George VI and Queen Elizabeth on their way to the state opening of Parliament, 12 October 1937
Both the coronation itself and the speech to the Empire that evening had been a triumph for the King – as next morning’s newspapers noted. ‘Slow, deliberate and clear, his voice betrayed no sign of fatigue,’ commented the Daily Telegraph. A clergyman wrote to the Daily Mail from Manchester to express delight at ‘the sound of the King’s voice and the purity of his diction’. He continued: ‘With all the depth of his father’s voice, there is an additional softness which makes it even more impressive for the listener. I think it was the nearest approach to perfect “standard English” I have ever heard. There was no trace of anything which could be called accent.’
Those listening abroad were also pleasantly surprised by the fluency of the supposedly tongue-tied monarch. The compiler of the Detroit Free Press’s radio notes was baffled by what he had heard coming loud and clear over the ether from London. ‘Now that the coronation is over, listeners are wondering what became of the speech impediment that King George VI was supposed to have,’ he wrote. ‘It wasn’t apparent throughout the entire ceremony, and after hearing the new King deliver his address, many persons are classifying him with President Roosevelt as possessing a perfect radio voice.’
With the coronation behind him, the King was able to relax. He was still not completely cured of his speech impediment but, with Logue’s assistance, he was gradually getting the better of it. Logue, meanwhile, suffering from what Time described as nervous exhaustion, was reported to have left London for a long rest. On his return, he helped the King prepare for the various speeches that were now becoming routine.
Although such speeches passed off fairly successfully, the King’s staff were concerned about the effect his continuing speaking problems were having on him – and were forever on the lookout for ways of treating them. On 22 May Sir Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles, the King’s assistant private secretary, wrote to Logue referring to a letter he had received from an A. J. Wilmott relating to correspondence in The Times about how forcing left-handed children to act as if they were right-handed could cause problems – among them speech impediments such as stammering.
In his reply, four days later, Logue notes how such practice can lead to a disorder – which may disappear if the patient is changed back to his natural hand. He stressed that it was too late for the King, however. ‘After 10 years of age it becomes increasingly difficult to change the patient back again, and I have rarely heard of a case in which it has proved satisfactory in middle life.’ Bizarrely, he suggested it might be possible to obtain ‘temporary relief ’ from such a problem (often mistaken for a cure) by ‘assuming an American or cockney accent’, presumably since, as H. St John Rumsey, his fellow speech therapist, had argued, this would lead to a greater concentration on vowels rather than the dreaded consonants. It was clearly not an option for the King, though, even if some people had claimed to have heard something of a transatlantic twang in his elder brother’s speech when he was monarch.
Logue’s conclusion was that ‘unfortunately in the matter of Speech Defects, when so much depends on the temperament and individuality, a case can always be produced that can prove you are wrong. That is why I won’t write a book.’
During a meeting on 20 July, Hardinge said the King was talking well but was overtired. Logue agreed, saying it was a shame he did not get more time to himself as he was overloaded. This impression was confirmed when he saw the King later that day: he seemed very drained and they had a long talk about his weak stomach and how it affected his speech.
‘They certainly don’t understand the King,’ Logue wrote in his diary that same day. ‘I, who know him so well, know just how much work he can stand up to and talk splendidly – give him too much work and make him too tired and it impacts on his weakest part – his speech. They are very foolish to overwork him. He will crash and they will only have themselves to blame.’73
The fear of such a crash was timely: the State Opening of Parliament was only a few months away and, although not nearly so much of an ordeal as the coronation, it would still pose a considerable challenge. There was also the question of Christmas and whether or not the King should follow the tradition established by his father of making a radio address to the people of the Empire.
The State Opening, at which the King would read out the programme of Neville Chamberlain’s government (Chamberlain had become prime minister that May), was, of course, an unavoidable part of his duties as monarch. This did not prevent him worrying about it. He was preoccupied with how well George V had spoken to parliament in the past and was concerned he would fall short – as Logue noted after a meeting on 15 October when they had a run-through of the text. ‘He is still worrying over the fact that his Father did this sort of thing so well,’ Logue wrote in his diary. ‘As I explained, it took his Father many years before he got in the excellent state he did.’
The King was actually making good progress with the text itself, which ran to 980 words and took him ten to twelve minutes to get through. But there was the further challenge of having to do so while wearing a heavy crown. When Logue arrived for a practice on the eve of the ceremony, he was surprised to see the King sitting on his chair running through the speech, with the crown perched on his head.
