Sir John Kerr’s Sympathetic Correspondent

The role of the Private Secretary to the Queen has come to the fore with the release of the Palace Letters, forty-five years after Sir John Kerr dismissed Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister on November 11, 1975. The result confirms what even Mr Whitlam believed — that the sacking was not a decision of the Queen’s. Professor Jenny Hocking must be devastated. She fought so hard for publication and still insists, counter to the documents’ evidence, that the dossier is replete with “bombshells”. But she deserves to be commended for letting the light in on the mystery.

Much, perhaps too much, has been written about the clever, complex, florid, flawed Governor-General. But what of Her Majesty’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, Sir John’s ear and the Palace’s voice?

But first, what of the role itself? The private secretary is responsible for supporting the Queen in her duties as Head of State. He is the channel of communication between the Head of State and the Government of her 16 realms. The private secretary also liaises with the Armed Forces, the Church and Her patronages. The first private secretary was Colonel Herbert Taylor, who took the office in 1805 for George III (and again for William IV in 1830). Strangely, the position was not made official until 1867; by then, there had been three more secretaries and then two most significant unofficial ones – Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister, Viscount Melbourne (her beloved ‘Lord M’) and then Prince Albert. On the Prince Consort’s death in 1861, his Secretary, Sir Charles Grey, (the son of Prime Minister, Earl Grey) became Private Secretary to Queen Victoria. On Sir Charles’s death in 1870, his wife’s nephew, Sir Henry Ponsonby (he was also the nephew of Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of Lord M).

Sir Henry (left) became the model for all subsequent incumbents. For twenty-five years he served the Queen – modest and fearless, he favoured no party. Both Disraeli and Gladstone praised his impartiality. As Robert Livingston Schuyler put it,

No queen is a heroine to her private secretary, and Ponsonby was under no illusions as to Victoria’s limitations and shortcomings. He was successful in his relations with her largely because he took them into account and never made the mistake of attacking her opinions directly when he believed them to be wrong. “When she insists that 2 and 2 make 5,” he wrote to Lady Ponsonby, “I say I cannot help thinking they make 4. She replies there may be some truth on what I say, but she knows they make 5. Thereupon I drop the discussion …. But X—goes on with it, brings proofs, arguments and former sayings of her own. No one likes this. No one can stand admitting they are wrong, women especially; and the Queen can’t abide it.

Sir Henry was succeeded in 1895 by another solid advisor in Arthur Bigge (from 1911, Lord Stamfordham) who had impressed the Queen through his friendship with Napoleon III’s son, the Prince Imperial. He was not as quick-witted as Sir Henry. As one royal biographer noted, he was “sound and painstaking; simplicity and honesty, good sense, loyalty and keenness were all his life the chief features of his character.” These traits proved well-suited to his next patron, George, as Prince of Wales and then as King. On his accession, Edward VII took Francis Knollys (the family had been courtiers since the reign of Elizabeth I) as his Private secretary. Since 1870, Knollys had played the same role to ‘Bertie’ as Prince of Wales. He was popular with the whole royal family who called him ‘Fooks’ but he created friction with the King’s ministers on his insistence that the role of the monarch return to what it was in the 1840s and 1850s, when the Prince Consort was an informal member of the cabinet. On Edward VII’s death, George V made Knollys joint Private secretary with Bigge (whom he created Lord Stamfordham while Knollys was made Viscount). This proved an unhappy pairing, exposing Knollys weaknesses and he left the post to Stamfordham in 1913. Stamfordham wrote the King’s speeches and memoranda (hand-written in large script as Queen Victoria had poor sight and an aversion to typewriters). He even gave the young heir lessons in deportment.

