Obituary: Alan Hamilton, former royal correspondent of the Times

A relaxed Alan Hamilton at his home. Picture: Paul Rogers/the Times
A relaxed Alan Hamilton at his home. Picture: Paul Rogers/the Times
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Born: 22 April, 1943 in Edinburgh. Died: 28 August, 2013, in Sussex, aged 70

Alan Hamilton, the former Times royal correspondent, was a much respected figure on foreign tours with the Royal Family. Through his witty reporting, he was able to breakdown the inevitable formalities of such occasions with a few well-chosen phrases that ideally captured the atmosphere of the event. He delighted, for example, in listing the wines that had been served at banquets and related the more informal moments on walkabouts.

Hamilton was a gentleman and a member of the traditional school of journalism. He largely eschewed modern technology and covered an event with his short-hand notebook, a pen and (occasionally) a mobile phone. He never used a laptop and never missed a deadline – even when in the most remote parts of the world.

Hamilton found himself in the news when the Queen and Prince Philip made their historic visit to China in 1986. It was his first overseas royal visit and he broke the news about the comment by Prince Philip to British students: “If you stay here much longer you’ll all get slitty-eyed.”

John Alan Hamilton was the son of an Edinburgh surveyor and was brought up in Comely Bank. He attended Daniel Stewart’s College (1948-61) winning prizes for both English and geography. Hamilton then started to read English at Edinburgh University, but left before graduating and pursued his fascination with journalism by joining various regional newspapers He specialised in covering labour problems and, in 1969, joined the labour desk at the Times.

Hamilton did stints on the paper’s diary and home news before being appointed “special writer” – royal correspondent in other words – in 1982. It was a post he was to hold with much distinction for more than 25 years and although he did write on other major stories – notably the Bulger murder trial in 1993 – he maintained a lively presence among the royal press pack.

Hamilton was much respected for his factual and accurate reporting. He took a sympathetic view of the Queen’s annus horribilis and wrote with understanding about her family’s domestic problems.

In fact, Hamilton was a supporter of Prince Philip and argued that his gaffes were nothing more than lighthearted quips. “Prince Philip,” Hamilton once wrote, “knows full well that in the stiff formality of a royal visit, there is a high state of nervousness and that there is no better reliever of tension than a joke, preferably slightly inappropriate.”

Significantly, Charles Anson, a former press secretary to the Queen in the 1990s, commented yesterday: “Alan was such a perspicacious journalist. He invariably lifted the spirits of those around him in the difficult days of the early Nineties; it was a pleasure to deal with him.”

Hamilton remained a proud Scot and devoted to its traditions and history. He never lost his Edinburgh accent and often returned to visit his family and climb the Scottish hills.

Bearded and with a welcoming and kindly smile, he was something of an authority on whisky. After filing a story, he would relax with a dram (he gleefully called it “whoopee juice”) and his pipe. To his considerable dismay, his hip flask was confiscated when he arrived with the royal party in an Arab country. On his 50th birthday, Hamilton scaled Mount Kilimanjaro and celebrated the ascent with a sizeable and very welcome tot of 50-year-old single malt.

During the industrial action at the Times in Wapping in 1986 Hamilton was accused by a picket of being a scab. “Not all” he replied calmly, “I am from Edinburgh.”

Hamilton retired from the Times in 2008 and although he continued to write for the newspaper, he wrote several books on the Royal Family. He had acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Royal Family: its idiosyncrasies, quirks and sense of duty. Hamilton wrote affectionately of the royals and included many stories he had gathered while on assignments.

Other royal books included a biography of the Queen Mother with over 100 photographs from the Times archives. One reviewer said of that the anthology was “fascinating, often moving, always authoritative”. Hamilton also published We are Amused: Over 500 Years of Bon Mots by and about the Royal Family.

His 1978 guidebook of the capital – Essential Edinburgh – is a delightful history of the city. He wrote with much affection of his birth city and displayed his fine ability as a wordsmith in the opening sentence: “Upon her high and windy ridge old Edinburgh has watched the march of Scottish history, and every ebb and flow of that often stormy ride has left its mark on the ancient stones.”

Hamilton was devoted to his wife, Cathy, who suffered from severe ill-health for more than 20 years. She died in 2005 and he is survived by their son.