Revealed: The secret life of Backstairs Billy, the Queen Mother's most loyal servant

By Basia Briggs
Last updated at 4:07 PM on 28th January 2010
When a man's life comes to an end, he lives on in the memory of his friends. William Tallon had hundreds of them and each has their own story to tell.
Mine starts in the spring of 1993 when I went to Clarence House for my first meeting with Her Majesty the Queen Mother to show her the architectural model of a set of celebratory gates which were to be built in her name.
Prince Michael of Kent had conceived an innovative scheme to honour her and also to beautify what had been an ugly and unsafe south-eastern corner of Hyde Park. The TV presenter Desmond Wilcox was granted permission to attend as he was making a documentary on the project, but it was made clear that he would film at a respectful distance and not speak, as the Queen Mother never gave interviews.
Basia Briggs and William Tallon, former aid of the late Queen Mother
'My gallant old soul': One of Basia Briggs's treasured snaps of herself with William Tallon
We were met at the door by William Tallon, a debonair, handsome man resplendent in white tie and tails and bedecked with medals.
He had an instantly winning manner and charming smile and, after leading us down a wide corridor to the drawing room, he wasted no time in pressing a glass of champagne into my hand to put me at my ease. He then stood unobtrusively as the Queen Mother asked me about my role in the project.
Prince Michael mentioned that I was a vigorous fundraising letter-writer, and, having made my lowest curtsy, I gibbered foolishly: 'I am the general dogsbody, Your Majesty – I am the envelope-stuffer.' I caught William's eye and he winked.
Suddenly Desmond shocked us all by lurching into an interrogation of the Queen Mother while the cameras rolled. He went on asking questions until she gave her shoulders an elegant little shrug, tilted her head just so and turned her back frostily.
I had witnessed an unforgettable moment. I had seen Her Majesty's sweet side, and also her tough side. Lunch was served and she left the room with Prince Michael.
The following day William invited me for tea at his home, Gate Lodge, a miniature flat-roofed bungalow that stood at the entrance to Clarence House.
He told me the Queen Mother had been very distressed that she had been so trapped by Desmond and wished she had had some warning so she could have prepared what to say. William consequently had a row with Sir Alastair Aird, the Queen Mother's divinely urbane Private Secretary, over the fact that he ought to have briefed Desmond beforehand.
William and Sir Alastair never got on. All that being said, the documentary shown on ITV was very good and the fuss died down.
I became a frequent visitor to Gate Lodge and enjoyed William's flamboyant and legendary hospitality. His taste was exquisite yet homely. The Queen Mother had given him beautiful pictures and antique furniture and every surface of every table was laden with precious objects, including gold and silver boxes he had received as presents from Royalty, all bearing inscribed messages of thanks for his service.
All around the room in large silver frames there were many personally signed photographs of members of the Royal Family, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Guests had to sit two to a chair or on the floor as his cottage was so tiny.
He was so joyful during the Nineties. He loved his life, he loved his partner Reg Wilcock, another jovial butler with a wonderful laugh and soothing personality, and he loved the Queen Mother from the day he met her. She lifted the spirits of all those with whom she came into contact, and it is no wonder she was the most popular Queen Consort of all time.
William recalled that once, when he was 17 and working at Buckingham Palace, he innocently gave her a postal order for seven shillings and sixpence as a gift for her birthday; a substantial chunk of his wage. He said he was reprimanded severely for this. 'But I just loved her so much,' he told me.
William Tallon with the Queen Mother on her 101st birthday in 2001
Devoted: William Tallon with the Queen Mother on her 101st birthday in 2001
He had started working for the Royal Family in 1951 as a boot black and junior steward. As the years passed, he became absorbed into the sleek world of life at court.
He did not have to exert himself to achieve power - his company became indispensable in whatever situation as he always provided the jokes and good humour.
Apart from keeping each other smiling, they had many serious talks; William recalled that when she was 75, the Queen Mother advised him not to trust anyone, ever.
The Queen Mother's intense and staunch affection for him was unquestioned, and his influence over her provoked much resentment from other staff. He was her most trusted servant, her confidant, her court jester and sometimes her adviser and her spy.
They seemed mutually charmed by each other and the bond was unbreakable despite countless plots by jealous officials. William reigned supreme at Clarence House and he embraced the spectacular good fortune that life had bestowed on him.
Occasionally, though, he told me that they did have rows. Once William stormed off into the garden during an argument. The Queen Mother and her Lady-in-Waiting, the formidable Lady Fermoy, Princess Diana's grandmother, called after him ordering him to come back at once, but he waved them off temperamentally. Eventually he calmed down and when he returned, Lady Fermoy said he was the bravest man in the United Kingdom.
The Queen Mother loved spending time at the isolated Castle of Mey in Scotland - but William used to say how much he disliked it there as there was nothing to do and nowhere to go. He accompanied the Queen Mother there for 32 years but told me that when Mr Wellbeloved, the butler from Royal Lodge Windsor, went there once he lasted no longer than three weeks and never went again.
