Queen’s 90th birthday: The highs and lows of the Royals in a changing Britain

Two young men have the Queen rocking with laughter at St Katherine's Dock, where she met the people

Two young men have the Queen rocking with laughter at St Katherine's Dock, where she met the people during one of the stops on her Silver Jubilee river progress from Greenwich to Lambeth in the Port of London Authority launch Nore. - Credit: PA ARCHIVE IMAGES

From the rise of fascism in Europe, the Second World War and the fall of the British Empire, to the social liberation of the Sixties, class struggles of the Eighties and the dawn of the internet, the Queen has seen more change than any of her predecessors.

As Her Majesty celebrates her 90th birthday today, the Recorder has looked back at the highs and lows of her life so far.


Queen Elizabeth was born in April 1926, one month before Britain’s first ever general strike – the “Great Strike”. For a week, starting from May 4, workers across industries such as textiles, road transport, printing and steel joined miners in their demonstration against plans to reduce their wages by 13 per cent and extend their shifts by an hour. On the first day, a crowd which had stopped traffic going through the Blackwall Tunnel in east London was baton-charged by police. There were also minor disturbances in east London during the second day. In the end, the Trades Union Congress called off the action, on May 9. That evening, police baton-charged a crowd attending a meeting outside the town hall in Poplar, Tower Hamlets. The mayor was among those injured. The 1920s also saw rising unemployment. In July 1921, unemployment in Britain had reached an all-time high of 2.5million and the Great Depression after 1929’s Wall Street Crash worsened the situation.


The 1930s were marked by a continuing rise in nationalism. In October 1932, former Conservative and Labour MP Oswald Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists, modelled on Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. Mosley could never get his party into the political mainstream, but it did hold a number of large demonstrations. The famous Battle of Cable Street on October 4 1936 was pre-empted by Mosley’s decision to march through the heart of the capital’s Jewish community in Cable Street, Shadwell. Thousands of people gathered to oppose the march and it was called off by the home secretary and the police. But there were some scuffles between police officers and protesters. The Public Order Act 1936, which followed the protest, meant future protesters had to gain permission from the police and there was also a ban on demonstrators marching in uniform.


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But the threat of Mosley’s party paled with the rise of Nazism and the ‘40s were of course marked by the Second World War, which had begun with Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. The conflict raged until 1945 and the then Princess Elizabeth was one of the many determined to do “their bit”. Elizabeth, whose father had been crowned king in 1936, served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Joining of her own volition aged 18 in 1945, she started as a subaltern and by the end of the war had risen to the rank of junior commander, having completed her course and passing out as a fully qualified driver. In 1944, she had toured the East End with her family to witness the devastation bombing had wreaked. Following the end of the war, Elizabeth, along with her sister Margaret, slipped out into the crowds on VE Day to join in the celebrations.


King George VI died on February 6 1952, with Elizabeth told the news while on a royal tour in Kenya. She was crowned at Westminster Abbey on June 2 1953, aged 25. She was already married to the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, and had given birth to their first two children, Anne and Charles. An extensive programme of royal engagements followed. The 1950s saw the return of Sir Winston Churchill as prime minister, before his resignation in 1955, due to declining health, and the rise of the television, which many had watched for the first time during the Queen’s coronation.


The Queen’s other children were born in this decade, Andrew in 1960 and Edward in 1964. She made historic visits to West Berlin at the height of the Cold War and welcomed Emperor Hirohito of Japan on a state visit to Britain. The decade also saw the return of Labour to power in 1964, with Harold Wilson becoming prime minister in October, with 317 seats to the Conservatives’ 304. A further election in 1966 saw Wilson increase Labour’s majority, with 364 to 253. That year also saw the moment England finally won the football World Cup.


Celebrations across the Commonwealth were held in 1977 to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. The actual anniversary was commemorated through church services, but it was during the summer that the streets became packed with crowds as the monarch embarked on a tour of the UK and Ireland which covered 36 counties. Over a few days in June, the Queen, who also visited Commonwealth countries, lit a bonfire beacon at Windsor, attended a Service of Thanksgiving and made a progress trip down the Thames. There were also tens of thousands of street parties. The late ‘70s, during which Britain was paralysed during the “Winter of Discontent” and Margaret Thatcher came to power, saw the killing of the Queen’s cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was killed by an IRA bomb on his boat at Mullaghmore in county Sligo, Ireland. One of his teenager grandsons and two others were also killed.


The infamous Buckingham Palace break-in incident happened on July 9 1982, when Michael Fagan was able to enter the Queen’s bedroom. He scaled the 14ft-high wall, managed to gain access through an unlocked window after climbing a drainpipe and walked around the palace while a number of alarms failed to go off. The ‘80s saw the birth of the monarch’s first grandchildren, Peter and Zara Phillips, the son and daughter of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips. The second year of the decade saw an outbreak of rioting in London, Liverpool, Manchester and more. It started in Brixton on April 11 1981 following the arrest of a black man. During the riots, crowds looted and fought with police officers. The decade also saw Margaret Thatcher re-elected twice, the miners’ strike, the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands and Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web.


The country was plunged into mourning at the death of Princess Diana in a Paris car crash, on August 31 1997. One million people lined the streets of London for her funeral on September 6. Five years earlier, Windsor Castle had suffered £36m worth of damage in a fire, with several priceless artefacts lost. The Queen deemed that year her “annus horribilus”, as the marriages of her three eldest children had also broken down. The ‘90s saw John Major become prime minister, after Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, Scotland and Wales vote for devolution and the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.


Another milestone for the Queen, as she marked her Golden Jubilee in 2002. The Queen and Prince Philip once again embarked on tours and local and national events were organised. There were six themes for the occasion - celebration, community, service, past and future, giving thanks and Commonwealth. The year was tinged with sadness, as the Queen’s mother and her sister Margaret both died, at the ages of 71 and 101. Three years later, Prince Charles married Camilla Parker Bowles. The first five years of the 21st century also saw Tony Blair’s Labour win another election and terrorists launch the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks.

Current decade

Royal wedding mania swept the country in April 2011, as Prince William married Kate Middleton at Westminster Abbey. Two years later, the couple welcomed son Prince George, with Princess Charlotte following in 2015. There was another milestone for the Queen in 2012, namely her Diamond Jubilee, which saw the return of street parties and a number of events including a huge concert at Buckingham Palace, beacon lighting and the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant. In September last year, the Queen surpassed Queen Victoria’s record to become Britain’s longest-serving monarch. She still carries out hundreds of engagements, with a number over the last few years having taken place in east London.