Details of a secret Royal visit to Preston

With Britain at war, details of the King and Queen’s whereabouts were kept under wraps, but that did not stop thousands turning out to greet the Royal couple on a whistlestop visit to Preston 75 years ago this week, as Elizabeth Botcherby reports

Friday, 6th March 2020, 5:00 pm
King and Queen chatting to wounded soldiers outside Preston Town Hall
King and Queen chatting to wounded soldiers outside Preston Town Hall

The visit lasted only as long as a football match, wartime restrictions prevented a grand celebration, and there was no official announcement of their itinerary.

But this didn’t stop Preston’s loyal citizens from coming out in force 75 years ago this week to greet the King and Queen when they paid a surprise visit to Preston as part of a two-day tour of Lancashire.

Flags and bunting appeared overnight, crowds gathered on Fishergate Hill and lined the route three hours before their expected arrival and children, enjoying a special holiday, clutched the flags they had bought for the occasion.

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King George VI and Queen Elizabeth about to depart from Preston Town Hall

The King and Queen, accompanied by Countess Spencer, Sir Eric Mieville and Wing Commander PW Townsend, travelled to Preston by road from Ormskirk. Winding through South Lancashire, the convoy slowed as they passed through each village to acknowledge the cheering crowds.

At 12.55pm, a police loudspeaker car sparked great excitement outside the County Offices in Preston, delivering a five minute warning to the crowds of the imminent arrival of the King and Queen.

Guests of Lord and Lady Derby, the Royals enjoyed an ‘austerity lunch’ at the County Offices prepared by the canteen staff. Other notable attendees included the Earl and Countess of Sefton, the Mayor and Mayoress of Preston – Councillor JE and Miss EM Gee – and Alderman Edwin Thompson, the High Sheriff of Lancaster.

After a swift luncheon, the King and Queen continued along Fishergate to the Town Hall for the local presentations. Market Square was resplendent in patriotic decor. Fluttering bunting and shields decorated the Harris Art Gallery and Museum, while flags hung from many public buildings, offices and shops. A blue carpet covered the Town Hall steps, spring flowers and flags adorning the building and the town’s gold and silver regalia was on display out front.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth greet the crowds from Preston Town Hall

As the Royal cars arrived, excitement filled the square. The band of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment played stirring music, a choir of 500 local school children sang the National Anthem and the crowd broke into cheers. As the car passed, one woman lifted her baby into the air, exclaiming: “Look darling. There’s the Queen. Isn’t she lovely?”

Given a place of honour in Market Square were 85 wounded servicemen from Preston Royal Infirmary and Whittingham Emergency Hospital. The blue-clad soldiers, many of whom were injured in Burma and Italy, were seated either side of the Town Hall steps, afforded the best seats in the house for the presentation of local people to the King and Queen.

More than 13,000 school children also had reserved vantage points in the square and along the route, including 40 pupils from the Royal Cross School for the Deaf and 129 Belgian children.

The Queen dazzled in a “Flag” blue frock and coat, the newest spring shade, and a matching halo hat trimmed with a paler blue. The frock was embroidered to the waist line and the pocket with diamante and blue beads.

She wore her favourite triple row of pearls, a diamond scroll brooch pinned on the coat, diamond and pearl earrings and a small brooch in the folds of her hat. Her accessories (shoes, gloves and bag) were pale grey and she carried twin silver fox furs. Her dark hair was worn in a coil in the nape of her neck. The King, meanwhile, was described as looking slim and handsome in his RAF Marshal’s uniform.

Among those presented to the Royals were several prominent councillors, the Deputy Mayor and Mayoress Alderman and Mrs W Gordon, and Colonel TP Given, Commander of Preston Sub-District.

Both before and after the presentations, their Majesties spent several minutes chatting with the wounded servicemen. For many, including Private C Nolan of Wheelton, Chorley, and Preston’s own Private Adam Bradshaw, this was their first meeting with the Royals. However, for Lieutenant R Cook, who had lost both legs, this was his second encounter with King George VI after meeting him in Italy the year before.

The only civilian among the blue sea of soldiers was Mr James Dickinson, a disabled First World War veteran and honorary secretary of Preston Comforts Fund. His mission to provide entertainment to servicemen in hospital was greeted with approval by the King and Queen.

A group of children on Liberty Terrace were also singled out for acknowledgement, having been spotted by cheering and waving by the Queen. Before leaving, the King conveyed his thanks to the Mayor for the city’s kind reception.

The Queen too, expressed her gratitude, telling the Mayoress that she enjoyed her brief visit and hoped to spend more time in the borough in the near future. God Save the King rang out from the choir once more as the Royals departed, enthusiastically cheered on their way by Preston’s faithful crowds. A brief, but greatly appreciated, brush with Royalty.