Incredibly, Elizabeth II has been Queen of the United Kingdom for nearly seven decades. Yet, as you would expect of someone in her position, she very rarely mingles spontaneously with the regular public. But there was a time when Elizabeth ventured out onto the streets of London and enjoyed a brief period as a regular person. Could you imagine her doing that now?
On this little-known occasion, the young Princess Elizabeth snuck out of the palace with her sister Princess Margaret in tow. And it was then that she cavorted, unplanned, with regular members of the public – for a brief time acting as any care-free teenager would. It may be hard to believe, but there was a momentous event that inspired such behavior from a future monarch.
How things have changed! Mind you, it would be unfair to say that the Queen never fraternizes with the general public. Her Majesty has made a concerted effort to connect with people in Britain and overseas since her coronation all those decades ago. But as you would expect, her social endeavors are heavily regulated.
Unsurprisingly for a woman in her 90s, the Queen doesn’t get out and about like she once did. Many of her appearances these days are on screen. For instance, in 2020 she addressed the public to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe. She also makes a TV address every Christmas Day.
Then there are a handful of events throughout any normal year that you can expect to see the Queen in attendance. As a famous horse lover and owner, Elizabeth is usually spotted at Royal Ascot and occasionally other prestigious equine-related events. The Royal Windsor Horse Show is another of the Queen’s favorites. In fact, she is said to have attended every edition of the annual event since 1943!
As you might imagine, the Queen carries out all manner of public engagements over the course of a year. She may meet with politicians, scientists, teachers, pupils, workers, heads of state and all manner of other people in between. It’s a pretty busy gig – especially for someone who has been on the throne for nearly 70 years and is in their tenth decade!
And then there are the Queen’s so-called Garden Parties. More than 30,000 guests are invited to enjoy tea and sandwiches in the grounds of Buckingham Palace or the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Scotland, according to the royal family’s official website. And it’s become a way for Her Majesty to recognize all manner of public servants.
There have been some humorous interactions between the Queen and ordinary members of the public down the years. In fact, one of her former protection officers called Richard Griffin recounted one particularly hilarious story. According to him, the Queen was approached by a gaggle of American tourists near her Balmoral residency in Scotland. With Elizabeth dressed in a plain headscarf, the group were apparently totally unaware of who she was!
Richard recounted the alleged hilarious encounter during a talk in 2016. According to The Times newspaper, Elizabeth was asked, “Have you ever met the Queen?” She apparently responded, “No,” and the monarch then pointed at Richard and quipped, “But he has.”
And then there was the infamous time a man broke into the Queen’s bedchamber at Buckingham Palace. Michael Fagan reportedly spent ten minutes chatting with Elizabeth after waking her up. Repeated attempts to buzz security ended in failure, but a royal staffer finally came to her rescue. Of course, fans of The Crown will know that this bizarre event is recreated in the show’s fourth season.
But there was a time when the Queen’s interactions with the public were a little less guarded than they are today. In fact, there was one remarkable evening when Elizabeth – then just a mere princess – fraternized with military personnel and civilians celebrating on the crowded streets of London, England. It sounds unlikely, right? But it actually happened – albeit many moons ago.
World War II formally ended in Europe in May 1945. It was a historical moment of almost unparalleled magnitude – six years of terrible war finally brought to a close. Relieved British men and women took to the streets to celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany and its Axis allies. The celebrations saw service personal intermingle with regular civilians as emotions overflowed.
Elizabeth had herself been involved in the war effort – serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) as a second subaltern. In fact, she later rose to the rank of junior commander. And her attitude was indicative of the family as a whole. At the outbreak of war in 1939, Elizabeth’s mother – the Queen consort – reportedly refused to be evacuated. According to Insider, she said, “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave without the King. And the King will never leave.”
Elizabeth and her younger sister apparently spent most of the war at Windsor Castle. But their mother and father were often in residence at Buckingham Palace in central London, too. And that latter home was bombed no fewer than nine times throughout the war, according to the Royal Collection Trust. The Evening Standard reports that the Queen Mother said at the time, “I’m glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the east end in the face.” This a reference to the ferocious German attacks on the eastern section of London which took place during the Blitz.
The royal family won praise from the public for their acts of solidarity. And in a further indication of support, then-18-year-old Princess Elizabeth volunteered to join the ATS, which was a sub-division of the British Army. Incredibly, she remains to this day the only female royal to have served.
During the war years, Elizabeth became a truck driver and also trained to be a mechanic. She never saw active combat, but the role was not without its risks. According to the BBC, 210,308 women were involved with the ATS at its peak, and 335 of them lost their lives. Mary Churchill – the youngest daughter of wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill – also served.
Nazi Germany officially surrendered in May 1945, and a wave of euphoria soon spread across Europe. In Britain, crowds began gathering outside Buckingham Palace. More than 100,000 people were estimated to have congregated to see the King and his family, according to AP.
The crowd’s patience was rewarded as King George VI finally made an appearance alongside his wife and two daughters. The Queen recalled to BBC war correspondent Godfrey Talbot 40 years later, “My parents went out on the balcony in response to the huge crowds outside. I think we went on the balcony every hour – six times.”
“I remember the thrill and relief,” the Queen went on. But the exhilaration continued to grow for the teenage princesses. Elizabeth added, “And then, when the excitement of the floodlights being switched on got through to us, my sister and I realized we couldn’t see what the crowds were enjoying… so we asked my parents if we could go out and see for ourselves.”
