The Last Words


George VI looking tired and ill shortly before his death

To the millions of people in Britain and across the Commonwealth and Empire who gathered around their radios on Christmas Day 1951, the voice was both familiar and yet worryingly different. George VI was delivering his traditional Christmas message, but he sounded uncomfortably husky and hoarse, as if he were suffering from a particularly heavy cold. At times, his voice dropped to almost a whisper. He also seemed to be speaking slightly faster than usual. Yet few of those listening could have failed to be moved by what their monarch had to say.

After beginning by describing Christmas as a time when everyone should count their blessings, the King struck a deeply personal note.

I myself have every cause for deep thankfulness, for not only – by the grace of God and through the faithful skill of my doctors, surgeons and nurses – have I come through my illness, but I have learned once again that it is in bad times that we value most highly the support and sympathy of our friends. From my peoples in these islands and in the British Commonwealth and Empire as well as from many other countries this support and sympathy has reached me and I thank you now from my heart. I trust that you yourselves realise how greatly your prayers and good wishes have helped and are helping me in my recovery.

The King’s five doctors telephoned their congratulations, but the newspapers both in Britain and beyond were shocked by what they heard. Although commentators and leader writers were relieved to hear the King speak for the first time since a major operation three months earlier, the wavering tone of his voice brought home to them quite how poorly he was. ‘Millions of people all over the world, listening to the King’s Christmas Day broadcast, noticed with concern the huskiness in his voice,’ the Daily Mirror reported two days later. ‘The question at many Christmas firesides was: Is the King just suffering from a chill, or is the huskiness a sequel to the lung operation he had three months ago?’

For the first time since he had delivered his first Christmas message in 1937, the King’s words were not being spoken live – as Sir John Reith had always insisted they should be during his long tenure as director-general of the BBC – but had been pre-recorded. The explanation for this innovation lay in the further worsening of the King’s health.

After the various medical crises he suffered in the late 1940s, the King had been ordered by his doctors to rest and relax as much as possible and to cut down his public appearances. A further strain on his health came from the worsening economic and political situation: Attlee’s Labour party, elected by a landslide in 1945, had seen its majority eroded to a handful in 1950 and was struggling to continue in office. A general election in October 1951 brought a change of government with the return of the seventy-six-year-old Winston Churchill.

The King had been well enough to open the Festival of Britain on 3 May, riding with the Queen in an open carriage through the streets of London, escorted by the Household Cavalry. ‘This is no time for despondency,’ he announced from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. ‘I see this festival as a symbol of Britain’s abiding courage and vitality.’ But many who saw their monarch close up during the service remarked on how ill he looked – and that evening he took to his bed with influenza.

The King was slow to recover and also suffered from a persistent cough; he was initially diagnosed with a catarrhal inflammation of the left lung and treated with penicillin. The symptoms persisted, but it was not until 15 September that he was found to have a malignant growth. Three days later, Clement Price Thomas, a surgeon who specialized in such problems, told the King the lung should be removed as soon as possible – although, as was the practice of the day, he did not reveal to his patient that he was suffering from cancer.

The operation, carried out on 23 September, went well. It had been feared that the King might lose certain nerves in the larynx, which could mean he would be unable to speak in more than a whisper. The fear proved unfounded. By October he was writing to his mother expressing relief that he had not suffered complications.

He was nevertheless still a sick man. During the State Opening of Parliament that November, his speech from the throne – exceptionally – was read for him by Lord Simonds, the Lord Chancellor. There were suggestions that he should step aside for the Christmas broadcast as well. According to one later newspaper report,92 it was proposed that his place at the microphone be taken by his wife or by Princess Elizabeth. This would certainly have spared the King considerable discomfort, but he refused. ‘My daughter may have her opportunity next Christmas,’ he told them. ‘I want to speak to my people myself.’ The King’s determination to deliver his message in person – much as he had always dreaded doing so – showed the extent to which, during the course of his reign, those few minutes on the afternoon of 25 December had been turned into one of the most important events in the national calendar.

The doctors warned, however, that a live broadcast could prove too much of a strain, so a compromise was found: the King recorded the message in sections, sentence by sentence, repeating some over and over again, until he was satisfied. The finished result was barely six minutes long, but recording it took the best part of two days. It was far from perfect: what seemed to listeners an uncharacteristically fast delivery appears to have been one of the side effects of the editing process. As far as the King was concerned, though, it was far better than any of the alternatives. ‘The nation will hear my message, although it might have been better,’ he told the sound engineer and a senior official from the BBC, who were the only two people allowed to listen back with him to the final version before it was broadcast. ‘Thank you for your patience.’

