Later this week, people from across the United Kingdom will meet in a room in St James’ Palace to pack lots of knitted clothes into bags. This tradition has been going on for many years and it can trace its roots back to a plea for socks and jumpers made in rural Dorset in the late 1880s. But the annual meeting of the Queen Mother’s Clothing Guild, under the watchful eye of their current patron Princess Alexandra, is just the latest chapter in a long story of charity work that is very royal indeed.
The Queen Mother’s Clothing Guild is a charity that distributes new clothes, bedding and linen to other charitable organisations and those who need assistance including neonatal units in hospitals. Throughout the year members make new items or raise funds to be able to buy brand new things and then every September they come to St James’ Palace for a packing day where everything is sorted, displayed and then parceled up for charities to collect the next day. Princess Alexandra joins in every year and she’ll be at St James’ for this year’s event on Tuesday.
But their patron and the setting for their work isn’t the only regal touch this charity has for right at its very beginning it had some very royal support. The Guild was formed in 1882 by Lady Wolverton who had been asked by an orphanage in Dorset to help provide 24 pairs of socks and 12 jumpers that the children there desperately needed. She did and it gave her the idea of forming an organization which would work through the year to produce new clothes for those in need. Members of the Guild promised to provide at least two items every year and not long afterwards, they found royal support when a friend of Lady Wolverton’s got involved. That friend was Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck.
Mary Adelaide became patron of the Guild which soon had an American counterpart, The Needlework Guild of America. And within just a few years its work had expanded rapidly – by 1894, over 50,000 garments were being made every year. And Mary Adelaide’s daughter, known to us now as Queen Mary, was heavily involved – women around the country formed their own groups where they and friends could work together to contribute to the wider cause. Mary, then a princess, set up her own group and worked to make clothes for those who needed them. Her interest continued after her marriage to the future George V in 1893 and when her mother died, in 1897, the now Duchess of York took on the patronage of the organization.
The charity remained very close to her heart and when she became queen consort the charity’s links with St James’s Palace were established. The organization became a big part of the war effort. Hundreds of thousands of clothes were made and sent to troops fighting in the Great War and to help co-ordinate their distribution, Queen Mary asked for items to be sent to St James’ Palace for checking, sorting and packing.
By then it was known as ‘Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild’ and its new name was more than just a nod to its royal patron. Throughout the Great War, Queen Mary was heavily involved in running the charity – it was a cause to which she was devoted and to which she gave a lot of her time. Her daughter, Princess Mary, formed her own group as part of the Guild. That Royal Group would be taken over by Princess Margaret when Princess Mary died in 1966.
Queen Mary’s links to the Guild lasted until her own death. She was still patron when she passed away in 1953 when her role with the charity was taken over by her daughter in law. The Guild became one of the first charities taken on by Queen Elizabeth after she became the Queen Mother. Under her stewardship, the organization changed its name to ‘Queen Mary’s Clothing Guild’ to reflect the change which had seen a growth in fundraising to buy new clothes become as important a part of its work as handmaking items.
Today, the Guild is going strong under the patronage of Princess Alexandra who took over on the death of the Queen Mother in 2002. In 2014, the organization distributed over 21,000 items to 55 charities and is now involved with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award to encourage young people between the ages of 14 and 25 to work with it as part of their volunteering. There is a Schools Group which helps pupils make clothes, run fundraising events and encourages them to get involved in Packing Week.
And that is where the focus is now as members of the Guild arrive at St James’ Palace on Tuesday and Wednesday to begin their annual sort and send. The charity has no offices and only one paid staff member so most of what it raises goes directly to those who need help. As its members settle down to checking and packing thousands of garments, with the help of Princess Alexandra, they might reflect on how similar their actions are to those performed by the charity’s founders a century ago. The ethos of helping has remained the same and with the help of some devoted royal women, this charity has become an important organization with a very modern future.