‘He put it on so that he could find out how far he could bend to the left or right without it falling,’ Logue wrote in his diary on 25 October. ‘The crown fits so perfectly that there is no need to worry in the slightest.’ After two successful run-throughs, the King put the crown away.
Both men were encouraged by his performance, even if the memory of his father continued to loom large. ‘I have never heard him speak so well and have never known him so happy, or seen him look so well,’ Logue wrote. ‘If the King does well tomorrow, it will do him a tremendous amount of good. There is not the slightest need for him to do anything but well. It is only the inferiority complex about his Father, very nervous that is worrying him. His voice was beautiful tonight.’
The speech to parliament passed off successfully, with that weekend’s edition of the Sunday Express describing it as a triumph. ‘He spoke slowly but there was no hesitation or stammer,’ it said. ‘Indeed, the words took on a dignity and actual beauty from the tempo that he had wisely imposed on himself.’ The newspaper also noted how the King’s confidence grew as the speech progressed, with him raising his eyes and glancing around the chamber. ‘One does not need to be clairvoyant to understand what was passing through the Queen’s mind,’ it concluded. ‘When the King had finished she could not keep from her eyes the pride of a woman in her husband.’
This still left the not inconsiderable matter of what to do about Christmas. On 25 December 1932 George V had begun what was to turn into a national tradition of the annual radio broadcast to the nation. Seated at a desk under the stairs in Sandringham, he had read out words written for him by Rudyard Kipling, the great imperial poet and author of The Jungle Book: ‘I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all, to all my peoples throughout the Empire to men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert or the sea that only voices of the air can reach them, men and women of every race and colour who look to the Crown as the symbol of their union,’ he declared.
George V made a further broadcast in 1935, in which he reflected not just on his Silver Jubilee but also on two other major royal events of the year: the marriage of his son Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, and the death of his sister Princess Victoria. The broadcasts, which were mildly, but not overly, religious in tone, were intended to cast the monarch in the role of head of a great family spanning not just the United Kingdom but also the Empire – something his granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, was to strive to do during her more than half a century on the throne. Her Christmas messages, initially on radio and later on television, were to become an important part of the Christmas ritual for tens of millions of her subjects.
Neither George VI nor those around him saw it like that though. For him, the Christmas message was not a national tradition, merely something that his father had chosen to do, and the King had no desire to emulate him. The previous Christmas, with his elder brother’s abdication only two weeks old, there had certainly been no expectation that he should speak. By December 1937, though, the situation was different and there was a clamour from the Empire in particular for the new King to make a broadcast. Thousands of letters began to arrive at Buckingham Palace urging him to speak.
The King was nevertheless still reluctant; part of this was the usual trepidation he continued to feel about any public speaking engagement, especially one that would require him to speak alone into a microphone to tens –maybe hundreds – of millions of people. He also seemed to feel that in making such a speech he would somehow be encroaching on his father’s memory.
One solution, proposed by Hardinge at a meeting on 15 October, at which Logue was present, was that the King should instead read the lesson in church on Christmas morning. However, the idea was dropped because of concerns it might offend other denominations. The Palace was coming round to the idea that the King should read a short message to the Empire, and after a meeting on 4 November when Logue worked with the King on a couple more routine speeches, Hardinge showed him a rough draft which he proclaimed quite good.
Logue, meanwhile, had another concern. There were erroneous but persistent rumours that Princess Margaret, now aged seven, suffered from the same speech impediment as her father. Logue suggested to Hardinge that the next time she was in a news film, she should make a point of saying a few words – something like ‘Come on, Mummy’ or ‘Where is Georgie?’ or simply call the dog – ‘anything at all to prove that she can talk and lay for ever the rumour that she has a speech defect’.
November passed: a speech in honour of Léopold III, the King of the Belgians, went well. The King had also been apparently unfazed by an incident during the Remembrance Day ceremony at the Cenotaph when an ex-serviceman who had escaped from a mental asylum interrupted the two-minute silence with a shout of ‘All this hypocrisy’.
