Princess Elizabeth, now Her Majesty the Queen, was fourteen months old when she moved with her parents to 145 Piccadilly, their first permanent home and now the site of the InterContinental London Park Lane. The Duke and Duchess of York, as they were then, had just returned from their six-month tour of Australia and New Zealand, during which time Elizabeth was shared between her father’s parents, King George V and Queen Mary, and her mother’s, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore. Huge crowds greeted the Yorks when they docked at Portsmouth on HMS Renown, and again in London. But it was the touching reunion of the couple with their golden-haired child, only eight months old when they had left Britain, which so stirred the people.
‘The palace with a number and without a name’, is how 145 Piccadilly has been described; the Royal Family called it ‘One-Four-Five’. Although it was not obviously a royal residence, everyone knew who lived in the stone-fronted, five-storied house that looked across to Green Park and beyond to Buckingham Palace. A curious crowd frequently gathered in Piccadilly, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Duke and Duchess and Princess Elizabeth. When Princess Margaret was born in August 1930, interest in the family intensified even further: the Prince of Wales, who often popped round to play cards, had still not married and produced an heir.
Incredibly by today’s standards, there was no special security at 145, nothing to stop the curious from walking up the stone-flagged path and ringing one of the two bells marked ‘Visitors’ and ‘House’. Those invited in found themselves in a large hallway decorated with flowers, where pale green columns supported a cream-coloured ceiling. The butler would lead them across the soft brown carpet to the large and airy morning room which, despite its name, was used at all times of the day. The windows looked out onto the family’s garden, not huge but large enough for Elizabeth to ride her tricycle, and beyond that to enclosed Hamilton Gardens, where she made her first best friend. From there a gate opened into Hyde Park, where the Duchess’s Golden Labradors were exercised.
A family friend said the morning room was ‘in no sense a modern room’. The Duchess did not embrace the fashionable designs of the 1920s: the angular shapes, shiny fabrics, chrome and glass. Instead, chintz-covered armchairs and sofas, standing on a Persian carpet, made the room look comfortable. Although the new glitzy glamour of Hollywood’s silver screen did not impact on the decor, the Yorks enjoyed music and dancing, a love of which they passed on to their daughters, and the huge gramophone in the room was often played.
Elizabeth was taught to read at an early age by her mother, encouraged by the many books in the morning room. Fine bronzes and family photographs were displayed on occasional tables. Irresistible to the Princess was a stash of toys, among which was a large woolly black retriever with puppies, and a large glass cabinet containing minute animals, including a herd of elephants, ‘each of them tiny enough to be pushed by a ladybird’. Behind a black lacquer screen were two little scarlet brushes and dustpans, with which both Princesses ‘swept’ the carpet every morning. Their own rooms were on the top floor, together with those for some of the family’s eighteen staff.
At bedtime Elizabeth would be taken past her father’s study; beyond the dining room looking out onto Piccadilly, where thirty guests could dine and admire Edmond Brock’s portrait of her; and on to the elegant staircase, hung with Brussels tapestries, which led up to her mother’s bedroom on one side, and to a drawing room and her mother’s boudoir on the other. It was in this room that the Princesses later had lessons from their governess, Marion Crawford, known affectionately as ‘Crawfie’.
From there an electric lift travelled up past floors containing a ballroom, library and twenty-five bedrooms, to the top floor. There the wide well of the staircase was crowned by a large glass dome. Light streamed down onto a circular landing where Elizabeth’s toy horses were arranged. From there opened the rooms of the nursery suite, which she had to herself until she was four. Her meals were prepared in a special kitchen. She was washed in a bright bathroom containing an enticing array of sponge animals. There were two nurseries, for day and night, light rooms with carpets of cherry red. When Margaret was born the sisters shared the night nursery, until Elizabeth was given her own large bedroom; from the window she could look into Hamilton Gardens and see the bronze statue of Lord Byron with his favourite dog.
Most exciting for Elizabeth in the day nursery was a tall cabinet with glass doors, filled with toys and curios from all over the British Empire: tiny, exquisitely dressed dolls; china cottages and palaces; model soldiers and ships; animals, birds and fishes in finely-blown glass, many of them gifts from Queen Mary; and a miniature silver cradle containing a tiny doll, which had crowned her Christening cake.
International guests were often entertained at 145, including the 29 members of the New South Wales rugby football team, the Waratahs, who came to tea in February 1928 and pronounced Elizabeth ‘the most charming little girl’. Ambassadors and their wives, from America, Turkey, Poland, Brazil, were entertained, as were ministers from Africa and Afghan and countries that no longer exist, like Siam, Hejaz and Nejd; and there was always time for innovators, like Dr Hugo Eckener, the German Graf Zeppelin commander, who became an early opposer of the Nazi regime.
In 1932 George V granted the Yorks the use of Royal Lodge, Windsor, as their country home, and they divided their time between the two houses. They thought 145 would remain their London base. However, in January 1936 George V died and the Prince of Wales became Edward VIII. His love for the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson led to his Abdication in December that year. Overnight the Duke of York became George VI. So large was the crowd that gathered outside 145 to cheer the new King and Queen that police had to be drafted in. Princess Elizabeth, ten years old, was now Heiress Presumptive: only the birth of a brother would prevent her destiny as Queen.
Preparations immediately began to move out of 145. In February 1937 the family officially took up residence at Buckingham Palace. Although 145 was put on the market for rental, it was not lived in again. In the summer of 1939 it was opened to the public for an exhibition of royal and historic treasures, in aid of the Heritage Craft Schools. On 21 July the King and Queen made a surprise visit, the first time they had been back since his accession. ‘Back in the old home,’ he was heard to say to the Queen. The exhibition was successful but the outbreak of war forced its closure. When a Nazi bomb hit 145 in December 1940, the house itself was finished. Today the Queen is among the remaining few who knew ‘One-Four-Five’, whose history this hotel is proud to share.
© Jane Dismore, 25 January 2016.
This feature must not be further reproduced without the author’s express consent.