History GroupTalk March 2012

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"Reminiscences of a former Housemaid at Buckingham Palace."

This month we were given a talk by Yvonne Thoms, a lady who had been a housemaid at Buckingham Palace in 1971.

This was a most interesting, enjoyable and entertaining talk, which had the meeting enthralled by the clarity of her memories of that time. The interesting and colourful way in which she described her experiences helped us realise what a different life was experienced behind the walls of that notable building.   It came over well that she was a great ‘Royalist’ at heart, and a great fan of our Royal family.  Yvonne is a Yorkshire Lass and very proud of that fact, one of a twin, her sister living now in Australia.  When they reached the age of seventeen they thought that they would like to leave home. They both had ambitions, but their mother said NO. You will wait until you are twenty-one, then you can make your way in the wide world but not before.  Eventually Yvonne saw an advertisement in The Lady Magazine for a job in a gift shop at Polperro in Cornwall which appealed to them and they spent three very happy summers there. Looking once again in The Lady she saw an advert for a Housemaid in Buckingham Palace, and she wrote a letter saying how much she would like the post.  To her surprise she had a letter back from a Victoria Martin, Secretary to The Chief Housekeeper complete with application forms to fill in and asking for details of nationality, religion, was she politically active and had she any police records. She was able to fill this in and on Monday 22nd November 1970 she was invited for an interview. Yvonne joked about the fashions of that era, mini skirts more like a ‘pelmet’ - way above the knee. She borrowed her sister’s longer skirt for the occasion but at the interview she was informed that dresses were to be on the knee or below.

She caught the train to London and had a taxi to Buckingham Palace and was shown into a large hall. Black and white tiles everywhere and large central heating pipes seemed to run the length of the place.  Never seen anything like that in Yorkshire or in Cornwall!  Was I good at housework? That was the first question. Oh Yes! she replied, and then the terms of employment were explained. The chores, contract, holidays and rate of pay were stated, £577 rising to £622 per annum. She would have to pay for her food out of that. She would reside in the palace and overalls would be provided. Three weeks leave per year, she would be employed on three months probation. references would be required and a medical by the palace doctor.   She went home and soon a letter arrived stating that she should start on Monday 6th December. She had a family wedding that she wanted to attend on 18th December, so she wrote declining the offer. To her amazement she had a telephone call stating that it would be in order, and she was told to report on January 10th and she would be required to sign the official secrets act. She was allocated to work on Prince Charles’s floor. The working day was breakfast at 7.30 a.m. what she did not realise was that she should be up at 6.30 a.m. and do quite a lot of work first, before she had any food. Dressed in overalls and slippers, so as not to make too much noise, and with duster and dry mops the day began. In some of the corridors there were large portrait paintings and their eyes seemed to follow you everywhere you went, quite eerie in a peculiar way. breakfast was in the canteen, below stairs, and the quantity and quality of the food was brilliant. You could eat really well for thirteen or fourteen pence a day.  There was a strict routine, for instance, Thursdays were always laundry day, and one thing that appeared to be most important was the fact that any footprints that appeared on the Wilton carpet had to be immediately brushed off. To do this you started at the furthest point in the room and worked towards the doorway. It could mean doing this many times a day, as whenever anyone went into the rooms to tend the flowers or check the work, footprints were left on the pile and should be quickly brushed out. When working the late shift, evenings, the staff had to wear black dresses and they would often be on call until 10.30 p.m.   There were occasions when it was possible to attend functions in London's Albert Hall, and make use of the Royal Box. She had vivid memories of those occasions, attending a wonderful folk festival, a   wrestling match and a grand musical evening.  Yvonne had a wonderful experience, however when after her three months probationary period she was offered a chance to work there permanently, she declined.  It appears that there was a special attraction at Polperro that she had come in contact with in her previous employment! She married him and they have been together now for thirty eight years. Congratulations to them both. Those three months at Buckingham Palace hold some wonderful memories for Yvonne and it was so nice that she was able to share them with us.


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