H.M the Queen Mother
The Lying in State of H.M the Queen Mother
Ever since the death of Diana in 1997, when members of the Scout Association were involved with the distribution of the thousands of floral tributes left by members of the public, there has been a plan in place for Scouts involvement in other important state occasions. On Saturday 30th March, the day the Queen Mother died, this plan swung into action.
At around 9pm I received a phone call from Trevor Cutler, County Venture Scout Leader, asking if I would represent the Scout Association at the Lying in State in Westminster Hall. After a few hurried phone calls to get out of working etc, I agreed and, the following Thursday, boarded a train to London.
I arrived Baden-Powell House, the Scout Association's London Hostel and Offices at around 5.30pm feeling rather lost and apprehensive. I had had trouble finding the place and had no idea what I would be expected to do. However, there were lots of other people, all in the same situation to talk to and I soon felt much better. They checked our uniforms and spilt us into teams before sending us off to the dining room to be fed.
After dinner they gathered us altogether to tell us what we would be doing. Our initial duties would to look after the floral tributes in Victoria Park Gardens and to man the books of condolence, ensuring the queue moved as fast as possible and, and I quote, to stop too many people stealing the pens! We would be working in three shifts, blue, green and red, covering either 12 or 24 hours a day depending on the length of the queue.
To help us 'bond' each team was given a different place to stay. Blue shift got a scout hut in Islington, red shift stayed at BP house and we, the green shift, got a ship owned by the Scout Association, in the Docklands which just happened to have a bar - what a hardship!
Being the best team (obviously!) we got the first shift. This meant coming on duty at around 2pm Friday when the Great Hall first opened to the public. However, this was easier said than done. Due to the fact that the coffin was being moved to Westminster that day, half of the roads in London were closed. Thus, reaching Victoria Park Gardens to take up our duties was rather a mission. Although we were staying in the Docklands, our uniforms remained at BP House where they were tended to by an extremely dedicated team of washing, ironing and sewing ladies. Unfortunately, this meant that before going on duty we had to catch a tube to BP house where we changed into our uniforms before catching another tube in towards Westminster. Therefore, to go on duty at 2pm, we left our accommodation at around 9.30am.
Right from the very start it was apparent that things were likely to go 24 hours. We were situated, with the books of condolence, in a marquee in the gardens next door to the House of Commons. From there we could see the queue going over the bridge and disappearing down the river. Some days, on our way in from the Docklands, we could see the end of the queue right back by the London Eye. There were rumours that it was eight miles long.
In our marquee there were roughly thirty-five books to be signed. Our job was to direct people to the nearest available book. They then rejoined the queue, this time to file through the Great Hall, past the coffin.
Shifts continued much like this until the Sunday, when, at the request of Black Rod, we took up an extra and very special duty. He had been very impressed with our management of the queue through the gardens but was concerned that at the rate people were passing through the Hall, not everyone who wished to would get to pay their respects. We were therefore asked to take up positions in the Great Hall, gently encouraging people who paused for too long to move on. This was a great honour as in the past only members of the Police Force or Military have been allowed to take up duties in the Great Hall during a Lying in State. As you can imagine, this was not an easy task. People were deeply saddened by the Queen Mother's death and had come to say goodbye. They did not wish to be hurried along, especially by someone, in some cases, around a quarter of their age. However, it had to be done. Luckily, most people were very understanding, although I did receive the odd evil look!
The night before the funeral, we did a twelve-hour night shift from 6pm until 6am. Utterly exhausted we were then bussed back to BP House where we were allowed roughly two hours sleep before being turfed out of our rooms so that they could be cleaned! We were not happy! After watching most of the funeral on the television we then changed back into our uniforms one final time to line an area of the road outside while the coffin was driven past on its way to Windsor. We then returned to BP House for a barbeque before leaving to go home. I arrived back in Maidstone late on Tuesday afternoon feeling completely exhausted but very proud of what I had been a part of.
There are several things I will particularly remember from my time in London. The first is cooked breakfast. The caterers on our ship provided us with a very filling cooked breakfast to start every day with. Because we were working shifts, the start of our day was sometimes at a rather funny hour, but whatever time of day we got up, they gave us breakfast. This was all very well until it came around to having dinner. Our dinner time generally fell during one of our shifts so we ate most days in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, the only cooked food they serve overnight in the House of Commons is cooked breakfast, the result of which being that in four days we had something like seven cooked breakfasts! I don't think I'll ever want a cooked breakfast again.
The second was being known as a number. Mainly in order to keep track of our uniforms, each member of a team was assigned a number. I for example was Green 7 (or Nasty 2, too long to explain here but ask me if you wish). We each had a coat hanger with our number on it and each item of our uniform was numbered. However, because our team leader frequently needed, for example, eight of us to go somewhere, he found it easier to refer to us by our numbers. He could therefore say "I want numbers 1 to 8 to do so and so". However, the end result of this was that by the end of the six days we spent together, none of us knew each other's names, just their numbers. Even now when we see or speak to one another we refer to one another and to ourselves by our numbers. It was very strange.
In summary, being asked to represent the Scout Association, at an occasion as important as the Lying in State of the Queen Mother, was a great honour. It wasn't an easy job. Shifts could be long, cold and, after we took up duties in the Great Hall, emotional. Asking people, who have queued for several hours to say goodbye, to move on was very difficult. However, we got a privileged insight into the mourning of the nation, played our own small part in history and got to work with some amazing people, with whom I hope to remain in contact with for the foreseeable future. As people keep telling me, "Something to tell the grandchildren"!
Written July 2002.