An Empty Taxi Arrived and Clement Attlee Stepped Out of It

Winston Churchill? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Critics of U.K. Prime Minister Clement Attlee viewed him as an insubstantial and dull figure. The following quip apparently circulated during the 1940s:

An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street and Clement Attlee got out of it.

These words are often attributed to Winston Churchill. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: Winston Churchill strongly denied that he employed this quip. See the citation further below. The anonymous barb was aimed at Attlee by 1948 as recorded by the widely-syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The Upper Classes are at the government because the inheritance tax laws prevent them from shooting pheasants, so they have retaliated with this joke: An empty taxi pulled up in front of Number Ten Downing Street and Mr. Attlee got out.

This joke template has a very long history. In 1879 the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt who was notably thin was the subject of the following: 2

. . . only yesterday, says a correspondent, you may read in the same paper a fragment of conversation as follows: “An empty carriage stops and who is it who steps out? Sarah Bernhardt.”

In 1882 a similar remark was aimed at Alexander H. Stephens who was a U.S. Senator for the State of Georgia. Stephens was short and slight: 3

. . . the late Senator Carpenter’s description of Stephens. He said: “An empty coach rolled up in front of one of the Departments and Alexander H. Stephens alighted from it.”

A separate article focused on these nineteenth century jokes is available here. This article continues with additional selected citations from the twentieth century in chronological order. Continue reading An Empty Taxi Arrived and Clement Attlee Stepped Out of It


  1. 1948 February 23, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Lyons Den by Frederic Wakeman (substituting for Leonard Lyons), Quote Page 26, Column 6, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (
  2. 1879 May 31, Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, Table Talk, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Buffalo, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1882 August 12, Daily State Gazette (Green Bay Press-Gazette), (Untitled short item), Quote Page 1, Column 1, Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)

Any Time You See Anything Big and Working Well, You Want To Take It Over

Winston Churchill? Clement Attlee? Emmanuel Shinwell? Apocryphal?
fount08Dear Quote Investigator: There was an extraordinary and ribald conversation between Winston Churchill and his political opponent Clement Attlee that supposedly took place in the men’s room of the House of Commons. Was this event authentic or apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a letter dated December 22, 1958 that was written by the statesman Dean Acheson who recorded an anecdote about Winston Churchill and Labour Party Leader Clement Attlee. But Acheson did not hear the story directly from either of the participants; instead, the colorful vignette was presented by the journalists Scotty Reston and Stewart Alsop who were relaying a tale told by the politician Hubert Humphrey. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

. . . the situation reminded him of a story of Attlee’s that in the War Cabinet days he and Winston had had to be excused, and found themselves at opposite ends of the stalls. “Isn’t this unusual modesty for you, Winston,” said Clem. “Not at all,” said Winston, “I’m just suspicious of you Socialists.”

Clem asked why. “Because,” said Winston, “whenever you see a means of production in good working order you want to nationalize it.”

In subsequent years the anecdote evolved. For example, in 1965 a politician named Emmanuel Shinwell was identified as the conversational partner instead of Attlee. In modern times Attlee is usually specified.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order Continue reading Any Time You See Anything Big and Working Well, You Want To Take It Over


  1. 1980, Among Friends: Personal Letters of Dean Acheson, Edited by David S. McLellan and David C. Acheson, Letter dated December 22, 1958 from Dean Acheson to Felix Frankfurter, Quote Page 153, Dodd, Mead, New York. (Verified on paper)