'Everything was spot on' Former Coldstream Guardsman from Norfolk remembers Queen's coronation
- Credit: Brittany Woodman
He was a private in the Coldstream Guards, marching ahead of the royal carriage at the Queen’s coronation, 69 years ago. As the nation prepares to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee, reporter Stuart Anderson spoke to former guardsman Harry Prior.
In those days, the famous Buckingham Palace guards in their bright red coats and bearskin hats stood outside the gates instead of behind them.
Harry Prior, now 88, was in their ranks in the early years of our monarch’s reign, and one memory has always stood out in his mind.
“One time when the Queen came home we presented arms as she came through. When she entered the gates she waved, just to me,” Mr Prior said.
“When she put her hand up to me, that made my day I can never forget it. I was the only one that she waved to.”
Joining the army at age 18 was a watershed for the young Mr Prior, who hails from Witton Bridge, near North Walsham. Until he left for his training in Surrey, he had never travelled further than Norwich.
He was later assigned to the Coldstream Guards’ 2nd Battalion, based at Wellington Barracks in Westminster.
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Mr Prior still remembers the coronation of Elizabeth II clearly, having woken up at 5.30am and spending hours in preparation.
He said: “It took so long to get ready to do it. Everything had to be spot on.
“We were allowed no food or drink until we finished - all we had that day to suck was Horlicks tablets.”
Mr Prior went on parade at 10am, lining up in front of the palace, from where they marched behind a military band, ahead of the royal carriage, for the ceremony at Westminster Abbey.
He said there was an unforgettable atmosphere with thousands of onlookers thronging the Mall - a fittingly grand occasion for a Queen he has always admired.
“I think she’s lovely,” he said.
Today, Union Jack bunting decorates the windows of Mr Prior's house, and a Platinum Jubilee tea towel hangs in the front window. He said the monarchy was what made Britain special.
“If we didn’t have the royals, this country would be like all the others,” he said.
Although it was tough work at the time, Mr Prior said he was lucky to have served in the 2nd battalion, which, along with the coronation, carried out public duties such as guarding Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London, Trooping the Colour and Queen Mary’s funeral.
“You always had your bearskin on, and in the wintertime, you had an overcoat," he said.
"If you were on parade and somebody next to you was feeling faint, he’d say, ‘Harry, I feel faint’.
“So you’d move your shoulder up to him, and his mate on the other side would do the same, so we held him up.”
A soldier who fainted would be punished for being “idle on parade”.
Mr Prior said standing guard outside the palace gates could also be challenging, but also had its upsides.
He said: “People used to come up and say ‘I have a photo taken beside you?’
“But you couldn't speak, and sometimes they would ask if you were dumb.
“But some of the young girls would put a note in your cuff, and when you went off you could read it.”
Mr Prior went on to gain his HGV licence while serving in Germany.
“They asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to drive,” he said.
“So they put me in a tank, and that’s where I did my training.”
After he was demobbed he put his skills to good use, driving a meat lorry for George Bush and Son’s abattoir at Stalham for 35 years.
Mr Prior still lives in the same house where he was born. “I keep well, I’ve got good neighbours, and my niece is a brick to me,” he said.
Mr Prior is planning to celebrate the jubilee in typical rural Norfolk style.
There will be a photo display at the village hall, followed by an afternoon tea, where he will no doubt be called upon to tell of the day he wore a bearskin hat, and the Queen waved just to him on her way into Buckingham Palace.