Today (April 21) in London History – Happy Birthday Your Royal Highness

April 21 is the Queen’s birthday. This Today in London History episode tells the tale.


Happy birthday, M’am.

That’s mum not as in mummy, mother but M’am as in Your Royal Highness.

To my ears – and maybe it is just my ears – that title is so weird.

I met Her Royal Highness. Ten years ago it was. In Buckingham Palace. Had to do with the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth. The Palace saw fit to mark the occasion. They invited 50 or 60 people of some note in the Dickens universe. They must have made a mistake but I was one of the invitees. There were two queues. One to meet the Duke of Edinburgh and the other to meet the Queen. I was in the Queen queue. Being an American, I was absolutely clueless about how I was supposed to comport myself. I said to one of the brilliantly attired equerries who was shepherding us along, “so how do I play it when I get up there?” He said, “just bow your head slightly and say ‘Your royal highness.’ If she asks you a question just answer it.”

Well, even an unmade bed like me could follow that set of directions. 

But I remember thinking, “this is just so weird – Alice in Wonderland stuff.” For starters, where I grew up – in the driftless hills of the Land of the Gathering Waters – 4,000 miles from Buckingham Palace – nobody calls anybody “your royal highness.” That phrase wasn’t even on the edge of my radar.

And then there’s that personal character flaw of mine – as it says in my Guide’s Bio – he broods over words. My mind just went into overdrive. The whole thing was compounded by the Queen’s being tiny. There I was, 6’ 2” tall saying “your royal highness” to a woman who just about came up to my sternum. And I’m wondering, “how many tens of thousands of strangers has this poor woman met over the 60 years (at that time) that she’s been doing this? It has to be over a million strangers. Running the numbers – that’s another character flaw of mine. 3,120 weeks of being Queen. You meet just over 300 strangers a week – that’s a million strangers over the course of your career, the course of your Queening it. And I remember thinking 300+ strangers a week is surely a low estimate. When I was being a throttle-wide-open walking tour guide I must have been meeting close to 300 people a week. 

And then there was the thought, “there’s 61 people in this room. For 60 of us it’s a very special occasion. And then there’s that poor little old lady who drew the short straw. Sure wasn’t special for her. You can get the measure of that by the respective takeaway phrases. 60 of us went away saying, “I met the Queen tonight.” One of us – the Queen – went away saying I met 60 strangers today.

I thought, “detention” – being kept after school. For the Queen this must be like that – royal detention.

I wondered, will she be thinking “this is 75 minutes of my life I won’t get back.” And I wondered when each of us murmured “your royal highness” was she ever tempted to give tongue to the thought, “your non-royal lowness.”

Bizarre bizarre bizarre. I of course ended up going to the dictionary. Been around a long time that word, “highness”. The Venerable Bede used it back in the 7th century. It properly took hold, though, became a royal title, in the reign of the first Elizabeth. The root of the word, they think it might be traceable to a Lithuanian word meaning hill. And beyond that back to a proto-Indo European word. How cool is that.

Anyway, yes, it’s Happy Birthday, Your Royal Highness. Her Majesty was born on April 21st, 1926. And how did it get into the Today in London History series which, after all, bills itself as for the most part giving a miss to the big, achingly obvious candidates. Well, to my surprise, turns out that Queen Elizabeth’s birthday doesn’t in fact make it into most of the reference books of significant dates. Why that should be I don’t know but I thought, ok, if it’s not in those books it’s not achingly obvious and by definition that licenses me to showcase it here.

Plus, when I started digging, I learned some interesting stuff. Wrap all that together and you’ve got a London Walks Today in London History podcast. 

So what did I learn? I knew of course that the future Queen Elizabeth II was born in a smart townhouse on the east side of Berkeley Square. 17 Bruton Street, to be exact. Right in poshest Mayfair in other words. The house is long gone. Today the address is a swanky Chinese restaurant. Before that it was a very upscale car dealership. Sort of appropriate, that, given that the Queen’s car collection is said to be worth £10 million pounds. And the property is owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family. And, yes, that very important royal birth is marked with a plaque. 

That said, The Duke and Duchess of York and their baby girl weren’t there long. They moved to a much grander house – now gone as well – at 145 Piccadilly. There’s a nice tale to tell about that address. Especially fun to recount it if you’re a guide and in situ as it were. By that I mean guides – good guides – know where the royal apartments are in Buckingham Palace. It’s fun to point them out and make the point that from their park-side windows – that would be Green Park – it was just possible to see across to 145 Piccadilly. Just possible for Grandpa – King George V to espy his tiny granddaughter and for them to wave at one another. The point being that everybody was pretty much terrified of the King, the single exception being his little granddaughter. She adored him. And he adored her. He called her Lilibet and she called him Gwandpa England. 

And that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge of the future Queen’s beginnings. From the 1920s newspapers I’ve learned that the Duke and Duchess had two other posh Mayfair homes in those years. One in Grosvenor Square and Curzon House in Curzon Street. I’ve learned that the Duke of York was very busy that spring with royal engagements. He had a full diary. I think it’s arguable that the entirely commendable way the Queen has done her duty – over seven decades now – may be in her genes, something that she learned at her father’s knee. And not forgetting her mother’s input. The Duchess was said to be incapable of boredom. That may be the most important quality of all if your working life is a never-ending round of being nice to strangers and snipping ribbons and pretending to be interested in places that for the most part you’re not very interested in. 

