May 17, 2010 / 2:53 PM / 9 years ago

How Britain's Queen Mother kept the bills down

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Britain’s Queen Mother may have lived a life of wealth and privilege, but she could look London’s East End in the eye when it came to savings on clothes and home furnishings, according to a former aide.

Members of public gather outside Westminster Abbey for the funeral of the Queen Mother in central London, April 9, 2002. REUTERS/Paul Mcerlane

When the last Empress of India died eight years ago she left behind a stable of racehorses, hundreds of servants, priceless jewels and wardrobes of haute couture — as well as debts in the millions of pounds.

Now former equerry Ashe Windham has revealed to British newspapers an endearingly frugal side to the Queen Mother, which saw her rent, rather than buy, a television and video recorder for use at the Castle of Mey in Caithness, Scotland.

Windham, who now chairs the Castle of Mey Trust, which maintains the landmark as a tourist attraction, said that after dinner the household used to move into the library and rearrange the furniture to face an ancient rental television, which arrived every summer from a local shop.

“The most challenging job was to get the equally antiquated video recorder to work properly,” the Times newspaper quoted Windham as saying.

“This achieved, we would all sit and watch one of her favorite comedies, which included Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, Yes Minister, Keeping Up Appearances and One Foot in the Grave.”

And despite her perceived penchant for the grandest of clothing, the Queen Mother refused to throw out the six Burberry raincoats she owned and would wear them year after year.

Even the Castle of Mey, which she saved from ruin, was kept simply, with the Queen Mother refusing to replace some of the decor which dated back decades.

“The decorations were put in between 1952 and 1955 and I’m led to believe that nothing much was changed after that,” he said. “I remember saying on one occasion, “Ma’am, the curtains in one of the upstairs bedrooms are rather falling to bits’.

“She looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and said: “I think they will last a few more years’. The decorations were not shabby, but she certainly did not believe in spending money unnecessarily.”

The Castle of Mey was the only home the Queen Mother owned. She first saw what was then Barrogill Castle in 1952, while mourning the death of her husband, King George VI.

Falling for its ruined, isolated charm, and hearing it was to be abandoned, she declared: “Never. It’s part of Scotland’s heritage. I’ll save it.”

Having acquired the most northerly castle on the British mainland, the Queen Mother renovated and restored it and also created beautiful walled gardens.

She was 101 when she died in 2002, having lived through the austere times imposed during both World Wars. Windham suggested that this experience had contributed to her parsimony.

“She was 14 when the Great War broke out and was very much accustomed to rationing,” he said. “During the Second World War, when she was Queen, they even had lines painted round the baths at Buckingham Palace to make sure they didn’t use too much hot water. She understood where the general public were coming from and didn’t have extravagant tastes, with the sole exception of horse racing.”

Reporting by Paul Casciato; Editing by Steve Addison

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