John F Kennedy memorial

JFK Memorial, RunnymedeYou will find Britain’s memorial to JFK at Runnymede, an area of meadow land on the banks of the River Thames in the county of Surrey.  The 35th President of the United States of America was gunned down in Dallas aged 46 on 22nd November 1963, having been in office for less than 3 years.  His memorial is contained within an acre of British land, gifted by the people of Britain to the people of America in perpetuity.  The spot is a pleasant one, and appropriate; Magna Carta, the Great Charter, which many believe laid the foundation for English (and later British and American) civil liberties was sealed nearby in 1215.

The memorial is more than an inscribed monument.  The designer, Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, was inspired by Bunyan’s allegory of life in Pilgrim’s Progress to create a memorial that starts as soon as you step through the simple wooden gate.  You proceed through the wild woods of human existence along a stepped cobbled path, the cobbles symbolising people met along the way and the 50 unique steps representing the States of America.  I’m not sure I get all of that, but the memorial itself, a 7 ton block of Portland stone from the same quarry used to for St Paul’s Cathedral, seems to float in the air.  Carved on it are some noble words from President Kennedy’s inaugural speech on 20th January 1961:

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

Kennedy Memorial Trust, Fourth of July, RunnymedeIt is hard, more than half a century on, to understand what the brutal slaying of John Fitzgerald Kennedy meant to many in these islands at the time.  Even now, it does more than simply attract the interest of conspiracy theorists.  Clearly, the man was no saint and his father was, from what I’ve read, an unpleasant individual who also seemed to nurse a particular brand of tribal bigotry against my country.  But JFK appeared to reach out everywhere and, in the words of Harold Macmillan, was “one of those rare personalities who seemed born to bridge the gulf dividing races and creeds and help build the unity of all mankind.”  Not everyone will agree with that and someone obviously disliked Kennedy enough to go to a great deal of trouble to get rid of him.  However, in a civilised democratic society, you do not solve your differences through violence and at the point of a gun – for there lies the path to anarchy or totalitarianism. Moreover, taking out a properly elected political leader undermines everyone’s sense of security; if ‘they’ can get to him/her, are any of us safe?  I believe Kennedy did inspire, and symbolised something positive – a sincere belief in liberty – perhaps youth, a fresh approach less than 20 years after the bloodiest war the world has ever known?  And who amongst us can fail to see the human tragedy in his passing?  Irrespective of what anyone thought of his personality, beliefs, or policies, it was – and is – the manner of his murder that disturbs people most.  I am just old enough to remember the grainy TV news coverage of his assassination and the horrified reaction of my parents; they were stunned.  Harold Macmillan and his wife Dorothy’s personal message to Jackie Kennedy said, “We are numbed by the shock of Jack’s death.”  That feeling crossed political divides in Britain and I’m sure was echoed in most homes.

Geoffrey Jellicoe, Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress, JFKThe Runnymede Memorial was made possible by a huge public response to a government-led appeal.  It was officially opened on 14th May 1965 by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh as well as Jackie Kennedy, her two children and the late president’s brother, Robert – himself later gunned down, on 6th June 1968.

But there was also enough in the memorial fund to enable the creation of a living memorial, by establishing the Kennedy Memorial Trust on 4th July 1964.  The Trust provides scholarships for British graduates to study at two of the USA’s top universities, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

You’ll notice the Trust was established on a fitting anniversary for the USA – Independence Day, of course, the Fourth of July, when Americans celebrate their freedom from tyrannical British Rule, cricket, decent ale, bad teeth, awful plumbing and a whole lot more besides.  We joke about the differences – two nations divided by a common language and all that – but sometimes forget the things we have in common.  So I think the Kennedy Memorial represents something else too.  It symbolises friendship, ties of shared heritage, culture (mostly), values and, yes, blood as well.  The world is a much smaller place now.  In an idle, idealistic, moment I speculate that there should be a friendship monument to every other signed up nation in every respective capital across the globe.  Remember we’re all related anyway.  Which, if you’ve ever wandered along the seafront at Blackpool after dark, is a terrifying thought.

3th President, USA, John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Website of the Kennedy Memorial Trust.

27 thoughts on “John F Kennedy memorial

  1. quinn

    Thank you for this wonderful post, Mike. The memorial design is clearly so much more than just a stone monument, and you describe it so well it is the next-best thing to being there. I didn’t know there was such feeling about JFK in England, but when I visited Ireland, I noticed a photograph of Kennedy in several homes I stayed in – and that was in 1995. I grew up in Massachusetts (and eventually returned), and my aunt worked for Jack Kennedy – first when he was a Senator, and then in the White House. I was quite little, but I remember my aunt giving me a “Kennedy for President” hat during the campaign. And a few years later I remember being sent home from school when the dreadful news came of the assassination.
    Whatever else can be said about him, good or ill, Kennedy could certainly speak in a way that people heard and responded to…even with the accent!

