The author who took Princess Margaret out to tea
Hardacre is the sweeping rags to riches story of the Hardacre family. It follows generations of the Hardacres from Victorian times to the 1950s, and their rise from humble beginnings to a position of great wealth.
Brought up in extreme poverty, Mary Hardacre could never have imagined that one day she would travel to Buckingham Palace to see her daughter, Jane, presented at Court. CL (‘Clem’) Skelton, the author of Hardacre, had his own personal experience of Palace life. His father was a professional soldier with the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and an equerry to George V. Because of this association with royalty, as a boy Clem had a brief spell at Harrow. But at the age of 14, he ran away from home and joined a touring theatre company, where he played Shakespearian parts. It was the beginning of a lifelong interest in acting, which included performing in London’s West End.
During those London years, he maintained the royal connection established by his now retired father, visiting Queen Mary for tea, at frequent intervals. On one such occasion, he was charmed but more than a little uneasy when Queen Mary insisted he ‘must take her granddaughter out to dinner.’ With barely enough change in his pocket for the cab fare to Buckingham Palace, the usually penniless young actor arrived at his destination to be met by Princess Margaret and an entire party of dinner guests.
A splendid meal was enjoyed by all at her favourite restaurant, though Clem would have enjoyed it considerably more had he been party to the knowledge that with a guest so close to the throne, he was not permitted to pay, an old tradition that meant the bill went tidily to Buck House. On learning this happy fact, Clem ordered a fresh round of brandies for all. And cigars.
They had hired a landau for the occasion, and as it was a warm September day they were able to leave it open for the drive from Grosvenor Square to the palace, where Jane was to be received by the King and Queen. She was being chaperoned by Mary and the countess, though Mary’s presence was a little unwilling.
‘I allus feel so out of place among all of them swells,’ she had said.
‘Don’t let that worry you,’ the countess had replied, ‘Sam Hardacre’s daughter is a prize catch this season; there’ll be more than a few impoverished matrons with instructions to get to know her so that their sons may be invited to her party.’
‘Do people really behave like that about their own?’ Mary asked.
‘Indeed they do,’ the countess replied. ‘Some do it better than others, and I do it better than any of them.’ She gave a satisfied smile.
The preparations had been going on for what had seemed months to Jane. The main item had of course been the Dress. It had been chosen with care and much deliberation. The countess had listened to everyone’s suggestions and then discarded them all, relying solely on her own judgement. The Dress had to be of plain white silk, with an absolute minimum of adornment. Tight-waisted of course, and Jane would have to suffer that instrument of torture, the body corset laced to maximum tightness, for at least the one day. It would have a plain apron front and an equally plain train, unrelieved even by a row of stitching. The mandatory fan of ostrich feathers was also plain and simple. The countess had decided that since the whole of London would be decorated to look like ‘the display window of a Covent Garden flower shop, the way to make your mark, my dear, is to be as plain as a pikestaff. So no frills, no lace, no flowers, no decorations.’
As for the rest of the family, with commendable lack of courage Sam had managed to find an unbreakable business engagement for the day; Harry was up at Hardacres; Judith, who was getting very near her time, was at Grosvenor Square with a nurse in attendance; while Joe and his family, much to Helen’s disgust, had not been included in the invitations.
The streets of London were crowded as they drove down Park Lane to Hyde Park Corner, narrowly missing a horse bus as they turned into Constitution Hill, where one of the new, noisy, smelly horseless carriages made one of their horses shy.
‘Disgusting things,’ said the countess.
‘You don’t really think so, Aunt Harriet,’ said Jane. ‘I’ve been trying to get Daddy to buy one for ages.’
‘Joe’s got two,’ said Mary.
‘I know,’ replied Jane, ‘but he won’t let me learn to drive them.’
‘And I should certainly hope not,’ said the countess. ‘That is no fitting pastime for a young lady of good breeding.’
Jane was already showing signs of an independence beyond that which was expected of a young lady of her station in life. She had, only a couple of days ago, to her mother’s horror and to the delight of the countess, referred to the London season as ‘that cattle market’.
‘The girl’s right you know,’ the countess had said. ‘Everyone there has a price tag, and everyone there knows exactly what it is.’
‘I’m sure that I don’t,’ Mary replied.
‘That’s because you’re a lady, and there’s damned few of those about today,’ replied the countess. ‘I’m not a lady, I’m one of them. I can tell you every matron who wants her child to marry money, and those who don’t want that want a title, and everybody is rated and graded according to how much they have of each.’
As for Jane, she did not care. It had come to her ears that a certain very junior officer in the Royal Navy would be at the presentation, and that was all that mattered as far as she was concerned.