Crowds of theatergoers spilled out into the streets on a rainy night in April, 1926, the women pulling on thick coats over their skimpy short dresses and the men stamping their feet and rubbing their arms to keep warm. "The Student Prince" had just ended at His Majesty's, Ruth Draper had completed her monologue at the Garrick, the stars of George and Ira Gershwin's "Lady Be Good" and Jerome Kern's "Show Boat" had taken their last bows. The cinemas too were closing for the evening, and the variety shows and concert halls, until by eleven o'clock the sidewalks were full and it was nearly impossible to find a cab. Many couples gave up trying, and ended up at the Piccadilly Hotel where Jack Hylton's band was playing, or at the Queen's Hotel in Leicester Square where the Ladies' Russian Orchestra held forth, in peasant costume, with balalaikas and black boots. Some set off for the cabaret at the Café de Paris, or for Elsa Lanchester's nightclub, the Cave of Harmony, in Seven Dials.
Celebrity hunters looked in at the Embassy Night Club where a sofa table was set aside for the Prince of Wales, a regular visitor, or at Ciro's, where the prince sometimes played drums with the band, his explosive rimshots setting off an inevitable wave of applause. There was gossip about his brother Prince George, who was said to be having an affair with the American singer Florence Mills; it was always possible that George and Florence might be having a quiet cocktail in the darker recesses of the Silver Slipper or the Hambone Club, or even at the Fifty-Fifty in Wardour Street, where Gertrude Lawrence and Beatrice Lillie and Noël Coward went after the theater, to see and be seen.
One man in the vast crowd was hurrying through the clogged traffic on an important errand. Sir William Joynson-Hicks, Home Secretary in the Conservative government, had been deputed to represent the cabinet at the birth of a royal child. He was on his way to Mayfair, to the town home of the Fourteenth Earl of Strathmore in Bruton Street, where the earl's daughter the Duchess of York was in labor-indeed she had been in labor for more than a day-and he was impatient to fulfill this obligation and return to more pressing duties.
As his cab made its way along the rain-slick streets with their carefree merrymakers Joynson-Hicks turned from the sight with indignation. As far as he was concerned, the capital was in the grip of a destructive hedonism that brought in its wake lax morals, decaying values and a pervasive ennui. The postwar society of London, he was convinced, had far too many women-indeed, because of the immense loss of life in the Great War, far more women than men-and they seemed to be everywhere, unescorted, in their alarmingly short dresses and bobbed hair under cloche hats, their cigarettes in long holders, their gaze bold and direct and provocative. Modesty, Joynson-Hicks believed, had gone the way of the dinosaur. A jungle ethic prevailed, catering to primitive urges. One had only to note the pervasiveness of liquor (the sale of which the Americans, in their wisdom, had prohibited), the loud jazz music, the sordid nightclubs, the pornographic "modern" books that extolled adultery and unnatural sexuality, modern art with its formlessness and lack of proper aesthetic standards, above all, the rampant illicit sex that seemed to be the besetting vice of the postwar world.
As Home Secretary, Joynson-Hicks was on a crusade to quash the evils he deplored, sending in the police to shut down nightclubs, arrest drinkers and jail partygoers, confiscating books and closing art galleries, campaigning in speech after speech against the decline of principles and urging his hearers to aid him in the cause of holding the line of civilization against the encroaching barbarism. Such was his mission-but not on this night, when civilization, or at least the Conservative government, with which he often confused it, was under attack on another front.
Britain's miners had been locked out for months, engaged in a bitter dispute with the mine owners (among them Lord Strathmore, toward whose house on Bruton Street the Home Secretary was traveling), who had cut their wages. A million miners were out of work, while the government, trying in vain to mediate the conflict, subsidized the industry at great cost. But the subsidies were at an end, for a royal commission, appointed to look into the entire situation, had issued a report saying that the miners' wage cuts were unavoidable, and the decision had been made not to renew the government's financial support to the industry.
Talks were continuing, in an atmosphere of growing tension. But the miners' leader, R.J. Cook, was refusing to accept any compromise on the wage issue and the Trades Union Congress, which represented some five million workers throughout Great Britain, was 0threatening to call a general strike in support of the miners.
The prospect of a general strike was a formidable challenge. Not only would such a strike make the ordinary operations of daily life impossible, for there would be no food in the stores, no police, no functioning banks, no newspapers, no public transport, but it might trigger a financial panic and an avalanche of crime. It might even, pessimists were predicting, bring on a social revolution.
