Obituary: Lt Col Donald Wickes, soldier and superintendent at Palace of Holyroodhouse

Lt Col Donald James Charles Wickes LVO, Soldier and member of the Royal Household. Born: 17 February, 1928 in Edinburgh Died: 10 November, 2021 in Edinburgh, aged 93

Donald Wickes spent 12 years as superintendent at the Palace of Holyroodhouse

When his family discovered he had been Mentioned in Despatches he dismissed the decoration saying it had been awarded merely for “staying out of trouble”.

The truth was Donald Wickes had been at the heart of the trouble, thrust straight into the Malayan Emergency as a 20-year-old, fresh out of Sandhurst. The vicious conflict had just erupted as the communist guerillas of the Malayan National Liberation Army staged a revolt, attacking businesses and police stations, derailing trains and setting homes ablaze.

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It was his first posting and, contrary to his flippant retort, Wickes had been responsible for saving the lives of several of the Gurkhas who fought alongside the British Army and who had been caught in a jungle attack. It was also a sign of his innate modesty that he had not shared the full details of his meritorious action and even failed to mention it in a short autobiography he compiled. Throughout his life he preferred to focus on others rather than himself.

He went on to serve in Germany, Belgium, Kenya and across Britain before joining the Royal Household as superintendent at the Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh, a fascinating post which he hugely enjoyed.

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Born and raised in Edinburgh with his sister Patricia, he attended the city’s George Watson’s College and was conscripted to do his National Service in the army in 1946. Clearly officer material, he decided to make it his career and, after passing out from the Royal Military Academy in 1948, was commissioned into the Royal Army Service Corps.

During his time in Malay and Singapore he also had a spell with a water transport unit where he was able to continue the family hobby of sailing. Returning home he spent time in Perth before moving to Wales to qualify on a long petroleum installation course. He then did a tour at the Ministry of Defence in London followed by a posting to Germany. During this overseas tour he married his first wife, Joyse, and served in Belgium and then in Kenya as the country prepared for independence. After Kenya broke away from Britain in 1963 he was seconded to the new Kenya Army in a training capacity.

On reorganisation of army support services in 1965 he was transferred to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and served in a series of postings throughout Britain, including in Taunton in HQ in the South West District. From there he was promoted to Lt Col and served again in Germany. He also fulfilled a social welfare role in England, dealing with housing and supporting families, particularly where the husband was serving abroad, before returning to Scotland a final appointment in Stirling.

He took early retirement to join the Royal Household where he spent 12 years at the Palace of Holyroodhouse as superintendent, an intriguing role for a man whose family heritage was rumoured to include a goldsmith to the Royal Family in the 18th century.

For the majority of the year, other than when the Royals are in residence, it is primarily a visitor attraction and he co-ordinated staff, including a team of guides, security staff and craftsmen undertaking repair and conservation of furniture and textiles.

Wickes, who was also a High Constable and Deemster of the Abbey Court, said it was a fascinating job involving liaison with various palace departments from museums and galleries to consultants and conservators, inspectors and architects responsible for maintaining the historic building and adjacent ruined abbey, plus sections of the tourist trade.

He stayed on beyond palace retirement age to organise and oversee a meeting of European heads of state in 1992 and counted the visit of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev as another highlight. On retirement he was made a Lieutenant of the Victorian Order for his services.

Having been widowed, he found enduring love second time around after becoming secretary of the residents’ association where he lived in Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart. He made a courtesy visit to introduce himself to a new resident and romance blossomed. He and Mona, also widowed, married when he was 79 and he gained not only a wife but a family of step-children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He and Mona enjoyed 14 devoted years together, holidayed the length of Britain, visited Madeira and loved to spend time at their lochside cottage in Argyll where they started a book club, joined local community groups and tended the garden.

Warm, compassionate and witty, he was at ease among individuals from all walks of life, from the highest echelons to the smallest children, just as happy to play on the floor with his great-grandchildren and their Lego as to rub shoulders with royalty.

Pre-deceased by his step-son Ranald, he is survived by his wife Mona, sister Patricia, step-children Barbara and Loraine, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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