Teenage Letters Reveal the Queen Mother’s Innocent Crush on a WW1 Soldier

Left: Glamis Castle, Scotland. Right: HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother
Left: Glamis Castle, Scotland. Right: HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother

A set of six letters exchanged towards the end of WWI between Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who would later marry Prince Albert, Duke of York, and Private James Harding is an innocent and refreshing peek into the lives of people at the end of the Great War. These letters are to be auctioned on the 18th August by Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctioneers and have an estimated value of between £5,000 and £7,000.

Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, at age 16, was determined to do her bit for the war effort. Her brother, Fergus, had been killed in 1915 at the Battle of Loos and her sister Rose was a trained nurse, working in the temporary hospital that Glamis Castle, Lady Elizabeth’s home in Scotland, had become. As she was too young to undertake formal training, Lady Elizabeth took on the role of bolstering the morale of the young, injured servicemen.

The help that she could give revolved around running errands on behalf of the injured men to buy items such as cigarettes at the village shop, and sometimes she would try to entertain them by reading aloud, playing cards or writing letters on their behalf.

During this time she struck up a special friendship with one particular young man, Private James Harding, and her letters to him show the innocence of a first crush.

In a letter dated, 29th November 1916, Lady Elizabeth writes that she thoroughly enjoyed the card game, Hearts, that she played with Harding and his friend Nix. It seems that Lady Elizabeth was a little piqued that the two young soldiers had conspired to make her lose, “The games of ‘Hearts’ were great fun. I enjoyed them very much, even tho’ I was treated badly by you and Nix!” She also treated Harding to a verse about the game;

I sometimes go into the Ward

And play a game or two

And if I get the Queen of Spades

T’is only due to you – Private Harding

Oh, Private Harding!

And if again I get the Queen

(I’m sure there is a plot)

There will be the most awful trouble

and a ‘telling off’ will be the lot

of Private Harding.”

Lady Elizabeth was clearly a little smitten with her Private and in a letter dated 2nd October 1918 she writes, “I am going to stay with my sister near Musselburgh next Tuesday and shall be arriving at Waverley Station at 4.49…I don’t know if you are doing work of any kind yet, but if you are not, I should be so pleased to see you for a few minutes if you could come…it would be rather nice if I brought a pack of cards and we could play ‘Hearts’ on the platform!”

The economic downturn that accompanied the end of WWI is keenly evident in her letters and she is concerned that Harding has not been able to find a job on being demobbed.   In September of 1919, she wrote to him, “It seems to be very difficult now . . . I wonder what sort of job you might want? I might by chance hear of one you’d like, though you’d probably want to be in Edinburgh. .  . I do hope something will turn up.”

Apparently, by November of the same year, Harding had been able to find work, and she writes, “I can’t tell you how pleased I am to hear the good news. It is too splendid, after so long, and I am only so sorry that I was so useless and couldn’t help you more.”

The friendship was obviously important to Lady Elizabeth and though it progressed no further than a few letters she obviously cared a great deal for this young man. Her compassionate nature and lack of pretention came to be a hallmark of her life even though she married into royalty and became the mother of Queen Elizabeth II.

The memorabilia specialist at Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctioneers, Valentina Borghi, said in an interview with The Telegraph, “These are a full set of letters, written and signed by Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon before her marriage to the Duke of York, so they are quite rare.”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE