by Rosalee van Stelten
It began in Winnipeg during the Great Flood of 1950. My schoolmates were stacking sandbags to keep back the swiftly rising waters of the Red River. Slight of build, I was not permitted to join them. Instead, I landed in the flood liaison office at HMCS Chippawa–a land establishment in Winnipeg–working for a jaunty, bearded lieutenant who enthralled me with salty dips about his life in the Royal Navy. It was not long before I was hooked.
Eight years later, on a rainy day in Victoria, I was summoned to the office of the manning commander of Canada’s Pacific fleet. “Petty Officer Auger,” he said, “you are going to London to work for the Queen.”
My knees turned to water. “Sir,” I stammered, “do you mind if I have a chair?”
When Buckingham Palace released the news of the various appointments for the 1959 royal tour of Canada, I became an overnight celebrity. The headline of one British tabloid revealed: Almost No Make-up. She Doesn’t Even Smoke. Another headline gushed: A Light-haired Wren With A Pixie Smile Is Going To London To See The Queen. That story also noted I was chosen for the job because of “my stenographic ability, tact, capacity for work, and appearance.”
Yellowed newspaper clippings in my bulging scrapbook indicate I was ill-prepared for my palace posting. I confessed to the media that I didn’t know anything about Buckingham Palace or its protocol. No one had instructed me how to address members of the Royal Family or had shown me how to curtsy. “I thought the best authorities would be the British,” I said tactfully, “so I decided to wait until I got here.”
I also did not know where I would reside, what my hours of work would be or precisely what I would have to do. It was, as the navy would say, “a typical pier-head jump.” Well, perhaps, atypical.
To take care of the mountains of media information before, during and after the six-week royal tour, the Queen had appointed Canadian Esmond Butler as her assistant press secretary. I was to be his secretary, or lady clerk in palace parlance. He was a tall, handsome and charming man dubbed by the press as Britain’s Most Eligible Bachelor. My supreme good fortune in working for him was the envy of the Women’s Royal Naval Service–also called Wrens–with whom I was billeted not far from Kensington Palace.
One day my boss summoned me to his office to take dictation. First, I had to remove a bundle of laundry from my chair. “Perhaps you could take that back to quarters and wash it for me,” he instructed with a twinkle in his eye.
“I can make a fortune,” I replied. “I’ll auction it off, one piece at a time. I could start by asking who will bid two bob to wash the Most Eligible Bachelor’s socks?” Needless to say, that was the end of that suggestion.
On June 19, 1959, at Sept-Îles, Que., I found myself on board Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia. By then I was a slightly seasoned member of the royal household, and my place of work was a crowded and unpretentious office whose bulkheads revealed the ribs of the vessel, as did my tiny cabin.
Many years later, when the yacht was about to be retired from service, Lord Martin Charteris of Amisfield–once private secretary to the Queen–rose to defend Britannia in the British House of Lords. “The name yacht gives a completely wrong impression,” he said. “When you speak of a yacht nowadays I think you conjure up pictures of hot, idle days in the Mediterranean, the popping of champagne corks and illicit love affairs. I can assure you that is simply not the form of HMY Britannia.”
To which I add: “Spot on!”
Our days on Britannia certainly were not idle and often stretched long into the night. As for navigating the St. Lawrence Seaway, Britannia’s official diary of the tour declared: “No one but a landsman would describe the operation as simple.”
One morning, a forward tug parted the tow and the yacht sideswiped a jetty. The force of the impact threw me from my office chair. On another occasion we thumped into a lockside and the crew had to push us free; even the Queen was out on the deck to lend a ladylike hand, pressing her palm against the concrete wall and giving a hearty shove.
I am not sure in what deep and dark region of the ship the petty officers of the crew were victualled. My eating arrangements were in the dining room where the royal detectives, seamstress, hairdresser, butlers, maids, footmen and pages were fed. They were a very lively lot, and during down times the hairdresser offered to coif the secretarial staff. We all sported the royal bouffant, suitable for tiara and crown and quite smashing, too, under my navy porkpie cap.
The official opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway came June 26, 1959, attended by the Queen, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The yacht was at St-Lambert, Que., and it was surrounded by Canadian and American warships, flanked by hundreds of pleasure craft whose crews tossed their caps in the air and cheered wildly.
On Britannia’s gleaming deck I was an arm’s length from the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, President and Mrs. Eisenhower, our prime minister and Olive Diefenbaker, and the opposition leader, Lester B. Pearson and his wife as they disembarked for ceremonies ashore. Heady stuff for a girl from the Canadian prairies.
