Timeless! By London Tour Guide Mark Kelly (join me on my regular travels to a year in London’s past).
I’ve always loved the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, and thought it would be a great idea to go back to the 1950’s scene. I was enthused about checking out how this world famous spectacle was presented shortly after Queen Elizabeth II coronation – to see how it differed to today’s events.
The Royal Guards have been a permanent fixture to the Monarch since 1656, their role to protect King Charles II while exiled in France. There are 5 foot regiments protecting the Queen today – most senior being Coldstream Guards, first formed in 1650 under Oliver Cromwell’s Model Army. The former Lord Protector would turn in his grave (if he had one) knowing that one of his regiments was now a permanent fixture in protecting what he tried to eliminate!
The oldest Guard, originally the General George Monck Regiment of Foot, had its name change changed in 1670. Today the other foot regiments are the Grenadier, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards. The later being the youngest regiment formed by King George V in 1915. These same regiments that guard Buckingham Palace today would have been on guard duty in 1953 – not the same officers of course, that would make most of them in their 90’s (although, the queen is 93 and still working).
Changing of the Guard Ceremony
I’ve left my Time Machine in Green Park, and am now waiting for the regiments in all their pomp and finery, accompanied by the bands to perform a ceremonial duty that has been going on here since the late 1830’s. What’s amazing already is just how close I am to the action – because the sentry boxes are OUTSIDE the gates, yes, outside! There are no barriers, there are only about 10 police officers and the guards on duty waiting to be changed are about an arms length away from me. The majority of the public are English speaking and nearly every man is wearing some sort of hat – a trilby, flat cap or bowler for example. Everyone is smartly dressed – strange how fashions change!
I can hear the band now making its way down The Mall with the regiment from St James’ Palace. Today it is the turn of the Coldstream Guards, we know this because it is advertised on the railings of Buckingham Palace – no internet to searching in those days! The crowds are polite and accommodating as they are today, trying to make sure that small children get the best view.
You have to remember, this is not long after the 2nd World War. The military are very popular, and it is well known that these ceremonial performing soldiers are serving officers only just back from active duty. In fact, no different to today’s regimental officers.
The crowds are not held back by barriers, and it’s amazing to see only 2 police officers herding the crowd out of the way as the regiments march through, accompanied by their bands. Stopping on the outside of the Palace a detachment separates from the regiment and is marched up to the sentry boxes positioned outside. There are 8 boxes outside the Palace and I am no more than 5 feet away from the sentry and can feel, let alone hear his sergeant shouting the orders at his officers!
Faces are absolute stone, not a flinch or muscle moved until the order is given. In their shoes I would have wet myself by now, or started giggling (not the best start to a military career, and probably inviting a court-martial). As each officer is replaced he is marched back to his regiment, the crowds are in awe of this spectacle just as I am. The uniforms are the same then as they are today, and the officers are just as smart. What I have noticed however, there are no women in the ranks and all the soldiers are very tall.
Looking towards Buckingham Palace, I can see there is no flag flying, so the Queen is not in residence. A major change from the 1950’s to the present day, is the flying of the British Flag when the monarch is not at home, a protocol put in place directly after the death of Princess Diana. The Queen was almost 500 miles away in Balmoral Castle, Scotland and therefore so no no flag was flying at Buckingham Palace. The Queens’ Equerry therefore was absolutely correct in not flying a flag at half mast.
This didn’t stop the press from making a good story out of it, (no change there then) alleging it proved the queen was showing disrespect to Diana, when protocol suggested otherwise. However, as ever, the Queen has always been quick to feel the mood of the country and immediately wrote up a new protocol.
I wonder what the public of the 1950’s would have made of the press intrusion today of our Royal Family. All around me there is a respect and admiration for the Queen. These are in the main British visitors to see the Changing of the Guard Ceremony, and you can see, the Queen is held in high regard by her subjects.
Different scene in 1953
Looking around, there are motor cars, hackney carriages and vans stationary in St James’ Park behind the large crowds and the Regimental Bands now warming up to march the Guard Change back to their barracks. There are no police officers in yellow jackets holding the vehicles back and they are respectfully waiting for the regiments to move on.
Here’s a family group who enjoyed the ceremony on tour in 2019.
Those few police officers tower over most of us, each officer at least 6 feet in height. Police helmets make them imposing figures and help gain a measure of respect from the public. Incidentally did you know the Busby, the soldiers bear skin hat was designed with exactly that purpose in mind, to provide an imposing figure to all those who saw them, and I have to say it certainly does that for me.
This has been a marvelous experience, the time honoured ceremony has not changed, but the people, the security and the surrounding have. More security and more distance between them and us, but there is still the well deserved respect given to these soldiers, who even while not on active duty put themselves out to protect Queen and country.
Unlike in 1953, we can keep up to date with schedules:
Back to 2020!
I’ll return with another time travelling visit to one of my favourite tourist spots – see you soon!