Playing in the castle dungeons as the Nazi bombs fell, Elizabeth the panto princess
00:47 GMT, 21 May 2012
There has only ever been one intimate portrait of the Queen’s childhood – written 60 years ago by her governess Marion Crawford, known to her royal charge as Crawfie.
It caused a sensation when it first appeared 60 years ago — and now, republished for the Jubilee, it enchants more than ever. This is the second part of our exclusive serialisation…
Fairytale fun: Margaret (left) and Elizabeth in costume for a production of Aladdin in 1943
The first time I had tea with the new King and Queen at Buckingham Palace, I was invited to sit down in a magnificent pink and gold chair.
Suddenly, I heard an ominous ripping sound. Within seconds the chair —which hadn’t been re-caned since Queen Victoria’s day — had dissolved.
You may think a royal palace is the last word in up-to-date luxury but nothing could be further from the truth. Living at Buckingham Palace was rather like camping in a museum — one that’s dropping to bits, with equipment three decades behind the times.
As the governess to Princess Elizabeth (known as Lilibet) and her sister Margaret, I had to help settle them in when we moved there in 1937, from the tall, narrow house in Piccadilly where their parents had lived as Duke and Duchess of York. That first night, the wind moaned in the chimneys like 1,000 ghosts.
The palace had only recently had electricity installed, and with little thought to those who had to live there. My bedroom light, for instance, could only be turned on and off by a switch two yards outside in the passage.
On top of that, when a housemaid came to draw my bedroom curtains, the whole lot — curtains, pelmet and heavy brass rods — came down with a clatter, narrowly missing my head. It became clear the Victorians considered no one needed sun in their bedrooms: every single one faced north.
There was much to marvel at, of course. In the King’s bathroom, there were three washbasins in a line. One was marked ‘teeth’, another ‘hands’, and the other ‘face’.
We all felt the palace was far too big: I was separated from the girls by interminable corridors, and it was a five-minute walk to the gardens. Food had to come the better part of half-a-mile from the kitchens at the Buckingham Palace Road end to the dining room at the Constitution Hill end. We also needed the vermin man, who fought an endless battle against the mice with cardboard traps that had a lump of aniseed in the middle and treacle all around.
Elizabeth, known affectionately as Lilibet (right) and Margaret as Girl Guides. Margaret eventually became the association's president
Once, I found a mouse on my bath-towel, and had to ask the palace postman to kill it with a poker.
Outside, crowds gazed constantly at the windows, waiting for something to happen, though we couldn’t imagine what. It amused Lilibet and Margaret on wet afternoons to gaze back at them through the lace curtains.
Another favourite pastime was to sit on a hill at the end of the garden and watch the cars tearing down Buckingham Palace Road as well as children walking with their nurses to the park. Sometimes, we could hear scraps of their conversation, and Margaret — who was dressed like Lilibet in plain cotton frocks and stout shoes — was enchanted by their exquisite-looking clothes.
There was very little restraint placed on the girls. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, coming to see King George VI on affairs of State, could easily find himself tangled up with two excited children racing down the corridors. Or one stoutish little girl — Margaret — panting: ‘Wait for me, Lilibet. Wait for me!’
Dookie, the Queen’s devoted corgi, would sometimes take a nip at a passing leg.
He was a sour-natured creature who adored the taste of trousers. He once bit me quite severely, and also took a piece out of Lord Lothian’s hand. With great fortitude, his Lordship said it didn’t hurt at all. ‘All the same, he bled all over the floor,’ Lilibet pointed out.
Royal charges: Elizabeth and Margaret in 1932 with Marion Crawford
The King and Queen must have pined for their quiet evenings, one on either side of the fire. Ahead, like a veritable Becher’s Brook, lay the Coronation.
To a shy man, the very thought must have been a nightmare. I remember seeing the new King sitting at his desk one afternoon, painstakingly practising his new signature — George R.I. — with a peculiarly sad expression on his face.
On the day itself, Lilibet, then 11, took her duties as big sister very much to heart. After all, Margaret was only six and already had a reputation for naughtiness. ‘I do hope she won’t disgrace us all by falling asleep in the middle, Crawfie,’ said Lilibet. ‘After all, she is very young for a coronation, isn’t she’
After a while at the palace, I felt a glass curtain had come down between us and the outer world. So I suggested one day that we start a Girl Guide company.
We got hold of Miss Violet Synge — later to become Guide Commissioner for all England — who was at first a bit appalled. ‘How could it ever answer’ she said. ‘Guides must all treat one another like sisters.’
