On Monday, many millions of us sat down to watch the state funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II. Having seen Royal funerals before I thought I knew what to expect, but the scale and grandeur of the event was something quite spectacular. Most people I’ve spoken to had the same response. I doubt anyone who witnessed it, either in person or on TV, will ever forget it. Whether a ‘Royalist’ or not, there was certainly something very moving about the event and the sense that it really was the end of an extraordinary period in British history.
When the news broke just over two weeks ago that The Queen had passed away, we at NESM paid our own tribute. We had on display in our ambulance exhibition an original K2 ambulance, known as ‘Katie’ – a model that Her Majesty herself drove during World War II as a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). In keeping with the tradition of the service, we covered the red cross on the front of the vehicle with a black armband and set a picture of The Queen in her ATS uniform alongside it. Ironically, that particular vehicle was due to be taken off display in the days following Queen Elizabeth’s death; its last task at the museum, for the time being at least, was to help us make our own little tribute.
The story of Queen Elizabeth’s time in the ATS has been talked about extensively in the last couple of weeks. Joining up at the age of 18 in 1944, she was the first female member of the Royal Family ever to take up military service. She trained as a driver and mechanic, learning to fix and drive the military ambulances and heavy army vehicles that played such a vital part both on the home front and overseas. In a six-week training course, she passed a military driving test, learned to read maps and worked repairing engines, Her service was a huge novelty and the press and news reels clambered to get images of her. To see a Princess in overalls, changing tyres or with her head under a bonnet stripping an engine, was a complete sensation. The Associated Press at the time named her ‘Princess Auto Mechanic’.
It was the start of a long association with the military, of course, but also with the emergency services. Police forces across the country have perhaps the closest direct links to the Crown. All police officers take an oath "that I will well and truly serve the Queen in the office of constable” (from now on, of course, the King) and the ‘EIIR’ badge that adorns the uniform of every police officer is a very well-known sight to all of us. We have many examples of this in our collection, featured on everything from helmets to pin badges, alongside earlier examples bearing the badges of Her Majesty’s father, grandfather, great-grandfather and all the way back to her great-great grandmother Queen Victoria.
The commissioner and deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police are both royal appointments and the monarch is also head of the criminal justice system meaning that, legally, the monarch is exempt from the laws of the land.
The Crown Badge can also be seen on ambulances and paramedic uniforms across the country. The badge was presented to every ambulance service in 1985 as a mark of royal approval and is worn by all crews, and proudly displayed on vehicles.
Her Majesty’s Coastguard (now His Majesty’s Coastguard) is another service that has long links with the monarch, as part of the wider government organisation the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. This service celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion we opened a brand new exhibition, Guarding the Coast, telling the story of this lifesaving service.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), although a charity rather than a government organisation, also has links with the Royal Family going back almost two centuries. Its founder, Sir William Hillary, had himself been an equerry to George III’s son, Prince Fredrick Augustus.
The RNLI was established in 1824 and took as its patron the then King George IV. Since then, the reigning monarch has always been a patron. Queen Elizabeth shared the role alongside her grandmother, Queen Mary (until her death in 1953) and The Queen Mother until 2002. She was, unsurprisingly, the longest serving patron in the organisation’s history, attending many official occasions and recognising the efforts of thousands of volunteers during her visits to lifeboat stations.
In total, Her Majesty named five lifeboats and in 1993 named ‘her’ own, the Mersey class all-weather lifeboat ‘Her Majesty The Queen’, which served at Lytham St Annes for almost 20 years. The Queen’s final official engagement on behalf of the RNLI was on 17 May 2013, when she unveiled a plaque at St Ives Lifeboat Station in Cornwall and met the volunteer lifeboat crew and fundraisers.
Her Majesty recognised the contribution of all our emergency services with The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, a special commemorative medal struck to mark her 70 years on the throne. Among those awarded this medal were serving frontline members of the police, fire, emergency services, prison services and the Armed Forces.
The award is recognition of the support Her Majesty gave to the emergency services right to the end and it was a service that was reciprocated; members of the emergency services played a major role in the spectacular events we have witnessed over the last two weeks, from caring for those queuing to see her lying-in-state to ensuring that the funeral itself went smoothly and safely.