SSAFA and the Queen

2022 not only marks the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign it is also the 70th anniversary of her role as patron of SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity.

SSAFA and the Queen

2022 not only marks the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign it is also the 70th anniversary of her role as patron of SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity.

Since its inception in 1885 the charity has had a strong connection with the Royal family; the charity’s first ever president was Her Royal Highness, Princess Alexandra of Wales, later to become Queen Alexandra, the present-day Queen’s great-grandmother.

Queen Alexandria served as president until her death in 1925, but the Royal connection to the charity has continued to this very day, with every president since being a member of the Royal family: Queen Mary succeeded Queen Alexandra, followed by Earl Mountbatten, Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin, whilst the charity’s current president is Prince Michael of Kent.

The Royal family has always taken a keen and active interest in the work of the organisation. Throughout the Second World War, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary made many visits to SSAFA branches, clothing stores and services to see first-hand the work the charity was doing to support serving personnel and their families during the war.

The Queen Mother

It was perhaps during the patronage of Queen Elizabeth, later known as the Queen Mother, that SSAFA benefitted the most from its royal associations.

The Queen Mother inspects a SSAFA promotional poster in 1985.

As monarchs during the devastating years of the Second World War King George VI and Queen Elizabeth knew the toils and sacrifices made by the Armed Forces, their families and the entire nation living through the war. Buckingham Palace itself was bombed during the Blitz, with Queen Elizabeth famously uttering “I am glad we have been bombed. Now we can look the East End in the eye.”

As SSAFA’s Chief Executive, Lieutenant General Sir Andrew Gregory said: “We were in a war of national survival then, that affected every family; they were able to wander around London and visit homes that had been bombed and meet children and families that had lost people. The fact they [the royal family] were seen on the streets, and talked to SSAFA volunteers and saw what was happening was vitally important. Their presence was pivotal to morale.”

A young Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, the future Queen Mother, manning a stall selling baskets of fruit and flowers in aid of SSAFA in 1915.

Long before she was even betrothed to the unexpected future King, Elizabeth had been a strong supporter of SSAFA, and had even volunteered with the charity. As Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, daughter of the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, Elizabeth attended SSAFA branch events and fundraisers.

As children, Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen, and her sister Princess Margaret emulated their mother’s support for the charity. The young Princesses gifted honey from their own hives to SSAFA’s children’s homes during the war.

Princess shares wedding gifts with SSAFA

It was however the occasion of the Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1948, that firmly demonstrated the future Queen’s generous support of the charity.

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip pose on their wedding day, 20 November 1947.

With gifts being sent to the Royal couple from all over the world, many were donated to charities important to the newlyweds.

A wedding gift of stamps from all over the Empire donated by the Philatelic Society was auctioned and the proceeds of £629 gifted to SSAFA, and the Princess then gave a donation of £500, part of her wedding present from the British community in Belgian Congo, to the charity.

But perhaps the most important gift the charity received as a result of the Royal Wedding was the one from Don Suisse, a Swiss organisation set up to provide relief for victims of the Second World War. In honour of the Royal Wedding the organisation wrote to SSAFA offering to provide a 60-day holiday in Switzerland to 40 children selected by the charity. With SSAFA providing children’s homes to orphans and young victims of the war, they were well placed to select those who would most benefit from such an opportunity. All expenses were covered for the two month trip by Don Suisse, including the expenses of the four English SSAFA nurses who travelled with the children and remained with them throughout the holiday.

Queen Elizabeth becomes patron of SSAFA

The Royal family’s support, particularly for SSAFA’s work with the families of service personnel, has continued throughout Queen Elizabeth II’s reign and patronage of the charity.

The newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II poses with her husband Prince Philip.

Upon her father’s death in 1952, and her ascendency to the throne, Queen Elizabeth II became patron of SSAFA. In 1953, the year of her coronation, her cousin Earl Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh’s uncle and future First Sea Lord and Chief of Defence Staff was appointed as president of the charity.

Earl Mountbatten, along with his wife the Countess Edwina Mountbatten, continued the tradition of close involvement with the charity. On a trip to Cyprus in 1957 Countess Mountbatten expressly wished to see the work of SSAFA nursing service, known as SSAFA Sisters.

