SHE was only 16 at the time, but her swift actions saved one of Scotland’s great houses.
A note published in a new collection of the private letters of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, reveals that the young Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon saved Glamis Castle from being ravaged by fire in 1916.
Writing to her former governess and confidante Beryl Poignand, whom she nicknamed Medusa, Elizabeth told how her father and brother had been out shooting on 16 September when it was noticed that flames “were sort of creeping through the roofs”.
She summoned fire brigades from Forfar and Dundee to deal with the blaze and organised a rescue effort to save pictures and precious valuables from the fire. She then spent hours sweeping and mopping up.
She was later described as a “veritable heroine” by the local newspaper, while a tenant on the Glamis estate remarked that “it was her little ladyship told us how to do it and kept us to it”.
Libby Reynolds, marketing manager at the castle, which dates back to the 14th century but was largely rebuilt in the 17th century, said: “We don’t know exactly how the fire broke out but it was believed at the time there was some soot that caught fire in the chimneys of the castle. The rooms immediately below where the fire started were used by the servants, and when the fire brigade did arrive, the roof was well alight and everyone who was there started to throw water on the fire.”
Glamis Castle, near Forfar, is the seat of the Earls of Strathmore and Kinghorne and was the Queen Mother’s family residence. In 1916 it was being used as a convalescence home for wounded soldiers returning from the front, 13 of whom were there on the day the fire broke out.
Elizabeth wrote: “Four soldiers who were harvesting on the farm helped very well, also people from the village.
“All the furniture on the top two floors had to be carried down, and I had an awful job trying to find place.”
Indeed, Elizabeth was so diligent in her efforts to try to clean up the damage that one of the firemen mistook her for a maid.
Reynolds said: “A fireman interviewed at the time said there was a little girl sweeping down the main stairs while the men were standing around, and she just wouldn’t let this broom out of her hand as she swept down all the soot and water from the top of the castle. After the fire was put out the firemen were given tea and sandwiches to repay them for their hard work and this fireman said he wouldn’t start until this little girl was brought down. He thought she was one of the servants and refused to eat without her, so the firemen had to go and get her.”
William Shawcross, the Queen Mother’s official biographer, who edited the collection of letters, said the incident provided a real insight into the future Queen’s personality.
“You have this impression of a young woman taking charge, managing everybody while they waited for the fire engines to arrive. Without her it would have been a disaster,” he said. “The war period was crucial to Elizabeth’s development. She started the war a girl and ended it a young woman. Because of the soldiers convalescing at Glamis she got to know men from all over and all walks of life and it gave her an ability to deal with people. She had sympathy for the human condition and the needs of others and it was part of her that came in incredibly useful when she joined the Royal Family.”
Although the fire caused water damage to some rooms and the roof, as well as smoke damage to several paintings, none of it was permanent.
“The roof had to be repaired pretty quickly because if it rained more water would have come in and the house was full of convalescing soldiers,” said Reynolds.
The collection of letters, many published for the first time, cover Elizabeth’s life – she was born on 4 August, 1900 – from her childhood at Glamis to her reign alongside husband George VI and her role as Queen Mother.
The Queen Mother died on 30 March, 2002, aged 101.