For in Joynson-Hicks's mind, as in the minds of most middle-and upper-class Britons, labor agitation of any kind was linked to political radicalism, which at its most extreme meant Bolshevism. Everyone knew what had happened in Russia only a few years earlier, in 1917, when Czar Nicholas's government had been overturned by Bolshevik revolutionaries who had ultimately executed the czar and his wife and children. The terrors of the Red Menace made frightening reading in the daily papers. And had not R.J. Cook, the miners' spokesman, admitted that he was "a humble follower of Lenin"? What was that if not an admission of Bolshevism?
Unless the miners' strike was settled favorably, and soon, Britain might well go the way of Russia.
Given the labor crisis, the Home Secretary's journey to Bruton Street was little more than a detour in his very full agenda, a pause between crucial negotiating sessions. His presence was required, he would do his duty and attend the birth. But at the earliest possible moment he would be away again, his mind on more pressing matters.
In the room set aside for the Duchess of York's delivery, the surgeon, Sir Henry Simpson, kept watch over his exhausted patient. It had been decided that a normal birth was not possible. The baby was in the breech position and after so many hours of labor, the mother was near the end of her strength. Preparations had been made for a cesarean, a relatively rare and dangerous procedure that carried a high risk of hemorrhage and sepsis. An operating theater had been improvised, and made as hygienic as possible. The duchess's obstetrician, Walter Jagger, stood by and other physicians were available should complications arise.
Elizabeth of York continued to struggle with labor pains, as she had since the previous evening. She was twenty-six, and despite her small stature she was hardy-and did not lack courage, as her doctors had observed. She had shown grit and bravery on safari in Africa two years earlier, when she shot a rhino with her Rigby .275 game rifle and found the outdoor life of sleeping in tents, traveling on rough roads and stalking dangerous game bracing.
And now she was prepared to undergo the ordeal of a cesarean operation, since she wanted her baby very much, having had a miscarriage earlier in her marriage. Specifically, she wanted a daughter. There were too many males in the immediate family; another girl would be welcome.
Judging that further delay would be perilous, the surgeon attended to his task, as the rain poured down in the street outside and the Home Secretary, who had arrived and been made comfortable, waited for the announcement of the birth. Prince Albert, Duke of York, worried about his wife and unborn child, fretted and chain-smoked and tried to soothe his nerves with drink.
At last there came a thin cry from the delivery room. In a few moments the doors were opened, and the news given out. It was a girl, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary. Mother and child were well, though the doctors waited some hours before making a formal announcement to the world, and to the crowd that had gathered outside the house, in the rain, that both mother and baby were out of danger.
A great shout went up along Bruton Street when the word was passed. A girl. A princess. Three cheers for Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary! God save the king!
The doorbell at 17 Bruton Street was rung so often in the next twenty-four hours that it broke, and had to be replaced. So many telegrams were delivered, so many sprays of flowers, gifts for the baby, messages of congratulations. Every time a visitor arrived, the crowd cheered.
King George and Queen Mary, who had been awakened at four in the morning with the good news of Princess Elizabeth's birth, came that afternoon from Windsor to greet their granddaughter. The crowd went wild at their approach, police had to make way for them to pass, and for the footman who followed behind them, wearing the blue and red Windsor livery and carrying an immense bouquet of purple lilac and pink carnations.
"Such a relief and joy," the queen wrote in her diary after hearing that her daughter-in-law had been delivered safely. Queen Mary, an intensely shy, private and reserved woman who had had six children herself, belonged to a generation that felt distaste for the mess, immodesty and indignity of childbirth, but she had followed the course of the duchess's pregnancy with much concern and worry. She had looked forward to the baby's arrival, helping to sew the layette, inquiring after the arrangements for a nurse and nanny, satisfying herself that the best medical men were in attendance at the birth.
She was no doubt pleased that the baby had been given her name, Mary, along with that of her mother Elizabeth and that of her great-grandmother, Edward VII's widow Queen Alexandra, who had died at eighty only five months earlier.
Certainly the queen was pleased at the appearance of the tiny princess, "a little darling with lovely complexion and pretty fair hair." Her eyes were large and blue, her skin as white as porcelain. As she grew older she would be an attractive child, maybe even a beautiful one.
Day after day the well-wishers in the street continued to watch the door, hoping for a glimpse of the new baby. But her nurse, the tall, formidable Scot Clara Knight, avoided the onlookers, taking the baby out for walks around Berkeley Square or through St. James's Park via a concealed door at the rear of the house. After two weeks the numbers of those keeping vigil dwindled from a crowd to a cluster, and then to a few hopeful stragglers. The royal drama on Bruton Street was at an end, and the greater drama, the grand spectacle of London caught up in the tumult of a general strike, was just beginning.
Copyright © 2004 by Carolly Erickson