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Happy 100th birthday to the Queen Mother’s right-hand woman

Blog | By Harry Mount | Sep 03, 2018

Dame Frances Campbell-Preston is one of the last witnesses to a vanished age. Not only is she the Queen Mother’s oldest surviving lady-in-waiting – she served Queen Elizabeth from 1965 until her death in 2002. She’s also Joyce Grenfell’s sister-in-law, and her late husband, Patrick Campbell-Preston, was in Colditz with Douglas Bader.

On 2nd September, Dame Frances turned 100.

It was in 1965 that she was suddenly asked to be a Woman of the Bedchamber – or a lady-in-waiting – to the Queen Mother by Sir Martin Gilliat, Patrick Campbell-Preston’s fellow prisoner-of-war, who became the Queen Mother’s Private Secretary. Dame Frances was entirely unprepared. For her first meeting with the Queen Mother, she wore one of Joyce Grenfell’s old dresses.

‘At one point, I borrowed a dress out of the children’s dressing-up box,’ she says.

The job had its grand moments: breakfast in bed brought to the bedroom by a footman and passed to a housemaid. The housemaid turned down the bed; the lady’s maid drew the bath. Toothpaste was spread on your toothbrush.

There were glamorous visitors. Noël Coward told Dame Frances how to congratulate actors in appalling plays: say to them, ‘Darling – what a night!’

The ladies-in-waiting accompanied the Queen Mother, and attended to her needs, including answering her post.

At one moment, the Queen Mother became interested in fossils; she and Dame Frances took to the seashore by the Castle of Mey, Caithness, bashing stones with two delicate, silver-headed gavels.

Despite all the Queen Mother’s friendliness, formality remained; ladies- in-waiting curtseyed to her once in the morning, once at lunch and on saying goodnight in the evening.

Dame Frances also accompanied her on foreign visits. On an Australian trip, the Queen Mother handed her a thin, diaphanous coat while driving in an open car. Dame Frances folded it and put it inside her bag.

‘Don’t do that!’ said the Queen Mother. ‘That’s my best coat.’

Forever afterwards, the Queen Mother jokingly said to people handing their coat to Dame Frances, ‘She’ll put it in her handbag.’

The Queen Mother liked picnics in the Scottish outdoors, wrapped, in Dame Frances’s description, ‘in four jerseys, two headscarves and an enormous tent-like mac lined in camel hair, and all to be seen will be a tiny pair of blue hands and a few flashing diamonds’.

At one picnic, the Queen Mother welcomed two guests – unknown except for the fact that they were thin and immaculately dressed. Before the guests got there, the Queen Mother asked Dame Frances to get a bottle of sherry for them.

‘Why?’ Dame Frances asked.

‘We need sherry because thin people always drink sherry,’ the Queen Mother said.

‘There was an awful moment when they both walked in,’ says Dame Frances. ‘And we asked what they’d want and they both said sherry. It was quite difficult to suppress the laughter.’

When Dame Frances turned 80, she suggested resigning.

‘Congratulations!’ said the Queen Mother, then 98. ‘You feel marvellous after you’re 80.’

And so Dame Frances stayed on until the Queen Mother’s death at 101.

‘It was very hard work but great fun,’ she says today. ‘I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.’

She was still working for her on her 100th birthday parade – when the Queen Mother was reluctant to board a carriage down what she worried would be an empty Mall. Prince Charles bucked her up, saying, ‘Come on, Granny – remember Hitler said you were the most dangerous woman in Europe!’ They set off down the Mall, laughing, cheered by thousands.

‘She was a brilliant person at Clarence House,’ says Hugo Vickers, the royal historian who edited Dame Frances’s memoirs. ‘When others were dithering about showing the Queen Mother some letter on a sensitive subject, she would just take it right in.

‘In New Zealand, they all got into the train and Sir Martin Gilliat said, “Now we must bring out the automatic arm”, explaining, “We can’t expect Queen Elizabeth to wave the whole journey – so we have this arm.” Frances was taken in at first.’

For all the fun of her later royal years, Dame Frances was brought up in the shadow of deep sadness. Born in the closing months of the First World War, she was named Frances Grenfell after her uncle Francis Grenfell, who won the Victoria Cross in Belgium in 1914 and was killed a year later.

‘Every time you cried as a child, you’re told you can’t cry because you’re named after a VC,’ Dame Frances says wryly.

‘I began to hate it.’

Francis Grenfell’s twin, Riversdale Grenfell, was killed, in 1914. They were so celebrated that John Buchan wrote their biography, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell – a Memoir (1920).

Two of Dame Frances’s other uncles were killed in action, one in the Matabele War in 1896, another in Omdurman, Sudan, in 1898. Two cousins, Billy Grenfell and the poet Julian Grenfell, were also killed in the First World War.

‘I remember my father [a banker] saying, “I think we’ve given enough: Francis and Rivy and Billy and Julian,”’ says Dame Frances. ‘It was a high order, wasn’t it?’