William, however, referred to Sandringham as 'a real home'. Once he gave me some magnificent crackers left over from the Queen's Christmas Day lunch there.
William was very fond of Diana, who spent her last night as a bride-to-be at Clarence House. Contrary to reports that she rode a bicycle around the gardens singing 'I am going to marry the Prince of Wales in the morning', she actually rode the bicycle in the house, round and round William's office, which was a very large room.
It was a hot summer night and he recalled that Diana went to bed exhilarated before her wedding. She did not like duvets and preferred sheets and to be well tucked in, like a little girl.
He remembered also a hilarious occasion when the Queen Mother was being driven from London to Royal Lodge and her bodyguard dozed off in the cosy darkness of the limousine. She noticed, but to be kind she let him have his little sleep.
William Tallon and Basia Briggs
Firm friends: Basia Briggs with William Tallon at a society party in London in 2006
Just over Hammersmith flyover, the chauffeur had to brake suddenly and the car stopped with a jolt. This woke the bodyguard with a start, and he was immediately so eager to prove he had been wide awake all along that he mistakenly thought they had arrived at Windsor. So right there on the dual carriageway, he leapt out of the car and opened the door for the Queen Mother to get out, to which she said: 'I think we shall go a little further tonight, thank you John.'
Another time, upon leaving Clarence House, the car braked abruptly and the Queen Mother, Empress of India, slid on to the floor. Since it was plushly carpeted, she did not hurt herself.
William mostly enjoyed good health and he liked to recall the Queen Mother's exact words, which were: 'William is not often ill, but when he is, he is very, very ill.' As the years passed he developed gallstones, a bad leg and prostate trouble.
But he could rarely resist going in with the passing cavalcade of lunch and dinner guests; for it was showtime. Occasionally guests made the mistake of asking Her Majesty how old her dogs were and this displeased her. 'Oh God, are we to be reduced to talking about dogs' ages now?' she once said.
The public gaze alighted on William when he pushed Princess Margaret's wheelchair in front of the Press on the Queen Mother's 101st birthday. His enemies condemned Backstairs Billy, as he was called, for allowing the world to see how ill the Princess had become. They said he did this without permission, but that was incorrect. William said the Queen was not angry. If that was so, it certainly did not upset her. Later that year he sat between her and Princess Margaret at a staff Christmas function. Also that year he received a Christmas card from the Queen for the very first time.
The Queen Mother and everyone else adored Reg Wilcock, the Page of the Presence, and William's long-term lover who had started working at Clarence House in 1957. When he died in August 2000, William recounted that Prince Charles said 'Granny will never get over this', and that the Queen Mother herself had said that there would never be so much laughter in any of her houses now that he was gone.
Reg had a magnificent funeral, for which William chose the music. He even asked if the National Anthem could be played and the Queen agreed - 'but only one verse'.
William told me that in the Queen Mother's bedroom she had photographs only of those who were dead - members of her family long gone, her husband King George VI, and Reg.
After Reg's death I saw more and more of William. He would ring me in deep depression to ask me to come over and see him. We would sit in Reg's old flat in Kennington and admire his favourite painting of flowers in shades of peach, yellow and pale green which hung above the mantelpiece. In Reg's bathroom I saw the framed invitation to the marriage of the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer. Such things showed how important the personal relationships are to the Royal staff.
William Tallon assists as the Queen Mother receives flowers outside Clarence House on her 98th birthday
Helping hand: William Tallon assists as the Queen Mother receives flowers outside Clarence House on her 98th birthday
Five months after Reg's death, William asked me to keep him company as his lavatory was blocked and he was lonely while he waited for the man from Dyno-Rod. When I arrived, William had prepared his favourite tuna fish and cucumber sandwiches and a plate full of devilled eggs, and we drank champagne. Later we were joined by an actor who, William informed me, had the most beautiful buttocks in Europe.
When the Queen Mother died on March 30, 2002, William was distressed by the fact he was not informed by any Palace official, although he had been her loyal servant for 51 years. Instead he found out from Fiona Barton, Chief Reporter of The Mail on Sunday, who telephoned him with the news.
He and I spoke later that day and he said his life as he knew it was over. One-and-a-half years separated the death of Reg and the Queen Mother and William was distraught.
He asked to view her in death but his request was denied and afterwards he got terribly drunk. Shortly after the funeral he chopped up his old uniform.
What really hurt him was that he was then ordered to vacate his beloved Gate Lodge, where he had lived for so long. He was heartbroken. He felt wretched, bewildered and confused to be so punished having done nothing blameworthy, but he said his foes were united in their hatred of him based on jealously, envy and begrudgery. He did not blame the Royal Family, but other courtiers who were consumed with jealousy.
