Behind a screen of plainclothesmen, burglar alarms, watchdogs and servants who gripe pretty much like the hired girl next door, the young Queen runs a palace so large that no one knows how many rooms it has
THE OTHER DAY a highly placed morningcoated Buckingham Palace official said a bit thinly, “We work on the principle that once inside this place it becomes a private matter. It’s the Queen’s home.”
Yet Buckingham Palace, the 614-room (or 690room—nobody’s ever arrived at the same count of rooms twice) house of the Queen, in the heart of London, amid sixty acres of garden and parkland, has probably been stared at more often, more steadily and by more people, than any other home on the globe.
You can’t pass the high iron gates fencing the forecourt and the bland outer approach of the palace, either in fog or sunshine, drizzle or sleet, morning or midnight, without finding at least a few people peering thoughtfully through the railings. What they look for, what they expect to find and what they do find, can possibly be answered in another way only by a pilgrim who reaches Mecca. Canvassed in five minutes, on a recent forenoon, when the only sign of life evident at the palace were the ordinary guards at the gates—no bands, no royal cars, no state visitors—the attentive watchers outside proved to be two Australians, one Canadian, one Indian social worker in native costume, two Norwegian students and half .. dozen Londoners.
No one appeared to feel the need to explain his presence or curiosity. "Just thought I’d have a look at it,” was the average answer. None had ever been inside the palace or ever expected to get inside. That was beside the point anyhow. It was just nice, apparently, to look at it.
You don’t find this at Queen Juliana’s Royal
Palace fronting the Dam Scuare in Amsterdam, nor do people peer at the Drottningholm Palace of the King of Sweden, nor do they line up to watch Denmark’s King Frederik leaving his Amalienborg Castle in Copenhagen. The Grand Duchess of Luxembourg’s small palace fronts an ancient street in the city of Luxembourg, with nary a tourist ever in sight. Of Europe’s royal residences, Buckingham Palace alone—known to those who toil in its private world as Buck Househas become the cynosure of the world’s eyes.
As a cast le-watcher of considerable experience I must confess I don’t know why.
Buck House certainly isn’t the most beautiful castle in the world. The front of it was actually planned as the back of it, by John Nash, the first architect of Buckingham Palace. (Later others had a hand in modifying this feature, removing that tower or yonder cupola.) The palace is actually built around a quadrangle which you enter through a portico in the centre of the Mall-side façade, and the “front”—the handsome state apartments with high doorways giving out to a vast terrace—faces the royal park.
To penetrate this royal castle, to seek the secrets of its maze, and to devour every word ever written about it, is not a matter of mere idle curiosity to the British. Their interest is a mark of awed respect. It seems to be the trying to reach, or touch, the core of their own faith in the throne.
But it’s difficult to actually reach the royal chambers, for around the placid palace there are the unseen obstacles of an electronic device, watchdogs, and a twenty-four-hour detail from Scotland Yard.
Even an engraved invitation card, blazoned with the royal crest, gets you only into half a dozen of those hundreds of rooms, and never into the ten private chambers of the family of Windsor. The Queen’s castle is her home, for sure. (Even occasional workmen at the palace, like the two hundred and fifty who came to repair wartime bomb damages, are thoroughly screened by Scotland Yard.)
To the 'casual eye the twelve-foot-high spikeencrusted wall surrounding the entire sixty acres of palace, mews, gardens and lake, should be easy enough for a determined burglar or an earnest sight-seer to scale. In fact in the past five years six people have succeeded: a burglar who hid in a maid’s bed until found; a citizen of Potters Bar, Middlesex, who went searching for his wind-blown hat; an unknown magician who stole a diplomatic box in 1950 from the room of the Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps, Major-General Salisbury-Jones, but chucked it into j dustbin before he left the grounds; a man who scaled a builder’s ladder on a bet; and two American students looking for a place to sleep. But, actually, the tranquil-looking, drowsi ig palace is far from open. Security measures are now tight and sound.
To begin with there are fifty-five men on watch night and day. They are under the strict orders of suave, tall Chief Superintendent David Cameron, of Scotland Yard’s A Branch. Cameron, a crack
revolver shot, always accompanies the royal family and is famed for his Scarlet-Pimpernel properties of invisibility. Even on royal picnics where he is ever present he can hide behind a tree or a bush, with his sandwiches and thermos, for three or four hours.
