The day Thos met the Queen

In the 1930s, my great-aunt Dorothy Letitia Powell, alias Thos, was Assistant Keeper of the Muniments at Westminster Abbey. (The muniments are the manuscripts that comprise the archives of the Abbey from the 10th century to the present day.) One day, in early March 1938, the Abbey had some important visitors. Queen Mary, widow of George V, brought two of her grand-daughters, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, to inspect the muniments.  

Nearly 80 years later, the country has been celebrating the Queen’s 90th birthday, and hundreds of her fellow citizens have been reminiscing about the day they met her and what she said to them. This has reminded me of the day that Thos, aged 53, met the future Queen, then aged 11.

The Keeper of the Muniments at the time was Lawrence Tanner. It would be fair to say that he and Thos had a prickly relationship. Tanner was then a bachelor of 48, who had barely ever left the cloisters of the Abbey, where he had been born and educated, and had always worked. Thos had been one of the first women to attend Cambridge University, and had travelled to several dozen countries, in all parts of the world. The impression (and I have this on impeccable authority) is that Thos did most of their joint work at the Abbey, and that Tanner took all the credit.

A day or two (one assumes) after the visit of the Princesses, Thos wrote home to her mother in Hampshire with a description of the event. This is her letter, in full:

8.3.38

Dear Mum,

The visit duly came off, & was rather fun. Tanner & I had reduced the Library to a state of awful & unnatural tidiness, I had daffodils & some branches of forsythia, & also the bits & pieces which I brought up from Botley, & which Queen Mary duly admired!

We hung over the Muniment Room & watched them going round the altar, & the Confessor’s Chapel & so on – in some anxiety as to whether they’d get to us before the children dropped with fatigue. However, they are evidently being brought up good & hard. The Dean & Sir Charles Peers (the Surveyor) took them round, accompanied (most unnecessarily) by the Archbishop of Canterbury – who had no need to butt in – & Canon Barry who is custodian of the Abbey & doesn’t know the first thing about it.

They all arrived finally at the Library at about 9.45: Queen Mary in mauve & looking very charming, much thinner than she used to be, & with an umbrella, the children in dark rose-pink coats & hats. Elizabeth is exactly like her father, much more than like Queen Mary as she always looks in her photos, & doesn’t look as if she could possibly be aggressive or bumptious. She is thin really – & I must say they are both rather plain children, quite straight mouse-coloured hair. But both have very nice expressions – as if they were ready to smile, & quite alert looking – and nice manners – always ready to attend to anything they were told & to look interested, & standing aside till they were told what to look at.

The Dean presented Tanner as soon as all were in the Library, & Tanner then presented me. I made an extremely elegant curtsey & the Queen [Mary] then shook hands with me, remarking firmly to Tanner: “She helps you with your books.” So that settled that.

He then showed off the Library things & she talked a lot & asked most intelligent questions. She at once noticed the one really beautiful thing in the Library: that 16th century Abbot’s Head: part of a monument – & admired it greatly. Lots of people don’t notice it at all till it’s pointed out to them but, as I say, she was on to it at once.

Meanwhile Sir Charles was showing our “Bestiary” to the children – that 13th century book of beasts. I don’t know if you remember it? It has very jolly illustrations of extraordinary animals in all unlikely colours. The children loved it & laughed at the pictures & pawed it all over. They went up to the Muniment Room – Mary managing the staircase with the greatest ease, & chatting all the time – a nice voice, very decisive but quite pleasant: you couldn’t feel the least alarmed.

When they came down & started to go, she came up to me – standing meekly apart with my eyes more or less cast down – & again shook hands, remarking “you have some wonderful treasures here”, to which I replied brilliantly “yes, we have indeed”, adding “Ma’am” as a complete afterthought. Then Elizabeth, after she and I had eyed each other with some uncertainty, clearly decided it would be on the safe side to shake hands also, so she came up & did so, with a very nice little smile; & was followed by Margaret Rose.

Then Queen Mary said she wished to see College Garden – at which point I saw Elizabeth take a surreptitious look at her wrist watch – they’d been nearly 2 hours in the Abbey & the Library all told, so off they went. And I hope Canon Barry, the official gardener, felt ashamed when they got there. There’s not a flower in it except one bush of forsythia – no bulbs. Everyone afterwards seemed very pleased with themselves & quite sure they had been a great success.

We had one document in our show case which is the letter of thanks from the present King for the loyal Address from the Dean & Chapter on his accession. It is of course signed by him, “George R & I”. Queen Mary looked at it very closely to see what it all was about, & said really his signature was so like his father’s, she had to look closely to see which it was.

She was also very interested in the 14th cent. “Liber Regalis”, the Coronation service book of that date, & both children were hauled off the Beast book to come & look at it. But otherwise she left them quite alone to look at things with Sir Charles Peers – who was excellent with them, being a grandfather himself!

Yours ever,

T.