The charity had been providing nursing to service personnel and their families both at home and stationed overseas since 1892 and continues to provide clinics and nursing to this very day. After her visit the Countess wrote to SSAFA’s Controller  at the time, General Sir Reginal F.S. Denning, to praise the work of the SSAFA Sisters in Cyprus:

“There is no doubt that the work being done by SSAFA for the families of Service men is quite outstanding and at this particularly difficult and testing moment is an invaluable asset.”

Party at Palace for SSAFA

Just three years into Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, the charity celebrated its 70th anniversary, and the Royal family, led by the Queen Mother, came out in force to honour the organisation by hosting a tea party specifically for war orphans supported by SSAFA.

War orphans enjoying tea at St James' Palace.

At that time, in 1955, there were nearly 6,000 war orphans in the UK. SSAFA had supported many of these children during the war and in the years that followed. 70 children, to reflect the 70 years of the charity’s existence, were chosen to attend the tea party at St. James’ Palace. Amongst them was Ann Macrae, from Berwick, Scotland. Her father Sergeant Duncan MacRae had been killed while serving in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers in North West Europe. Speaking to her local newspaper ahead of her trip, 10 year old Ann said her excitement at the prospect of meeting the Queen Mother was mounting, with the young girl noting she had a keen interest in the Royal Family. 

During their three night stay at SSAFA’s Families Club in Kensington, the children saw the Changing of the Guard, had lunch at the Tower of London, to took a trip down the Thames courtesy of the Royal Navy who then provided a tea at the Greenwich Naval College. This was just the activity for day one of their whirlwind visit to the capital. On the second day the RAF took charge, with a special tour of London Airport before lunch at the RAF Depot in Uxbridge, a hurried dash back to St James’ Palace brought the children to the event they were most excited for: the special tea party with Her Majesty, the Queen Mother.

In the red and gold State Room of St. James’ Palace, the children were treated to tables laden with sausage rolls, buttered buns, sandwiches and cakes, served by waiters in stiff shirts and tail coats. After tea, the Queen Mother led the children over to a giant cake, adorned with 70 candles, seven children were selected to blow out the candles before the Queen Mother cut into the sponge cake.

Following the trip, another of the SSAFA children Dennis Casper from Scarborough, summed up the experience of meeting the Queen Mother for his local newspaper, the Yorkshire Post. The young boy said, “The Queen Mother was very beautiful. I shall never forget seeing her.”

Queen Elizabeth and her work for SSAFA

Her Majesty the Queen has inherited her mother’s commitment of the charity. In 1985, on the occasion of the charity’s centenary, the Queen made history for attending two events for the same charity in the same day, a first for a British monarch.

The first was the Centenary Thanksgiving Service at Westminster Abbey attended by the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Michael of Kent, now the association’s president, Princess Michael and Princess Alice, who was vice-president. Following the service an evening reception at St James’ Palace was held in the presence of the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Michael.

Further honour was bestowed on the charity at that year’s Trooping of the Colour, to mark the Queen’s official birthday in June. A “Grand Spectacular” was held at the Duke of York’s Regimental Headquarters in London following the trooping to continue the day’s pageantry and to celebrate SSAFA’s centenary. The monarch and SSAFA effectively held a joint birthday party, quite an unprecedented occurrence.  Military bands provided musical entertainment throughout the afternoon and into the early evening, whilst parachute drops and drill demonstrations from The RAF Queen Colour Squadron thrilled the gathered crowds.

Whilst very few charities can now claim the level of active patronage as SSAFA enjoyed, particularly with the Queen Mother during her lifetime, but also her daughter in the earlier decades of her 70 year reign, having the sovereign and the Head of the Armed Forces as patron of the charity is “vitally important”, as Sir Andrew Gregory explains:

“The fact that the Queen is prepared to be patron of the organisation, and is committed to continuing to be so even when she has reduced significantly the number of patronages she holds I think is really important. Because it sends a very powerful message about the charity, in my view.”

Air Vice Marshall David Murray, who preceded Sir Andrew as Controller of SSAFA, says that due to the “huge respect” that service personnel have for “Her Majesty and all that she stands for”, her patronage of the charity makes the Armed Forces community feel they can trust in SSAFA and turn to it when in need.

During his six years with the charity Air Vice Marshall Murray was privy to multiple incidents when her Majesty went beyond tradition expectations of a patron:

“There were a couple of people who wrote to the Queen, veterans or widows, looking for help, amongst the many tens of thousands of letters that came through. A couple of those letters were sent to me from the Royal Household to say ‘I think these are ones for you to deal with’. The Queen doesn’t read all the letters people send her, the ladies in waiting read them…but she pulls them out at random and reads. One of the letters sent to me was one she’d pulled at random, and she thought ‘I know the people that can deal with this’ and sent it to me. It was a welfare case, we dealt with it. Now, I’m not sure she’d have sent a letter like that to other charities.”

