Home Feature Articles Darkest Hour: A half-frame camera and a historic record

Darkest Hour: A half-frame camera and a historic record

  January 30, 1965, and the State Funeral barge carrying   Sir Winston Churchill
January 30, 1965, and the State Funeral barge carrying Sir Winston Churchill’s coffin makes its way from the Tower to Waterloo. I was there on London Bridge to record the river journey to Waterloo (see today’s scene below)

I went to see the movie, Darkest Hour, at the cinema this morning. It is superb. Highly recommended.

The cinematography is stunning and so are the settings. You almost think that you are inside the palace in the Buckingham Palace scenes. Gary Oldman is quite extraordinary as Churchill. I felt that I was actually watching Churchill himself in a wartime newsreel. Surely an Oscar winning performance.

To me it was weird seeing the scenes and thinking how all this happened only six years before I was born in Charing Cross, London. 

When I first went to primary school in Putney in south London, the school was brand new as the old building had been bombed and the local area was populated by prefabricated homes — known as prefabs — and bomb sites. I remember that even in 1955 things were still pretty grim, but at the time I did not appreciate the deprivation and terror my mother, who stayed in Putney throughout the blitz, had been through.

  Editor Evans offered to trot over to  London Bridge  in an attempt to replicate my shot from 1965. It isn
Editor Evans offered to trot over to London Bridge in an attempt to replicate my shot from 1965. It isn’t quite the same perspective, but it does illustrate how the industrial riverscape has been totally supplanted in the 53 years between the two images — from cranes to cappucinos. Stately Tower Bridge in the distance is the only constant. HMS Belfast , in mid stream, arrived in 1971 and is now a popular outpost of the Imperial War Museum. The red-and-cream brick building to the right of centre is Hay’s Wharf , one of the old riverside wharves (where the cranes dipped) transformed into a shopping and restaurant complex. Another interesting difference is that London in January is now not quite so gloomy as it was then. Mike took this image with a Leica SL and 35mm f/1.4 Zeiss Distagon ZM

Personal encounter

  The old bank, scene of Shingleton
The old bank, scene of Shingleton’s first labours, hasn’t changed except for new signage. But it is now surrounded by alien 21st century constructs (Image Mike Evans)

I had my personal encounter with Churchill, or at least his coffin, in January 1965. At the time I was working at Barclays Bank, Borough High Street branch in Southwark, just over London Bridge. I had to work on the Saturday morning of Churchill’s funeral and I was on London Bridge when his coffin was loaded onto a boat at the Tower of London and came up the river to Waterloo.

I had brought a half-frame camera to work that day. I think it belonged to my brother. I cannot remember the brand but I suspect it was either an Olympus or a Ricoh. Half frame gave 72 photos on a 36 exposure roll of 35mm film. I was using Kodak Plus-X film as I can see from the negatives. It was probably in the camera when I borrowed it. Being London in January it was pretty gloomy and I force processed the film to push up the ISO — or ASA as it was then known.

The slow passage of the boat carrying the coffin was a most impressive sight and all the dockside cranes had their jibs lowered as a mark of respect.

Now all the docks have moved way down the river so it is a scene which will never be repeated. The riverside has changed dramatically in the past 53 years. Where the wharves and docks once hugged the river, it is now a broad pedestrian promenade flanked by museums, cafes and restaurants.

A few seconds after I took this photo a V formation of RAF English Electric Lightning jet fighters flew overhead and I took a photo of them over the flotilla. It is a great photo but I put the negative in a “safe” file and I have mislaid it!

Churchill’s funeral train departing from Waterloo Station and heading to Oxfordshire. My suburban clunker overtook Churchill at just the right moment. Appropriately, the locomotive is No.34051, a Southern Railway Battle of Britain class 4-6-2 Pacific bearing the name Winston Churchill. It was built at Brighton in 1946 and is now on display at the National Railway Museum in Shildon, Derbyshire. Oddly, Churchill declined to attend the naming ceremony in September 1947. Winston Churchill, not the man, was nationalised in 1948 by the new Labour government. We can surmise that the great man did not approve.