According to the ODNB, he once told George, when Prince of Wales, to smile more in public. The Prince replied that sailors never smiled on duty. “Bigge’s rejoinder – that ‘the duties of a sailor and those of the heir to the throne were not identical’ – earned the young man’s respect.” It was Stamfordham who conceived the new family name of Windsor in 1917. He also counselled the king against giving sanctuary to the fallen Romanovs. His influence was wide-reaching. He wrote at the time of the Russian Revolution:

We must endeavour to induce the thinking working classes, Socialist and others, to regard the crown, not as a mere figure-head … but as a living power for good, with receptive faculties welcoming information affecting the interests and social well-being of all classes.

He also took a firm view on the recommendation by Prime Minister Joe Scullin to appoint Chief Justice Sir Isaac Isaacs as Australia’s 9th Governor-General in 1930. Stamfordham wrote,

His Majesty feels strongly that it would be a grave mistake to give the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth an opportunity of naming the next Governor-General … The King feels that, with the change in the position of the governor-general (sic) made at the Imperial Conference of 1926, which divested them of all political power and eliminated them from the administrative machinery of the respective Dominions, leaving them merely as the representative of the Sovereign, more than ever His Majesty should be consulted in the selection of candidates, and indeed, subject of course to the concurrence of the British Prime Minister, be left to make the choice himself.

In this particular case, the King — and Stamfordham — objected to ‘a local man’ who had been in politics (although he had been a judge for twenty-five years). In London in October 1930, Scullin met Stamfordham and stood his ground. When he mentioned that Healy and McNeill had been appointed in Ireland, Stamfordham said, “Don’t mention South Ireland. They’re rebels.” When Scullin met the King he referred to the Governor-General of Northern Ireland, “Your Majesty, the Duke of Abercorn is also a local man and has been in politics.” The King countered, “Well do you persist?” When Scullin confirmed, the King said, “Well, I’ve always been a constitutional monarch, and will follow your advice.” His Majesty did, though, insist on the announcement, “The King, on the recommendation of the Rt Hon J.H. Scullin, Prime Minister of Australia, has appointed…”

When Stamfordham died in harness in 1931, George V said simply of him, ‘He taught me how to be a King.” He was succeeded by his deputy, Clive Wigram, who had been aide-de-camp to Lords Elgin and Curzon when Viceroys of India. He held the post for the last five years of George V’s reign and was lucky to miss the maelstrom of Edward VIII’s short reign. That fell to the son of another viceroy, Alexander Hardinge, who had been assistant private secretary to George V since 1920. Hardinge made his position clear in the Abdication Crisis that his ultimate loyalty lay with the King in Parliament rather than the monarch as man, particularly when the conflict was between the Sovereign and His Parliament. Hardinge stayed on to fortify the new King, George VI. He retired in 1943.

Alan (Tommy) Lascelles, the son-in-law of a viceroy and every inch a courtier, had also joined the court in 1920 but as assistant private secretary to the then Prince of Wales, Edward. By 1929, he resigned, disillusioned with the prince he believed to be in a state of arrested adolescence. He re-joined the Court in 1935 as assistant private secretary to George V and, staying on, became a close observer of the royal crisis. After the abdication, he told Harold Nicolson, “…nobody would ever know what they [the court] had had to endure during the last year”. With Hardinge, he encouraged George VI in returning to the standards of George V. He succeeded Hardinge in 1943 and stayed with the new Queen until after her coronation in 1953. As the ODNB put it, “he was a man of old-world certainties, wary of innovation at the palace and of royal exposure: he played a leading role in opposing the attachment between Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend.” That probably explains the anecdote, decades later, of the princess being driven through the gates of Kensington Palace, seeing old Sir Alan on the drive and telling her chauffeur to “run the bugger down”. This was vividly re-imagined in the first series of The Crown, where Pip Torrens portrayed a frosty, formidable Tommy with icy élan. He was, however, generous and enthusiastic in encouraging biographies of George V and Queen Mary by Harold Nicolson and James Pope Hennessy.

