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As the bombs rained over London, the Queen Mother charmed evacuees. By Laura Grenfell

Blog | By Laura Grenfell | Dec 07, 2020

The Queen Mother during the Blitz (Credit: Pam Fray)

80 years ago, as the Blitz raged, Laura Grenfell dodged bombs in Piccadilly and wrote letters about the Queen Mother, her sister-in-law, Joyce Grenfell, and her brother-in-law, trapped in a prisoner-of-war camp

37 Chesham Place. S.W.1 10 December 1940

Darlings all. Well by gum there is some news worth writing about this time isn’t there. Isn’t it splendid, Well done Maria, you always do do the right thing at the right time.[1]

Daddy is nonplussed; he is quite convinced the war is as good as over, and everything is right with the world. Congratulations keep pouring in, even to me! And it seems to have made a bright spot for everyone. They come into the room beaming, as if they’d been responsible for it, which is very comic.

Mary’s fame as the mother of five daughters had obviously spread far and wide, so now that a son has been achieved, his fame is equally wide spread. 8lbs 8 ozs, so I understand, and the hospital very good. What could be better? I bet they will all bust themselves to look after the Countess and the Viscount.

Gosh! How I wish we were all there, or Maria here. It would go and happen with her right away from us all. Next time she has a baby, if she wants it to be a boy, she must obviously go to darkest Africa or somewhere right away from us all.

I am waiting for Geoff to ring me up. I tried to ring him this morning only to be told by the man at the barracks that he was still in bed and there wasn’t an extension. As he’d already kept me well over the three minutes, I felt he might have got Geoff out of bed, but apparently that’s not done to those in such exalted positions as Geoff’s. Geoff, you must have been celebrating pretty hard last night!

The Post Office must be making a mint out of this baby, as everyone seems to be sending everyone else cables, telegrams and telephone calls. Joyce [2] rang up today to say how pleased she was and that she had sent a cable. Harry rang up last night, to say how pleased he was and had sent a cable, Katie rang up too to say the same, and Mummy and Daddy and I all committed ourselves to paper as well. So Maria, I hope you got a real shoal of them, to make you feel less far away.

I do hope Molly has seized a camera and taken photographs to show us what a male Waldegrave baby really looks like. I long to know whether he is dark or fair etc. etc.

I also long for the first letter you write afterwards with all the children’s reactions in it. I suppose they are so used to the apparition of babies in their nurseries, what with Mary Ann and all, that they hardly take any notice!

I went to stay with Peggy Baring last week end as Frances [3] was down there. She was already getting homesick for Mary Ann after three weeks away. Peggy has a very nice little house just outside Winchester.

We hoped Reg would turn up but he didn’t and we couldn’t get through to him because the telephones went through Southampton and were under repair. Still Joyce said today that that he is coming up for leave this week end, and will go to see her in her show on Saturday for the very first time. He is coming here to luncheon on Saturday.

Frances was very well, and harking after Scotland, tartans and haggis like anything. She’s so scotch now she can’t hardly breathe in English air after a time, and almost talks of us as though we were foreigners. She did a round of visits, to Joyce, Katie and Peggy, putting in a day or two here en route. We hoped that Mark Hichens would come out to tea from Winchester last weekend, but when we went to fetch him were told he had just succumbed to chicken pox. He does have bad luck. When Katie rang up yesterday, I told her and Hermione hadn’t yet been told! Maria, send the heir to Eton every time.

Harry also rang up last night, sounding in very good form. He is about to be a major at any moment, and is going off straight away to a camp in Wales for a week or so, getting back to Yorkshire on Xmas Eve. He won’t get Xmas leave now, but I’m hoping that perhaps he and Geoff will get their leave at about the same time, and then I might get mine then too, later in January, and then we could all combine. It would be fun if this worked.

When I was down at Peggy’s, Frances had been given a digest of the letters that have been received down there from prisoners in the 60th[4]. It was a very good idea. The wives and families send in extracts, which are all put together and duplicated, and then circulated back to them again. From all the bits one can really get quite a good picture of the camp and the life there.

Except for the question of food and clothing, it really doesn’t seem too bad. They are in a big castle overlooking mountains on two sides, all snow capped. There are 16,000 of them and they have formed themselves into a University, and seem to be studying very learned subjects. The quarters are a bit cramped I think, as they sleep 50 to a room on bunks, and have only about one acre in which to exercise. They all pine for parcels and letters. The best way seems to be to write (type if possible) a short letter, as this gets through the censor much quicker. They share all their news and long to know what is happening in their families. It is impossible to get any world news through to them and probably any letter containing anything doubtful is just thrown away. Do all write to him and get anyone who knows him to write, as that is really all one can do. If we believe Anthony Eden [5], the parcels should be better now. Those going from neutral countries seem to get through quite easily, Patrick has had some from Belgrade we hope and Frances was going to get in touch with Judy Listowel [6] to see if anything could be done through her mother in Hungary.

