BBC Antiques Roadshow brings back memories of how an Ely man gave Queen Mary a lift to Cambridge

Percy Titmous and his wife Gertrude pictured with their car. The photograph featured in the BBC Anti

Percy Titmous and his wife Gertrude pictured with their car. The photograph featured in the BBC Antiques Roadshow when the story behind the photo was discussed. - Credit: Archant

A recent BBC Antiques Roadshow featured the story of how an Ely man gave Queen Mary a lift to Cambridge. But there is more to the story than they - or the family –knew. Here is MIKE PETTY’S version.

Queen Mary in Cambridge during one of her many visits to the city

Queen Mary in Cambridge during one of her many visits to the city - Credit: Archant

January 29, 1934 started as just an ordinary day for Percy Titmous. By the time it was over he was world famous, In the words of the New York Herald Tribune he had become a “motorized knight”, a Launcelot who’d rescued his Queen from dire distress.

Queen Mary was a regular visitor to Cambridge: her honeymoon train had paused here briefly when en route to Sandringham in 1893. In 1918 she visited Papworth Hospital and the Cambridge military hospital in Burrell’s Walk with King George V.

Three years later they returned to inspect the National Institute of Agricultural Botany where crowds glimpsed a tall Imperial lady inside the smoothly running Royal car.

It was the car that betrayed what was to have been a secret visit in 1932 to the Fitzwilliam Museum when it was held up at the Northampton Street traffic lights. The Royal car had again been spotted in January 1934 parked outside the Cambridge Tapestry Works in Thompson’s Lane and then in St Andrew’s Street whilst her Majesty chose numerous tiny ivory objects for her famous Dolls House from Woolston’s antiques shop.

Three weeks later she was due to return. The police were alerted that the Royal car had left and were keeping the route clear so that the Daimler should have an unimpeded run. In fact it was nothing of the sort.

Three times the limousine broke down through overheating, once just outside Ely where it was noticed by Harold Sedgwick of Egremont Street, Ely. He had thought of stopping but as two chauffeurs were at work on the engine he left them to it. The car was restarted but finally came to rest outside the Slap Up public house at Waterbeach.

Most Read

It was here that Percy found them. His wife suggested he stop to see if they needed assistance so Percy paused some way off and waited for a sign. Soon the Lady in Waiting approached to explain the predicament and ask whether the Queen might hitch a lift to Cambridge in their little car.

The constables charged with keeping the road free from traffic tried several times to intercept the Titmous vehicle, only to jump aside when they recognised the passenger. Even Cambridge crowds normally used to anything were stunned they saw the Queen emerge from the car wearing a coat and hat of brilliant purple and carrying an umbrella of the same colour. She appeared intensely amused at the reaction to her somewhat unexpected arrival

As Queen Mary visited Collins and Clark’s antique shop on Regent Street her attendants were busy. They telephoned Walter Riddy, proprietor of a garage in St Andrew’s Road, Chesterton, requesting the hire of a Daimler saloon.

As soon as he realised for whom it was required Walter changed out of his working clothes and drove into town to convey her Majesty on to her next port of call, the K.P. Café on King’s Parade and then on to Exning. On arrival there the Queen personally thanked him for his services and invited him to remain for lunch. Sadly he had another urgent engagement and could not accept.

Meanwhile Percy Titmous had tried to slip away unobserved. But somebody had taken his car number and a call to the Council offices soon elicited his name. Soon pressmen, news agencies and even film companies were hot on his trail.

The American newspapers were full of the story: “Queen Mary Thumbs Ride as Auto Quits” ran one headline which went on to describe how “townspeople stared in amazement from the sidewalks”. The New York Herald-Tribune headlined the story ‘Percy Titmous Plays Launcelot to Queen Mary in Dire Distress! Motorized Knight Comes Upon His Liege Lady in Broken Down Limousine and Wheels His Trusty Sedan About in Dash for Cambridge Town’.

