Through one of the marvels of modern Science, I am enabled, this Christmas Day, to speak to all my peoples throughout the Empire. I take it as a good omen that Wireless should have reached its present perfection at a time when the Empire has been linked in closer union. For it offers us immense possibilities to make that union closer still.
King George V - Christmas Speech - 1932
These were the opening lines of the first Christmas speech broadcast by King George V in 1932, an institution that has now continued uninterrupted for eighty years. Yet securing agreement for the first Christmas message broadcast by a monarch was not as smooth as the King’s eventual delivery and, if it were not for efforts of the then Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, it might never have happened.
By the 1920s radio was increasingly becoming the medium through which leaders could talk to their nations and, in some cases, their empires, with radio the norm in the US by this point. Inspired by this, John Reith, General Manager of the newly formed BBC, wrote to the King in 1923 to inquire whether he would be interested in ‘delivering a message to his people’ on a significant holiday such as Christmas, New Year or Easter. Unfortunately, the King was a reluctant speech-giver – due to a self-perceived lack of oral talent – and also an unashamed technophobe. He politely declined this request, much to the BBC’s disappointment.
The next year the BBC gave the King a radio set, which was gratefully received and regularly used, the King being a particular fan of the news service; but the set did little to encourage him to make a personal address. At the opening of various functions throughout the 1920s, such as the British Empire Exhibition in 1924, the King’s opening addresses were recorded by the BBC, with some attracting around 10 million listeners throughout the empire, a record for the period. However, despite his evident popularity with radio audiences, the King could not be persuaded to give a personal message to the population on Christmas Day. This was due largely to his belief that he lacked the sophistication and flair of other broadcasters, and as the message would be personal in nature he could not hide behind formality to combat his fears. Even his Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham, who favoured the idea (and whose advice the King trusted and mostly accepted) felt that pursuing a Christmas speech by the monarch was a lost cause.
Simple and honest
All this changed with the appointment of Ramsay MacDonald as the first Labour Prime Minister in 1929, a man whose simplicity in approach the King admired and respected. MacDonald assuaged many of the King’s fears about a personal broadcast, saying that a simple, honest approach would be more than adequate for the task. The Prime Minister suggested that Rudyard Kipling could write the speech, thus relieving the King of another anxiety.
However, it was the new Statute of Westminster, signed in 1931, that finally persuaded the King. This was the first step in transforming the Empire into the Commonwealth, as it effectively removed the dominion nations from Britain’s direct imperial control, thereby creating a federation of equals under the Crown. At this time of change and financial hardship, MacDonald explained to the King, the Monarchy was pivotal for maintaining unity. So, on Christmas Day 1932, as the people of the British Empire sat around their radios, the King entered their home – verbally at least – for the first time. The event had been widely trailed in the newspapers, the reports emphasising that the King would deliver a personal message to his people as opposed to a formal address – a novelty then. The speech was advertised in one Australian newspaper as ‘proof of the innate solidarity of Empire’.
From his naval days the King felt most comfortable in small rooms, so the speech was made from the box room under the stairs at Sandringham House and not in the grand drawing room where the mini-studio was set up again for the official photograph. Thick cloth coated the table, as the King was so nervous that his shaking hands caused the papers to rustle into the microphone. Despite his reluctance, reading from Kipling’s words the King proved proficient in the relatively new art of broadcasting. His gravelly voice was likened to that of a father speaking to his family, earning him the moniker Grandpa England, which was adopted by his granddaughter, our present Queen Elizabeth, along with many ordinary people, by the time of his Silver Jubilee three years later.
The King’s speech was widely acclaimed, not only for its delivery but also the majestic words of Kipling, which summed up the geographical vastness of the British Empire in 1932. It is often seen by historians as one of the great speeches of the twentieth century and is catalogued in the British Library. Historians such as Kenneth Rose considered it a loss that after 1932, the monarch’s Christmas Speech was not penned by writers such as Kipling. The following year the task of writing transferred to the Archbishop of Canterbury – popular opinion of which expressed none of the praise heaped on Kipling’s words.
Despite the praise he received, the King and many courtiers expected the event to be a one-off. The Palace was concerned that annual speeches would reduce their importance to the people, while the King complained that, ‘his nerves in preparation for the event quite ruined his Christmas’. However, No.10 had a very different view, perceiving that the broadcast had brought the people of the Empire together to hear the voice of the man who after 1931, effectively held the Commonwealth together. Through the symbol of the Crown, the monarchy represented the centrepiece of the Commonwealth.
MacDonald felt that a new tradition had been created and was keen for it to continue. Therefore, in the New Year, at his weekly meeting with the King, he raised the matter of the Christmas address. Knowing that praise in the press for Kipling’s words would do little to win over the King, Macdonald appealed to his sense of tradition. Referring to the many great speeches of Queen Elizabeth I, MacDonald was reported to have said what a pity it was they went unrecorded. To this the King gave him an icy stare and said, ‘Damn Queen Elizabeth’. However, No.10 had a backup plan. They had received many letters from citizens around the Empire, including from Canada and Asia, expressing their pleasure at hearing the King at Christmas. When he learnt this, the King’s strong sense of duty persuaded him to repeat the exercise.
Thus the monarch’s Christmas Speech has become an annual institution that has continued every year since 1932 and maintains its popularity, despite modern-day competition from alternatives aping its style, from characters as diverse as Sharon Osbourne and Marge Simpson.
Yet had Downing Street, and in particular Ramsay MacDonald, not so enthusiastically championed the BBC’s idea in 1932, the monarch’s speech might be one Christmas tradition we would be without.
Copyright Matthew Glencross. This article was produced as part of the No10 Guest Historian series, coordinated by History & Policy.
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