Arthur (far left) with Queen Mother, George VI and Winston Churchill at Buckingham Palace
I binge-watched the Golden Globewinning Netflix series The Crown over the weekend, complete with Claire Foy’s perfectly plummy-accented Queen Elizabeth II and Matt Smith’s perhaps too-endearing Prince Philip, and couldn’t help but be on the lookout for my grandfather in the palace shots.
Not because he’s actually acting (he died almost 40 years ago) but because his character might be marching around Buckingham Palace with a screwdriver and some cable.
My grandfather, Arthur Ridley, was the head electrician at Buckingham Palace from the mid-1930s through to the mid-1950s.
There was obviously a code of conduct among the staff that “what happens in the palace, stays in the palace”, but inevitably some of Grandad’s day came home with him.
I grew up with stories that made the Royal Family feel like a part of the world the rest of us live in, so watching a series showing how down-to earth they are came as no surprise.
There was the time Grandad went into the palace kitchens early one morning in the mid-1930s, only to find Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson attempting to make breakfast.
Arthur regularly helped the Royal Family, and had a strong friendship with King George VI
He would throw Prince Charles into the air above the pool, then catch him just before he hit the water, to be met with the refrain “Again! Again!”
They had just got in after a night on the town so they were a bit, well, worse for wear.
Though they were both in their early 40s, you’d have thought they were love-struck teenagers, laughing hysterically, throwing dozens of eggs at each other and, inexplicably, at the ceiling. Edward VIII, who ended up abdicating and almost sinking the monarchy, sheepishly told my surprised grandfather: “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”
Prophetic, in retrospect. Grandad’s job was to keep the lights on but he took on extra responsibilities in 1938 when the newly crowned King George VI decided to do some home improvements.
Carole's grandfather helped the family after the Buckingham Palace bomb attacks
Keen for his children, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, to continue with their swimming lessons the King wanted to put in a full-size pool. Grandad had to oversee all the electrical additions including lights, filter and heater installations. By the time the next generation came around, Grandad had invented a game. He would throw Prince Charles into the air above the pool, then catch him just before he hit the water, to be met with the refrain “Again! Again!”
Not much work got done but what are you to do when under royal command? There are no photos of the pool, which is housed in a glass-topped conservatory, except for a few glimpses of it when the Palace was bombed during the Second World War. Grandad was there for that, too, escorting the King, Queen and Prime Minister Winston Churchill around the extensive damage.
A now-famous photo of them is on display at Churchill’s country estate in Chartwell, Kent.
Arthur (age 31) on his wedding day to Ethel Curd (age 20) in 1922
After the war, swimming briefly stopped when the water got strangely murky. Grandad was taking samples to try to discover what was causing it when the Queen Mother came by. “Hello, Mr Ridley,” she said. “Have you found out what’s making the water dirty?” “Yes, ma’am,” said Grandad. “There’s been a lot of dirty people swimming in it.” The Queen Mother, luckily, was amused.
While The Crown has portrayed Queen Elizabeth II in a flattering light, it hasn’t been quite as warm to the Queen Mother. Grandad reported that she was a wreck when her husband the King died, in 1952. She walked the palace corridors alone, howling with grief, her clothes and hair a mess. Yet when the time came for her public appearances she’d go to her room, spruce herself up and go out with her game face on.
Just after that, Grandad was admitted to hospital with what turned out to be colon cancer. He was woken up at 6am one morning to find the Queen Mother at his bedside. “I’m sorry to be here so early, Arthur,” she said, “but I wanted to see you and I didn’t want the hospital to end up making a big fuss.”
Grandad returned to work shortly after but retired within a few years, age 60. Though he wasn’t given a great life expectancy, the cancer never recurred and he died peacefully in his sleep at age 85.
Considering he fought in the trenches of the First World War from day one through to the bitter end (a feat only a handful of soldiers could claim) and survived the first gas attack at Ypres, not a bad innings at all. But of all these memories, the greatest might be one from my mother, Betty, on VE Day in 1945.
The Royal Family must have known triumph was in the air because a wartime telegram from my grandmother to her brother-in-law fighting overseas at Christmas 1943 says: “Arthur is still very, very, busy for V-night, don’t think it will be long now.”
Netflix series 'The Crown' recently won three Global Globe awards
Sure enough, when peace broke out in Britain on May 8, 1945, the Palace became the epicenter of celebrations with huge, jubilant, crowds forming outside. The King, Queen and Churchill made multiple balcony appearances as the crowd yelled for more.
The air was so electric that Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret – accompanied by a few pals and protectors including Peter Townsend, future doomed love of Margaret – snuck out incognito to join the ecstatic throngs on The Mall. It’s an event dramatised in the 2015 Channel 4 movie A Royal Night Out.
While the event is true the film is pure (and incredulous) fiction. In real life, my 20-year-old mother was sneaking in to the palace. Thanks to everyone being high on life, Grandad was able to get her into the tradesmen’s entrance and past a solemn but empathetic bearskin-wearing guard.
The Crown: Netflix's new royal drama
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Netflix's new royal drama stars Claire Foy as the young monarch and Matt Smith as Prince Philip. The 10-part series focusses on the first days of Elizabeth's reign as Queen as well as her struggle to maintain her marriage.
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He took her to the control room and the main switch for the palace lights. At about 8pm she threw the handle and Buckingham Palace lit up after five years of darkness.
My mother told me many times about the roar of the crowd after she flipped the switch. The lights were back on. The blackout was over. The war was over. I’ve seen footage of it all on TV and, while I can’t see the two of them there, I can somehow feel their presence, in the depths of the palace, sharing that momentous event.
The Crown is available on Netflix