At 145 Piccadilly Elizabeth lived a carefree and happy life until one dark December day when her world of freedom and playdates with friends came to an abrupt end forever
Words by Michelle Davies
Every morning without fail, the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret would rush from their beds and pile noisily into their parents’ bedroom to wake them up. This daily get-together was symptomatic of the carefree, loving atmosphere their parents had created for them at their five-storey mansion at 145 Piccadilly in London, where the girls had French lessons with their friends and played freely in the private gardens at the rear of the property. It was the most idyllic place for Elizabeth to grow up – until a shocking decision by her uncle, King Edward VIII, to abdicate the throne brought her happy childhood to a crashing halt when she was just ten years old.
A life she never wanted
Edward’s decision to rescind the throne to marry his twice-divorced lover Wallis Simpson in 1936 meant his brother, Elizabeth’s father Bertie, had to take over, becoming King George VI – and as his eldest child she was next in succession. Her then governess Marion ‘Crawfie’ Crawford said that on hearing they were to move from 145 Piccadilly to Buckingham Palace, a horrified Elizabeth exclaimed, ‘What? You mean forever?’
Being Queen was ‘not a life she wanted’, according to Sonia Berry, the best friend Elizabeth met aged four in the gardens behind 145 Piccadilly and to whom she remained close until Sonia’s death in 2012. ‘I think she would have been happier married and living in the country with her dogs and horses.’
So upset was Elizabeth at having to move that she gave Sonia her favourite toy – a wooden horse called Ben – because she ‘was concerned that Ben would not like being packed away in a removal van and put in storage’. Their days of pretending to be horses themselves as they romped about the garden were now over.
A palace prison
Life at Buckingham Palace was chilly and austere. Not only was the 775-room palace draughty and plagued by mice, but electricity had only just been installed (145 Piccadilly had its own elevator) and there was constant protocol to follow. ‘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,’ wrote Crawfie in her 1949 memoir, The Little Princesses. ‘I felt a glass curtain had come down between us and the outer world.’
In an attempt to give Elizabeth some normality, Crawfie set up the Buckingham Palace Girl Guides Company for her and Margaret, their cousins and the offspring of palace employees. But pitching tents on the palace lawn was no substitute for camping in the countryside as other guides would have done – and it was because of her closeted experience growing up and her childhood being cut short that the Queen now actively supports her six-year-old great-grandson and heir Prince George living as normal life as possible.
The Queen and Prince George are already known to have a strong bond. He calls her Gan-Gan (an improvement on the nickname his dad William had for her as a boy – Gary!) and whenever he and his siblings Charlotte and Louis stay with her she always makes sure he feels extra special. ‘She always leaves a little gift in their room or something in the room,’ the Duchess of Cambridge once divulged.
As George is heir to the crown, the Queen would have been consulted on him attending his relatively low-key primary school in Battersea where, according to reports, he’s listed on the register as George Cambridge and has lots of friends who get invited to playdates at Kensington Palace. She will also have approved of William’s decision to delay telling his son about his eventual role in life. ‘There will be a time and a place to bring George up and understand how he fits in, in the world,’ said William in 2016.
Lonely at the top
By advocating George has as normal upbringing as possible, the Queen knows she is giving him the best preparation for becoming sovereign. As her friend Sonia Berry remarked, ‘It’s a very lonely job’. One of the few occasions where the Queen could properly relax was at Berry’s house in Bath, where she would visit for the afternoon and Sonia would draw the curtains to keep out prying eyes while they had a cup of tea and nattered. ‘We discuss our families, what we have done, who we have seen, the issues of the day,’ Sonia revealed in an interview before her death. That George is now able to foster his own special childhood friendships must bring the Queen great comfort. Indeed, her cousin and confidant Margaret Rhodes, whom HRH often sanctioned to speak on her behalf, said before George’s birth that she hoped he would have a ‘jolly, happy, ordinary child’s life.’