Case Studies

Security at Kew: Windsor Castle alarm install

by Mark Rowe

One of the earliest surviving security consultancy surveys was by Jack Mannings, covering Windsor Castle, as held in a file at the National Archives at Kew in west London.

Dating from February 1970, his report found what could be expected of any 20-year-old intruder alarm; it was ‘subject to failure through age’. A complete perimeter alarm would be too unwieldy, Mannings judged, and ‘unnecessarily restrictive to the occupants’. He gave the example of the George IV Gateway. It was manned only by one guard when the Queen was in residence; an ‘agile climber’ could get over when the guard was on patrol, Mannings noted. He proposed a fixed grille at the top of the gate. Inside, he proposed that alarm devices were best attached to valuable objects or cases. He was alert to the risk of false alarms; a painting had to be lightly dusted, without disturbing the alarm. He recommended making some doors stronger (by adding bars), and bricking up or shuttering of some vulnerable windows.

As for the Shorrocks microwave radar, Mannings described such equipment as proved ‘reasonably satisfactory in ideal conditions’. He recalled a June 1969 incident when an unauthorised person gained entry to Windsor’s private apartments by way of the porters lodge. The castle had about 685 locks, which Mannings called ‘adequate, provided there is strict control of all cases.’ The castle had a fire brigade, of five full-timers. When the Queen was in residence at Windsor, the castle had extra police, ‘and security cover is adequate,’ Mannings wrote. ‘At other times the strength appears barely sufficient …. The present number often finds themselves unduly extended with a consequent weakness in security. Police when on patrol had no radio communication with their lodge, only telephone (before the days of wireless telephony).

Some 27 crimes had been reported in the previous year. A small Chinese vase was missing from the Garter Throne Room, that was open to the public. Either it was stolen or a maid broke it and threw it away. In January 1968 a small fire was started in the household canteen; an employee was suspected. A slight fire in a basement in January 1967 was believed due to a cigarette end. A mental patient was found wandering in March 1967 after they followed an employee through a wicket-gate. On June 20, 1967, two men must have climbed the wall, as they were found in the grounds. On August 7, 1967, 24 RAF men and one woman admitted that they climbed the north wall by making a human pyramid, having climbed the fence in Datchet Road. An alert sentry discovered them; 14 were captured. The airmen seem to have done it for a lark, wanting to steal a cannon, or plant a flag. Mannings noted several other similar fires or security breaches, ‘and unauthorised persons have frequently been found on or near the river bank having entered via the towpath at Victoria Bridge or having landed by boat’. Again, that implied people were nosey rather than intent on evil; Mannings also wrote of police in the summer having their time taken up ‘with over-enthusiastic and troublesome guides both official and bogus’.

The castle was open all year when the royals were not there, every day in summer, when daily crowds in the castle and grounds might total 25,000. The queues to enter were long, ‘and there are occasions when the sheer weight of numbers within the castle effectively limits the supervision of the warders [uniformed guards] and in an emergency rapid movement by relieving forces from one part of the building to another would be impossible’.

The National Archives file Work 19/1374 begins at Windsor Castle in February 1967. Owing to reported art thefts, the head of security at the British Museum, Mr Saunders, was visiting the royal library. Besides burglar alarms, a room holding works of art and drawings (‘an exceptional concentration of valuable material’, Mr Saunders agreed) had pads under the carpet, that would set off the alarm when trodden on. In 1966, the room had had door contacts fitted, to set the alarm off if the door were opened. Mr Saunders however pronounced the security system inadequate, because a burglar could stand on displays. He quoted a recent robbery in Dulwich in south London where a burglar was able to cut a panel through a door, and cut around the contacts. Or, a gang could access the windows from a terrace. The police (and Mr Saunders) were not always there to guard. Mr Saunders advised further security products; the door contacts as fitted the year before were obsolete, he said: “It was much better to use mechanic contacts which had no mechanical parts and could not go wrong.”