We gave Fuff a proper send off when she went back on Sunday night. It was bad luck really. The nights had been very quiet, but of course just because she was there old Adolf elected to cause trouble. Having so carefully kept her out of the Blitz, we took her up to catch a 7.15 train at King’s Cross.

As we were approaching Piccadilly, there were three whizzes, and there just in front of us, in the road way, landed an incendiary bomb. The taxi driver turned round on a sixpence and put his foot on the accelerator, and started off to Land’s End nearly. We stopped him and he took us on, and apart from gunfire, nothing more happened. It really was a very violent breaking in for anyone, as their first experience of the blitz. We weren’t allowed to go on the platform with her, so we hang about till the next train went, just in case.

Then Daddy and I came back by taxi, and as we were going through Grosvenor Square everything was lit up bright as day. Looking into the park we saw enormous magnesium flames burning as bright as could be, all over the Park, it seemed. We went on to Hyde Park Corner, and then Daddy couldn’t bear it any longer, and we got out and walked into the park. There were several bombs burning away all round, just on the grass, one in the gutter, just opposite Hercules [7], which we helped to put out. I hadn’t seen an incendiary before. It's very small and, lying in the gutter, rather ridiculous but I can see that it would start a real good blaze very easily if it landed on anything else. Daddy was thrilled. He’s having a really good week, what with that, a grandson and 1,000 Italian prisoners.

Elizabeth Dawnay has just rung up to congratulate everyone on the arrival of the baby. She says Lavinia is very well. She has broken the doors and the windows of her garage by leaving the door open, and blown up her Aga, but otherwise she is doing alright. She goes out shopping in the morning, but Elizabeth doesn’t think she buys anything else but oysters!

Aunt Messee was here last night. She just arrived and asked for a bed as the two engineers with whom she shares a passage shelter, wanted to throw a party, and asked her to absent herself. She told us that Katie had poisoned her hand digging. Katie I do hope it is better now that it has been lanced, how miserable for you, the right hand too. Do take care of yourself more.

Roger and Sybil Fulford [8] and Pamela Rouse and her family are going to P.G. at North Aston, which is an admirable idea. I only hope they won’t mind the cold too much! Hermione went off up north to see John and stay at Durham and took Stella and Phoebe with her for part of the time. Poor Phoebe had a cello exam last week, and Stella has got her Junior Oxford exam this week. Thank heaven that’s all over for me. I hope to goodness I never have to do an exam again in all my life.

Margie Masterman is expecting her baby any moment now, according to several very lurid details from Aunt Messee. Dumpy has joined a cine-specialist section of the A.T.S. and is at the moment down in Wales photographing shots being fired off at dummy airoplanes. She doesn’t seem to mind the life, though objecting rather to the spit and polish. She had only three days instead of three weeks at the training place, and was then sent off to Wales to practise photography. If anything is capable of making an impression on her it might do her a power of good as she is really quite nice. Neville is in a field security unit, also rather objecting to the spit and polish, but otherwise alright. Aunt Meessee is in the process of moving her flat. She is going from the floor she is on now to the first and firmly refused Mummy’s offers of help, rather, it must be admitted to Mummy’s relief.

Maria, the other day at the bus stop I saw Joan Young, as was. I didn’t quite like to go up to her, and she didn’t seem to recognise me. After two or three more times I thought it couldn’t do any harm, and so I accosted her. She said she had been wondering if she dared approach me! She is now at a job in the Air Ministry, and asked tenderly after you, though she had rather lost count of your children, and was very vague, although very friendly. She was bewailing her fate, that having at last got herself a job in London, her husband has now been moved out into the country. She sent you many messages. Jerry is now in Madrid, and she says eating his heart out at being so far away from bombs etc.

(Next morning)

Cecilia Dawson came to dinner tonight. She and Geoffrey [9] have taken the flat in the round house where we put all Frances’ wedding presents. They only moved in yesterday, and are rather intrigued at the prospect of flat life. She is a darling, so cosy and friendly, with a delicious laugh.

Daddy is getting quite worried, as Mummy is taking up with her New Zealand sailor boy friend again. He came to call the other day, and Daddy says he’s sure he must think Mummy is violently in love with him because she declined to ride up to the Y.W. but went on a bus and took him up there and introduced him to what she called a good looking member. She asked him in to tea yesterday. Luckily a message came that he couldn’t come as he had to join his ship, as I must confess that we had all forgotten to expect him.