The letter that the King sent Logue in response to his customary birthday greetings on 14 December reflected quite how low he had been feeling in the run-up to the recording. It was to be the last letter that he wrote to his speech therapist and friend, and his remarks seemed all the more poignant because Logue himself was also in poor health.

I am so sorry to hear that you have not been well again,’ the King wrote. ‘As for myself, I have spent a wretched year culminating in that very severe operation, from which I seem to be making a remarkable recovery. The latter fact is in many ways entirely down to you. Before this operation, Price Thomas the surgeon asked to see me breathe. When he saw the diaphragm move up and down naturally he asked me whether I had always breathed in that way. I said no, I had been taught to breathe like that in 1926 & had gone on doing so. Another feather in your cap you see!!

Logue wanted to reply, but he was taken into hospital before he could respond.

The King stayed on at Sandringham into the New Year with the Queen. The note of hope and confidence in his Christmas speech appeared to be justified. He was well enough to begin shooting again, and when he was examined by his doctors on 29 January, they pronounced themselves satisfied with his recovery. The next day the royal family went to the theatre at Drury Lane to see South Pacific. The outing had something of an air of celebration about it, partly because of the improvement in the King’s health and partly because, the following day, Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh were due to set off for East Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

On 5 February, a cold, but dry and sunny day, the King enjoyed a day of shooting. He was, according to his official biographer, ‘as carefree and happy as those about him had ever known him’.93 After a relaxed dinner, he retired to his room and, about midnight, went to bed. At 7.30 the following morning, a servant found him dead in his bed. The cause of death was not cancer, but rather a coronary thrombosis – a fatal blood clot to the heart – that he suffered soon after falling asleep.

By this time, Elizabeth and Philip had reached the Kenyan stage of their trip: they had just returned to Sagana Lodge, one hundred miles north of Nairobi, after a night spent at Treetops Hotel, when word arrived of the King’s death; it fell to Philip to break the news to his wife. She was proclaimed Queen and the royal party quickly returned to Britain.

On 26 February Logue wrote to the King’s widow, who, at the age of fifty-one had begun what was to be more than half a century as Queen Mother. He referred to the ‘wonderful letter’ that her late husband had sent in December and expressed his regrets that his own illness had prevented him from replying to it – until it was too late. ‘Since 1926 he honoured me, by allowing me to help him with his speech, & no man ever worked as hard as he did, & achieved such a grand result,’ Logue wrote. ‘During all those years you were a tower of strength to him & he has often told me how much he has owed to you, and the excellent result could never have been achieved if it had not been for your help. I have never forgotten your gracious help to me after my own beloved girl passed on.’

In her reply two days later, the Queen Mother was equally fulsome in her praise of Logue. ‘I think that I know perhaps better than anyone just how much you helped the King, not only with his speech, but through that his whole life & outlook on life,’ she wrote. ‘I shall always be deeply grateful to you for all you did for him. He was such a splendid person and I don’t believe that he ever thought of himself at all. I did so hope that he might have been allowed a few years of comparative peace after the many anguished years he has had to battle through so bravely. But it was not to be. I do hope that you will soon be better.’

That May, her daughter, now Queen Elizabeth II, mindful of how close Logue had been to her father, sent him a small gold snuff box that had belonged to the King, together with the following message:

I am sending you this little box which always stood on the King’s table, & which he was rather fond of, as I am sure you would like a little personal souvenir of someone who was so grateful to you for all you did for him. The box was on his writing table, & I know that he would wish you to have it.

I do hope that you are feeling better. I miss the King more & more.

Yours v sincerely 

Elizabeth R.

That December, the Queen gave her first Christmas message from Sandringham. ‘Each Christmas, at this time, my beloved father broadcast a message to his people in all parts of the world,’ she began. ‘As he used to do, I am speaking to you from my own home, where I am spending Christmas with my family.’ Speaking in clear, firm tones – and without a trace of the impediment that had so clouded her father’s life – she paid tribute to those still serving in the armed forces abroad and thanked her subjects for the ‘loyalty and affection’ they had shown her since her accession to the throne ten months earlier. ‘My father and my grandfather before him, worked hard all their lives to unite our peoples ever more closely, and to maintain its ideals which were so near to their hearts,’ she said. ‘I shall strive to carry on their work.’

Logue did not record what he thought of the speech – or indeed whether he listened to it, at all. Either way, his services were no longer required and his health was failing. He spent the festivities in his flat surrounded by his three sons and their families: Valentine and his wife Anne, with their two-year-old daughter, Victoria; Laurie and Jo, with their children, Alexandra, 14, and Robert, 10, and Antony, with his future wife Elizabeth, whom he would marry less than a year later.

