Happy Birthday Ma'am!

3rd June 2016

As celebrations for the Queen’s official 90th birthday approach, Lisa Botwright reflects on what life was like for the little Princess Elizabeth as she entered the world...

“All day outside the big grey facade of 17 Bruton Street a crowd stood, oblivious of the heavy showers of rain, waiting... Presently a neat, efficient nurse came and looked down into the street. The upturned faces must have all asked a question, for it was with a nod and the most reassuring smile that the owner of the uniform withdrew.” 

So reported the Morning Post on 21 April 1926, describing the moment the country first heard about the birth of Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, the baby girl who would later become Queen Elizabeth II.

At the time, there was little to indicate Princess Elizabeth’s future path. Her uncle, Edward VIII, had yet to meet American divorcee Wallis Simpson, and set in motion the scandalous chain of events that would change the course of history. Elizabeth’s father, known to the family as Bertie, and who would later become George VI, was still a shy and unassuming second son, slightly in the shadow of his strong-willed elder brother and the authoritative figure of his father, George V.

But it was a happy and loving family unit who welcomed their first-born daughter into the world. Bertie was smitten with his new wife, having pursued Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon ardently for a number of years, proposing no less than three times, until his mother declared: “I am convinced there is only one girl who will make Bertie happy.”

Elizabeth seems to have been no less fond of her royal husband, albeit nervous about taking on the responsibilities of royal life. Despite her fears, she appears to have taken to public duty like a duck to water, and quickly became known as the ‘Smiling Duchess’ for her warmth and vivacity - although when she had to leave little Elizabeth a few years later for a state visit to Australia, she said she was “very miserable at leaving the baby”.

So what kind of country was the future Queen born into on that wet spring day 90 years ago?

It was a time of huge political upheaval. The Great War had empowered working men and women, so that the culturally entrenched divide between rich and poor was no longer seen as inevitable, but as a political grievance to fight against. Earlier in January, a fictional BBC radio play about a workers’ revolution had caused a panic in London. But by May, genteel fears of left wing radicalism had become a reality. Martial law was initiated on 9 May in direct response to a national nine day General Strike, originally called in support of coal miners. Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister of the time, raged that it was “a challenge to Parliament and the road to anarchy and ruin.”

The Morning Post had written one of its last headlines for a while when it welcomed Princess Elizabeth, as even the newspaper printers went on strike in solidarity, although the BBC came to the rescue of the news-deprived public, broadcasting radio bulletins up to five times a day.

Women cut off their hair and raised their hemlines in defiance of Victorian stricture, and continued to campaign for greater political equality. Even the fact that Bertie had married a peer, rather than a princess raised for public duty, was seen as a gesture of political modernisation.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom – this was the Roaring Twenties, after all. The generation who had come through the war – albeit those with the means – exuberantly chased the lighter side of life. Jazz music blossomed, the flapper redefined modern womanhood and Art Deco peaked.

Elsewhere in the news, Agatha Christie published the latest of her hugely popular Poirot novels, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd –and then, in a twist just as dramatic as any of her plotlines, disappeared from her home in Surrey, to be found two weeks later in a Harrogate hotel by a tenacious journalist.

Another classic was also published: AAMilne’s wonderful Winne-the-Pooh, bringing its namesake’s wise, loving and mellow ponderings to generations of children to come. Throwing sticks from a bridge onto a fast moving stream would never be the same again.

Princess Elizabeth was certainly in good company in the year of her birth. Who could know that George Martin, born in January 1926, would go on to produce the greatest pop band of all time? Or that David Attenborough, born in May, would entrance the nation with his compelling insight into the natural world? Even that Eric Morecambe, also born in May, would rival the Queen herself for popular TV Christmas viewing throughout the 1960s and 70s?

The world has changed a great deal since 1926, and Her Majesty has lived through many significant cultural, social and political upheavals. It is impossible to gauge how she must be feeling as she approaches her official 90th birthday – our only insight is through her own rare public musings... including this poignant one: “Inevitably a long life can pass by many milestones and my own is no exception.” 

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