By a cruel accident of fate, Grenfell Tower was named after another military Grenfell, Field Marshal Lord Grenfell (1841-1925) – Dame Frances’s great-uncle (and, incidentally, my great-grandfather; I’m a cousin of Dame Frances).

‘At the time of the Grenfell Tower fire, it was uncomfortable having the name of Grenfell,’ she says. ‘It was really nothing to do with them.’ (The tower, built in 1974, is named after Grenfell Road, the Victorian street on which it stands, and the street was named after the Field Marshal in the late 19th century.)

She’s not in the slightest bit pompous about these connections; William Waldegrave, the former Conservative Cabinet Minister, is her nephew. She is distinctly jokey as we chat in her Chelsea flat, overlooking the Royal Hospital – where she went to church on her 100th birthday; and where she spent much of her childhood, because her grandfather was Governor of the Royal Hospital.

For all her later royal life, the young Frances Grenfell was mocking about coming out as a debutante in 1937. She wrote to her mother that the Queen (later the Queen Mother) ‘looked delicious in a very lovely high tiara, which was obviously very uncomfy; so she had to keep easing it. And he [George VI], looking very sunburnt and handsome in Air Force uniform, sat looking very small and young at the end of the room, in two enormous thrones. Somehow the whole procedure seemed out of date, impersonal and very ridiculous. I should have thought it would obviously be one of the first Court ceremonials to die out.’

Dame Frances was right. The Duke of Edinburgh thought the ritual so silly that debutantes fizzled out in 1958.

‘We had to curtsey to a cake, coming down the stairs at Dorchester House to some frightfully pompous piece of music,’ she says.

She recalls, too, her sister-in-law Joyce Grenfell. Eight years her senior, Grenfell taught Dame Frances and her sister about powder, rouge and Tangee lipstick. She first tried out her characters – including ‘Shirl’, her boyfriend ‘Norm’ and an inane debutante – on Dame Frances.

‘I do remember being rather resentful when the characters became public.’

Dame Frances also knew Joyce Grenfell’s aunt, Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take her seat.

‘Nancy Astor was scary,’ she says. ‘She just said what she thought and, when challenged, she said, “I know what I’m thinking and I’ve said it.”

‘Nancy was furious about Joyce being on the stage.’

In 1938, Dame Frances sailed to Canada to stay with John Buchan and act as informal lady-in-waiting to his wife, Susie (an old family friend). Buchan is best remembered for his 1915 novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps. As Lord Tweedsmuir, he was Governor General of Canada from 1935 to 1940.

‘You would say he was humourless,’ she says. ‘I remember being ticked off because I was being facetious about the Scots, at the age of 19.’

In Canada, she met Buchan’s ADC, Patrick Campbell-Preston; they married in December 1938. In June 1940, he was imprisoned when the Highland Division was captured at St Valery in Normandy.

‘We heard a rumour that he was OK but we didn’t know for certain,’ Dame Frances says today, ‘It was two months before we knew officially that he was alive and captured.’

Imprisoned for five years, he often tried to escape, through tunnels and via a bridge (built from bookshelves in the prison library) laid over the camp fences.

‘I’d rather he’d sat tight but I don’t suppose I really expected it,’ says Dame Frances, who served as a Wren in Oban.

Because of his escape attempts, he was sent to Colditz, where fellow prisoners included the legless RAF ace, Douglas Bader.

‘They didn’t talk about Colditz much,’ says Dame Frances, ‘You got it out of him gradually. All those war things – when everything’s over, you don’t want to go on about them. They used to be quite amused by Douglas Bader. He used to try to escape – and fill up his wooden legs with food.’

After the war, the Campbell-Prestons lived in Scotland with their four children (she has 13 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren), only for tragedy to strike. Patrick Campbell-Preston had a serious heart condition, and died shortly after a car crash in 1960, aged 49.

In the early months of Dame Frances’s widowhood, Joyce Grenfell visited her, and was inspired to write a well-known poem.

‘If I should die before the rest of you,

Break not a flower nor inscribe

a stone.

Nor, when I’m gone, speak in a

Sunday voice,

But be the usual selves that I

have known.

Weep, if you must.

Parting is hell

But life goes on.

So sing as well.’

Dame Frances may not have sung ever since but she has remained remarkably jolly – while staying discreet about her old employer. When she collected our very own Oldie of the Century award for the Queen Mother in 2000, The Oldie’s James Hughes-Onslow asked after the 100-year-old Queen Mother’s health.

‘Did you ask whether I’d like any ice cream?’ said Dame Frances, putting him off the scent.

‘She really was firing on all cylinders right until the end,’ Dame Frances says of the Queen Mother. ‘Her last outing was in a force-eight gale at the Castle of Mey. Oh Lord, she was funny. All the time.’

‘The Rich Spoils of Time’ by Frances Campbell-Preston (edited by Hugo Vickers) is published by Dovecote Press