In addition to her committed patronage, and even her referrals of beneficiaries, the Queen has also continued her benevolence towards the charity - exhibited at her wedding - by supporting fundraising events for SSAFA.

In the decades that immediate followed the Second World War, the nation was struggling with the welfare toll of such a major conflict, and SSAFA was providing unprecedented levels of support. Funds were greatly needed. The golden age of cinema offered an opportunity.

Queen Elizabeth meets the cast of the 1958 film Dunkirk.

Throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s SSAFA was often the chosen charity for film premiers, in no small part due to the Royal guests who would turn out to support an event in aid of SSAFA.  The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Margaret and other Royals attended film premiers and gala events, including the 1953 preview of Red Beret at the SSAFA searchlight tattoo, the 1962 premiere of Lawrence of Arabia, which generated £9,300 to the charity, the 1970 premiere of Waterloo, which raised £18,000.

The 1958 premiere of Dunkirk in aid of SSAFA, attended by The Queen and Prince Philip, was described by one contemporary commentator as being “planned with more military precision than any other film premiere in history.” Alongside the Royal guests were Dunkirk veterans, specially invited by SSAFA, to line the red carpet route, whilst serving officers were conscripted to take tickets on the door. After the Queen had met all the high-ranking officers, officials and film stars she then departed from the schedule of events to talk to the assembled Dunkirk veterans, spending far more time with them than anyone expected and taking a great interest in their stories.

Repeatedly the Queen and other members of the Royal Family, have taken the time to talk with SSAFA beneficiaries, hearing directly from them how they came to need the charity’s assistance.

In April 2003 the Queen made a visit to SSAFA’s headquarters just two weeks after the British deployment to Iraq. Whilst there she heard how the charity was already receiving anxious calls from relatives of service personnel. During her visit, the Queen urged families, particularly children, to write letters to the troops. Telling service children that if emails were unable to reach their parents deployed in the Gulf to turn to the traditional pen and paper and art of letter writing once more.

The Queen is welcomed at the entrance of the new SSAFA headquarters, Queen Elizabeth House in the City of London.

Ten years later, when SSAFA moved to its new headquarters, Queen Elizabeth House, the Queen attended its official opening. There once again she met beneficiaries, volunteers, and SSAFA employees. Along with Prince Philip and Prince Michael of Kent, as the charity’s president, she spoke to families and service personnel affected by the protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Amongst those she met were Trooper Cayle Royce, who had lost both of his legs in a bomb blast whilst in Afghanistan the year before, and 6 year old Harley Inns whose brother Rifleman Martin Kinggett, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, after providing cover for an injured soldier.

Her Majesty formalises the opening of SSAFA's Queen Elizabeth House, unveiling a plaque in commemoration of the event.

For Air Vice Marshall David Murray, who was SSAFA Controller during that visit the Queen’s understanding of the Armed Forces and her empathy for the sacrifices that come with serving means she can:  

“Whether she's talking to Chief of Defence Staff or a young private soldier she can communicate with them, she's never stuck for words. Or talking to the mother of a young soldier who has been killed or a young air man who's been killed. I've seen her doing both and she's outstanding in the way that she can empathise.”

Before joining SSAFA in 2012, Air Vice Marshall Murray had served three years in the Royal Household as Defence Services Secretary. A role that saw him act as a link between the Armed Forces and Her Majesty. He recalls that the high regard in which SSAFA is held by the Queen, saved him from an awkward conversation with his Sovereign.

She said, 'Now, I understand that you're leaving us early.' I said, 'Yes, ma'am.' She said, 'Why are you leaving us early?' I said, 'I've been offered a job.' She said, 'You already have a job.'

"That's a very serious conversation with your monarch.

"She said, 'What is this job?' I said, 'It's going to be the controller of a charity called SSAFA,' at which point she said, 'SSAFA, wonderful charity.' She said, 'Known them for years, I've been a patron of them for years, you go with my blessing.'”

All those involved with SSAFA - beneficiaries, volunteers, supporters and employees - remain humbled and honoured by Queen Elizabeth II continued support, benevolence and interest in the charity, and the work we do with the Armed Forces community all over the world.