I had some difficulty in persuading her there was nothing Lilibet and Margaret would like better. Another problem was Margaret was too young, which bothered her sister immensely.
Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II, and her sister Princess Margaret. 'Margaret always wants what I want,' was a common complaint
‘You don’t think we could get her in somehow’ she asked, when we met Miss Synge. ‘She is very strong, you know. Pull up your skirts, Margaret, and show Miss Synge. You can’t say those aren’t a very fine pair of hiking legs, Miss Synge. And she loves getting dirty, don’t you, Margaret, and how she would love to cook sausages on sticks.’
So persuasive was Lilibet that Margaret was allowed to become a Brownie.
A summerhouse in the garden became HQ for 20 Guides, drawn from the children of court officials and Palace employees.
The King made one stipulation. ‘I’ll stand anything,’ he said, ‘but I won’t have them wear those hideous long black stockings.’ So the Palace Guides wore knee-length beige stockings, and in a short time this innovation was adopted by Guides everywhere.
When Lilibet was 13, although no one talked of her being heir to the throne, I started taking her to Eton twice a week for lessons in constitutional history from the eminent scholar Sir Henry Marten.
At weekends, we would all go down to Royal Lodge, Windsor, where His Majesty co-opted the entire household into gardening. The place had become overgrown and neglected, and he’d decided we should start again from scratch. So every Saturday afternoon, we put on old clothes and set to work.
The King was an absolute slave-driver, making us hack, saw, pull out dead wood and heap up bonfires. For him, the fun had to end at teatime, when his parliamentary black leather boxes arrived by dispatch rider. I sometimes wondered if he’d had two life-size rocking-horses placed outside his study just so he could hear the thump, thump of his girls riding them while he worked.
During longer holidays, which Lilibet and Margaret looked forward to all year, we went to Balmoral in Scotland. Upstairs almost everything was as Queen Victoria had left it: tartan linoleum, tartan curtains and even little tartan hair ties hanging from mirrors. For washing, everyone had an old-fashioned basin and jug.
After dinner, seven pipers in their kilts and sporrans would walk through the hall and dining room, making a racket. Lilibet and Margaret loved this nightly ceremony, which they peeped at from the stairs above.
Princess Elizabeth visiting the Royal Tournament at Olympia in 1932
We were all in Scotland at the outbreak of war in September 1939. When the King and Queen left hastily for London, Margaret was anxious that the Germans would ‘come and get them’. Lilibet, however, was very calm. ‘I don’t think people should talk about battles and things in front of Margaret,’ she said. ‘We don’t want to upset her.’
We spent the winter in Balmoral, as the King and Queen wanted the girls far from any action. There was no central heating, and the water in our drinking carafes was often frozen solid, as were the children’s sponges and flannels — which delighted them immensely.
Reunited with their parents at Sandringham for Christmas, the girls were next sent to Windsor. There, they’d remain in my care until the end of the war. The King and Queen lived at Buckingham Palace, coming down only when they could at weekends.
Windsor Castle was a fortress, not a home, with a sinister labyrinth of dungeons — many with pathetic little scratches made by prisoners on the walls. It was gloomy when we arrived, and the girls clung to me apprehensively. All the chandeliers had been taken down, the glass-fronted cabinets were turned to the wall, the paintings had been removed and much of the furniture was under dust-sheets.
We seemed to be living in a sort of dimly lit underworld — again, with no central heating. A bell rang when enemy aircraft were overheard: the signal to go to one of the beetle-infested dungeons.
The girls were very good. The first time, Margaret fell asleep on my knee and Lilibet read a book. It was 2am before the all-clear sounded. At this point, the Master of the Household, Sir Hill Child, bowed ceremoniously to Lilibet and said: ‘You may now go to bed, ma’am.’
After that, the girls wore siren suits at night and packed little suitcases with their diaries — which they wrote up every day — and various personal treasures. When the bombing got really bad, we all slept in the dungeon.
The girls were also issued with Mickey Mouse gas masks — horrible affairs with red-and-blue noses that they had to wear for ten minutes every day as practice. We made a game of this by playing in the woods at being prehistoric monsters, which I’m sure we resembled.
Sometimes, there were air-raid warnings in the daytime, and we’d scramble into caves that George III had had built into a hillside near the castle, which smelled damp and horrid.
