A moment in history before Kennedy tragedy

Paul Elgood, author of a new book on JF Kennedy's 1963 visit to Birch Grove in Horsted Keynes
Paul Elgood, author of a new book on JF Kennedy's 1963 visit to Birch Grove in Horsted Keynes

THIS weekend sees the 49th anniversary of the visit by John F Kennedy to Birch Grove, the Horsted Keynes home of then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

Kennedy arrived on Saturday, June 29, 1963, and stayed one night at Macmillan’s private home in the country before flying from Gatwick to Italy to continue a European tour.

The cover of Paul Elgood's book on JF Kennedy's 1063 visit to Birch Grove in Horsted Keynes

The cover of Paul Elgood's book on JF Kennedy's 1063 visit to Birch Grove in Horsted Keynes

Less than six months later, on November 22, 1963, he was shot dead in Dallas in what was a moment of violent madness that became etched in history books forever.

Now, Paul Elgood, the author of a new book, claims to shed further light on JFK’s visit to Birch Grove, which took place at the height of the Cold War.

Paul says the brief 24-hour visit is often overlooked, but the time spent together by the two heads of state, in the Sussex countryside, cemented their relationship and the Anglo-American friendship.

Afterwards, both men saw their work curtailed, Macmillan when he resigned as Prime Minister in October, and Kennedy, when he lost a child just weeks later and then his own life to an assassin’s bullet.

Paul describes his 82-page book as a short history written using three sets of government files – those at the UK National Archives in Kew, the JFK Library in Boston and the East Sussex archives in Lewes.

He said: “Whilst not newly released, it is the first time anyone has pieced the three sets of files together. And what a story emerges!”

In the book, entitled Kennedy at Birch Grove – The Extraordinary Story of President Kennedy’s 1963 Visit to the Sussex Countryside – Paul reveals that Macmillan had to borrow a butler for the occasion, while his housekeeper was asked to move bedrooms to allow the president’s Secret Service agent to sleep in the room adjacent, and a small army of police officers got lost on their way to protect him.

East Sussex police chief R Berefit arranged protection for the president, even having three magistrates sitting through the weekend in case they were needed. But Kennedy’s own Secret Service security bubble was so tight that the local police were left as by-standers to the immense US operation, which include three jumbo jets, two helicopters and more than 100 members of the press.

Paul said: “The visit has almost become folklore in the local area, and the actual government files made fascinating reading.

“Reading them is literally like going back in time and re-living those 24 hours in real time.”

He added: “Sadly, Kennedy was assassinated a few months later, and so much of the preparation of the Birch Grove visit mirrored that tragic day in Dallas. He was with the same people, used the same vehicles and planes and the arrangements were identical.

“Locally it is a well-told story, but further afield it became eclipsed by the historic visits to Berlin and Ireland in the days prior to the Birch Grove visit. Nearly 50 years on I really felt it deserved being re-told.”

Paul, who studied American History and Politics at university and is a former Brighton City councillor who also worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign, says he has been a JFK fan since he was 16 and first heard the Birch Grove story.

He now hopes events will be organised in Sussex next year to mark the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s visit as they are being elsewhere in Europe.

l Kennedy at Birch Grove, by Paul Elgood, 2012, is available at www.amazon.co.uk.

Publisher: CreateSpace (14 Jun 2012) ISBN-10: 1467996548 ISBN-13: 978-1467996549