When Logue met the King on 23 November, they had a long discussion about Christmas during which the King revealed he still hadn’t quite made up his mind. One thing was clear, though: even if he did end up making a speech, it should not be seen as the reinstatement of an annual tradition. Logue didn’t blame him and it was decided to make a final decision on the matter the following week. ‘He is going down to Sandringham and then to the Duchy of Cornwall and will give it mature thought on the way,’ Logue wrote. ‘I should think it would be a good thing to do a small broadcast this Xmas but certainly not every year.’
Despite the pressure of the decision weighing on him, the King was in a light-hearted mood, joking about official protocol at dinner as well as the problems of sitting ambassadors from hostile countries next to each other. He also laughed as he read Logue a rhyme about his brother and Wallis Simpson, chuckling when he got to the line, ‘looked after State in day time and Mrs Wally at night’.
Christmas Day 1937 did not dawn very brightly, with an expectation of fog. Laurie Logue rose early and drove his father to Liverpool Street station, from where he was to take a train to Wolferton, the nearest station to Sandringham in north Norfolk, where the King and his family were spending Christmas.
Arrangements for Logue’s journey had been left in the capable hands of C. J. Selway, the southern area passenger manager of the London & North Eastern Railway. Selway had sent Logue a third-class return rail ticket, together with a permit authorizing him to travel first class in both directions. A first-class smoking compartment had been reserved for him in the name of Mr George on the 9.40 train. The stationmaster came along to both wish him luck and make sure the right man had taken it. Logue was due to return to London on the 6.50pm train that evening.
The fog was patchy and they lost some time between Cambridge and Ely, but the train steamed into King’s Lynn only fifteen minutes late. Two stations down the line at Wolferton, a royal chauffeur was waiting on the platform for Logue. He picked up a large Royal Mail bag containing the mail for Sandringham, and they then set off for the estate.
‘Nothing could have been more homely or sweeter than the hearty welcome they gave me,’ recalled Logue. There were about twenty guests gathered in the reception room, gloriously carved in light oak with thirty-foot ceilings and a musician’s gallery at one end. The King introduced him to everyone else before going in for lunch. Just as they were about to do so, a woman dressed in light blue moved up to his elbow, held out her hand and said, ‘You are Mr Logue, I am very glad to meet you.’ Logue bowed low over her outstretched hand. As he recorded in his diary, he had ‘had the privilege of at last meeting one of the most wonderful women I have ever seen – Queen Mary’.
Before passing on to the dining room, guests stopped at the equerry’s room where there was a flat leather model of the dining table, with white visiting cards showing the seating plan. Logue was pleased to see he was to sit between the Queen and the Duchess of Kent. The King was directly opposite.
The lunch, Logue recalled, ‘was quite informal; jolly and lots of fun’. At 2.30 they went back to the beautiful reception room. But this was not just a social occasion: there was work to do. He joined the King in the study, the same room from which his late father had broadcast five years earlier, and they discussed the text and went through the procedure to ensure everything was in place. They then went down the main hall, through the reception room and into the broadcasting room.
The oval table that George V had used to broadcast from had been pushed into a corner. In the centre of the room was a large desk with two microphones and the red light in the centre. The King, Logue found, was always much easier and less constrained in his speech when he could walk about – it made him laugh when he used to see posed photographs of him in the newspapers seated at a table.
Logue opened the window so there would be plenty of fresh air. They then joined R. H. Wood of the BBC who was in his own room. Quiet and fair haired, Wood probably knew more about the fledgling art of outside broadcasting than anyone else in Britain. It was Wood who had planned the installation of microphones for the coronation, and for that evening’s speech. He had also been in charge of the technical side of George V’s last broadcast, bringing along two microphones, cue lights and amplifiers as insurance against a breakdown. With him were six other men and all the paraphernalia of broadcasting: instruments, a telephone and a large loudspeaker through which they were to hear a record of the speech when it was relayed from Broadcasting House. The King was due to start talking at 3 p.m. precisely.
Despite the fog and gloom, everyone was in high spirits. Logue and the King went back to the microphone to try out the speech. As they did so, they could hear it booming back through the large radiogram in the room next door. So this was switched off and the rest of the royal family and their guests trooped up to the nursery to listen from there instead.
At five minutes to three, the King lit a cigarette and began to walk to and fro. Wood tried the red light to see it was working properly and they synchronized their watches. With one minute to go, the King threw his cigarette into the fireplace and stood with his hands behind his back, waiting. The red light flicked four times, and he stepped up to the microphone. The red light ceased for a moment and then came back on full, and he began to speak in a beautifully modulated voice.