Margaret loved to run on ahead and jump out at us, shouting ‘Boo!’ Like me, I’m afraid, she loved practical jokes. She’d remove the broom from a gardener’s barrow, for instance, hide it in the bushes, then wait to see his reaction.
Lilibet was always too serious-minded to enjoy such pranks: she’d walk away from us, rather pink in the face. She was ashamed to be associated with us, and cross that Margaret had failed to consider the gardener’s feelings.
But she did enjoy playing with the child evacuees from the local village, and soon the grounds resounded with the words: ‘Wait for me, Lilibet!’ — shouted in a Cockney accent.
One rainy day, the King’s librarian, Sir Owen Morshead, let us explore the vaults under the castle. ‘Would you like to see something interesting’ he asked.
He took us to a stack of ordinary-looking hatboxes, which seemed merely to contain old newspapers. But when we examined them more closely, we were soon unwrapping the Crown Jewels — hidden there for the duration.
All through the war, we kept up with events. We had a large map with flags on it, which we moved from place to place. The princesses also earned the name of every English aircraft and could recognise ‘ours’ or ‘theirs’ by the sound of a bomber’s engine.
Strong swimmer: Young Elizabeth
Lilibet’s curiosity made her troublesome during air raids. ‘Do let me see what is happening,’ she’d beg. I’d often have to shout at her to come away from the windows.
Sometimes, when London was under fire, the vibrations could be felt at the castle. To divert the girls, who were anxious about their parents, we’d play the piano, and they’d sing duets at the top of their voices.
Sometimes Lilibet would pause and say: ‘Oh, Crawfie, do you think we are being too happy’
Like Margaret, she lived for the weekends when her parents made it to Windsor. The Queen’s youthful face had become pale and drawn, and the King suddenly started looking very much like his father. But, as always, the royal discretion held. Unpleasant or bothersome matters, such as the Blitz, were never discussed.
For the war effort, the girls and I put on a Christmas play, which netted 30 from the guests. This was followed by the first of several pantomimes, in which Lilibet was principal boy and Margaret was Cinderella, with the other parts played by local children.
Towards the end of rehearsals, the King began taking an immense interest, going over the whole thing meticulously, as if arranging a battle campaign. ‘I can’t hear a word any of them say,’ he’d complain from the back of the hall. Or: ‘Lilibet cannot possibly wear that — the tunic is too short.’
Despite our theatricals, there were times of anxiety and strain. At weekends, when the King and Queen came down, messengers would arrive at all hours with tidings, usually bad.
One weekday came news there’d been a direct hit on Buckingham Palace. The King and Queen had, as usual, failed to go to their shelter during the raid and remained in their sitting room. It was never officially announced what a narrow escape they’d had, but we were horrified.
‘Almost before the wreckage had cooled off,’ someone told me, ‘here they were, the two of them, calmly making their way about it, like people crossing a river on stepping stones!’
Lilibet, at the age of 15 in 1942, was made Colonel of the Grenadier Guards by her father — and she tackled her duties with immense zeal. Indeed, in her enthusiasm, she almost overdid it. After one inspection, at which she’d made some pointed criticisms in her ringing voice, one of the majors said to me, laughing: ‘Crawfie, you should tell the princess quietly the first requisite of a really good officer is to be able to temper justice with mercy.’
There were other valuable lessons ahead. At 16, Lilibet agitated to be allowed to join one of the women’s services. ‘I ought to do as other girls of my age do,’ she said firmly — and her father finally agreed that she could join the Auxiliary Territorial Service as a subaltern.
As a very junior officer, she had to salute her seniors along with the rest. During her training, she passed her driving test and learned how to take a car engine to bits then reassemble it. Margaret was deeply envious as she watched her sister drive a big Red Cross van away one morning. ‘I was born too late,’ she said angrily.
At last, Lilibet was getting a glimpse of life on the other side — particularly when her aunt Princess Mary decided to pay a visit to the mess. ‘Crawfie, Aunt Mary is coming down on an inspection,’ she said ‘and you’ve no idea what a business it’s been. Everyone working so hard — spit and polish the whole day long.
‘Now I realise what must happen when Papa and Mummie go anywhere. That’s something I shall never forget.’
Adapted from The Little Princesses: The Story Of The Queen’s Childhood by Her Nanny, Crawfie by Marion Crawford, published by Orion as an ebook at 4.49, available for download from all ebook retailers, or in paperback at 8.99.
To order a copy at 7.99 (p&p free), call 0843 382 0000.