Who succeeded Lascelles? None other than Stamfordham’s grandson, Michael Adeane. He had joined George VI’s court as assistant private secretary in 1937, and after a decade as private secretary with the king, remained with his daughter until 1972. He inherited his grandfather’s industry and caution but there was criticism that the speeches he drafted for the Queen were “lacking in imagination.” And, as his colleague Sir Edward Ford wrote for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “….with the Queen he was by no means sycophantic, but he was not prepared to pressure her to do things which she did not want to, unless they were constitutionally necessary.” But, as The Times observed, to Adeane’s, and his team’s, credit, by the late 1960s here was hardly a county in the United Kingdom or a country in the Commonwealth that the Queen had not visited.

Adeane must have been at least partly to blame for the criticism made in 1957 by Lord Altrincham (John Grigg) about the stuffy court, “I feel her own natural self is not allowed to come through: it’s a sort of synthetic creature that speaks – not the Queen as she really is.” There was outrage; Altrincham’s face was slapped outside the BBC, but the Palace took note, sending the Queen’s assistant private secretary since 1952, Martin Charteris, to meet him. Decades later, Martin told Grigg, “You did a great service to the monarchy, and I’m glad to say so publicly.”


SO, at last, to Martin Michael Charles Charteris, who was born in London in September 1913. A contributor to the Letters page of the Sydney Morning Herald, in that wonderful egalitarian Antipodean way, recently expressed his displeasure that “a toffee-nosed Eton boy with no law [sic] training” was giving advice to Australia. He was certainly a scion of the old aristocracy. A grandson of the 8th Duke of Rutland and the 11th Earl of Wemyss, both his grandmothers, Violet Rutland and Mary Wemyss, one of John Singer Sargent’s “Three Graces” (below; Mary is on the left) were much-admired figures in the Souls, an unconsciously self-selected clique of late Victorian salonistas who gathered in their country houses to play and talk of truth, beauty and morality, in counterpoint to what they saw as the philistinism of the Prince of Wales’s Marlborough House Set. About seven couples from the next generation of Souls were to inter-marry, among them the Wemyss’ heir, Hugo (from 1914 Lord Elcho, known as Ego) and the Rutlands’ second daughter, Lady Violet (known as Letty).

By the end of the reign of Edward VII and Martin’s birth, this second generation, having known one another from the nursery, had formed their own exclusive set, known as ‘the Coterie’. The three lovely Manners sisters,  Marjorie, Letty and Diana, the most outrageous and sought-after, were said to be the reason for the alternative tag, ‘The Corrupt Coterie’. Its leaders were Letty’s luminous younger sister, Diana, and the Prime Minister HH Asquith’s brilliant eldest son, Raymond. As Angela Lambert wrote in her fascinating Unquiet Souls (1984),

the Coterie ……were determined to challenge the reputation of their too-powerful parents….Where the Souls had been mildly original….the Coterie were wildly avant-garde. The Souls were vivacious; the Coterie must be frenetic. If the Souls had sometimes been controversial, the Coterie must frequently be outrageous. If the Souls had flouted some of Society’s taboos, what was left for the Coterie but to flout the rest? And so the young, in the last peaceful years  between the Boer War and 1914, not only drank too much champagne but turned as well to morphia and ‘chlorers’ (chloroform)for oblivion after dances or death. ……the glamour of the Souls had flashed before their children’s eyes for so long that – however spurious they knew it to be -the Coterie’s only ;possible response was to outdo the in flamboyance . The irony was that, by 1914, most of them were finally settling into good marriages within their own circle, just as their parents would have wished.

That war soon came and Hugo (left) and his youngest brother, Yvo, marched off. On September 17, 1915, precisely five weeks after reaching the front, nineteen-year-old Yvo was shot and killed at Loos. Letty followed Hugo to Egypt in April 1915 where he soon grew annoyed that he would never hear a shot fired in anger. By September, he was writing to his mother, “if any of us are left we shall be surprised … I am so awfully sorry for Papa who loved [Yvo] … He must write his sons off and concentrate upon his grandchildren, who thank God exist.”

