A quick-thinking cinema usherette who picked up one of Sir Winston Churchill’s trademark cigars decades ago gained rock solid provenance for her find by contacting the man himself.
Violet King, an usherette at the London Coliseum in St Martin’s Lane in the 1950s, was so excited by her political keepsake she wrote to 10 Downing Street to gain the Prime Minister’s permission to tell her friends about it – and he said yes.
Her brush with a political legend occurred in January, 1953, when she was looking after a row of seats at the Coliseum occupied by Churchill and wife Clementine during the film premier of American musical Call Me Madam.
Violet’s great nephew Julian Lewis, 50, a former manufacturing firm owner from Stoke, Staffs, picks up the story: “My great aunt Violet saw Churchill drop the cigar which he’d been smoking. She picked it up and treasured it for the rest of her life.”
The 66-year-old cigar, found at a free valuation event at the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffs, is due to go under the hammer at Derbyshire’s Hansons Auctioneers on December 12. Its guide price is £5,000 to £6,000 thanks to its ‘exceptional’ provenance and state of preservation.
“Violet died in her 90s back in the 1980s but I remember her telling me the story,” said Mr Lewis. “It was her claim to fame. She was very proud of the cigar. She liked to talk about it and show it to people.
“In April, 1953, she wrote to Winston Churchill to ask if she could tell her friends she had his cigar. Amazingly, she received a letter on Downing Street-headed paper with a friendly note signed by Churchill’s personal secretary Jane Portal.”
The note, dated April 8, 1953, said, ‘The Prime Minister wishes me to thank you for your letter of April 1. He has, of course, no objection to you telling your friends that the cigar you found is his and much appreciates your goodwill.’
The letter, cigar and a newspaper cutting from the Daily Telegraph about Churchill’s visit to the Coliseum have been well preserved thanks to Violet’s decision to get them encased in special plastic.
Mr Lewis said: “Back in 1953, Violet’s niece, Lillian Corbitt, owned a plastics company called Visijar which was pioneering plastic for baby incubators. She had the cigar, letter and newspaper cutting encased in this heavyweight material. That’s why they’ve have survived so well. Churchill’s DNA must still be on the cigar.”
The newspaper cutting saved for posterity, dated January 31, 1953 and headlined ‘Premier at Theatre’, adds more flavour to the story. It said: “Mr and Mrs Churchill saw the American musical Call Me Madam at the Coliseum last night. When they entered the audience rose and cheered. Mr Churchill smiled and gave the victory sign.”
In 1953, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was in charge of the country for a second time. He was UK prime minister from 1940 to 1945, when he led Britain to victory in the Second World War, and again from 1951 to 1955.Charles Hanson, owner of Hansons Auctioneers, said: “The provenance with this find is exceptional. The cigar was brought along to a free valuation day in Newcastle-under-Lyme and I couldn’t believe my eyes – especially when I saw the letter from Downing Street.
“Churchill was renowned for his love of cigars which he was said to chew on as well as smoke. He puffed away at home, at work and, as we now know, even at the cinema.
“His cigars are said to have bolstered him through the major challenges he faced. Perhaps our current prime minister would benefit from owning this piece of Churchill memorabilia.”
Mr Lewis said he was parting with the cigar and letter because they deserved to be seen more widely and owned by someone who truly appreciated their historical value.
He said: “The cigar and letter were left to my father who gave them to me about 30 years ago. They’ve been stuck in a drawer all that time. The cigar only comes out very occasionally to show friends if Churchill’s name crops up in conversation. I’d like to sell it to someone who will really appreciate it. Perhaps it deserves to be on display at a museum.”
The Churchill cigar and letter will be sold in a Library Auction on December 12 at Bishton Hall, Wolseley Bridge, Staffordshrie, ST17 0XN. To find out more, email [email protected].
Free valuation events in Staffordshire
Hansons experts will also be at Longton Cricket Club, Ripon Road, Blurton, Stoke, ST3 3BL, on December 5, 10.30am-3pm. To find out more, or to arrange a free home visit or no-obligation quote for house clearance or downsizing, email [email protected].