On Tour - but in London!


Courtesy of OSPA


by John H. Smith CBE
(Administrative Officer, Nigeria 1951-70)
Nigerian Constitutional Conference: On Tour - but in London!
Nigerian Constitutional Conference
The best part of any district commissioner or officer's duties were spent on 'safari' in East and Central Africa, on 'trek' or on 'tour' in West Africa. It was rather different being on tour in London. I had landed the job of lackey to the governor of Northern Nigeria at the 1957 Nigerian Constitutional Conference because I was on leave, after a stint as ADC, and was told that it would be treated as being on tour with the usual allowances.

My first duty was to respond to a gubernatorial telegram asking me to provide the exact dimensions of rooms in the hotel his wife had once spotted and decided would be nice to stay in. Situated on the north side of Piccadilly overlooking Green Park it was relatively modern with all rooms of a standard size, as I discovered when I made my recce armed with tape measure. My request aroused a mixture of hostility and curiosity. Obviously no previous guest had ever asked for the dimensions of the rooms but we were staying for several weeks and I explained that there might be another room let arising out of my request. When I telegraphed my master I emphasised that they would need another room for their young daughter and while my room could double as an office it might be advisable to have four rooms altogether. I thought it unlikely that the PA engaged for the course of the conference would expect to work in my bedroom. She was not a colleague on leave but the titled daughter of an earl.

Hotel arranged, I pleaded with the Agent-General for Northern Nigeria that the daily touring allowance of ten shillings would barely cover the cost of breakfast. He kindly agreed to pay for my B&B on top of the allowance and I reckoned I could avoid eating in the hotel. My next job was to ensure that the gubernatorial Humber, which had been sent to UK for overhaul, was ready. Destined for the Royal Tour of South Africa that never took place and acquired cheaply, it had done good service including the Queen's visit in 1956. The Crown Agents took me to the works where it had been serviced. The foreman complained that 'when we stripped her down, it was like the bleeding Sahara in here'. He was dismissive of my explanation that all our cars got like that.

The Crown Agents organised registration and a driver. My master was keen to be met at Heathrow with the Humber but, with a drop down quarter roof so that the back seat occupants could be easily seen, it had no luggage space at all. I had taken delivery in Paris of a Peugeot pick-up, the usual touring transport for junior officers, so I said I would use my vehicle for the luggage. Hard to believe now that in 1957 I had no problem parking in Piccadilly and the only Peugeot agent in UK in those days had his garage in Brick Street.

I donned a new suit and bowler hat for my trip to Heathrow. Bowler hat and French number plates proved a magical combination. Passengers were then bussed from the planes and I was able to arrange for the Humber and my pickup to drive out to the plane after it had landed. While the Humber took the governor and family to a VIP suite I loaded the luggage and had it in their rooms by the time they arrived.

Nigerian Constitutional Conference: On Tour - but in London!
Lancaster House
Lancaster House was the standard venue for constitutional conferences as colonies wended their way to independence. As might be expected of grand houses, indeed Lancaster House is a royal palace, the business conducted upstairs by the carriage trade keeps a substantial downstairs staff busy. And in the tradition of grand houses guests bring their own lackeys. A governor-general, three regional governors, a federal prime minister, three regional premiers, leaders of a dozen political parties and several important chiefs produced a great many lackeys. While our masters conferred we had ample opportunity to get to know one another and enjoy the lavish hospitality provided by the UK taxpayer. The capacity for brandy by one chief's aide, who appeared to have no duties other than to take possession of a comfortable chair by the bar first thing in the morning and occupy it until last thing at night, aroused the envy of us all.

We were into the conference almost immediately. After breakfast my master spent time in the office dictating and telephoning. I took him downstairs, put him in the Humber, went back up to ensure that the PA had all she needed for the day's work, went down again (we were on the sixth floor) walked across Green Park and waited on the steps of Lancaster House for him to arrive. London traffic was much worse then than now especially around Piccadilly and there was a stream of VIP cars edging down Pall Mall waiting their turn to enter the precinct. Dismissing my suggestion that he might find the walk across the park refreshing I daily saw him off and met him on arrival without his ever passing comment!

Alan Lennox-Boyd was Secretary of State. He had great charisma and I enjoyed seeing him stride into Lancaster House and run up the stairs with his Nigeria desk minions trying to keep up with him. He often invited one of the more flamboyantly dressed Northern aristocrats to accompany him on a drive around London. It was a novelty for me to see somebody who would normally never venture out unless accompanied by a horde of praise singers and attendants go off on his own overwhelmed less perhaps by the office of Secretary of State than the personality of its holder.

Much of my time was spent hanging around waiting to be sent on some message or other, work beginning in earnest after the close of the day's meeting when there were papers to attend to and appointments to be made.

This way I picked up some knowledge of what was happening upstairs to discuss with colleagues in a similar role the next day but boredom predominated. Our masters usually lunched in style and at length in their clubs and a group of us established our own club in the Red Lion, one of London's oldest pubs, in Crown Passage. It has been a favourite of mine ever since.

As one sunny June week wound to its end I was allowed off for the week-end to stay with friends in Somerset. Our PA asked if I could give her a lift home. Friday evening on the A30, then the only road to the south-west, was a tedious business and as we neared her dad's castle she invited me to supper, 'there'll only be daddy and the boys'. When we arrived a couple of baize-aproned flunkies rushed out and stood aghast at the pick-up. I indicated her luggage in the back but it was clear that if I didn't get in and haul it out nobody else would and I was hungry. The only person in the room without a title other than the butler, I was introduced to daddy and the boys. When daddy decided that as it was a warm evening we should take off our jackets my plebeian status was confirmed when it was revealed that I alone wore self-supporting trousers, everybody else had braces. As we moved into supper I guessed that the butler expected me to tackle my asparagus with a knife and fork. I was ready with my fingers but in the gloom of the buffet mistook the cream intended for the strawberries to come later for the hollandaise sauce!

My final duty was to persuade my master that staff needed to be tipped before we left, never an easy job. Governors were not highly paid, he had children at school and his wife was of a thrifty disposition. He put off the discussion with various excuses until the last day. By the time he was ready I had already vacated the office and my bedroom and as he did not want madam to be party to our conversation and some of the hotel staff were up and down the corridor he decided we should have it in the lift. We were on the sixth floor and there were other guests on their way down. As they attempted to join us with 'good mornings' they were rebuffed by my master with a wave of the hand and some incoherent mumbling. We went up and down three times in this manner. I managed to get agreement on the hotel staff. Our driver was more of a problem. He had been excellent in every way and had kept us up to date with the cricket scores so my master, feeling he was more friend than servant, was averse to a monetary gift and decided that he would give him a book about cricket that he had spied in Hatchards. I slipped in a £20 note of my own. Never have I been happier to leave a hotel.

1950s map of London
London Map, 1955
Colony Profile
Nigeria
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 113 (April, 2017)
Further Reading
But Always As Friends: Northern Nigeria And The Cameroons, 1921-1957
by Sharwood Smith, Bryan

Diary of a Colonial Wife: An African Experience
by Sharwood-Smith, Joan


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