Next platform

My journey home that day took me my usual route by foot to London Bridge station where I caught a train to Waterloo on a little back line. Then I caught a train home to Ewell in Surrey where I then lived.

  The draped coffin can be glimpsed through the window of the funeral carriage
The draped coffin can be glimpsed through the window of the funeral carriage

When I came onto the concourse at Waterloo I was surprised to find that my suburban train was on the next platform to the train which was carrying Churchill’s coffin and the funeral party to Oxfordshire where he was going to be buried in the churchyard at Bladon.

The funeral train, pulled by Battle of Britain Class Pacific “Winston Churchill”, departed just ahead of mine but we soon passed it and I took the photograph of the famous engine. 

So that’s my personal connection to the Darkest Hour. The quality of the photos leaves a lot to be desired but they had a difficult birth and, like many of us, they are showing their age.

A couple of moving videos, one to bring back the sombre mood of the funeral day and the other a recording of what many believe to have been Churchill’s personal Finest Hour. The music in the above video is the apposite hymn I Vow to Thee my Country, adapted by Gustav Holst from his “Jupiter” and set to the words of Cecil Spring Rice in 1921

Editor’s Note: Thank you, John, for this timely story. I also enjoyed Darkest Hour and agree with your assessment of Gary Oldman’s performance. I was in London on the day of the funeral but watched the occasion on television. I regret not having taken my Agfa Silette to record the proceedings. You were in the right place at the right time and your photographs perfectly capture the moment.



  1. Two years before I was born, but fascinating nonetheless.

    The Britain of today is but a pale imitation of that in Churchill’s day and I cannot but think he would be singularly unimpressed.

  2. I was lucky enough to meet and photograph ‘Winnie’ whilst he was still alive and then later was one of three photographers chosen ny Newspaper Group ‘United News’ to cover the funeral. I still have my two page fullscap copy of the instructions to we three.

    Basically we were to spend all of the previous day photographing such as the great man lying in state and the crowds already beginning to line the funeral processions route, then we were to work all night photographing the rehearsal, again including taking a empty coffin down the Thames and lowering the cranes etc, and finally we were to work on non stop through the following days actual event.

    After the funeral was over it was of course back to Fleet Street for us to process the films etc, but the one thing I had not recalled until I recently re-read those fading old instructions was the final paragraph which read ‘ And Bob Austen to break off so as to go on to Wembley to cover the football’

    Poor young Bob! And he was probably chosen to go on to Wembley because he was youngest, but as we other two had already worked on through day night day and were staying on in the office to process and print it still must have been pretty hard. Sadly neither Bob or the other photographer Peter Abbey are still alive.

  3. Thanks you………………….from Canada………………my home town looked grand……and the cranes showing tribute was surely a very fitting final salute to our Churchill.

  4. I remember watching the funeral on television, seeing the planes do their fly past, and then step outside the house to see them turn and fly over, I have no idea where they were headed. I was nine years old.

    Churchill was a hero and still is our greatest politician, he warned us during the general election that led to Attlee’s nationalisation fest that his kind of government would lead to a gestapo in our country, something that he had just helped Germany get rid of, and he wasn’t wrong…

    …And we are still trying to get rid of it, so I am not surprised that he did not attend the event where he was ridiculed by having his great name attached to an already redundant vehicle.

    Gary Oldman was a guest of Graham Norton on New years eve and all the guests were asked to do a "turn"…

    Oldman did his via an iPhone, it was of him on the set of the Darkest Hour, dressed and fattened as Churchill and impersonating soul singer James Brown, it was rather good…


    • BTW: Sorry John, I got carried away, as so often.

      I love the pictures, these are what photography is really about, illustrated memories… The equipment is not that important when it comes down to the heart of the matter.


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