Gosh, it’s now Friday.

There was great excitement here the other day, as the Queen suddenly announced at an hour’s notice that she wished to come to inspect the evacuees.

Mummy and Daddy received her, and apparently she did it all absolutely perfectly. She insisted on going over every single house, and talking to every inmate, including the two who are deaf and dumb; they’re all beside themselves now. Daddy is mad about her now, and it sounds as though she really is the cat’s whiskers. Minnie was very comic, she was so afraid of being mistaken for an evacuee and asked what her experiences were, that she and the Woosters went right up into Lady Bonsor’s [10] flat and peered down from there. They couldn’t have gone further away. Miss Thorne sidled up and down the pavement, and Daddy said he was terrified that he police would have her up, she looked so guilty! There was a very good photograph in yesterday’s News Chronicle, and also in the Star, I’ll try and get hold of them to send you.

Katie darling, how are you and the arm? What a shame you couldn’t come up yesterday, but I’m afraid it means your hand must have gone bad on you or something. Do let us know.

Fuff, we haven’t yet heard if you got back alright after your hair-raising experiences last Sunday. I do hope the journey wasn’t too filthy.

Geoff rang up after all, and sounded terribly pleased with himself. He hasn’t got a whole heap of Mary’s letters, probably containing suggestions but thinks they will call the son and heir James William Sherbrooke. They are the limit the way they pinch all the best names. I shall have to remain a spinster, or else have rows of anonymous children. Mummy seems to be contesting the point rather, as she violently wants Arthur. Why a Waldegrave should be that I don’t know. Geoffrey’s General has put in a claim to be Godfather. I don’t know who the other will be, but I told Geoff to choose the richest man he knows!

The Italian news is a bit of all right, isn’t it? Daddy is so pleased he might almost have done it himself, and is quite convinced that the end of the whole war is well in sight. He listens to every news bulletin with a map spread out on his knee, and follows the whole thing step for step.

The news of Lord Lothian’s death [11] is very tragic though, and it seems extraordinary that his speech should have been ringing round the world after he had died. I should think he will be terribly difficult to replace just at this moment.

Mummy went down to spend the night at Vera’s clubs. She is rather worried about the whole position there, and says it really isn’t necessary for V to kill herself to the extent she does, and never to come away for a rest. Lady Ravensdale was down there, and Mummy thinks it quite unnecessary for them both to be there at the same time. She’s dining tonight so Mummy will put in some campaigning I expect. This letter must get off.

Love. Loll

[1] Mary Waldegrave (1909-95), older sister of LMG. Had evacuated to Canada with five daughters in July; long awaited male heir to her husband, Geoffrey, Earl Waldegrave, born on 8 December.

[2] Joyce Grenfell, married to LMG’s older half-brother Reggie; Harry, another half-brother; Katie (Lort-Phillips), an older sister.

[3] Frances Campbell-Preston (1918-), next sister up from LMG: living in Argyll at the home of her PoW husband, Patrick. Peggy Baring is Patrick’s sister. The Queen Mother's oldest surviving lady-in-waiting

[4] The 2nd Bn KRRC (60th Rifles) was based in Winchester and had taken part in the defence of Calais in May: most of the Regiment’s survivors were taken prisoner.

[5] Sir Anthony Eden, later Earl of Avon (1897-1977), at this stage, Sec of State for War; three times Foreign Sec, PM 1955-57.

[6] Judith Hare, Countess Listowel, née Judit Márffy-Mantuano, (1903-2003). Writer. Born in Hungary, met future Lord Listowel when both studying at the LSE, and married. Kept engaged in Hungarian politics before and during the war: was related to Count Pál Teleki, Hungarian geographer, Foreign Minister, Prime Minister 1939-41, who sometimes passed official and unofficial messages via her. Friend of Vera Grenfell's.

[7] Statue of Achilles, just north of Hyde Park Corner: monument to 1st Duke of Wellington.

[8] (Later Sir) Roger Fulford (1902-83). Journalist and historian; President of the Liberal party 1964-65. Married Sybil Lyttelton, née Adeane, widow of Hon Charles Lyttelton.

[9] Geoffrey Dawson (1874-1944). Editor of The Times 1912-19 and 1923-41. Member of Lord Milner’s ‘Kindergarten’ and the Round Table.

[10] Nancy Bonsor (née Walrond) (1891–1965); wife of Sir Reginald Bonsor, of brewers Watney Combe Reid.

[11] Lord Lothian, Ambassador in Washington, died on 12 December. A speech, read on his behalf the night before in Baltimore, had immediate impact: it warned of the danger to the US if Britain fell, and the dangers of this happening in the absence of US help.