Shortly after New Year, Logue was taken ill for the last time. He remained bedridden for more than three months, and a live-in nurse was employed to look after him, but he eventually fell into a coma. He died on 12 April 1953 of kidney failure, less than two months after his seventy-third birthday. Among his effects were two invitations to the Queen’s coronation, to be held that June – the second presumably sent because he had been too sick to respond to the first.

The obituaries that appeared in Britain, Australia and America were brief. ‘Mr Lionel Logue, C.V.O., who died yesterday at the age of 73, was one of the leading specialists in the treatment of speech defects and was mainly responsible for helping King George VI to overcome the impediment in his speech,’ wrote The Times, which sandwiched him between the former president of Poland and the head of an American engineering company. ‘He was on close personal terms with the King for a long time.’ As for his techniques, the obituary writer merely noted: ‘An important part of Logue’s method was his instruction in how to breathe properly and so produce speed without strain.’

A few days later, readers added their comments: ‘May I be allowed, through the courtesy of your columns, to pay a humble tribute to the great work of Mr Lionel Logue,’ wrote a Mr J. C. Wimbusch. ‘As a patient of his in 1926, I can testify to the fact that his patience was magnificent and his sympathy almost superhuman. It was at his house in Bolton Gardens that I was introduced to the late King, then Duke of York. There must be thousands of people who, like myself, are living to bless the name of Lionel Logue.’94

Logue’s funeral was held on 17 April at Holy Trinity Church, Brompton. He was cremated. Both the Queen and the Queen Mother sent representatives, as did the Australian High Commissioner. While Logue’s work with the King had brought him prominence and honours – although strangely, given the closeness of their relationship, not a knighthood – it had not made him a wealthy man. In his will, details of which were published in The Times on 6 October, he left a fairly modest £8,605 – the equivalent of about £180,000 today.

Even with the benefit of more than half a century’s worth of hindsight, establishing quite how Logue succeeded with the King where those who preceded him had failed still remains something of a challenge. The various breathing exercises on which he put such emphasis certainly appear to have helped – the King, for one, appears to have been convinced of that. Important, too, was the effort that Logue put into going through the texts of the various speeches that had been written for him, removing words and phrases that he knew could potentially trip up his royal pupil. In a sense, though, this was not so much curing the problem, as avoiding it – yet there seems little doubt that by eliminating the largest of such stumbling blocks, Logue helped to build up the King’s confidence, ensuring that the speech as a whole, with all the other lesser challenges it contained, proved less daunting.

Ultimately, though, the crucial factor appears to have been the way in which Logue, from the start, managed to persuade his patient that his was no deep seated psychological affliction, but rather an almost mechanical problem that could be overcome through hard work and determination. An important part of this was the closeness of the relationship that developed between the two men, which was helped by Logue’s no-nonsense approach. By insisting from the beginning that they should meet in his practice at Harley Street or at his own home, rather than on royal territory, Logue had made clear his intention that the King should be his patient; over the years this was to turn into a genuine friendship.

That being said, the two men’s very different positions in what was still a very class-ridden society meant that there were limits to how close this relationship could be – especially after Bertie became King. The tone, not just of Logue’s letters but also of entries in his diary, both of which have been quoted extensively in this book, reveal a deep respect not just for the King as a person but also for the institution of monarchy. Indeed, to a modern reader, the tone Logue adopts when writing of the King can seem fawning – especially more so in the case of the Queen Mother.

The last word belongs to one of the few people still alive at the time of writing who actually knew Logue well – his daughter-in-law Anne, who was married to his middle son Valentine, and who, in the summer of 2010, although already in her early nineties, remained enviably sharp and sprightly. Her opinions appeared to be given further weight by her career, which had culminated in her becoming Consultant in Child Psychiatry at the Middlesex Undergraduate Teaching Hospital.

Asked about the secret of her father-in-law’s success, Anne, too, was unable to give a definitive answer, but thought it was largely due to the rapport that Logue had developed with the future King when his patient was still a young man, rather than to any particular treatment. ‘Anyone can do tongue twisters and breathing exercises, but he was a first class psychotherapist,’ she said. ‘He was a super good daddy where George V had been a ghastly one.’

‘[Lionel] would never talk about what he did. But when you look at what happened and what he was dealing with, that can be the only answer. The King had heaps of other people who had been no use to him. Why else did he stay with him for such a long time?’

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