The Queen’s messengers

The Queen’s messengers – royal and governmental couriers

Raymond Lamont-Brown

The final destination is approaching for a group of civil servants who for centuries have transported Britain’s most confidential messages around the globe. These royal and governmental couriers – the Corps of Queen’s Messengers – are the oldest extant government utility which is employed to carry diplomatic bags to British embassies. The twenty-five couriers, under their superintendent Major I. G. Bamber, are all ex-serving officers of the Forces and are shortly to become victims of Whitehall economies and made redundant by the modem technology of faxes and secure air freight.

Called the ‘silver greyhounds’, from there distinctive silver badge, the couriers have a backup staff of five hundred employees which cost the Foreign Office [pounds]4,000,000 per year to administer. The messengers – with their special passports stamped Queen’s Messenger Courier Diplomatique – register some 250,000 miles per year. Couriers, however, have to obtain visas, if a country’s rules on such apply. And the custom developed for each of the couriers to have five passports; while one was being used the others could travel the circuit of the foreign embassies in London to collect the necessary stamp marking for prospective journeys.

Gone are the days too of luxurious first-class travel: messengers now go business class, which alone saved the Foreign Office half a million pounds per year. In the old days they travelled Europe in a reserved compartment of a wagon-lit, and once caused tongues to wag as they were delegated to escort diplomats’ wives to new postings.

According to the codification of privileges and immunities, as stated by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, the bags should only contain diplomatic documents or equipment and items of diplomatic use. There has always, of course, been a certain ‘flexibility’ about this. Should a head of Chancery’s wristwatch fail in some remote area, a replacement might be conveyed in the diplomatic bag. And it is not unknown for a barter system to have been linked between embassies . . . caviar in exchange for champagne!

The bags marked ‘HM Diplomatic Service’ have always had a certain romantic aura about them, but they are prosaic enough in themselves. These days they are made from sturdy white canvas by prison inmates.

Purists say that the history of the sovereigns’ messengers goes back to 1199, yet the first known messenger was John Norman, who in 1485 earned 4d (1.5p) per day for carrying the state papers of Richard III. Nevertheless the messengers have always been proud of their links with Charles II. During his exile at Breda, Netherlands – from which in 1660 he issued his Declaration of Breda, offering amnesty to all those who had opposed him and his father – he used messengers to make his intentions known and to keep in touch with his British supporters; and the messengers retailed court gossip to increase the morale in England.

To each of these messengers the king gave a small silver greyhound; he broke them from a dish which his father had owned and which would have been readily recognised by royalists. Thus the greyhound became a symbolic token of the messengers’ loyalty; it is worn with a ribbon on formal occasions (and with an exclusive tie in modern times). The silver greyhounds were minted for each new reign, except the brief one of King Edward VIII.

The sovereign’s messengers were originally controlled by the Lord Chamberlain, being Messengers of the Great Chamber. When the Foreign Office was created in 1782 the messengers remained common to the three Secretaries of State. Until 1822 the Foreign Office messengers were under the control of the Foreign Office Librarian, but by 1824 they were within the Home Service and Foreign Service Messengers Department.

One messenger was to write: ‘In the old pre-railway days the greyhound’s life was a good deal more hazardous. Horsemanship and swordsmanship were his prime qualifications; he fought, drank, swore, blustered and bullied his way across Europe. He seems, in those days, to have inspired fear and disgust rather than bonhomie. It is, I believe, recorded that the Legation at Copenhagen were gravely suspicious of the bona fide of a new messenger because he arrived sober’. Danger and unpleasantness were to be the stock in trade of the sovereign’s messengers for many a year.

Many a messenger has found himself in a tight spot. One such was Colonel Constantine during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. Bound from Peking to Hong Kong with the embassy’s bags, Constantine was confronted by a mob of Mao’s young enthusiasts. The weight of the bags broke a trolley’s wheels so the messenger had to ‘hand haul’ his shipment through the kicking, punching, jostling crowd. Constantine emerged braised with the bags intact.

Once, the deadliest run was considered to be that around the West African missions, all of which had to be completed from Accra to Dakar in five days. Yet there have been few fatalities like that of Colonel Simpson who was killed in an aircrash in the Andes while flying to Santiago in 1947.

In 1941 George P. Antrobus OBE, who was a King’s Foreign Service Messenger during 1918-40 wrote: ‘It seems rather doubtful, moreover, whether in modem conditions of widespread air-travel the need for the King’s Messenger will long continue to exist. It is possible therefore that the day of dissolution of this fine old Corps is not far distant, and that some of its present members may be amongst the last of their race. If this is so, it is to be hoped that some specimens of the tools of their trade – waybills, bags, seals, accounts and the like – will be preserved as curiosities to a future generation.’

Antrobus’s prognostication is now over fifty years in the coming as a reality. And it is certain that his last wish is likely to be carried out.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group