The picturesque, much photographed, solemnmarching Buckingham Palace guards have nothing to do with this security duty. Burglars can run rampant for all they need to care. But if you pay attention you’ll always see innocuous mildmannered men loitering by the gates keeping a watchful eye on who comes or goes.
Besides the men on watch there is also an electronic device guarding the palace. A thin copper wire, running along the top of the palace wall, will, even if only barely touched, automatically illuminate a screen in the palace police room. This screen is three feet wide and divided into fifteen sections, each section covering about fifty yards of the wall, and will not only show' at once the outline of the intruder but connecting wires will flash an instant alarm to the Scotland Yard information room.
Should this not be
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sufficient, the palace and palace grounds can be floodlit by a master switch in a matter of seconds. There are trained Labrador dogs to sniff out intruders. Each exit and entrance can be automatically barred; the outer gates have concealed hinges and locks which can be operated not only from inside the palace but also from the Admiralty Arch and the Horse Guards’ Parade.
Should anyone manage to get thro rgh all this it would still be almost impossible for him to penetrate the royal chambers. When Edward VIII was King he once surprised a workman, who’d climbed in by a window, penning busily on palace note paper, “Dear mother, please note the change of address ” However, the man would have been hard put to find another method of exit, for in that room is one of the palace’s two secret doors, set into a mirrored panel indistinguishable from others in the room.
There are only two copies of the master key which opens the palace’s thousand doors; one for the young Queen, the other for the Master of the Household. Lt.-Col. Sir Piers Legh, in charge of this feudal, private world.
Other avenues of contact with the family at Buckingham Palace, such as telephone and mail, are as strictly controlled, though all you have to do if you want to phone the palace is look up the number in a London directory and put a call through. Lots of people do it too. By far the lion’s share of the seven thousand daily calls to the palace during the late King’s illness were personal calls to him from perfect strangers. You may also, if you wish, stick a stamp on an envelope and drop it in a mailbox and be sure that if addressed to the palace it will get there. But there’s one difference. All truly personal mail to the royal family bears a special secret mark known only to friends, and all personal calls are distinguished by a pre-arranged signal.
Buckingham Palace has its own post office under its own postmaster. He follows• the royal family whenever it moves to other palaces (Sandringham, Windsor, Balmoral) and employs postmen, sorters, telephonists, messenger boys and clerks to handle the fifteen hundred letters and dozen-odd presents sent to the royal family every day. Presents are returned immediately if they are sent by strangers not of royal blood. The family’s outgoing personal mail goes by registered post and is initialed by the writer. On special occasions such as the Queen’s marriage, the late King’s illness and at his death, the influx of mail, telegrams and telephone calls rose to thousands each day. Yet, whenever possible, every letter addressed to the palace is answered within twenty-four hours. When the King was sick Queen Mother Elizabeth personally answered the nine thousand telegrams received.
Into this security-shackled palace, where only a few rooms in one wing can become home, the young Queen moved from her own pleasant personally arranged Clarence House. It was as though she had moved from family privacy into the antechamber of her office, for here too are the state apartments where she receives her ministers and guests, here the study where by her signature she transforms scraps of paper into instruments of British government, and here the numerous offices of her big personal staff. Here her comings and goings can never be private. She’s imprisoned in the publicity of Buckingham Palace. She’s a slim girl walking through four million pounds’ worth of art treasures to view
her baby quietly asleep in the pram.
Yet, in spite of the many obstacles j there are plenty of comings and goings to be seen by the watchers outside the palace. Those in the know can often tell who’s calling by the gate or doorway used. Unless it’s a great state occasion when the centre gate is flung open for them the Queen and the members of the royal family will drive up by one or the other of the side gates, circle the forecourt and enter the ins.de quadrangle through the Sovereigns Entrance, a portico in the middle of the palace. Right opposite that, across the quadrangle, is the Grand Entrance but the Queen will not go in by it—you might if you were invited to a garden party—Elizabeth uses a smaller door to the right, at the centre of the north j wing. It’s called the King’s Door.