Getting close to the event, well, it turns out that the Duke and the heavily pregnant Duchess went to the theatre a few days before the birth. I’ve learned that the baby arrived a little bit early and it was a Caesarean delivery.

Which pretty much brings us to the newspaper accounts of the event itself. They were much more interesting than I’d anticipated.

The Telegraph headlined its report, Daughter Born to the Duchess of York. All in caps.

The piece opens, “Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of York, was safely delivered of a daughter, at twenty minutes to three o’clock yesterday morning.”

The official bulletin went out at 10 am. It read: The Duchess of York has had some rest since the arrival of her daughter. Her royal highness and the infant princess are making very satisfactory progress. Previous to the confinement a consultation took place, at which Sir George Blacker was present, and a certain line of treatment was successfully adopted.” It’s maybe a little bit cryptic that final remark – “a certain line of treatment was successfully adopted” – my hunch is that refers to the Caesarean. Not least because Sir George Blacker was a very distinguished obstetrician and gynaecologist. Was pleased as punch to discover that George Blacker and I attended the same college: University College London.

It was also interesting to learn that soon after the labour was underway the Home Secretary was summoned – as the Telegraph put it – “in accordance with custom where births in the Royal Family are concerned.”

So why was the Home Secretary summoned? The Telegraph explains:

“The concern of the Home Secretary in the birth of a child to the Duke and Duchess of York is not so remote as may appear at first sight. At the present moment the new Princess is the only child born to a son of the reigning Sovereign, and is therefore in the direct line of succession to the throne. The position in this respect may be modified by issue of his Majesty’s first son, or by the birth of a son to the Duke and Duchess of York, but the government is compelled to deal with the event in the circumstances which actually obtain, and this is one explanation why the Home Secretary was summoned to No. 17, Bruton Street when the baby was expected.”

Now two things of interest here. In the first instance the Home Secretary had to trot along to Bruton Street to make sure that this baby was the genuine article – that it was issuing from the Duchess of York’s womb. In short, that it was royal. That it wasn’t an imposter. It’s hard not to be prurient – hard not to wonder how close was the examination of the labouring Duchess’s anatomy that the Home Secretary was allowed.

And the other thing of course is that if her parents had subsequently had a baby boy he would have jumped ahead of her in the succession queue. That’s changed now. 

One last tantalising detail. It turns out that very high up on the list of priorities was getting word of the birth to the Lord Mayor of London. This was another of the tasks carried out by the Home Secretary. He had a busy few hours. In the words of The Telegraph, “In accordance with precedent on the occasion of births in the Royal family, the Home Secretary conveyed to the Lord Mayor of London early yesterday the intimation of the birth of a daughter to the Duke and Duchess of York. The announcement was posted outside Mansion House.”

Interesting, what. Special treatment for London. No other local civic authority anywhere in the country will have enjoyed that privilege, will have been accorded that respect. 

And that’s all except to say the King motored in from Windsor the next day – Thursday, April 22nd – to see his first grandchild. And see her he did – for exactly half an hour. Quite a week for his majesty: his first grandchild arriving on Wednesday and his going to the Cup Final at Wembley on Saturday.

And one other bit of flakiness about that week – what’s deeply satisfying about this is the few hundred of you who listen to this podcast will be the only people out of the 8 billion on earth today who know this: for some reason, that was never satisfactorily explained, 12 hours before Princess Elizabeth was born, 

Big Ben – yes, that Big Ben, Big Ben the clock – behaved aberrantly. It struck the hour at the three-quarters. And a stroke too many at four and five o’clock. A member of the firm that made the clock said “it was impossible for the mechanism to go wrong and could not attribute the occurrence to any specific cause.” 

My hunch is old Big Ben knew that baby girl was on her way and was beside himself with excitement. He couldn’t help himself. He wanted to ring out. And he did ring out. The stroke too many was for the baby girl.

Happy Birthday, Your Majesty.

You’ve been listening to the daily London Walks podcast. Emanating from – home of London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

As they so kindly put it a few years ago at that American convention of walking tour guides: 

 “London Walks is the premier walking tour company in the entire world.” The secret? It’s pretty obvious, really. The calibre of the guiding. In the words of that film-maker American journalist, “if this were a golf tournament every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

At no little risk of belabouring the obvious, with London Walks, uniquely, you 

get walking tours fronted by accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, the former Editor of Independent Television News, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Museum of London

archaeologists, the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, distinguished academics – a Cambridge University palaeontologist, a University College London geologist, elite, award-winning professionally qualified Blue Badge guides, etc. Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And no, I haven’t forgotten. The London Walks Today in London tip is: Go on the Old Mayfair Walk. It goes to Berkeley Square, goes to Curzon Street – gets you to the pit face of some of the places that loom large in the birthday story this podcast has recounted.

See ya tomorrow. 

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