Heritage: How Ardleigh Green Infant School children learned of death of King George VI

The funeral procession for King George VI. Picture: PA

The funeral procession for King George VI. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Local historian Prof Ged Martin recalls, with astounding clarity, the moment he was informed of the death of the king.

It remains a clear memory, even though it happened an amazing 66 years ago.

Wednesday 6th February 1952 was a typical morning at Ardleigh Green Infant School, where I was learning to read and do sums. I don’t know what we were doing, but we were busy.

Of course we all looked up when a girl from the senior class brought our teacher an urgent message from the headmistress.

It was dramatic news – the King had died in the night!

Grown-ups didn’t just like George VI. They felt sorry for him. He’d never wanted to be King. The job was dumped on this shy, stammering man when his selfish brother, Edward VIII, had abdicated, to marry an American divorcee.

And the royal couple (his wife was later the Queen Mother) were admired for staying in London throughout the war, refusing to dodge the Nazi bombs.

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The media respected the royal family in those days. The public weren’t told that His Majesty was a heavy smoker – but we knew the King had been ill, and had survived a serious operation.

But nobody expected him to die, aged just 56. His elder daughter, Princess Elizabeth, had just set off to tour what was still called “the Empire”. She was in Kenya (“Keen-ya” we called it in those days).

I’m afraid that, although I was only 6 years old, I was already a trainee male chauvinist.

I was sure we now had King Philip reigning over us.

But our teacher explained that Philip’s wife, the Princess, was now Queen Elizabeth.

That weekend, my parents drove me to visit cousins at Rush Green.

Across Hornchurch and Romford, there were flags everywhere. Flagpoles had been improvised on buildings where you’d never expect to see the Union Jack.

They were all flapping at half-mast, in mourning for the King.

A few months later, Ardleigh Green Infant School held a parents’ day. The highlight was children dancing around a maypole. Each child held a ribbon tied to the top of the maypole. Forming a circle, boys and girls facing alternately left and right, we danced, boys moving to the left, girls to the right, weaving past one another. The ribbons gradually wrapped around the maypole, and we all ended up in a muddle in the middle.

I can hardly believe I once danced around a maypole!

Our teachers made one point very strongly during rehearsals.

Festivities would end with the singing of the National Anthem. We must remember not to sing “God Save the King”. We now had a Queen.

In March of the following year, 1953, there was another royal landmark, the death of Queen Mary, wife of George V and mother of the late king.

The BBC cancelled children’s television as a mark of respect. “Nonsense”, said my mother. “Queen Mary would never have wanted the children to lose their TV programmes”.

Ordinary people always claimed expert insider knowledge about the opinions of the royal family.

It always seemed that, for all their pomp and majesty, the royals were sensible people who invariably thought just like us!

It rained the day the Queen was crowned, June 2 1953. Nevertheless, across the country, there were street parties for children, who were encouraged to show off their talents by performing.

I lived on the Southend Arterial Road, which isn’t really a street, but some energetic Mums organised a celebration anyway.

It took place in a field at the corner of Wingletye Lane. It’s now the Campion School!

I liked the American entertainer Danny Kaye, and sang his hit number, “Wonderful Wonderful Copenhagen”. I hadn’t grasped the significance of the coronation as a Commonwealth event.

I can still sing the first two lines, but nowadays I prefer “Waltzing Matilda”.