As you look at the palace from Queen Victoria's monument on the Mall there are two doors at the right and left-hand ends of the palace. Morning-coated, derby-wearing, umbrella-carrying, tall, thin, languid Englishmen, who entirely ignore the plainclothesmen loitering at ; the gates, go in by the right-hand door. They may be Lascelles or Colvilles or j other private secretaries (often relaj fives) of the Queen. That’s called the Privy Purse Door and it opens on narrow red-carpeted corridors decorated by busts and paintings that can only have been unfortunate wedding pre-
Then there’s always a thin trickle of people—a couple on foot who look just like the Bob Shannons, of Grandora, Sask., or the Outerbridges, of St. John’s, Nfld.—they go in by the door farthest left. They’ve come to sign the visitors’ book kept on a little table in a high hall. (All they have to say to the guard is “I’ve come to sign the visitors’ book.”) It’s a time-honored way of saying to the royal family. “How do you do? We are in London now.” Or, “Thanks for the garden party.'’
Winston Churchill, his cabinet ministers, and all ambassadors get a door to themselves. It’s a bleak little doorway on the Pimlico side, called the Entree or Ambassadors' Door. It is considered an elegant entrance and entry here is a privilege many seek in vain. All of this south wing is the household floor. From here is the shortest way to the state apartments in the west wing which fronts the garden.
When the royal family wants to use the garden there is still another door for them. It’s beyond the offices of the secretaries, in the north wing, 0 glassenclosed private garden entrance where again now. as when Prince Charles was an infant and lived in the palace, the prams are parked. The garden itself, a flowering place even in London's drizzly mild winter days, is unexpectedly tranquil in this hub of a metropolitan city. There the Queen once helped her sister rake leaves, and green punts still nose the grass-grown banks of the five-acre S-shaped pond. During the war a stunned undergardener hurried one morning to Mr. Cole, the head gardener, to report that there were fish in the pond. There were. It took some research to discover that a night air raid had loosened the grid on the pipe leading from the Hyde Park Serpentine ter the royal pond. Roach, perch and chubb had taken advantage of the fact to become royal fish. They're still there, in newer generations.
Fronting these gardens too are, at the end of the north wing, the swimmingpool which is in constant use and. at the end of the south wing, the chapel, tidied now but still unusable from wartime bomb damage.
The Queen has not announced where she intends to live permanently — whether in the apartments occupied by
her father and mother or in her former suite which was her first married home while Clarence House was being prepared for its too brief occupancy. King Edward VIII, during his three hundred and twenty-five days of reign, didn’t take over his father’s study, off the private apartments, but settled down to business in a modest room on the ground floor in the north wing, close to the King’s Door and facing the dark quadrangle. This little office surrounded by the private secretariat and opening on the busy Privy Purse corridor was so unprivate and ordinary that everybody kept forgetting the King now occupied it. Often phone calls to the household would be put on the King’s line. “Who’s that speaking?” the caller would demand briskly, not hearing the voice he’d expected. “The King,” Edward would say. “Can I help you?” For his private apartment Edward VIII also refused to follow tradition. He selected the Belgian suit, so named because King Albert of the Belgians had been a frequent visitor there, in the garden end of the north wing.
It takes about two hundred servants to keep Buck House tidy. This army operates under the Master of the Household, under whom, in tum, is a superintendent in charge of domestic administration who gives directives to a steward and a housekeeper, the major-domos of the manservants and maids. Each year three complete house-cleanings take place when the royal family is away at Windsor, Balmoral or Sandringham.
Servant problems apply here, as they do on Blythwood Crescent in Toronto. The Commonwealth newspapers had a heyday when the Buckingham Palace servants demanded a union which they now have. The Sunday Pictorial wrote: “Not only the soup is simmering in the gloomy old-fashioned kitchens of Buckingham Palace. Some of the staff are simmering too.”
The culmination of some years of grumbling came wdth the added strict security measures about the time of the lost dispatch case and the hiding burglar. Servants declared they’d rather work for ordinary private housewives who paid them better wages and gave them more free time. Maids under twenty-one objected to having only afternoons off; their boy friends weren’t free until evening. Now maids under
twenty-one must get in by ten p.m.; above twenty-one by eleven p.m. The traditional custom of choosing servants on a hereditary basis came a cropper because sons and daughters didn’t want to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Young men and women no longer saw sense in having to drop their work and vanish whenever a member of the royal family appeared in a room, corridor or in the garden. Another rule they didn’t like was that all cleaning is supposed to be done at night while royalty sleeps.