On April 23, 1916, at Katia, east of the Suez Canal, a massive Turkish force of over a thousand men attacked Hugo’s regiment, the Gloucestershire Yeomanry. They were hopelessly overwhelmed. Hugo was wounded in the arm but carried on fighting and was seen helping to evacuate the hospital tent when it caught fire, and then a shell burst over him. Hugo’s body was never found. He was one of 3,077 men of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force who perished. Martin was not yet three.

Four years later, his mother married Guy Benson (whom Martin “grew to love him very much”) and she would have three more sons. Martin recalled a happy childhood spent between his grandparents’ great houses, Jacobean Stanway in Gloucestershire, Neoclassical Gosford in East Lothian, Gothic Revival Belvoir Castle; and holidays on the Outer Hebridean island of South Uist. At Stanway, JM Barrie would write plays for him and his brother, David, to perform. After prep school, he joined David (they did not get on) at Eton. As the ODNB puts it, “He was educated at Eton College, where he did not especially distinguish himself, but where he was remembered affectionately by masters and contemporaries, and where ‘the boys’ maid who tidied his room had to dust his soap each week’ (private information).” He earned the name ‘Inky’. He entered the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, and from there, in 1933, he was commissioned into the 60th Rifles (King’s Royal Rifle Corps) in 1933.

In an infamously revealing interview with Noreen Taylor for The Spectator in January 1995, he expressed three regrets in

what I believe to have been a most wonderful life. One is not going to university. My mother believed Sandhurst would tidy me up and it did. Two is something I am sad about to this day, and it is not having made love to a certain very beautiful woman because one just didn’t push things in those days. Three? Being under my mother’s thumb till thirty, and not daring to have rebelled. I never flirted with socialism or the Bohemian life in the way so many others of my generation did, and that is a source of deep regret to me.

In 1933 he met the beautiful, much-pursued Mary Gay Margesson, daughter of David (later Viscount) Margesson, MP (then Chief Government Whip) at a ball at Nancy Astor’s home in St James’s Square. She was always Gay (and never Mary despite what Peter Morgan’s researchers in The Crown contended). Their engagement, eleven years later, was described in The Times in 1944 as “long expected”. At their wedding in Jerusalem in 1944 they were joined by eighty nuns from the convent where Martin had been staying. Shortly before the wedding she briefly became a Catholic, which alarmed the Charterises, although Martin told her: “I don’t care. I’d marry you even if you were a Hottentot.” He later described her as “a wonderful wife and mother to our three children: well-read and intelligent too. We are never separated. We cook together, sleep together; quite something as marriage goes these days, don’t you think?”

He was invalided home with rheumatic fever in October 1939 from serving with his regiment in Burma. As The Times obituary put it, “on the last lap of the journey the ship carrying him was torpedoed and he was deposited from the sick bay into the Bay of Biscay, from which he was rescued after an uncomfortable two hours clinging to a life-raft. By the time he reached Southampton he was well enough to walk ashore, seemingly cured.”  Asked about his heroism, “Oh, every man is a hero when faced with the possibility he might lose his life.”

After some time as an instructor in Haifa, Martin was assigned, in counter-terrorism, to the Intelligence Branch in Jerusalem. Back in England in 1949, he was approached by John (Jock) Colville, coincidentally an old rival for Gay, to replace him as Princess Elizabeth’s Private secretary. “Choosing me was an act of pure nepotism,” he said proudly. As well as Martin knowing Jock, Gay was a  friend of Alan Lascelles, the King’s private secretary. Inclined to refuse, he relented after he was interviewed by the princess. He was dazzled. “Well, you see, I simply fell in love with her when I met her. She was so- young, beautiful, dutiful, the most impressive of women.”

