Since 1837, Buckingham Palace has been the official London residence and ‘office’ of Great Britain’s sovereigns. In the spotlight for nearly 180 years, the palace is one of Britain’s most popular tourist attractions and has had its fair share of historic moments.
The palace that stands alongside Green Park and overlooking The Mall today started its life in 1703 as Buckingham House – the London home of John Sheffield, the third Earl of Mulgrave. In 1761 it was bought by King George III and Queen Charlotte, and its royal history auspiciously began as the birthplace of 14 of George and Charlotte’s 15 children.
The house stayed largely the same until the 1820s when architect John Nash was hired by King George IV to update and expand it into a proper palace giving it its distinctive look that still captivates visitors to this day. As George IV did not live to see the completion of the renovations it was his niece, Queen Victoria, who became the first to establish Buckingham Palace as the monarch’s official residence when she moved in less than a year after her coronation in 1837.
Victoria was also the one to add the front wing and the now iconic balcony to the palace in the 1840s to provide more space for her large family. The first royal appearance on the balcony was recorded in 1851 during the Great Exhibition when Queen Victoria greeted the celebrating crowd. Since that initial royal wave balcony appearances have become a cornerstone and much anticipated part of major royal events.
In 1914 Buckingham Palace saw a definitive moment in the fight for women’s voting rights when Emmeline Pankhurst led a march on the palace to deliver a petition to the king joined by 20,000 suffragettes. The press was brutal in its condemnation of the protest, describing “distressing scenes” of a “body of militant suffragettes” in pursuit of an “impossible scheme” and claiming that the result was a “serious fracas between the wild women and the police, in which the militants delivered a brief but furious attack on the constables”. Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested when she reached the palace gates and taken to Holloway Prison.
In 1937 the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret joined the Girl Guide Association and the 1st Buckingham Palace Company was formed. A summerhouse in the gardens was the headquarters and the company was made up of 20 Guides and 14 Brownies, all children of the royal household members and palace employees. The princesses enjoyed camping and earning badges just like other Girl Guides – a rare opportunity to live like ‘normal’ children. The Queen and the Queen Mother became joint patrons of the Girl Guides in 1952.
During the Second World War the royal family remained in residence at Buckingham Palace despite pleas from the Foreign Office to relocate to one of their other residences, out of the range of the nightly bombings London endured. However, the Queen Mother (the Queen Elizabeth) said: “The children will not leave unless I do. I shall not leave unless their father does, and the king will not leave the country in any circumstances, whatever”.
In a letter to Queen Mary, her mother-in-law the then Queen Elizabeth recalled the moment the palace chapel was destroyed when a bomb hit Buckingham Palace. She wrote: “it all happened so quickly that we had only time to look foolishly at each other when the scream hurtled past us and exploded with a tremendous crash in the quadrangle”. But as she famously said in September 1940, she was “glad” the royal family had been bombed because “[n]ow we can look the East End in the eye”.
When the war finally drew to a close and peace was declared in Europe on 8 May 1945 Buckingham Palace was the epicentre of VE Day celebrations. Throughout the day The King, Queen and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret made eight balcony appearances to greet the crowds and were joined ay one point by Winston Churchill. The king’s two daughters witnessed his final balcony appearance from the crowds below as the princesses had snuck out into the cheering masses. The Queen later said: “We stood outside and shouted, ‘We want the king’… I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life”.
Buckingham Palace remains The Queen’s ‘office’ and one of the UK’s most iconic landmarks with millions of visitors from around the world each year.