I had never seen a more dazed and forlorn man than William, and he constantly said he had nothing left to live for and he wanted to die. Sometimes he wept. Anyone as popular as he was was bound to be hated and he knew that he was viewed as a dangerous, arrogant and offensive nuisance and that there had long been a conspiracy to get rid of him.
He moved permanently to Reg's old flat in Kennington and tried to make a new life for himself. He was very fond of Lord Linley, who made him an easel as a house-warming present.
William had always lived in palaces with plenty to do but now he was waking at 5am with no reason to get up. All his friends rallied with invitations for evenings, and he also regularly saw the Earl of Snowdon, with whom he had been close friends since their youth. But he often had to return home lonely on the night bus to Kennington. Shortly after he moved, he told me that his Royal pension had been increased by £57 a year.
Even during his employment his total income was £10,000 a year. Despite being offered huge sums by the Press for his story, he always remained silent out of loyalty to the Queen.
Gate Lodge, Clarence House
Blessed plot: Gate Lodge, Clarence House, was the home William Tallon loved
William Tallon's flat in Kennington
Exile: The flat in Kennington where William lived after the Queen Mother's death
In 2002, the Queen's Golden Jubilee, he sent off his application to attend the service of thanksgiving, explaining that he had been at the Coronation. He was deeply disappointed to receive a typed reply telling him to watch it on TV or listen to the radio.
Often in his last years William and I would go to the Doghouse, a large pub on the Kennington Road near his home. He possessed a genius for creating rapport with complete strangers, however disreputable, enquiring about their lives.
Sometimes, in moments of insane recklessness, he would invite them home for a drink and I worried they might steal or do him harm.
My husband was also alarmed and disapproving. He was fond of William but thought he was a bad influence on me, and he was often anxious how I would get a taxi home.
One night William and I were seated at the bar, very jolly, when I suddenly saw my husband's furious face at the side window, his nose pressed against the pane. We pointed at him, giggling uncontrollably, but sobered up quickly when he stormed into the pub.
He seized William by the hand, pulling him off his stool, and forcibly led him out, yelling all the while that we were a drunken disgrace. I had no alternative but to follow poor William outside and some customers booed in sympathy as we were dragged out like two naughty children.
William and I walked arm in arm, zig-zagging along the pavement still giggling while my husband drove along the kerb the 500 yards to William's home.
It was just as well, as the light in the bleak lobby was not working and William prodded about in the dark trying to get his key into the lock. Fortunately we had a torch in the car so all ended well. Needless to say, William begged us to come in for one last drink, but I was not allowed. We let him keep the torch.
William never felt safe there. None of the locks worked properly and so the following day my husband treated him by having a new set of locks fitted, which made William much happier.
Shortly afterwards William and I went to designer Nicky Haslam's book launch across the road from where I live. The glamour of the guest list and the flowing champagne made me tipsy and I was in no state to drive William home. It worried me to think of him on the night bus but a friend assured me she would take him home safely.
Instead she put him into a taxi and he stopped at the Doghouse and continued drinking. Staggering home, he fell over and was photographed by a paparazzo. The pictures caused a sensation in the next day's papers.
Although humiliated, William wanted us to go to San Lorenzo for lunch the following Saturday and be photographed sober.
William Tallon walks to the Queen Mother's lying-in-state
Loyal to the last: William Tallon walks to the Queen Mother's lying-in-state
But while William's enemies gloated, Prince Charles was swift with kind-heartedness and invited William up to Balmoral for a few days. William was devoted to the Prince of Wales as he considered himself to be something of a father figure, having cared for him as a child whenever the Queen was away.
During the summer of 2006 William's health deteriorated dreadfully. He lost four stone in weight and was hospitalised at St Mary's in Paddington. He was yellow with jaundice and hollow-eyed with misery. His beautiful thick hair was now sparse and wispy. When I visited him he said he just wanted to die and he told me he had his funeral all prepared.
In June 2007 he was no better but we still managed to go to the Serpentine Gallery for a book launch. Afterwards I took him back to Kennington. His legs were very weak and he had difficulty climbing into the taxi. The driver helped by lifting and pushing William in from behind.
Throughout the journey he held my hand and I noticed that his hand was very puffy, swollen and mottled. He asked me to do something for him. 'Anything,' I replied.
'Please telephone me tomorrow at 5.30am,' he said. I felt he wanted me to check if he was still alive. I set my alarm clock and rang as promised. Far from being dead, he was up and frying his bacon-and-egg breakfast. His sunny nature had triumphed and I was so glad. I crawled back to my bed with relief. His zest for life was greater than his need for death.
Two weeks before he died in November 2007, we caught a bus from Sloane Square to Piccadilly and walked up Burlington Arcade, where he bought me some chocolate. He was dressed in bright green corduroy trousers, a pale blue and bright purple striped jumper, a brown checked tweed jacket and a bright red scarf, and that is how I always shall remember him.
I never saw him again. God rest his gallant old soul.

© Basia Briggs 2010

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