At the end of that exciting day a group of us gathered in the office to mark the occasion with champagne and caviar. My champagne debut had taken place earlier–in a dining room of Buckingham Palace–where I ate my noon meals when we were in London. It was the Queen’s birthday and the gentlemen of the Privy Purse had invited me to join their table. After a toast to Her Majesty’s health, they generously topped up my glass. Several times. The vintage went down like liquid gold and straight to my inexperienced head. After dinner, my boss buzzed for me, and so off I went with shorthand notebook and pencils in hand, and plopped myself in a chair. He eyed me quizzically. “I’ve been shellabrating the Queen’s birthday,” I announced with strained dignity.
“Perhaps this could wait until tomorrow,” he suggested.
I quickly agreed and then wended my uncertain way down the regal hall to my office where I sat like a mollified mouse for the rest of the afternoon.
When the royal yacht reached Chicago, the U.S. president hosted the Queen on behalf of the American people. Seventy bombers and fighters roared overhead in welcome, and two million cheering citizens lined the streets, but as soon as the state banquet ended, the guests went crazy carting off contraband. One individual was seen lunging through the crowd with the royal toilet seat held above his head.
A few days earlier at Wolfe’s Cove in Quebec City, the Queen had given a media reception to which I was invited as “one of the team”. My boss offered to escort me to the affair. It was a frantic day, and the Queen’s agenda listed these events: “10:00 a.m. Arrive Wolfe’s Cove, Quebec City and meet Lieutenant-Governor, Prime Minister of Quebec, the mayor of Quebec City; proceed to City Hall via the Plains of Abraham to sign the Golden Book; return to HMY Britannia to give a luncheon; leave for the Plains of Abraham to present colours to the Royal 22nd Regt.; return to Britannia for a reception for members of the press.”
My boss had been with the royal party throughout the day, and at the appointed hour he forgot me. I caught up with him at the gangway just as the guests began to stream on board. That’s when he waved me aft.
On the veranda deck stood Queen Elizabeth II and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. I had frequently seen one or the other at close quarters, and yet on this occasion I was overwhelmed. I curtsied instead of saluting, dodged around Her Majesty like a basketball player heading for the hoop, and then rushed to join the staff at the rail. The Queen raised a gloved hand and turned to speak to me. Careening across the deck like a demented roadrunner, I was unable to put on the brakes. My faux pas haunts me to this day.
On July 1, we flew from Toronto to Ottawa to celebrate Canada’s birthday. After a brief sojourn on the royal train we rejoined the yacht and proceeded to Port Arthur, Ont.–terminal of the seaway and city of my birth. Britannia’s diary noted that we were “600 feet or 180 metres above sea level, possibly an altitude record for Her Majesty ships, 2,000 miles or 3,220 kilometres from sea, in waters believed not to have received a visit from a ship of the Royal Navy since the war of 1812.”
Among those presented to the Queen that day was my grandfather, Eugene Auger, a Boer War veteran and staunch royalist. As a young soldier, he and other members of the Canadian contingent had been feted by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on their return from South Africa.
Following the Lakehead ceremonies, the family gathered at a modest restaurant to celebrate. “Order anything you want,” grandfather said magnanimously.
“Two cheeseburgers with the works,” I replied. My first since I had left Canada, and they tasted like manna from heaven.
En route to Port Arthur, which is now known as Thunder Bay, the yacht had travelled through Georgian Bay where hordes of Sunday sailors bobbed along beside us. “Are you serving tea yet?” one shouted.
“You don’t know how lucky you are!” another cried.
Ah, but I did. Memories still wash over me when I think of Britannia: The discreet knock on my cabin door each morning by a ship’s steward carrying a wake-up cup of tea; strolling the deck for my daily constitutional, the grey St. Lawrence slipping beneath us, gulls crying overhead; the skipper, Vice-Admiral Peter Dawnay, shyly presenting me with the royal yacht cap tally and shoulder flash for my uniform, the only Wren to be so honoured; passing Prince Philip in gangways and on stairways and feeling my pulse race. The lump in my throat as he led us in the naval prayer at Sunday service entreating, “that we may be a safeguard unto our most gracious sovereign lady, Queen Elizabeth.” Waves of fatigue after long, arduous days; quiet pride in a job well done.
I remember telling a reporter: “Once in a while I realize where I’m working and I look around for someone to pinch me, so that I’ll wake up.” It was like living in a storybook, whose pages I still turn from time to time.