He was with the Princess in Kenya in February 1952 when her father died and was the first in the Royal party to learn of his death. He asked the new Queen by which name she was to be known, “Why, Elizabeth of course” and prepared her for the days ahead as they flew home. Martin moved with her from Clarence House, joining Sir Michael Adeane and Edward Ford at Buckingham Palace as an assistant private secretary, the Queen having followed the practice of keeping on her father’s private office. Martin was unrecognizable in the two actors who portrayed him in The Crown as a reticent, colourless minion “I am an aristocrat,” he was quoted as saying, “Which is why there were few qualms about entering royal service. The scent of flowers and the furniture polish at Buckingham Palace were exactly the same as my grandparents’ house in Scotland.” Martin soldiered on for another twenty years as an assistant private secretary to the Queen—organizing state visits abroad and taking her through her daily box of State papers.

He later described Adeane as “quite a stuffy sort of person” and, although he respected him, he gradually reached the same conclusion as John Grigg. “We had to change because we were getting so boring. So as a deliberate policy we let the light in on the mystery with the film Royal Family. Some of the credit for this must also go to Australian Bill Heseltine (now Sir William), who moved through the Queen’s press office in 1960-61, then again from 1965 to 1972, before replacing Martin as assistant private secretary in 1972.

The concept of intriguing courtiers is a familiar one but it must have come as a shock to Martin when he learnt that the new Lord Chamberlain, Lord Maclean (himself 27th Clan Chief and 11th Baronet) thought Martin should be passed over in favour of a less aristocratic, more Whitehall candidate to freshen up the Queen’s office. Martin appealed directly to the Queen, who confirmed him as her principal private secretary.

He brought a resourcefulness, lightness of touch and unfailing good humour. The corridors of Buckingham Palace rang out with his laugh. He proved himself both imaginative and innovative; encouraging the novelty of royal ‘walkabouts’ to meet the people. And the Queen’s speeches took on a more relaxed, amusing vein, Martin slapping his knee and laughing at his own jokes delivered by the Queen. “I think everybody will concede that on this of all days I should begin my speech with the words ‘My husband and I’”, she quipped at the silver wedding celebrations in 1972. But, of course, the sovereign had the last say. When, once, he drafted a speech which began, “I am very glad to be back in Birmingham”, she crossed out the “very”.

Charteris (depicted at left a decade or before his death) could be honest and astute about his sovereign’s limitations but, unlike Sir Henry Ponsonby, his Queen was to him a heroine. One a few occasions he would say, quite simply, “I love the Queen”. “She’s very good at spotting anything that’s wrong,” he later recalled. “In that sense she’s got superb negative judgement. But she’s weak at initiating policy, so others have to plant the ideas in her head.”

He retired after a triumphant silver jubilee in 1977 and became, as is customary, a life peer – Lord Charteris of Amisfield. He then enjoyed fourteen years as Provost of Eton and took up sculpting.

On his retirement from royal service., he noticeably relaxed and became an oft-quoted Palace source. The Spectator interview by Noreen Taylor produced some spectacular copy. When asked about Sarah Duchess of York, Martin pronounced, “She is vulgar, vulgar, vulgar, and that is that.” Of the Queen Mother, he observed, “You don’t reach ninety-four without surviving a number of shocks, and Her Majesty is built of stern stuff. Probably because she is a bit of an ostrich, she has learned how to protect herself. What she doesn’t want to see, she doesn’t look at.’ He confides, ‘You ought to know that she is adorable, but quite tough and resourceful too.” Of the Prince of Wales,

The pity is that the Prince of Wales had to marry a virgin … Divorce will clear the air. And, yes, of course he will be King … There is nothing in the Constitution to say the monarch must be happily married. When the dear, sweet Queen dies, although I wish she could go on for ever, a council of succession will appoint Charles as head of state … Have you met him? Oh, too bad, women adore him, such a charming man, when he isn’t being whiny, which he can be rather. I know Charles, know the man, and believe he will be a good king, a king for his time.

Of Princess Margaret, he had earlier called her, “the wicked fairy . . . the somebody who is not actually behaving as she should” but in this interview explained, “And those words were spoken from love. Princess Margaret was perfectly charming to me about it afterwards. She said she understood exactly what I meant.” Indeed, the Princess remained fond of him and even attended his memorial service, as did the Queen, who paid the rare compliment of visiting him at home in his last weeks. He died, aged 86, on December 23, 1999, joining the Souls of the previous century, just as a new one dawned.

