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“Rideau Hall and rink from top of slide,” before 1882. (Photo by William Topley via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

Capital History: Young Winston Churchill’s Christmas Vacation, Ottawa 1900

By Ashley Newall on December 21, 2021

Sir Winston Churchill first appeared in Ottawa in December 1900 on a speaking tour, spinning the tale of his escape from the Boers, a highly publicized escapade that had just launched his political career. Immediately following the lecture, citing “fatigue,” he decided to blow off his next tour stop and sit tight for a bonus day in O-town.

Churchill’s December 27 Ottawa lecture took place at The Russell Theatre  (opened in 1897 and closed in 1928), situated on the north flank of where the National Arts Centre now resides. His lecture, relating to the 1899–1902 Southern African Boer War was entitled “The War As I Saw It.”

Front entrance to Ottawa’s Russell Theatre on Queen St. a smidge east of Elgin St., 1928. Camera is pointed easterly – theatre continues back. (Original image via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

The Boer War was a war between the British Empire—including Canada—and two Southern African Dutch-speaking Boer states, triggered by the discovery of gold and diamonds in their two territories.

“Soldiers going to the Boer War, Ottawa, near the Post Office,” 1899-1901. (Original image and caption via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

Churchill’s post-Boer-escape victory lap/North American lecture tour was necessitated by the fact that being a British Member of Parliament at the time was a volunteer affair, and as such, he needed the money. Immediately following his December 27 Ottawa appearance, he blew off his proceeding tour stop in Brantford, Ontario, either because…

a) The show was followed by a confrontation between Churchill and his booking agent over the paltry portion of the box office the former was receiving, as compared to the latter’s King’s ransom. 

b) He was imbibing, having been observed the day after the lecture enjoying a spot of mid-morning champagne, as one does. And the observer of this extravagance? Why, none other than a young William Lyon Mackenzie King!

c) He’d run into an old flame here in O-Town, which was the case. Or,

d) All of the above!

Or maybe he *was* truly fatigued, as he earnestly told the papers by way of an issued statement. (In all fairness, his exhaustion was flagged upon arrival in Ottawa just before Christmas, and on the 27th, he was coming off a Boxing Day lecture the night prior in Montreal.) Suffice it to say, the fine people of Brantford were outraged and wanted their money back. He ultimately staged a make-up lecture there, donating his share of the box office to charity.

“Rideau Hall and rink from top of slide,” before 1882. (Photo by William Topley via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

Churchill had just spent the Christmas holidays at Rideau Hall, a veritable winter wonderland complete with skating rink and giant toboggan slide. He was hosted by Governor-General Lord Minto and Lady Minto, and it was there that he’d run into his old flame. (This was not, I should say, his future wife, whom he didn’t meet until 1904.) Lord Minto was an avid sportsman and a Gilbert & Sullivan fanatic. Staying at a friend’s nimrod (ie. hunting) lodge in Muskoka around the time, it was duly noted that “[i]t was Lord Minto’s custom to do his morning ablutions at the edge of the lake, naked as a baby bird, singing lustily at the top of his lungs.” (“Æmilius: The Last Viking” by Robert Æmilius Jarvis, 2015.) Sounds like a fun guy!

Governor-General Lord Minto, fully clothed. (Original photo from McCord Museum, ca. 1895 – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

Ah yes, the substance of Churchill’s speaking tour. Wanting some adventure, he enlisted to cover the Boer War as a journalist, was captured by the enemy, and then escaped. The yarn is well-worn, although I do have a fresh take, and it’s one that goes against the prevailing historical record: The man charged with his capture, General Pearson of the Boer Commissariat, actually turned up at Churchill’s December 12 New York City lecture to ascertain first-hand just how he’d gotten away. The play-by-play of Churchill’s escape and the General’s reaction to the various details thereof can be read in the below clipping, if you’re so inclined. Churchill explains:

 

Daily Mail & Empire (Toronto) – December 15, 1900.

Churchill’s telling is the version that has endured, but could the General have been right—that rather than hiding in a boxcar, he’d in fact escaped in plain sight, disguised as a Minister (presumably of the religious variety)? With the war still ongoing, perhaps Churchill was twisting the tale to protect any future British Empire escapees who might copy his manner.

Winston Churchill in 1900. (Original photo from Wikipedia – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

Back to Churchill’s Ottawa appearance: It was well-attended, including by many Members of Parliament and other assorted VIPs. The lecture got a mixed review in The Evening Citizen, with the audience somehow experiencing feelings of disappointment and delight simultaneously, a feat surely only a politician could muster! They were hungry for insight into the contours of the conflict itself, on which Churchill spent little time, and less interested in his tale of escape, which formed the advertised crux of his presentation. He did impress overall, however, and his trademark humour was naturally on display.

Russell Theatre, 1928. Gutted by fire in 1901, necessitating a rebuild, the theatre would have looked somewhat different for Churchill in 1900, although many elements of the original interior were reconstituted. (Original image via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

Russell Theatre, 1928. (Original image via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

Churchill admitted to the Ottawa audience that he sympathized with the Boers, as they were fighting for the preservation of their culture. However, in his remarks, he also conceded that that culture had to go. (It must be noted that the British methods in this regard were tragic, employing a scorched earth policy and worse, severely impacting untold numbers of innocents.) As we now know, it was the Boer movement, specifically the most devout faction thereof, that would ultimately bring in the abomination that was South African apartheid.

After a much-needed day off, Churchill’s tour resumed in Toronto on December 29, where he stuffed Massey Hall to the rafters (reported at the time as “one of the largest audiences ever assembled in that auditorium”), possibly due in part to all the free press his Brantford postponement had garnered. In spite of another argument over money breaking out between him and his agent right before showtime, perhaps a result of Churchill peering out from backstage at the packed house and spinning to exhort, “Show me the money!”, he gamely put on a good show to hearty applause. 

Winston Churchill arriving at Ottawa’s Union Station (Dec. 29, 1941) greeted by his old pal from 1900, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. Note the Black porter: you’re encouraged to read this Canadian Encyclopedia article on a part of Canadian Black history, “Sleeping Car Porters In Canada.

Churchill was back in Ottawa in December 1941 at the height of WWII, arriving to a hero’s welcome. I wonder if there was a moment to reminisce about that time he was enjoying morning champagne in Ottawa when he was supposed to be in Brantford.


Ashley Newall’s “Capital History Ottawa” (#colourized) has been chronicling outstanding scenes in the city through his newly colourized photos and accompanying factoids. The project’s home is on Twitter, but once every two months, a more in-depth piece delving into the stories behind these pics will be published here on Apartment613.