The Queen herself seemed unperturbed by the incident; her visits to Antiques shops continued unabated, as did her motoring adventures. In May 1939 her car was involved in an accident and in August 1948 the Royal limo again broke down again at Lt Thetford Corner. The News reported:

Queen Mary took Cambridge by surprise today when she visited the town on one of her private visits to Mr Stanley Woolston’s antique store.

At precisely noon the car containing the Queen slid into the kerb outside the shop. It was not her own car, however, but the Ely police patrol car. The green Daimler in which the Queen had been travelling developed a slight defect at Lt Thetford and Her Majesty transferred to the police patrol car following the Royal car.

The Daimler, duly repaired, was waiting outside Woolston’s some little time before Her Majesty was ready to leave.

Having featured this story in an article in the Cambridge Evening News I got a letter from a reader

My mention of the day that Queen Mary got a lift into Cambridge with a brewer’s assistant has brought me a fascinating letter from Vera Hedge of Cottenham.

She writes

“Having read in the Cambridge News ‘Royal motor adventure turns Percy into a star’ prompts me to write about my late husband. He was a young airman in the Second World War and during part of his time was stationed on Witchford airfield.

One day, due for leave and hoping to get a lift home, he was walking along the Ely Road when a black car passed him but stopped a short distance ahead.

“He was beckoned to the vehicle and as he approached he realised it was the Royal car and the passenger in the back seat was Queen Mary. He was invited to have a seat in the front and had a ride into Cambridge where he alighted at the bottom of Castle Hill in order to continue his journey home to Toseland, St Neots.

My husband saluted Her Majesty, who nodded and smiled and said ‘Thank you’. What a day for him! The car then turned into Magdalene Street, no doubt Queen Mary was going to visit the antique shops, as she often did.”

The story doesn’t end here, Vera continues:

“Many years after the war a young fellow (a distant relative of my husband) was helping with work that needed doing in a house in the St Neots area.

The workmen were removing the floor covering and years ago newspaper was often placed on floors before linoleum was laid. What did they discover? Nothing other than the old newspaper with the account of my husband’s surprise ride in the Royal Car! The young workman was unaware of this story until he went home and his father told him all about it”

Vera still has the newspaper together with a cutting of the article which she keeps in one of her family albums alongside a picture of Sam, the airman who was given a lift by his queen.

Perhaps Queen Mary felt she should repay the favour shown to her by Percy Titmous all those years before.

But there was an even more surprising story about another Queen which has seldom been told

In April 1908 Queen Alexandra, accompanied by her sister the Dowager Empress of Russia, passed through Cambridge station on a special train. Elaborate arrangements had been taken and Inspector Baker and several constables were in attendance, in addition to the Station Master and other officials.

There was no demonstration but a kindly act on the part of the Queen was noticed: she waved her hand once or twice to the persons on the platform as the train proceeded without stopping to Six Mile Bottom.

The Queens alighted at Six Mile Bottom station and got into the limousine to make the journey to Egerton House to take tea with Richard Marsh, the King’s trainer. Later they drove off to Fordham station where railway officials and police – including the Chief Constable - were expecting them.

It was just a fifteen minute journey. But they did not arrive. Police contacted Egerton House who confirmed their Majesties had left. Rumours about anarchists spread and police mounted a massive Queen-hunt.

Cyclists were sent out as search parties; they returned without finding them. Police then approached George Flanders of Hitchin, whose car was in Fordham station yard and he placed his vehicle at their disposal. George sped off with Police Superintendent Winter in the passenger seat. They searched for miles without success before deciding to return to Fordham.

There they found the Queens had arrived from a different direction a minute or two earlier. Their chauffeur had taken a wrong turning and the Queens had been lost for the better part of an hour as the car threaded the maze of country lanes around Fordham. A burst tyre had caused further delay and they were nearly an hour late.

The special train set off at once for Wolferton station from which they were driven to Sandingham.

Special precautions were made to guard Empress Marie during her stay in Norfolk with a large number of special detectives from Scotland Yard drafted in to supplement the local force.

The story made the inside pages of the Cambridge Daily News. It was something folk did not want to make a fuss about.