An historic moment, for surely the mighty fortress Tower of London has never been abandoned to its fate? An act of chivalry, a unique moment in family history, brought repercussions that stopped short of a hanging…
The booze laws in the United States were drawn up to stop alcohol from being transported across State Lines. This ban remained in place in the Seventies when I got to meet legitimate American Booze Barons who distributed wine and spirits exclusively throughout their domicile State. I was working as a PR and marketing consultant for White Horse, a fine whisky, which since 1927 had been sold only into export markets.
The Barons were the officially appointed distributors for each US state, selling White Horse whisky and other foreign brands into bars, restaurants and stores and earning commissions worth millions of dollars every year.
They liked to spend some of their hard-earned dollars on trips to Europe that included a tour of the distillery in Scotland a few days in London to enjoy some of that old fashioned Limey hospitality, courtesy of the Mayfair or St James’s offices of the various big booze brands, replete with their in-house chefs and faux baronial decor.
I enjoyed meeting the distributors and their wives and had a Day Out in London programme for them. It started with morning tea or coffee in the White Horse whisky corporate office in St James’s and a trip up the NatWest Tower. It was London’s tallest building and the best on offer at that time, compared with American cities. This was followed by a VIP guided tour of the Tower of London, concluding with lunch on the good ship RS Hispaniola. She was moored on the Thames Embankment, but bobbed up and down as if at sea when certain tides were running.
After that, the limo would drop them off at Harrods so they could spend more of their booze dollars.
Easy peasy, huh? How could one explain why, from the viewing platform at the top of NatWest Tower, the streets of the City of London looked so “higgledy-piggledy” without relating this to the history of the place from pre-Roman times? Americans build their Cities in a grid of blocks, anything otherwise is alien and needs a full explanation.
Likewise, with the Tower of London, that has been around for 1,000 years – probably about twice the age of any building left standing in America.
Off to the Tower and a place in history
As we left the NatWest Tower and I ordered the limo driver to take us to the Tower of London, I had no inkling that on this visit our American guests were themselves to become part of the Royal Palace’s history… Nor that our visit would provide a unique record in my family’s history.
As VIP visitors we were allowed to drive past the queuing hordes of tourists, ushered through the main gate and parked in the Inner Ward of the Tower.
Doing my tour guide routine I assisted the wives of the booze barons out of the limo and made sure their husbands were, likewise, OK before we followed our allocated Yeoman of the Guard. We were led straight to the office of the Deputy Governor who offered us tea and biscuits and some anecdotes of the Tower. This was the normal preamble to the private formal tour arranged for our American guests.
As the tea arrived, the Deputy Governor answered the phone that was ringing on his table… He listened for what seems like ages, then went rigid before replacing the receiver. “Ladies and gentlemen, my apologies. I’m afraid we have to leave as we have an emergency.”
Our American guests looked puzzled. What’s going on here? But, we had to leave and right now.
Exit with ravens tucked under their arms
This is hardly sinking in before the sound of police cars and then fire engine sirens surged through the ancient windows. This was quickly followed by a clanging of insistent bells going off around the building.
Hundreds of visitors were being herded out of the Tower to safety by well-drilled Yeomen of the Guard in their crimson uniforms; The Raven Master and his assistants heading towards the exit with the rare and precious ravens tucked under their arms; The Royal Jewels. What’s happening with the Royal Jewels…do they go or do they stay?
Wow, this is exciting. A historic moment, for surely the mighty fortress Tower has never been abandoned to its fate, never succumbed to outside forces in its long history. Legend says that the Kingdom and the Tower will fall if the resident ravens ever leave the fortress…
As the sirens get deafeningly closer, the Americans become convinced that this isn’t just a Disney-esque theme park scenario being played out for their enjoyment. This is a real-life bomb scare in a City that has been terrorised for the previous decade by IRA mobsters.
Centre stage… a black leather briefcase
To prove the point, the Deputy Governor waved our party over to the window. Looking down into the Inner Ward we saw it was deserted, not a human being nor a hopping Tower Raven in sight…just our parked limo (stage left) and centre stage… a black leather briefcase.
“Oh my gawd”, says I, “That’s my briefcase.”
I survive the hard look that precedes the customary “Off with his head” edict heard so many times within the Tower of London. The Deputy Governor picked up the phone again to end the emergency and summon the guard.
I am escorted to the briefcase, which is exactly where I placed it when doing my Sir Walter Raleigh impression with the booze barons’ wives. Unlike Sir Walter, who was imprisoned for 13 years in the Tower of London, I am to survive with my body parts intact.
Later, as we were escorted from the premises by Yeomen of the Guard, the Tower of London was still surrounded by emergency vehicles. Many onlookers scrutinised our limo as we drove slowly away – towards Tower Hill, the scene of 125 public hangings of earlier troublemakers.
The White Horse executives who joined us for lunch on board the RS Hispaniola were regaled by our American guests with the latest tale of the Tower. Then, over coffee and much-needed brandies, we composed a corporate note of apology to the Deputy Governor. That should keep my head out of the noose? Although… Sir Walter Raleigh’s put-your-coat-in-a-puddle-for-the-queen chivalry with Elizabeth I didn’t help him to avoid the Big Drop.
When the US booze barons returned home, their “Terror at the Tower of London” tale would be repeated endlessly to newspapers and TV stations throughout the Mid-West of America. Sales of White Horse whisky might well soar in Milwaukee and Minneapolis/St Paul. Job done. More by accident than design.
The IRA planted 17 bombs in London during its Seventies terror campaign, including one at the Tower of London in 1974 that left one person dead another injured. There were many bomb scares and hoaxes.
Retired Major General Sir Digby Raeburn was in command of the Tower of London Yeoman Warders; as Keeper of the Jewel House, he was responsible for the security of the Crown Jewels from 1971 to 1979. He and his wife had just finished lunch when, on 17 July 1974, a 10lb terrorist bomb exploded in the Tower’s Mortar Room, a small basement exhibition hall. It was thronged with tourists at the time, and one woman was killed and more than 40 injured. Three days earlier a warning had been received: “The Tower is going up.” Raeburn commented after the explosion: “We have had several such warnings, and always there is an immediate search by staff. We have a procedure for this and it is very thorough. Nothing was found during the search, and it had to be assumed that it was another hoax.” It was concluded that the bomb had been planted only the day before it went off. Source: Wikipedia.
The author was in Parliament Square, London on 30 March 1979 where a car bomb planted by the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) killed Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Airey Neave MP as he left the House of Commons carpark.
The author was in London Docklands on 9 February 1996 when an IRA bomb exploded nearby and badly damaged his office and blew up into the air a car with his family in it, all miraculously escaping injury, as it landed back on its four wheels.