It’s now 60 years since Princess Elizabeth, on a trip to Kenya’s Treetops hotel, was told of her father George VI’s death. But the true story of that day has only just come to light
Treetops hotel in the heart of the Kenya forest is renowned as the place where Princess Elizabeth first heard the news that her father had died and that she was to be Queen. This, however, is not quite the full story.
While the princess was certainly at Treetops on the night her father, George VI, died 60 years ago on 6 February, 1952, she was not told until the following afternoon, by which time she had returned to a fishing lodge called Sagana, 20 miles away, that she had been given as a wedding present. It was there, beside a trout stream in the foothills of Mount Kenya, that Prince Philip broke the news.
The princess and her husband had flown from Heathrow to Kenya on 31 January. They were seen off by the king, too ill with lung cancer to make the tour himself. The crowd gave him a sympathetic cheer as he stood in the bitter cold to wave goodbye to his daughter.
It was a dangerous time in the British colony. The Mau Mau campaign had just broken out across the White Highlands. The officials responsible for the princess’s tour of Kenya, Australia and New Zealand felt unable to guarantee her safety while she was in Kenya. It was only fear of ridicule that stopped them cancelling the African leg of the trip.
Three days after they arrived, the royal couple travelled up-country to Sagana and from there they drove after lunch on 5 February to Treetops, the game-viewing lodge built in a tree overlooking an elephant waterhole. They planned to spend the night watching wildlife, enjoying a respite from their duties before continuing the rest of their tour.
Treetops is old hat now, but in 1952 it was the only place of its kind in the world. It was the brainchild of Eric Walker, owner of the Outspan hotel in Nyeri, and his wife, Lady Bettie, daughter of the Earl of Denbigh. The two of them were hosts for the visit, along with the naturalist Jim Corbett, after whom the Corbett National Park in India is named. Retired from India, Corbett lived in a cottage at the Outspan previously occupied by Lord Baden-Powell.
Walker was a colourful character of the kind that gravitated naturally towards Kenya in colonial days. Private secretary to Baden-Powell before the Great War, he had been shot down while in the Royal Flying Corps, but had escaped from prison camp with a pair of wirecutters that Baden-Powell had hidden inside a gift of ham. He then walked across Germany to the Dutch border.
Needing money later to marry Lady Bettie, he had sailed four boatloads of liquor to America during Prohibition and sold his cargo over the side, just outside territorial waters. A shootout ashore had led to a warrant for his arrest after a corrupt state trooper had been wounded. Fleeing to Canada, he married Lady Bettie and emigrated to Kenya, where he built the Outspan hotel.
Walker laid down strict ground rules for the Treetops visit. No journalists were allowed, as it was believed the scent of the additional bodies would frighten wildlife. No cameras either, because the princess needed a break. Spearmen at the edge of the forest kept intruders at bay as the royals arrived at the waterhole and climbed the rickety ladder to the three-bedroomed branch hotel at the top.
The nearest elephant was only eight yards away as Lady Pamela Mountbatten and Commander Mike Parker followed. There were baboons, warthog and bushbuck, too. The princess spent much of the afternoon filming with her cine-camera, so engrossed that she asked for tea to be served on the viewing platform rather than miss anything by going inside.
Leopards prowled Treetops after dark. Corbett sat up all night with a rifle at the top of the ladder. The princess was up again at dawn, testing the light with her meter as two rhinos squabbled over the waterhole. After breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon, the royals climbed down at 10am for the return to Sagana. “I will come again,” the princess promised happily, as they were driven away.
In England, meanwhile, “Hyde Park Corner” was under way, the coded plan for arrangements surrounding the death of the king. At No 10, Winston Churchill was informed at once that the king had died in his sleep at Sandringham, but it was four hours before word reached the princess. A telegram to Government House in Nairobi could not be decoded because the keys to the safe holding the codebook were unavailable.
At lunchtime the editor of the East African Standard telephoned the princess’s secretary, Martin Charteris, at the Outspan to ask if the teleprinter reports were true. Shocked, Charteris contacted Sagana, where Prince Philip reacted as if he had been hit by a thunderbolt.
Rallying swiftly, he took his 25-year-old wife for a walk in the garden where, at 2.45pm on 6 February, he told her that her father was dead and she was now Queen and head of the Commonwealth.
She reacted with the same sense of duty that she has shown ever since, immediately discussing the practicalities of getting back to England and writing letters of apology for the cancellation of the tour. Charteris thought her “very composed, master of her fate”, as she left Sagana towards dusk that evening.
She was driven to a nearby airstrip, where a Dakota waited to fly her home. The Queen was unmistakably under strain as she emerged from the car, but she managed a subdued smile for the crowd. She boarded the plane with none of the usual pomp and took off at once.
The mask slipped once they were airborne. The Queen left her seat after a while. Her face was set when she returned, but it was obvious to the other passengers that she had been in the loo, having a good long cry.