‘Many of you will remember the Christmas broadcasts of former years, when my father spoke to his peoples, at home and overseas, as the revered head of a great family . . .’
He was speaking too quickly: close to a hundred words a minute, rather than the eighty-five that Wood had wanted. He also had trouble with one of the words, running on to it too quickly.
‘His words brought happiness into the homes and into the hearts of listeners all over the world,’ the King continued. Logue was pleased to note that he was pulling himself up.
Then, high up in the speech – an inclusion that was to be noted by the newspapers – came the insistence that this was to be a one-off rather than a tradition: ‘I cannot aspire to take his place – nor do I think that you would wish me to carry on, unvaried, a tradition so personal to him.’
The King continued at the same pace, sweetly towards the end, when he paused. After precisely three minutes and twenty seconds, it was all over. ‘Just a shade too long on two words through trying to get too much of an emphasis,’ Logue recorded.
But to the King, he said: ‘May I be the first to congratulate you, Sire, on your first Christmas Broadcast.’ The King shook his hand, gave what Logue described as ‘that lovely schoolboy grin of his’, and said, ‘Let’s go inside.’
They went back into the reception room where the royal family and guests were thronging down from the nursery. They crowded round the King and they, too, congratulated him. It was now 3.20 and the royal family and visitors began to disperse: some went to their rooms; others went out for a short walk. The King, his wife and mother went back into Wood’s room to wait and hear the broadcast played back.
Queen Mary, aged seventy, was as interested as a schoolgirl in all the paraphernalia and, after shaking hands with all the men, had the instruments explained to her. Then the telephone rang. Wood took the call and said, ‘London is now ready to play it back to us, your Majesty.’ Queen Mary sat in front of the microphone and Logue stood with his hand on the chair. The King was leaning against the wall, and the Queen, her face animated and flushed, was standing in the doorway.
Then the opening bars of ‘God save the King’ came through and they heard the speech back again. When it was over, Queen Mary thanked them all and asked Wood: ‘Was all this done when my late husband broadcasted and were all you gentlemen here?’
‘Yes, your Majesty,’ replied Wood.
‘And I knew nothing about it,’ replied Mary, rather sadly as it seemed to Logue.
As they passed through the microphone room, her daughter-in-law, Queen Elizabeth, stopped Logue and, putting her hand on his shoulder, said: ‘Mr Logue, I do not know that Bertie and myself can ever thank you enough for what you have done for him. Just look at him now. I do not think I have ever known him so light-hearted and happy.’
Logue was overcome with emotion, and it was as much as he could do to stop tears trickling down his cheeks. They then walked through into the reception room and he, the King and the Queen sat in front of the fire for nearly an hour, talking through the many things that had happened in the seven months since the coronation.
Just before it was time for tea, the King stood up. ‘Oh, Logue, I want to speak to you,’ he said. Logue followed him to the library. He took from his desk a picture of himself, the Queen and the little princesses in their coronation robes, which they both had autographed, as well as a box. Inside was a beautiful replica of a silver tobacco box, and a pair of gold sleeve links in black enamel with the royal arms and Crown.
Logue was too overcome to say much, but the King patted him on the back. ‘I do not know that I can ever thank you enough for all that you have done for me,’ he said.
Tea was another informal meal: the Queen was at one end of the table and Lady May Cambridge at the other. Afterwards, they all went down to the big decorated ballroom, where Logue was to receive an insight into the highly organized ritual of royal present-giving. In the centre of the room was a large Christmas tree stretching up to the roof, beautifully decorated. All around the room huge trestle tables had been put up, covered in white paper. They were about three feet wide and divided every three feet by a blue ribbon, giving everyone a space three feet square. Each space was marked with a name tag, starting with the King and Queen, and inside was that person’s presents.
The King had given the Queen a lovely sapphire coronet, but Logue was struck by the simplicity of both the whole procedure and the other presents, especially those given to the children. Then they all played ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ with the two princesses and the other royal children.
For Logue, the time went by almost in a dream until at 6.30 Commander Lang, the equerry, pointed out that if he was going to make his train back to London he would have to set off presently, especially because of the fog. Earlier that afternoon, the Queen had offered to Logue to stay the night if he wanted, but he was reluctant to outstay his welcome. There was also the matter of his own guests waiting for him back at his home in Sydenham.
