Over the last 61 years, the Queen has entertained over 2 million people at her garden parties. The invitations generally go to people involved with charity or public work and are handwritten by the ‘Garden Party Ladies’ – a team of ladies who work part time at Buckingham Palace and who check the list of names of people to get the precious invitations. Every spelling and the correct form of address are double checked. Ordinarily, one cannot apply to attend a garden party, unless you are a non-British UK resident, in which case you can ask your country’s UK embassy or High Commission for one of the invitations allocated to your country. For Brits, one must be nominated, usually by your Lord Lieutenant. The Lord Lieutenants are the Queen’s representatives in the counties.
Around 8,000 people attend each garden party as invitees are allowed to bring with them their spouse, partner or a friend and any unmarried children. The dress code is uniforms, morning dress or lounge suits for men (most men wear lounge suits) and ‘afternoon dress’ for women – basically any outfit suitable for a wedding, preferably with a hat.
Garden parties did exist in Queen Victoria’s time, but, despite being held in the afternoon, were called ‘Breakfasts’ and only the nobility and officials were invited. When the present Queen came to the throne in 1952, eligible young ladies were presented at Court, as they had been for years. In 1958, these presentations were abolished. As the late Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, memorably put it, “We had to put a stop to it, every tart in London was getting in”! Garden parties were created as a modern replacement and the guest list is open to everyone, not just the nobility.
So, you’ve done your charity work and received the precious invitation, along with an admittance card, security details, car parking badge and maps. You’ve bought a new outfit and have travelled to London. What next?
On the day, guests are allowed in to Buckingham Palace from 3pm (even though the invitation says 4pm) so guests can walk through the Grand Hall of the Palace, out onto the terrace, and enjoy looking around the gardens for an hour. The Band of the Coldstream Guards are playing such favourites as Beatles and Lloyd Webber tunes and inside the main marquee is a 400ft long buffet table with 110 staff ready to serve 11,000 cups of tea, 8,000 glasses of cordial and numerous salmon sandwiches, strawberry tartlets and whisky cakes. The Queen has already personally checked everything – she is a diligent hostess!
The St John Ambulance team are ready in the first aid tent and the Royal Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard (often wrongly called ‘Beefeaters’) are in attendance. They mark out the routes through the crowds that the Royals take but they are always ready to guard the Queen (their traditional role) if the need arises. The Garden Party Ladies are on hand to help any guests who have forgotten their invitations or ID and the Queen’s Senior Gentleman Usher is looking for interesting people to introduce to Her Majesty – he wants guests from a wide range of jobs and backgrounds and not anyone who the Queen has met before. His team of Gentlemen Ushers are retired Armed Forces Officers who help out at Court Occasions. The guests chosen to meet the Queen will be introduced to her by the Lord Chamberlain (the Gentlemen Ushers will have already filled out introduction cards for his benefit).
At 4pm exactly, the Queen and her family step out onto the terrace and the National Anthem is played. Then each Royal takes a different lane, and slowly makes their way down it, (zigzagging from one side of the lane to the other so that they are seen by the most people possible) away from the Palace and towards the tea tent. The walk takes a whole hour, due to the number of people the Royals like to meet and speak to. Thankfully any guest due to meet a Royal is briefed on etiquette in advance by a Gentleman Usher!
When the Royal Family reach the end of the lines, they take tea in the Royal Tent with others such as government ministers. There is a third tent, the Diplomatic Tent. At 6pm, the Queen and her family quietly go back to the Palace, chatting informally to a few more people on the way. 3 hours after the party started, the National Anthem is again played, the signal that the party is over. After eating around 65,000 sandwiches and scones and seeing or possibly even meeting the Queen, 8,000 people can go home very happy.