Whether My Life be Long or Short
For my whole conscious life I have been fascinated by the Queen. Not because I envied her but because I honestly couldn't think of anything worse than having to fulfil that role. The fact that this weekend we are celebrating the triumph of her seventy year old reign is testament to the way that Queen Elizabeth has fulfilled the promise she made on her twenty-first birthday:
“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
We have to remember that for the first ten years of her life, the Queen was not in direct line to the throne. Her Uncle David was the heir and her father, George, was the spare. Watching film of the two young princesses and their parents, they all appear genuinely happy and carefree. Privileged, yes of course, but the love is palpable in those jerky early home movies. Then, in 1936 when the Queen was just 10 years old, King Edward V111 refused to give up the twice divorced Wallis Simpson, and instead abdicated the throne. Aged just 41, Princess Elizabeth’s father now became King George V1, so she must have hoped to be spared the burden of the crown until later in her life. However, her father died at just 56, which has given her and us 70 remarkable years of duty, obligation and service.
The memories I have of the coronation are vivid, maybe because they fulfil the dreams and fantasies of any five year old girl, especially one born into a grey post-war world of rationing and ‘make do and mend.’ Apparently there was an average of 17 people crowded around the few TV sets in the country and that is certainly my impression of the number of neighbours, family and friends in my Granny Elsie’s front room. The young and beautiful Princess arrived at the Abbey in a golden horse drawn carriage to much pomp and pageant. Her dress was opulent, and huge jewels sparkled at her ears and throat. And the crown! Oh my, the crown! So dazzling in the lights and such a heavy weight to be born on such a slender neck. The coronation ceremony itself was a triumph of both solemnity and pomp and I particularly remember the moment that the words ‘Vivat, Vivat Regina’ reverberated around the Abbey. ‘Long Live the Queen’ they shouted and she has indeed lived long as our Queen for seventy incredible years.
Despite all that opulence on display at the coronation, Britain is not a happy place in 1952. Inflation has climbed from 2 to 10% in the space of a couple of years and war is raging in Korea with 60,000 British troops on the ground. Households feel badly squeezed and are having to penny-pinch to make ends meet. After the war there had been the hope of sunny uplands, but times are tough. My parents and grandparents are fortunate to be living in two semi-detached houses that my grandfather had built for £500 each in 1944, and my father has turned the two acre garden surrounding both houses into a smallholding. On this he keeps chickens and pigs and grows all our fruit and vegetables. As such we are lucky, but the family business is struggling, and I remember my parents’ constant worry and endless conversations about money, or rather the lack thereof.
The Queen at her Coronation in 1953
Image from The Guardian. CREDIT - Photo: Keystone/Getty Images. See here
It is somewhat remarkable that in 1952 the average weekly wage was just £6 and you could enjoy a night out for 10 shillings. However, the Queen’s reign has witnessed a boom in living standards with GDP now five times what it was seventy years ago. Average wages are ten times higher at £650 a week and have risen faster than prices, except for house prices, which have increased on average from £1891 to £260,771 in 2022 (139 times the 1952 level), mostly due to demand far outstripping supply. House price inflation hit 42% in 1972 which I remember very well*. In 1970 as newlyweds, my husband and I bought our first house in Basingstoke for £4950 and then sold it four years later for £11,500.
As a generation of young marrieds, we baby boomers benefitted not only from house price inflation which eroded the hefty mortgages we all had, but also from the way that society started to liberalise throughout the 60s and 70s and beyond. In 1952 female employment stood at only 35%, with many women forced to stop work as soon as they married. Now participation has more than doubled to 75% thanks in part to various Equal Opportunities acts passed in the early years of my marriage. And our society has gradually become more liberal and tolerant thanks to the decriminalisation of homosexuality between consenting adults over 21 in 1967 and the 1968 Abortion act which gave women control over their bodies throughout most of the UK. And whilst far from perfect when it comes to racial prejudice, it would now be unthinkable to see signs in the windows of boarding houses which were commonplace in the 1950s saying ‘No Irish, No Blacks and No Dogs’.
Women fought for greater equality in the 60s and 70s
I really dislike the tendency of old people like me to look backwards whilst wearing rose-tinted spectacles, but I do sometimes wonder if those of us fortunate enough to be born as the Queen ascended the throne have enjoyed the best of what our society could offer for the past 70 years. We’ve benefited from free education and protection from a health service that (initially anyway) satisfied its mission to care for us all ‘from cradle to grave.’ Did I really spend nearly two weeks in Basingstoke Maternity Hospital after my daughter Anna was born without complications in 1974 learning how to breastfeed and care for my new baby? Then as I reached the age of 60 I was one of the lucky ones to qualify for a state pension with a triple lock to guarantee a minimum income throughout my old age. And now, in gloomier moments, I sometimes feel as though we are going backwards. Just as in 1952, household income is being squeezed, inflation is once more on the rise, our education and health systems are under severe stress and there’s even a war on European soil to remind us that world peace is a fragile illusion.
I often wonder what Queen Elizabeth thinks of it all! Someone who greeted Winston Churchill as her first Prime Minister, now greets Boris Johnson. In 1952 few could afford either televisions, telephones or cameras. Now practically every adult can watch television and take photographs on their personal mobile phone. I find it utterly remarkable that one woman born 96 years ago has managed to negotiate her way so successfully through seventy years of such profound change. She is the most famous person in the world, but is not a celebrity. She embodies notions of duty, honour and integrity at a time when those qualities are found wanting in our political class. She is in advanced old age but until very recently has continued to work tirelessly to fulfil the demands of her role. And she is as popular now as she was in 1952 when the crown was first placed on her head as a beautiful young woman. Throughout it all she has graciously played her part as our Head of State, smiled continually and kept her own counsel. If only she could reign for another seventy years. Vivat, Vivat Regina Elizabeth!
*These figures come from an article by economist David Smith in The Times.
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Bravo!! My memories too! Born in 1947 and oh the changes we’ve seen! Thanks for your insightful blogs Tricia!
I vaguely recall The Queen's father dying. I'd not long started school and we were ushered into the hall so the Headmistress could repeat the sad news. I say repeat, as my parents had explained what had happened before I left for school that day. I consider myself lucky to have lived through such interesting times with The Queen always there as our monarch. Sadly it has to come to an end at some point in the future but I hope it'll not be too soon. Also that her legacy will survive with Charles, then William. Two remarkable Elizabeth's in our long history. Am I being sexist when I observe that we seem to make better overall progress when a woman is in charge!!
Thank you so much Tricia for reminding us what a wonderful sovereign Queen Elizabeth is and hopefully will continue to be so for many more years to come Also I am the same age as you and I very much appreciate how lucky I was to be born in post war Britain.
The Queen was crowned in June 1953, not 1952. Her father died in February 1952, which was when she ascended to Queen. So what I don't understand is why this year was chosen and not next year, 70 yrs on from her coronation,not 69yrs. Political subterfuge?
I think the point is that she became Queen the moment her father died. The coronation was the ceremony that confirmed her as such with deep religious & traditional significance. If HM had died in the pandemic Charles would have become King although the coronation would have had to be delayed for obvious reasons.
Very fitting Tricia, what a wonderful lady the Queen is! I was born in 1954 and remember simple things in life, had a tough and strict upbringing and hopefully have come out the other end a reasonably good person. I fear for the children of today whose parents want things immediately and do not have the fun of saving for something and the joy when we achieved that goal. Things change but not always for the best! Thank you Tricia for your bog today and hope you have had a lovely jubilee bank holiday xx