The Queen hangs a Christmas decoration with Shylah, aged eight, at a Coram event. Image: Sam Mellish/ Coram
When Cherie Nicholls was nine in the late 1980s, she visited Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen. She grew up in a disadvantaged area in Tottenham, and for a few years she went on excursions organised by the London Black Taxi Charity for Children – which gives vulnerable children the chance to experience something extraordinary.
“We went through the gates,” Nicholls says, “and we felt very important, as you can imagine. We were all there and the Queen came out. She came around all the children, and we’d been practising our best curtsies. We were convinced we were princesses. For the rest of the week, no one could tell us any different.”
Nicholls remembers Her Majesty smiling and taking flowers from the children. That night they were taken to the Grosvenor House Hotel in Mayfair for a posh dinner where they met a number of stars, including Princess Diana.
“It was just a legendary day,” Nicholls adds as she gushes about the Queen. “She must have had so many meetings, but it was so incredible that she took time out of her day to make people from our area feel like royalty.”
The Queen was a patron of more than 600 charities, and she shook the hands of thousands of charity workers, volunteers and individuals making a difference in their communities.
“I think the queen had an empathy for people who were disadvantaged in society,” Carol Homden, the chief executive of the country’s oldest children’s charity Coram, says. “She had an instinctive capability to link with people. She met the children and adoptive families with a beautiful regard, a twinkle in her eye and such personal attention.”
The Queen made her first visit to Coram in 1936, alongside her grandmother,when she was just 10. She became the charity’s patron on her accession to the throne, and made several visits over the years.
Homden, who had the privilege of meeting Her Majesty on a number of occasions, recalls the Queen taking care to make the children feel special. One little boy had drawn a picture of Buckingham Palace, with illustrations of the royal family in each window.
“They spent a very precious moment talking about what that meant,” Homden says. “The children, of course, absolutely rose to the occasion.”
In 2018, the Queen met Coram’s oldest former pupil. He was 102 at the time and told the Queen he met her grandfather many decades ago. Homden says: “That was a wonderful moment of recollection between two people of the same generation remembering her grandfather.”
The Queen had a beautiful sense of humour, Homden adds. She would offer amusing remarks, make eye contact with everyone and her smile was radiant. And as a pair, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were quite the team.
Homden recalls taking Her Majesty for a tour, as they were turning a corner into the courtyard, and the Duke of Edinburgh was nowhere to be seen. She turned to the Queen and said: “I’m so sorry your Majesty. We seem to have mislaid the Duke of Edinburgh.”
The Queen replied: “Don’t worry in the least. It’s a very common occurrence.” Fortunately, the duke had simply got distracted and started talking to people along the way.
It was indeed a common occurrence. “The queen was very good at what she does,” Mark Southwell, a volunteer lifeboat operations manager at the RNLI, recalls. He met the Queen at the opening of one of the charity’s lifesaving facilities, and was guiding her along to meet the crew.
“But the Duke of Edinburgh was behind her. He was cracking jokes, and having a bit of banter with the crew and having a great time. Everyone was killing themselves laughing. We got to the end of the line, and he’s hardly started.
“I’m looking at my watch and I’m thinking: ‘What do we do now?’ So I turned around and said to the Queen: ‘We just wait for his Royal Highness do we?’ She just smiled and said: ‘Yes, we usually do’.”
Mark was so flustered that day he forgot to read the speech he’d written. The Queen’s lady in waiting told him: “You’re in charge, we’re having a lovely time. Don’t worry and get back up there and give it a go. No one will realise.” When he did finally give the speech, a ferry started playing Rule, Britannia! in the background.
“Of course I had to stop,” Mark laughs. “I had to turn around to the Queen and tell her: ‘This has nothing to do with me.’ She was just beaming. The RNLI guys were all laughing. They all just thought this was really funny. She just completely put you at ease. It’s not forced, it’s not put on, it’s not formal. The build up was, for all the right reasons, but once you shake the hand, it’s very chilled. Happy memories.”
For Wendy Solesbury, meeting the Queen was not just a happy memory but the “pinnacle of her career”. She started volunteering with the British Red Cross 48 years ago – her father had been involved with the charity and, before that, her great aunt volunteered knitting socks in the First World War.
She has been an employee at the British Red Cross for 21 years and, in 2013, was awarded an MBE. “I went to collect it from Buckingham Palace and I was so honoured and humbled that it was the Queen that I was actually getting it from,” Solesbury says. “She was so kind. She’s so caring. She knows how nervous everybody is.”
The Queen was the longest-serving patron of the British Red Cross, having served the charity for more than 70 years. Solesbury was surprised the Queen knew details about her charitable work without even a piece of paper in front of her. Solesbury was nervous, but the Queen put her at ease with a twinkle in her eye.
“I’m just in awe of what she’s done,” Solesbury says. “And she’s done it with humility. I think that tenacity is huge. And she just embodies the values of the Red Cross which is compassion and kindness. Meeting her face to face was one of the highlights of my life.
“I was so honoured. She’s such a powerful woman – icon – and that for me was really amazing. She just smiled so much. It’s a beautiful smile.”