As for living conditions, they were not for modern-day domestics. Until 1950 many of the servants’ rooms were dark. Vast stretches of the palace were without electricity. It’s only in the last couple of years that an oil-heating system has been put into what visiting royalty used to call “the coldest house in Europe.” (Total cost: two hundred thousand pounds.) Some of the servants live in the Windsor Castle Mews and come up to London to work but others have small old-fashioned rooms without proper window space, approached by steep stairs and without bathroom. The main service artery is a stone-flagged tunnel, ten feet below ground, illuminated by bare bulbs and ventilated by grating-covered outlets. Servants must pass through this many times a day. When there are state dinners trusted and experienced servants are needed to get the food warm to the table from the kitchens a quarter of a mile away. Now there are electric trolleys to convey the royal family’s meals to their private dining room, the Chinese Room, from the basement kitchens which are in the corner of the palace diagonally opposite. Electric hot-plates help keep these long-distance dispatches hot.
Chef Ronald Aubrey, forty-year-old, two-hundred-and-fifteen-pound Londoner, who’s worked in the palace kitchens for fourteen years, is in charge of the staff of five chefs, three porters, two pastry maids and two women in the scullery. For state occasions he can hire as much extra help as he wants. For an ordinary dinner party of ten, six waiters are used. The royal family dining alone quite often asks for things to be left on the sideboard and serve themselves. At Clarence House there was just one butler and a footman.
Some of the chef’s problems are unique to Buckingham Palace. For a recent dinner for Queen Juliana of the
Netherlands he had a time finding extra footmen six feet tall who would fit the scarlet-and-blue state liveries and be willing to have their hair dressed and powdered for a fee of three pounds, a meal, and a choice of a bottle of beer or a double whisky.
The problems of running the palace are so complex that many of the staff are specialists. While Sir Piers Legh is responsible for its interior economy, one of his paramount duties is recommending to the Queen the granting of the Royal Warrant. About a thousand firms now describe themselves as holders of the Royal Warrant of App intment. This means that they’ve served the palace satisfactorily for three years or more. The warrant is actually not given the firm, but to its head, and when the holder dies the warrant is automatically withdrawn. The warrant is granted for quality, not quantity—one firm for years boasted the By Appointment sign on the strength of a once-a-year laundering of George V* s bedspread.
Sir Piers’ right-hand man is dark astute Stanley Williams who, as Palace Superintendent, must see that the furniture is in repair, order the engraved note paper and keep an eye on the many valuable movable objects in the palace. Then there are table deckers whose sole job is to lay tables and arrange flowers. There’s a man in charge of the three hundred palace clocks, many of them antique complexities which tell not only the time and the day and the month, but also the phases of the moon and record times of tides in principal British and neighboring ports. There’s the Keeper of the Privy Purse to deal with finances, and the Comptroller of Supply who buys the provisions for the hundreds of meals served in the palace dining rooms
All these people will have had a hand in the preparations should you one day get an invitation to a state dinner at Buckingham Palace.
In such event your car would pass by one of the side gates, cross the forecourt, and through the Sovereigns Entrance into the lighted quadrangle which, for that night, turns into a car park. The tall footman at the Grand Entrance takes your coat and shows you down a parquet floor to the white-andgold grand hall. Seventeen horses were needed to tote the seventeen tons of Italian Carrara marble from the docks when the hall was being built.
When you and all the other guests have arrived the royal family leaves the royal closet, smallest of the state rooms, by the second secret door in the palace which opens into the northwest corner of the white drawing room. A story is told of an eastern potentate who, unimpressed by all the rest of Buckingham Palace, recovered from utter boredom by the sight of this secret-spring-manipulated private entrance.
Now in the glittering crystal-lit hall the royal procession forms, with the great officers of the household and ladies-in-waiting making an impressive background for the Queen and the members of her family. You pass through sumptuous rooms—the music room with deep blue columns set about the wails, the ceiling richly gilded: the blue drawing room with crimson-andgo!d carpets, ormolu-mounted twelvefoot-high doorways, and so into the state ballroom.
