Willie Tucker retires as Lord Lieutenant for Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 July 2020
After 11 hugely successful years, Willie Tucker reflects on his time in office
The past few weeks have not been the build-up to retirement that Willie Tucker had either planned or anticipated. After 11 years as Lord Lieutenant of Derbyshire, he had thought these would be six of the busiest months of his period in office. The lockdown means they have turned out, in fact, to be six of the quietest.
The British monarch’s personal representative in the county is managing to remain philosophical about it all, despite the enforced cancellation of two Royal visits planned for June, one by HRH The Duke of Gloucester and one by HRH The Countess of Wessex. The Lieutenancy had organised a farewell dinner for Willie and his wife, Jill, which has been postponed, and the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire were to host a reception for the couple in the Painted Hall at Chatsworth a few days prior to his July retirement date.
‘And what we were really looking forward to was getting around the county and especially all the organisations with which we have been involved for the last 11 years, just to say our thanks and goodbyes,’ he says ruefully, adding, ‘We can push a lot of it into the autumn. It is much tougher for civic heads and especially for the High Sheriff, who is a quarter of a way though the year already and nothing is happening. It’s very hard on them.’
The consolation is the huge bank of memories he has to draw on. Ask which, of all the highlights, is his favourite and he has no hesitation in naming the distribution of the Royal Maundy in Derby Cathedral in 2010. ‘It was a spectacular, wonderful day,’ he says with pleasure. ‘It was in my first year in office and after the event I had many letters from people thanking us for organising it and for inviting them. I always remember one of my Deputy Lieutenants saying, ‘You do realise it’s all downhill from now on. You will never better that!’
‘It’s the only major state occasion that is held outside of London or Windsor and it has for many years gone around the country to the different cathedrals. The choice is made by the Queen herself. It was a fabulous way for me to start.’ He recalls with awe the choirs of the Chapel Royal; the presence of the Queen’s bodyguard, the Yeomen of the Guard; the gold plating arriving from London. ‘It was a day many people will look back on for many years.’
Few of us ever get to be in the company of the Queen for long periods, never mind have lunch with Her Majesty. I wonder, does it all seem a bit surreal at times? ‘It certainly does,’ he says emphatically. ‘You have to keep pinching yourself. There have only been three Lord Lieutenants in Derbyshire in the past 43 years and I’ve had the great privilege of being one of them.
‘It’s a huge pleasure to do it. The Royals are all incredibly easy to deal with - they put you at your ease, every one of them. I’ve never lost sleep over a Royal visit but, nevertheless, you are on your toes all the time. My job, once I have done all the formal greetings and introductions, is to stand back and keep an eye on things and see that everybody is doing what they planned to do - and that nobody tries to introduce something at the last minute that was not programmed and approved by Buckingham Palace.’
He has hosted 44 visits for the Royal family and has ‘nothing but the utmost admiration,’ for the Queen. ‘She really is quite an exceptional person. A very good boss!’
The office is an ancient one, dating from Tudor times and, until 1950, held principally in Derbyshire by the Earls and Dukes of Devonshire. Another highlight for Willie was the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to the Derbyshire Dales in 2014, when they visited the John Smedley factory at Cromford and went on to lunch at Chatsworth, hosted by the Duke and Duchess.
‘On the day there was not a cloud in the sky. She saw Derbyshire at its very best,’ Willie remembers. He hosted a drinks reception at lunchtime for all the leaders of the major charities in Derbyshire and says with warmth and admiration, ‘The Queen and the Duke went round the Painted Hall and spoke to every one of them.
‘The day she came, the streets were absolutely lined with people. She had particularly asked for a low-key arrival at Matlock Station and when we greeted her from the train with the Duke of Edinburgh and we were walking from the platform to the car park, I had to pre-warn her, ‘Your Majesty, there are two thousand people waiting for you.’
‘What she said to me was interesting, before we were in sight of everybody. ‘The sad thing, Lord Lieutenant, is that none of them will look me in the eye. When we turn this corner, they will all have phones in front of their faces.’ And when we turned the corner, that was all we could see – rows and rows of phones. And even when people were presenting her with flowers, they had the phone in the other hand! I’ve heard that said by other members of the Royal family since, in interviews on television. It’s not a problem but it is an issue.’