This is not meant to be an examination of the constitutional implications of the correspondence about which Professor Hocking made such a hue and cry, but a brief history of the role and a glimpse of the man the Queen trusted to correspond on her behalf with her representative in Australia. Essentially it was the monarch to whom Sir John was writing and the Queen of Australia who was responding. The man who held the Queen’s pen in 1975 was at the top of his game. He had, for nearly three decades, been working closely with her as heir and sovereign and in his letters revealed a sound, steady mind and ready wit; a degree of sympathy and warmth for his beleaguered correspondent, and all of the caution (and none of the later indiscretion) called for during a testing time.

The great irony in this long quest to publish these State papers is that the boy known at school as ‘Inky’ chose the taunting motto: ‘Ecce Charta Mea’. In translation: ‘Look – my paper’. The greatest irony is that in finding it, the Hocking quest has proved fruitless.

3 thoughts on “Sir John Kerr’s Sympathetic Correspondent

  • PT says:

    Let’s face it, whatever the content, certain people would claim the “Palace letters” were an “indictment”! If Sir Martin had declared that the Palace could give no direction at all, it would be proof of “indifference” – hence we need an “Australian Head of State”!
    There clearly IS a reserve power: it had actually last been used in Australia to dismiss Jack Lang when Lang had directed public servants to break the law. I’m nauseated by some of the pro-Lang statements made in recent documentaries by the likes of Keating and Ray Martin. Martin would condemn anyone who did even half the things that Lang did; and Keating proudly boasts of his economic policy and courting of financial markets which were diametrically opposed to what Lang did. They try to inject a strange sort of asymmetric nationalism (where he snap at anything British whilst lying abject to anyone else) to somehow put themselves on Lange’s side. We have similar hypocrisy here. Kerr’s mentor, “Doc” Evatt, believed in the reserve power, and Kerr clearly got his understanding from Evatt, the one time Federal Labor leader! Clearly Kerr wanted to ensure the Palace believed he had such a power prior to acting, but this was simply being correct. And seeking Barwick’s (who was probably the greatest advocate Australia has produced) and Mason (a member of the Chattering Class surely) was more to ensure that the decision was unimpeachable than needing to be told what to do. What do opponents suggest? That the government be left without money until the half Senate election were due in the middle of 1976? And let’s say the election had a strong anti-Whitlam majority, but he got a temporary majority through Field’s replacement and the new territory Senators (his big hope), would passing supply, apparently against the electorate wishes, have been “democratic”? Relying solely on the fact new state senators had to wait until mid year to take their seats? Surely no different to Fraser using the irregularities of Field’s appointment to block supply in the first place. We have no answer, and this is because they don’t want to consider this. It’s not about democracy; it’s about Labor (and the left in general) being cheated of its “time”! And in Whitlam’s case, also being in denial that he wasn’t as good at political scheming as people he considered his intellectual inferiors! It’s too painful to actually think about the fact that Whitlam and his Government were so unpopular that he was thrashed in a general election, and a substantial majority of the country wanted him gone regardless of the opportunistic means used to force an early election! But I now believe that the left are so captured by their own rhetoric that they represent “the people” that anything against their agenda is going to be declared “undemocratic”!

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    A fascinating roam through the role of the Queen’s private secretary and the character of various holders of the position over several generations.

    Watching ‘The Crown’ was instructive in this regard too.

    I well remember the Whitlam dismissal. We were lefties, and were never going to forgive. How times change, but not for some. The deeply disappointed Professor Jenny Hocking is definitely one of those clinging desperately to the mythos to the end.

  • talldad says:

    Like Lizzie B, I savoured the unhurried stroll through history. And that last sentence! A perfect cover drive to the boundary – well batted!

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