A strange silence descended in school at about 11.30am on 6 February 1952. The normal background noise of doors slamming, boys running and masters shouting, suddenly ceased. In the 5th Form classroom we all started silently staring at each other, sensing that something dramatic had occurred. When the teacher on his walk-around came up behind my desk to look at my maths work, I asked, "What's going on, sir? " He looked around the classroom and then said in a reverential voice, but loud enough for everyone to hear, "The King is dead. There will be a special assembly at midday."
Above: How my diary recorded events of 6 February 1952
The Headmaster's address at midday was heard in total silence and the Assembly concluded with a selection of prayers. Then, for the very first time, we sang the National Anthem with its new words (Queen replacing King, Her replacing Him). We were told by the Headmaster to swap our school ties for black ties from the next day - if our parents could afford one. That was not a problem for me because Dad wore a black tie with his Prison Officer's uniform and I knew he had lots of spares. As we left the school buildings we started excitedly discussing all the things that would now change. The most appealing thing, according to one boy, was that all our postage stamps would need to be changed because the King's portrait would have to be replaced by the new Queen's picture.
Following the initial news flashes of the King's death, the BBC immediately closed down all its wireless and television programmes. It demonstrated the deference to royalty that the BBC and most organisations had in the early 1950s. On the day after the King's death and up to the day of his funeral, the BBC maintained its complete embargo on all programmes other than hours and hours of sombre classical music plus regular news bulletins and weather forecasts. Why were weather forecasts suddenly so important, I wondered, since we had gone through the entire war without them being on the BBC. There was widespread public criticism but once the BBC had embarked on its course of action they could hardly change their mind until the King had been buried. In any case, there was a great love for the King and his Queen and most of his subjects throughout the Commonwealth felt a genuine sorrow at his passing.
Below: Part of my diary for 8 February 1952 (769 indicates this was my 769th consecutive diary entry)
In school, normal lessons continued; additionally, we were given lessons about the implications of a new Sovereign ascending the throne. We learned a new word: allocution. When our English teacher first mentioned the Queen's Allocution it was obvious that none of us was familiar with that word. One of the boys, rather cheekily asked, "Do you mean 'allocation' sir? Will Princess Elizabeth be allocated to be Queen because it's her turn?" He got 100 lines for that disrespectful remark.
I got the impression that the teacher was quite pleased that one of the boys had asked what the word allocution meant. He explained that it was customary for a new Sovereign to make an allocution, a special speech, to the Privy Council. The Sovereign's speech is then published in the London Gazette. A special assembly of the Privy Council to proclaim the accession of the new Sovereign and to receive the required statutory oath from the monarch, is known as an Accession Council. As Queen Elizabeth II had been abroad when the death of King George VI was announced, the Accession Council had to meet twice: once to proclaim the Sovereign (a meeting on 6 February 1952), and then again after the new Queen had returned to Britain from Kenya, to receive from her the oath required by statute (a meeting on 8 February 1952).
I didn't come across the word 'allocution' again until it appeared in one of the newspapers in a piece about the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. The word derives from the Latin deponent verb 'to speak', which I remembered fondly from my even earlier school days at QEGS: loquor, loqui, locutus sum. Incidentally, Trekkies will recall that Captain Jean-Luc Picard adopted the persona of Locutus of Borg when the evil Borg were on their way to assimilate the entire population of Earth. Only Latin-savvy fans of Star Trek will appreciate why that name was so appropriate.
Below: More scans from my diary
On 11 February 1952 I recorded in my diary (above) that the Royal Train carried the late King’s body from Wolferton, then the station nearest to Sandringham Royal Estate in Norfolk where the King had been staying when he died, to London King’s Cross. The 10-coach train was headed by Britannia Class locomotive 70000, actually named Britannia. I have in my collection several newspapers from that week. They all described the train journey and many had pictures of the train at vantage points along the route. Apparently there were 40 manned stations along the 105-mile route, all closed to the public for the Royal Train’s passage, and at each one the Daily Mirror reported that: "The station staff, porters, plate-layers, and refreshment room personnel, all stood silently to attention on the platform. Even trains travelling in the opposite direction slowed down to a crawl as they passed the Royal Train." Alongside a splendid photograph of the Royal Train steaming furiously as it approached Kings Lynn, the report continued: "In the fields, beneath leaden, snow-heavy skies, farming folk, their work forgotten, stood by their boundary fences, and in back gardens, where Monday’s washing flapped, stood housewives still wearing their aprons."