germany, and by mid-May would declare “One Continent Redeemed” when Axis forces were expelled from North Africa. In the House of Commons, Emanuel Shinwell, the Member for Seaham Harbour, was apparently feeling less than celebratory, leaning into his role as a leading backbencher critic of Churchill’s Government.
A review of the House of Commons records for April 1943 indicates that in that month alone Emanuel Shinwell personally questioned Churchill directly in the House regarding U-Boat losses, wartime suspension of elections, and compensation for ministers. That same month, Shinwell also questioned various ministers of Churchill’s Government regarding post-war planning, property rented by the Royal Air Force, Armed forces, civilian, and old age pensions, operations in Burma, and pay for Army chaplains. (Hansard)
We cannot know precisely what precipitated the gift of this inscribed volume, but it does seem plausible that Churchill may have presented this particular title – Great Contemporaries – with a sense of barbed irony to one of his most vigorous and persistent backbench critics. Another irony is that Churchill might have eventually chosen to include Shinwell’s own profile in this book.
The Recipient & Association
First elected to Parliament in 1922, Emanuel Shinwell, Baron Shinwell (1884-1986) was – not unlike Churchill himself – “a major personality over sixty years” and “always a pugnacious member of parliament” as a vocal and influential member of the Labour Party. (ODNB)
In 1935, two years before Great Contemporaries was first published, Shinwell had turned on and defeated former Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. Not unlike Churchill, Shinwell would spend his long career at turns vexing and serving – sometimes both at once – the leadership of his own party. Pugnacity was literal as well as electoral for Shinwell, who in 1938 actually struck a Conservative member of Parliament – a former naval boxing champion. During the Second World War, “Shinwell was a vigorous, though always patriotic, critic of Winston Churchill’s coalition government.” (ODNB) Hence it is plausible to sense some cheek and irony in Churchill inscribing Great Contemporaries to Shinwell in 1943, even as Shinwell was regularly assailing Churchill and his Government in the House of Commons.
But however fierce and occasionally sharp their political battles, in the placement of country before party Shinwell and Churchill shared a kinship. During the Normandy invasion in early June 1944, Shinwell wrote a note to Churchill: "I should like you to know that at this time, when the thoughts of all of us are turned on grave events, I and others, whose views do not always accord with Government policy, are with you and your colleagues to a man." (Letter of 8 June 1944, quoted in Gilbert, Vol. VII, p.800)
As for Shinwell’s criticism, Churchill had ample opportunity to return the favor. Churchill’s government fell to Labour in the General Election of July 1945. Shinwell served in Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s Government, eventually becoming Secretary of State for War in October 1947 and Minister of Defence in February 1950. Shinwell thereby fell squarely in Churchill’s own crosshairs, given Churchill's extensive experience as wartime leader, architect of the Second World War, and stints as First Lord of the Admiralty (in two different world wars), Minister of Munitions, Secretary of State for War, Secretary of State for Air, and Minister of Defence (ultimately thrice).
Shinwell left office after Churchill's Conservatives regained a majority in late October 1951, returning Churchill to the premiership. On 6 December 1951, Churchill asked the indulgence of the House in order to speak in praise of Shinwell: "We have our party battles and bitterness... but I have always felt and have always testified.. to the Right Honourable Gentleman's sterling patriotism and to the fact that his heart is in the right place where the life and strength of our country are concerned... I am so glad to be able to say tonight... that the spirit which has animated the Right Honourable Gentleman in the main discharge of his great duties was one which has, in peace as well as in war, added to the strength and security of our country."
David Hunt, Churchill's Private Secretary who had accompanied the Prime Minister to the Commons, recalled that "The House was stirred" and in the car on the way back to Number 10 Churchill reflected on his comments. ... there's a lot of good in Shinwell and I'm glad I took the chance of saying something about him." Churchill's fellow Conservatives were not so glad "For the next week and more, letters of complaint continued to arrive... Churchill was robustly impenitent, and the more that people protested the more certain he felt that he had spoken well." (Gilbert, Vol. VIII, pp.667-8)
The two men continued to disagree with frequency and vigor throughout Churchill's second and final premiership. But in July of 1964, the day after Churchill went to the House of Commons for the last time, Shinwell was among a small group of House leaders and elders who called on Churchill at his Hyde Park Gate home to present him with a Resolution of the House of Commons conveying "unbounded admiration and gratitude for his services to Parliament, to the nation and to the world..." (Gilbert, Vol. VIII, p.1354-4)
That same year, at age 80, Shinwell was appointed as Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He resigned in 1967 and became a life peer in 1970, but his career was still far from over. By the time of his hundredth birthday, which was celebrated in the House of Lords in 1984, Shinwell was “a legendary figure.”
This inscribed and finely bound presentation copy is a noteworthy wartime reprint of Churchill's much praised collection of insightful essays about leading personalities of the day - including the likes of Lawrence, Shaw, and, most famously, Hitler.
Great Contemporaries was first published in 1937 by Thornton Butterworth Limited with a revised and expanded edition the following year. At the time, Churchill was out of power and out of favor, frequently at odds with both his Government and prevailing public sentiment. But in 1940, terribly vindicated by the outbreak of the Second World War and the failure of the leaders he had so long criticized, Churchill became wartime Prime Minister. And also in 1940, Thornton Butterworth went under and a different publisher, Macmillan, acquired the rights to several of Churchill’s books. Hence this wartime reprint by Macmillan.
There were two printings of this Macmillan edition, in 1942 and 1943 respectively. This inscribed presentation copy is the 1942 first printing of the Macmillan edition and is an interesting study in how war and politics affects the printed word. Political sensitivities among the Allies apparently dictated that, for this 1942 wartime edition, the Roosevelt, Trotsky, and Boris Savinkov essays be omitted. The Hitler essay, originally titled "The Fuhrer", is retitled "Hitler and His Choice, 1935".
The character sketches herein offer remarkable portraits of both their subjects and the author. Churchill's piece about Hitler can be a shock to the modern ear, as it underscores his ability to write a balanced appraisal of his subject while expressing his earnest desire to avoid the war that he would fight with such ferocious resolve only a few years later – indeed the war Churchill was fighting as Prime Minister when this edition was published. Neville Chamberlain, perhaps Churchill’s most vexing pre-war political opponent, wrote to Churchill on 4 October 1937 to say: “How you can go on throwing off these sparkling sketches with such apparent ease & such sustained brilliance… is a constant source of wonder to me. But the result is to give great pleasure and entertainment…” It was written with what has been called "penetrating evaluation, humor, and understanding." Churchill's balanced and nuanced perspectives contrast favorably with those of more polemic writers – both then and now.
In the course of sketching the character of his contemporaries Churchill necessarily reveals much of his own character and perspective. Churchill's portrait of T.E. Lawrence, published here just a few years before the Second World War, might well have been written about the author rather than by him: "The impression of the personality of Lawrence remains living and vivid upon the minds of his friends, and the sense of his loss is in no way dimmed among his countrymen. All feel the poorer that he has gone from us. In these days dangers and difficulties gather upon Britain and her Empire, and we are also conscious of a lack of outstanding figures with which to overcome them. Here was a man in whom there existed not only an immense capacity for service, but that touch of genius which everyone recognizes and no one can define." (Great Contemporaries, p.164) While some of the subjects of Churchill's sketches have receded into history, many remain well-known and all remain compellingly drawn.
Had Churchill written this work a few decades later, it seems plausible that Emanuel Shinwell might have found himself within its pages.
Reference: Cohen A105.8.a, Woods/ICS A43(f.1), Langworth p.185. Item #007109