Burglar alarms everywhere, he added, would be ‘prohibitively expensive’. Police and several officials from the Ministry of Works attended a meeting on security at Windsor Castle one Tuesday afternoon in April 1969. Although an alarm company, Burgot, had had its alarms in Windsor Castle from 1948; the meeting was proposing that another company, Chubb, should carry out a survey. One suggestion was of push-button alarms at strategic points for staff (such as a night-watchman, who passed through some rooms, when the alarms would be ‘non-operative’). When an alarm activated, it sounded in the police lodge at the castle; Windsor police station; and Scotland Yard in central London.

Those alarms weren’t the oldest equipment in use; a night patroller carried a clock and recorded movement at 14 ‘call points’, common enough as a way that security guards proved they were doing their rounds. The clock, Mannings noted, was made ‘by Detec Watchlock Corporation USA and is probably over 40 years old’. Circular paper with punched holes recorded the ‘clocking in’. As Manning put it delicately, ‘very few are now in use’, meaning that the castle was well behind the times, and besides, the clock paper that Mannings was shown had been used on several nights, ‘making an assessment of the security value extremely difficult’. In other words, whether in ignorance or on purpose, the readings had been over-written, so managers could not tell when or if guards had done anything. Mannings recommended a modern clock.

In June 1969 a proposal for updated security duly included the windows overlooking a terrace; and microwave radar; and if any staff made to switch it off, a secret signal would go by wire to the police lodge. In July 1969, the castle librarian asked another alarm company, Shorrocks, to install some test alarms. The Burgot alarms were out of date and in a bad conditions. For the Ministry of Works, AW Allen proposed the push-buttons as panic alarms, whereby a bell or bleeper would warn the police to close the doors and gate. Mr Allen wrote of ‘a high grade security system at a minimum cost which would not become obsolescent too quickly and yet would be capable of extension or modification to meet the changing needs of the royal family and others over a period of years’.

This new install would mean extensive cabling, over three years. It would cost £35,000 (in an era when a substantial house would cost a tenth of that). The Burgot alarm being replaced ran over an open circuit, using telephone cable also used for making phone calls; and there were no drawings recording the original installation.

By November 1969 an argument had arisen over whether Queen Elizabeth should pay for this security of her personal art treasures and jewels; particularly because the paying public was let into state apartments. Reg Barrow of the ministry in December 1969 asked for the National Gallery security consultant Jack Mannings to help, writing to him: “We have a security problem at Windsor Castle not unlike that at the national museums and galleries.” Mr Mannings made four visits to the castle, and sent in a report in February 1970, which Mr Allen agreed with. For example, that ‘some considerable improvement could be made to the physical security of the building …. but …. such steps could well prove expensive’.

As the story so far shows, years could pass while the wheels of royal and government bureaucracy turned; for example, around the winter of 1969-70 the master of the royal household, Brigadier Geoffrey Hardy-Roberts, was in Australia with the Queen. Criminals were not stopping however. The Times in March 1970 reported how a painting was unhooked from the National Gallery, and replaced with a typed notice saying that it was temporarily removed. The blame fell on the Trafalgar Square gallery for having a guard watch two rooms. The National had overhauled its security after a 1961 theft of a portrait of Wellington by Goya (made into a film starring Jim Broadbent, The Duke, in 2020).

Mannings, Allan and others met at Windsor Castle in May 1970 and agreed to start work in the summer on the new alarm system, which would take three years. Windsor was seeking public funds. A draft letter after the meeting admitted that the original, 1948 alarm work had been charged to ‘grant in aid’, but claimed the need was urgent for a ‘thoroughly comprehensive and modern’ system of security at the castle. The Treasury had accepted the converting of an air raid shelter at Buckingham Palace to house gold and silver plate. In April 1970, the Treasury agreed to the new security scheme at Windsor. A letter to Mr Barrow wondered if the prospects of approval being granted varied in direct proportion to the amount of money asked for: “Shades of Yeoman of the Guard,” a reference to the Gilbert and Sullivan opera. The actual spend on the security by April 1975 was £43,000.

Photo by Mark Rowe; Windsor Castle, May 2023.

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