In May, we welcomed Mr Andrew McElwee to talk about his time as manager of the National Trusts’, Polesden Lacey Estate at Great Bookham in Surrey. Andrew’s talk was entitled “Working behind the Scenes of the National Trust”, an amusing, tongue-in-cheek account of some of his most memorable experiences during his years as estate manager of one of the National Trusts’ most popular properties.
Andrew is currently living in Sherborne but had lived in Canterbury, working as a surveyor, when he read an advert for a live-in job as coordinating manager at Polesden Lacey. He hastily compiled a C.V., applied for the position, attended a successful interview with his wife and was accepted for the post. The estate had been owned by Captain Ronald Greville and his wife, the Edwardian hostess, Mrs Margaret Greville where she had entertained celebrities and royalty including King Edward VII and the Queen of Spain.
Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, spent her honeymoon at Polesden Lacey describing it as, “A Delicious House”.
Andrew spoke of the first time he organised the annual summer festival which took place on the front lawn of the house and included a concert and firework display with an expected audience of over 3,000. The local animal rights activists got wind of what was about to take place and were concerned about the local wildlife if fireworks were to be included, and threatened to boycott the event. Andrew contacted the local police who told him not to worry as they would double the police presence to two officers instead of one as in previous years. However, there were black clouds and heavy rain on the night of the festival so half the audience did not attend and the animal rights activists were nowhere to be seen so, apart from the weather, all happily went according to plan.
When Andrew took on the estate manager’s role, the fine art treasures of the house had all been locked away following a burglary and theft of an eight inch high solid bronze bull statuette, a gift to Mrs Greville from the Queen of Spain. He decided that these works of art should be on display to the visiting public so arranged for a sophisticated burglar alarm system to be installed as protection. All this took place and all was well until, at three o’clock one morning, the burglar alarm went off. Andrew, without his glasses, together with his house manager without his teeth finally managed, in the dark, to enter the code and disarm the alarm. They had worried that a burglar was still on the premises but found, eventually, that a bat from the estate woodland had got into the building and triggered the alarm.
In 1995, the Trusts’ centenary year, he held a couple of meetings with the staff and volunteers who worked on the estate in order to hear of any improvements they felt could be made. At the end of the first meeting, just a single suggestion came from a female member of staff who thought it would be a nice gesture for the workers to have a piece of cake at tea break. Andrew said he would investigate it and see what he could do. When the second meeting took place, he read the text of a letter he had supposedly written to Prince Charles who was patron of the centenary year. It read as follows:
Your Royal Highness, I offer you deepest felicitations in this our centenary year from all the revolting stewards, house staff, serfs and volunteers at Polesden Lacey. We all wish that you grant your royal assent to our humble stewards in their all too short official tea-break, a
Andrew McElwee (right) with Speaker Meeting Organiser, Pete Norman
U3A Newsletter June 2019
delicious morsel of home-made cake. Perchance you would ask your Mum to visit the Buck-House kitchen to locate the recipe of the sponge cake that Queen Vicky must have knocked up just when the National Trust first started. I do not refer to King Alfred.
P.S. Have you had the time to ask your Gran if she knows where she put the plug to the bath, when she was here on honeymoon, as it is playing havoc with the ablutionary requirements of my dear lady wife and the dog?
Amazingly, Prince Charles responded with this short note:
Many thanks for your felicitations and Camillarations. I’m sorry that your stewards are revolting. Mamma is of no use to you as she is besotted with low calorie barley water and tasteless cottage cheese. Grandmamma is a real godsend as she dotes on cake. She cannot remember what happened to your bath plug so she has asked Auntie Maggie to call in to B&Q on her way down to the off licence. She remembers having her big toe stuck up the bath tap as they had to send for the royal plumber who, Grandmamma says, had a real struggle as he was blindfolded for royal privacy.
Yours Charles R.
P.S. Do give them their cake, just one piece each mind you, British standard size.
Andrew was keen to emphasise that he had given this talk very many times and it is his own personal take on his time at Polesden Lacey, despite all this the National Trust is still thriving.