  2. milliethom

    I remember the assassination of Kennedy well and how upset, or at least concerned, everyone was. He was so full of life. I didn’t know there was a memorial at Runnymede as I’ve never visited the site. Now I need to go and see it myself. An interesting and memory jerking post, Mike.

  3. joyweesemoll

    I had no idea this memorial existed. Thanks for sharing it. That’s cool that there’s a scholarship fund associated with it.

  4. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – fascinating … I’ve never been to Runnymede – but this makes me want to go. I remember his death – I was at school … but it seems we can’t forget him … I wonder what life would be like if he’d lived. Sad life he and his family had … thanks for such a thorough presentation … which I shall remember … cheers Hilary

  5. Tina

    Wonderful article. I think so many of us remember where we were, even if we were young, when he was killed. My teacher was crying and the kids were wondered what happened, horrible.
    I actually saw him ride in a convertible when he went through Chester Pennsylvania (near Philadelphia). My mother grabbed me and we headed for the intersection where he would drive through. A big crowd, all of us waving and he waving back.
    Memories…

  6. Sim Carter

    What a lovely place and a lovely piece from you. It choked me up as I remembered hearing the news as a ten year old in school when we were living back in Canada. The principal came to our classroom and whispered something to our teacher (a Scotswoman) which caused her to burst into sobs. My parents were shattered, I came down in the middle of the night to find my parents sitting over cups of tea in the kitchen. It was the first time I saw my father cry. He wore a black armband for a time to show his respect. I can’t help thinking my country’s current president would never —I don’t think—inspire such affection.

  7. jmnowak

    I distinctly remember where I was on that momentous day. A sixteen year old, at home, doing homework during the day and listening to the radio as it broadcast the news. I was in shock. My first real experience of the often nefarious life of politics, but, more importantly, of such immediate violence, despite my mother having gone thru WWII and losing her immediate family. She hardly spoke of it.
    I had felt some hope of what JFK would bring, cut short. Yes, we’re all family under the skin.

  8. Bleubeard and Elizabeth

    I am just fascinated buy your blog. It’s incredible, and deals with so many places I’ve not heard of, and some I have. As a person who lives across the pond, I am in awe of your unbelievable blog. Thanks for the incredibly informative posts and wonderful photos.

  9. DeniseinVA

    How interesting, I didn’t know of this memorial. I have been to his grave sight at Arlington several times over the years. Great post Mike, thank you!

  10. cleemckenzie

    The memorial is splendid in its simple elegance and perfectly suited to the memory of JFK. He wasn’t a saint, and thank goodness for that. But he did speak with eloquence and his visions for the future set a high bar that we may not see again. We could use another brilliant rascal with panache in the White House.

  11. Brenda

    I had no idea that Britain had a JFK memorial. For those of us old enough to remember the Kennedy years, what a whirl of bizarre politics we have seen in our lifetimes. Kennedy to Trump, oh my.

  12. Patricia Kellar

    What a beautiful memorial, another I have never heard of. I remember JFK very well, and the shock of his assassination in Dallas – one of those pivotal moments you never forget. He had a charisma not often seen, and yes, was no saint, but few people are. Many great men also have great flaws, and these do not negate the good they do.

  13. artandarchitecturemainly

    Perfect location.. peaceful, green and safe.

    But how ironic that JFK wrote “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.” The USA not only tolerates guns; half that nation feels they should be mandatory! Until guns are banned, they cannot sensibly discuss liberty.

  14. Clare Pooley

    This is such a beautiful memorial! JFK and MacMillan were almost ‘family’, as you no doubt know. Harold’s wife Dorothy was the Duke of Devonshire’s sister and Kick (Kathleen) Kennedy (JFK’s sister) was married to the Duke’s eldest son Billy who was killed in the war. MacMillan was ‘Uncle Harold’.

  15. Blue Sky Scotland

    Never knew that was there. I did read The Secret Life of J Edgar Hoover however which was a fascinating book about that period with the Mafia, Teamsters,and Texas oil barons all trying to control and sway the direction of political decisions around that time. An eyeopener of a book that makes me wonder what’s going on today behind the scenes we don’t know about. Maybe better not to know as I’m cynical enough about world poly-tricks already…

  16. Lisa G.

    Mike, thank you for this mention on our Fourth of July. 🙂 And, reciprocally, I made Knickbocker Glory for dessert today. (Please tell me you know what that is!)

  17. Kay G.

    There is the most wonderful book about Kennedy, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye”. I highly recommend it. I know great parts of it by heart and I fear I don’t mind sharing it!
    I wish that I could see the memorial that you describe here!
    Younger Americans have no idea what the assassination of President Kennedy meant to this country. They also don’t know what the arrival of the Beatles was like for our country either, the two are linked forever in my mind. One, incredibly sad and the other, filled with much hope and optimism.

  18. Cynthia

    I read your explanation with great interest because I have wondered why Britain would have a memorial to this American president. His assassination was a never-to-be-forgotten event in my young life. I was quite taken with him and his young family and their life in the White House. His life and death was the subject of my first poem, in fact my first writing, that was ever published and I won a small prize as well.

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