Vera Lynn secretly ordered to sing at Queen’s 16th birthday

Previously unseen letter details private command performance for the then-Princess Elizabeth

The forces’ sweetheart, Vera Lynn, was ordered to perform at Princess Elizabeth’s 16th birthday celebrations at Windsor Castle in 1942, even though the entertainer was meant to appear in a London variety show the same day.

A letter, headed “secret” and signed by the BBC’s variety booking manager, informed Lynn that her services were “required for a private command performance” laid on by Elizabeth’s father, King George VI. It was addressed to Lynn at the Empire, a variety theatre in Finsbury Park, north London.

The previously unseen document forms part of an exhibition of Lynn’s personal memorabilia, outfits and paintings that opens in January at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft in East Sussex.

Black velvet dress worn by Vera Lynn in 1952 on cover of New Musical Express
A black velvet dress worn by Vera Lynn in 1952 for the cover of New Musical Express. Photograph: Sam Moore

The letter said: “I am asked to impress upon you the necessity for keeping this matter strictly secret, and that it would be regarded as a grave breach of etiquette for it to be talked about, or to receive publicity in the press or elsewhere before the actual event.”

She would receive no fee for the performance, in the presence of the King, Queen, members of the royal household and a “battalion or so” of Grenadier Guards, the letter said, but expenses on the “usual BBC scale” would be paid.

Lynn, best known for her wartime song We’ll Meet Again and her BBC radio show Sincerely Yours, appeared in the afternoon concert at Windsor Castle alongside Jack Warner – later famous as Dixon of Dock Green – and the comedian Tommy Handley.

When Lynn died last year, aged 103, the Queen was said to be deeply upset. She sent a private message of condolence to Lynn’s family.

Vera Lynn sat at an easel painting at her home in Finchley, London.
Vera Lynn painting at her home in Finchley, London.
Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

The exhibition also includes 20 paintings chosen from about 300 of Lynn’s artworks and a selection of outfits from her public appearances from the age of 11, including the military-style shorts she wore while touring British forces in Burma.

The top tier of Lynn’s wartime cardboard wedding cake has been preserved. “It was a fake cake at a time of austerity, when there was rationing, and to assemble the ingredients for a big cake would be almost impossible,” said Steph Fuller, the museum’s director.

Lynn lived in Ditchling for most of her life and was a patron of the museum. “After she died, we were invited to the house to see what was potentially available for a small display. We found a huge, wonderful collection of memorabilia, awards, correspondence, garments – most of it never seen by anyone outside the family,” said Fuller.

Contributor

Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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