In the meantime the King, his wife and mother had gone into the nearby long room to hand out presents to staff and people on the estate, but when the equerry whispered to them that Logue was leaving, they broke off to bid him farewell.
So Logue bowed over the two queens’ hands and they both thanked him sweetly for what he had done, and then the King shook his hand and said how much he appreciated his having sacrificed Christmas dinner on his behalf. ‘Anyhow,’ he said, ‘as there is no dining car on the train I have arranged for a hamper to be left for you.’
Outside it was now terribly foggy, but the driver somehow made it to Wolferton in good time and Logue was soon on the train back to London, accompanied by a hamper containing a beautiful Christmas dinner with the King’s compliments. Despite the fog, the train pulled into Liverpool Street three minutes ahead of schedule. Laurie, who had left his own Christmas dinner, was waiting to bring his father home. By 10.45 Logue was receiving another welcome in his own home where all the guests seemed well and happy. And so ended what he described as ‘one of the most wonderful days I have ever had in my life’.
Myrtle did not join her husband at Sandringham. That spring, she had begun to suffer from an inflamed gall bladder, and on 5 July was operated on. The surgeon removed fourteen stones, ‘enough to make a rockery’, as she put it in a letter to her brother Rupert. She spent more than three weeks in hospital before she was discharged, but suffered a relapse ten days later, when a splinter of stone left behind began to move. As she lurched from crisis to crisis, Lionel was distraught at the possibility of losing the woman who had been by his side for most of his adult life. That March, they had celebrated their thirtieth wedding anniversary – ‘a terrible time to spend with one woman and yet looking back there are few things that I would like altered,’ he wrote. ‘It has been a very wonderful time, and she has always been behind me to give me the extra little shove I want.’
Myrtle’s doctors wanted to spare her the British winter and prescribed a few months in Australia to recuperate. She set off on 4 November 1937 from Southampton as one of the 499 passengers aboard the 8,640-ton Jervis Bay of the Aberdeen and Commonwealth Line. She arrived at Fremantle, in Western Australia, on 5 December, spent four weeks in Perth and then continued eastwards across the country. She wasn’t due to return to Britain until the following April.
It was the first time Myrtle had been home since she and Lionel had left more than a decade earlier. Thanks to her husband’s success and proximity to the monarch, she was treated as a celebrity: parties, concerts and recitals were thrown in her honour, and she was a guest of the Governor of Victoria, Lord Huntingfield, and his wife at Government House. Journalists flocked to interview the woman described as the ‘wife of King George’s voice specialist’, and the society columns of the newspapers recorded where she went, whom she met and what she was wearing. Myrtle seemed only too happy to bask in the reflected glory, even though she suffered a few health scares along the way – at one stage she was so bad they thought they would have to take her to Adelaide in an ambulance, but she rallied until she was ‘a bit yellow but able to carry on’.
In one newspaper interview, published under the headline ‘Australians Thrive in London’, Myrtle painted a rosy picture of the life that she and her compatriots enjoyed in the mother country, noting how many of them had achieved prominence in London. ‘I put it down to their self-confidence and freedom from fear,’ she declared. ‘They are most capable and adaptable, and seem to fall on their feet in every walk of life.’ She also described how her own ‘lovely home’ on Sydenham Hill had become a ‘calling-point’ for Australians visiting Britain.
While Lionel was always discreet when it came to talking about his work, his wife couldn’t stop herself from discussing the King, boasting how he had personally invited her and her husband to his coronation. The monarch, she told one interviewer, is ‘the hardest worker in the world’, a man with ‘enormous vitality and strength’ that enables him to cope with his workload. She spoke warmly of his ‘particularly happy smile – a grin you could call it’ and his ‘wonderful sense of humour’.
‘If all my husband’s patients showed the grit and determination of the King all his cures would be 100 per cent,’ she told another interviewer. ‘His Majesty frequently comes to our house – he is most charming. So are the Princesses, who are completely unspoilt, although Margaret Rose is the more joyous – Elizabeth has rather more sense of responsibility.
‘They both speak beautifully and are simple and unassuming,’ she added. ‘My husband goes to the Palace every night now, and always the little Princesses come in to say “Goodnight, Daddy”.’74
Quite what Myrtle’s husband thought about such indiscretions is not clear. His disapproval cannot have been that strong, however, since the newspaper cuttings in which his wife was quoted were all diligently glued in his scrapbook.