This is always used for evening courts and state banquets and now again, as in Queen Victoria’s time, only one throne dominates the one-hundred-andtwenty-foot length of it.
Against the fortv-five-foot-high walls paneled in crimson silk the tall, liveried, powdered footmen pass silently serving !
you on gold plate which is actually silver gilt. Only three pieces are true gold—a salver, a tray and a cup dating from George IV. The King’s Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard, in their gold-and-red Beefeater uniforms, stand motionless about the room. In the little west gallery the orchestra plays. The menu is in French but you can consult only your next-door neighbors about it because the table is eight feet wide. Six great rose crystal chandeliers and hundreds of candles in silver-gilt candelabra blaze light.
The whole thing started in a swamp.
Well into the sixteenth century the palace site was a fly-ridden marshy part of the Manor of Eia, considered only good enough for a leper hospital. Henry VIII bought it and built a small palace he called St. James’s after the old leper foundation of St. James the Less. He drained the land, laid down a pleasure garden and called it St. James’s Park. James I in 1609 tried to turn it into a silk farm and hopefully named the place Mulberry Garden. Pepys strolled down Mulberry Walk not much impressed by the whole thing. He said it was a silly place with “the wilderness somewhat pretty.”
In time the property passed to the Earl of Arlington's daughter. Isabella, who married the Duke of Grafton, natural son of Charles II. Another quasi-royal connection came about when the Duke of Buckingham and Normanby (Lord Mulgrave) bought the property and married Catherine Darnley, illegitimate daughter of James II. She kept as fine a court there as her half sister Queen Anne. When Catherine died her husband’s illegitimate son inherited the property for a while. Then Buckingham House and grounds reverted to the crown.
George III. when a young king, went down to have a look at the place. It was 1761. he was twenty-four, his Queen was seventeen, and they said seriously to one another they’d like a “nice plain home” in which to raise a family. So they moved out of St. James’s Palace to Buckingham House and had fourteen children. There George IV was born and later, remembering a happy childhood, he decided to build on that very spot a palace fit for a king.
John Nash had already designed Regent Street and Regent’s Park as well as the King's "cottage" at Windsor (now the Royal Ix>dge). He sat down to draw plans for a palace. With some modifications Buckingham Palace stands as he drew it then.
Into her Uncle George’s dream palace the girl Queen Victoria moved promptly, on her Uncle William IV’s death, to get out from under her mother’s domination. She landed in a domestic chaos which only her consort, practical Albert, was able to straighten out in the course of years. She left in the palace Victorian horrors of style which Queen Mary in her time, in tum. was only able to straighten out with work, patience, and an equal number of years.
Actually, today, Buckingham Palace is a monument to King George IV’s desire for a grand palace and to Dowager Queen Mary’s indefatigable labor and good taste.
George V used to say often that he’d like to pull down the palace, sell the site (then valued at three million pounds) and make Kensington Palace into a royal residence. Queen Mary first of all worked hard to make the second-floor royal apartments homelike. Then she threw out most of the Victorian monstrosities, stripped rooms and halls, and searched through all the other royal mansions, their garrets and their cellars, for treasures of furniture. She pieced together again periods and styles, refurbished and remodeled, brought Regency material from forgotten comers of Windsor Castle, tore away the striped wallpaper of the state apartments and replaced it with plain off-w'hite paint better suited to the ornate moldings. She rechristened the Balcony Room the Chinese Room, added six antique yellow silk panels moldering away in a forgotten storeroom, and blended these with arrangements of gilt and apple-green Sevres porcelain. And into her family’s private rooms, as a restful contrast to the gold and crimson of the state rooms, she introduced soft pastels, duck-egg blue, and cream walls. So Buckingham Palace finally evolved into the handsome background it is today for the royal family, worthy of the symbolic crown.
A young determined Queen has moved in. Her energetic husband is unlikely to take on the household chores as Victoria’s consort did. What changes there will be will be tiie Queen's own changes in the Queen's own house but there is no doubt that the ruling motif will continue to be love love of family, love of privacy, love of duty.
It's not unlikely that in the new long reign now beginning the stately chambers. the long high halls, the six hundred or seven hundred rooms of Buckingham Palace —whatever the final count may be—will get a new warm patina.