The family are known to love Derbyshire, something reinforced on the last Royal visit to the county, on the occasion of the severe floods before Christmas last year. ‘The Prince of Wales came to visit some farmers in the Wye Valley who had been seriously affected by the flooding. He came to the kitchen table in the farmhouse for some tea and cake and to listen to the problems and try to help them as much as he possibly could,’ Willie remembers.
‘And when we arrived at the farm, he looked across the valley and remarked to me, ‘This valley has such wonderful memories for me. I think I’ve walked every single inch of it in my younger days.’ He used to spend a lot of time at Chatsworth; he knows the area and the county well and loves Derbyshire. They have been going to Chatsworth for many years - most of the Royals have been there at some stage.’ He pays sincere tribute to the Devonshires as ‘fantastic hosts and incredibly helpful to me and to the Lieutenancy.’
Derbyshire people are particularly appreciative of Royal visits, he observes. The Princess Royal has been here nine times, the Queen twice, plus a joint visit to Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire which was held in the Market Square in Nottingham. Other highlights of Willie’s time in office have been the big major services and events attended in London - for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, for instance, and the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Organising a Royal visit is a precision task in which nothing is left to chance. Every one is meticulously timetabled and scheduled by the Lord Lieutenant’s office and approved by the Royal Household before the royal personage actually arrives. It is a huge amount of detailed work, especially as a Royal visit can entail as many as four occasions in a day and up to 12 prior visits to organisations spread all over the county.
‘The first is to give them the good news they have a royal visit, and then I leave them for a few weeks to get their mind around it. They’re going to have a member of the Queen’s family on their premises for an hour - what do they want to do in that hour? Then I go back and tell them what they can or can’t do and we build a detailed timetable.
‘We play it by the book and I think Derbyshire and the Derbyshire Lieutenancy has the reputation of getting it absolutely right. That goes a long way to securing as many Royal visits as we do.’ There can be times of stress - a fogbound London preventing helicopter take-off on the morning of a visit to Derby by Princess Anne last September, for instance, bringing with it the possibility of either delay or, worse, cancellation.
‘It’s absolutely out of your control when something goes wrong with the travelling arrangements,’ Willie says. ‘You’re trying to keep to the individual timetable, when the helicopter has a booked slot for flying back to London. Fortunately, within the hour we heard that it was able to take off, and the Princess was very happy to go ahead with everything as planned.’
In November the Queen appointed Willie a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. The investiture at Buckingham Palace was always going to be a great day, he reflects, but the discovery that the Queen would be presenting it herself made it even more exceptional. ‘We didn’t know until we stepped into the Palace, when the footman said, ‘You’ve got the Queen today’. There she was and she was fantastic. Jill and I with our two daughters, Laura and Elaine, had a super day out.’
Jill has been at Willie’s side for over 90% of his official functions. In Derbyshire – unlike some other counties - the role is seen very much as a double act. ‘You never saw Peter and Winifred Hilton without the other, and John and Liz Bather were always together and absolutely fantastic as a couple. I’d like to think they‘ll look back on our time and think we did the same,’ Willie observes.
‘People love seeing Jill. She has been fantastic and we’ve loved doing it. Not many people get the role; there’s a fair amount of hard work involved but we have certainly enjoyed doing it. I hope people will look back and say: ‘They didn’t change over 11 years; they remained approachable.’ It’s been an honour and a privilege.’
Willie has been patron or president of 26 organisations or fundraising appeals in the county over the past 11 years. Notably, he has been President of Derbyshire Reserve Forces and Cadets Association (RFCA) and of East Midlands RFCA; Patron of Marie Curie Cancer Care (Derbyshire); President of the County Show; President of SSAFA (Derbyshire); Patron of the Royal British Legion (Derbyshire); Governor of Repton and Foremarke Schools; Life Patron of Kinder Children’s Choirs of the High Peak; President of the Dalesmen Male Voice Choir; Patron of RELATE; Chairman of Derbyshire Magistrates Advisory Committee; Chairman of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Magistrates Advisory Committee; Patron of Ecclesbourne Valley Railway, President of the Army Benevolent Fund and President of Council of St John Ambulance (Derbyshire). For the past two years, he has also been Lead Lord-Lieutenant in Magistracy matters for the whole of England and Wales. He will step down from all these on retirement. ‘It’s brought me into contact with some fabulous people,’ he says, expressing his pleasure that Liz Fothergill and her husband, Richard, are going to succeed them. ‘Jill and I wish them every possible success,’ he says. ’The first woman in 400 years. Wonderful.’