Perhaps even more surprising than the request of the two young princesses to venture out was the response of their parents. The answer was apparently yes. Or a little more precisely, “Let the darlings have some fun.” That’s according to Kate Williams, a historian who was quoted in a Channel 4 documentary called The Queen’s Big Night Out.
Elizabeth and Margaret were only 19 and 14 respectively at that time. But in the group of 16 people were also friends, servants and guards. It was a night that none of them were to ever forget. The princesses’ cousin Margaret Rhodes was one of that party. She later recalled events in the same Channel 4 documentary – as did royal aide Jean Woodroffe. And the pair have quite some stories to tell.
How did the party actually get out, first of all? Well, Margaret recalled, “We crossed the forecourt at Buckingham Palace and got to the railings and there were these masses and masses of people. There was a general thing of, ‘We want the King and Queen!’ which we all frantically joined in with and were amazed when, five or ten minutes later, the windows opened and they came out on to the balcony.”
And it seems that the scenes on the street had to be seen to be believed. Jean Woodroffe explained, “People were kissing and even making love. I was shocked by it. I hadn’t experienced that sort of thing before.” Who knows what a pair of sheltered teenage princesses must have thought?
Elizabeth, for her part, was apparently scared that her identity would be revealed amid the celebrations. In her 1985 BBC interview the monarch remembered how she tried to remain anonymous that evening. The Queen recalled, “We were terrified of being recognized, so I pulled my uniform cap well down over my eyes.”
But Elizabeth’s actions were met with short shrift. She added, “A Grenadier officer among our party of about 16 people said he refused to be seen in the company of another officer improperly dressed, so I had to put my cap on normally.” It’s funny to imagine the future monarch being admonished in this way, isn’t it?
So, what else does the Queen remember? She added, “We cheered the King and Queen on the balcony, then walked miles through the streets. I remember miles of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall – all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief.”
There was also allegedly an incident which involved the royal entourage stealing a Dutch sailor’s hat! Margaret Rhodes explained on the The Queen’s Big Night Out, “My abiding memory is of this poor man following us trying to get his hat back.”
But did the individual realize that he was chasing the future queen? Margaret responded, “Probably not. You have to remember that 75 per cent of the people on the streets would have been in uniform, so [Elizabeth] wouldn’t have stood out. She was invisible.”
What came next for the royal party, then? Well, they reportedly headed up to the other end of The Mall from Buckingham Palace at around 10:30 p.m. Margaret recalled, “Trafalgar Square was jammed. It was a scene of joyful whoopee – full of people kissing policemen and other people. It was complete mayhem but rather nice mayhem.” Indeed, it must have been quite the sight!
From there, the future monarch and her entourage of revellers paid a visit to the Ritz Hotel. But the diners were to get a shock that night. Margaret remembered, “For some reason, we decided to go in the front door of the Ritz and do the conga. The Ritz was so stuffy and formal – we rather electrified the stuffy individuals inside.”
Margaret further recalled events which cannot help but raise a smile. She went on, “There were old ladies looking faintly shocked as one conga-ed through. Eyebrows were raised, but we carried on in our very loud way.”
Margaret continued, “It was great fun. I don’t think anyone realized who we were. To them it was just a group of rather drunk young mad people.” And there were certainly plenty of such folk out on this particularly memorable night.
Yet there was time for one last little adventure as the party made their way back towards Buckingham Palace. The folk gathered outside were still chanting to see the King, and the monarch duly obliged. But this time – unknown to almost everyone congregated – there had been a little tip-off.
The King made his way onto the palace balcony with Elizabeth and Margaret among the joyous crowd. But it wasn’t a coincidence, as the monarch later admitted in that 1985 BBC interview. The Queen said, “We… cheated slightly because we had sent a message into the house to say we were waiting outside.”
The party then slipped back into the palace as quietly as they had initially left. And those are the events of Elizabeth’s big night out among regular folk. In an interview with the Daily Mail Weekend magazine, another person in attendance on the streets of London that night put the evening in context for a modern audience.
Baroness Trumpington – who served in the British government under Margaret Thatcher – was simply Jean Campbell-Harris back then. Like the Queen, she too was in the thick of the action on VE Day. The late politician explained in 2015, “Me and my five pals went to London on the train. Peace was declared not long after we arrived.”
London, for the first time in six years, had apparently come alive. Baroness Trumpington went on, “It had been very dim during the blackout – with only searchlights in the sky and very tiny traffic lights – and suddenly there was this sudden blaze of light. It was so exciting! Everything had been so dim, dim, dim. And now it was splurge, splurge, splurge!”
And Baroness Trumpington saw Elizabeth among the melee. She told the Daily Mail Weekend magazine, “I had a friend who was a bodyguard of the Queen, so I noticed her and Princess Margaret as they walked the streets. But they were people like anyone else – we didn’t take any notice of them.” How often can such words be spoken of the British monarch?
Looking back, Margaret Rhodes said that it was a wonderful decision by the King and Queen consort to let their daughters loose for the evening. She explained on the Channel 4 documentary, “It was really rather clever of the King and Queen – and enormous credit to them for letting the girls go out on the wild. It would have been tragic if they hadn’t been given the chance to join in with the people and have that blast of freedom. And it was such a wonderful night. I still remember it all these years on.”
“It was a wonderful escape for the girls,” Margaret recalled. “I don’t think they’d ever been out and walked with a million other people. It was a great freedom – the freedom to be an ordinary person for the first time.” And as for the Queen herself? Well, she told the BBC, “I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life.” It would have been for anyone – let alone a young future monarch.