Dame Frances Campbell-Preston, who died last month aged 104, was one of the last witnesses to a vanished age. Not only was she the Queen Mother’s oldest surviving lady-in-waiting—she served Queen Elizabeth from 1965 until her death, in 2002. She was also the actress Joyce Grenfell’s sister-in-law, and her husband, Patrick Campbell-Preston, was in Colditz prison with the legless R.A.F. flying ace Douglas Bader.

It was in 1965 that she was suddenly asked to be a woman of the bedchamber—or a lady-in-waiting—to the Queen Mother by Sir Martin Gilliat, Patrick Campbell-Preston’s fellow prisoner of war, who became the Queen Mother’s private secretary. Frances was entirely unprepared. For her first meeting with the Queen Mother, she wore one of Joyce Grenfell’s old dresses. “At one point, I borrowed a dress out of the children’s dressing-up box,” Frances told me.

The job had its grand moments: breakfast in bed brought to the bedroom by a footman and passed to a housemaid. The housemaid turned down the bed; the lady’s maid drew the bath. Toothpaste was spread on your toothbrush. There were also glamorous visitors. Noël Coward told Frances how to congratulate actors in appalling plays—say to them, “Darling—what a night!”

Campbell-Preston, right, was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother from 1965 to the Queen Mother’s death, in 2002.

The ladies-in-waiting accompanied the Queen Mother and attended to her needs, including answering her mail.

At one point, the Queen Mother became interested in fossils; she and Frances took to the seashore by the Castle of Mey, in Caithness, Scotland, bashing stones with two delicate, silver-headed gavels. Yet despite all the Queen Mother’s friendliness, formality remained; ladies-in-waiting curtseyed to her once in the morning, once at lunch, and on saying goodnight in the evening.

Frances also accompanied the Queen Mother on foreign visits. On an Australian trip, the Queen Mother handed her a thin, diaphanous coat while driving in an open car. Frances folded it and put it inside her bag. “Don’t do that!” said the Queen Mother. “That’s my best coat.” Forever afterwards, the Queen Mother jokingly said to people handing their coat to Frances, “She’ll put it in her handbag.”

The Queen Mother liked picnics in the Scottish outdoors, wrapped, in Frances’s description, “in four jerseys, two headscarves and an enormous tent-like mac lined in camel hair, and all to be seen will be a tiny pair of blue hands and a few flashing diamonds.”

At one picnic, the Queen Mother welcomed two guests—unknown except for the fact that they were thin and immaculately dressed. Before the guests got there, the Queen Mother asked Frances to get a bottle of sherry for them.

“Why?” Frances asked.

“We need sherry because thin people always drink sherry,” the Queen Mother said.

“There was an awful moment when they both walked in,” says Frances. “And we asked what they’d want, and they both said sherry. It was quite difficult to suppress the laughter.”

When Frances turned 80, she suggested resigning. “Congratulations!” said the Queen Mother, then 98. “You feel marvelous after you’re 80.” And so she stayed on until the Queen Mother’s death, in 2002, at 101, when she herself was in her mid-80s. “It was very hard work but great fun,” she told me as she prepared to celebrate the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday. “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

And so Frances was still working for her on her 100th-birthday parade, when the Queen Mother was reluctant to board a carriage down what she worried would be an empty Mall. Prince Charles bucked her up, saying, “Come on, Granny—remember Hitler said you were the most dangerous woman in Europe!” They set off down the Mall laughing, cheered by thousands.

Patrick Cambell-Preston and Frances Campbell-Preston on their wedding day.

“She was a brilliant person at Clarence House,” says Hugo Vickers, the royal historian who edited Frances’s memoirs. “When others were dithering about showing the Queen Mother some letter on a sensitive subject, she would just take it right in. In New Zealand, they all got into the train, and Sir Martin Gilliat said, ‘Now we must bring out the automatic arm,’ explaining, ‘We can’t expect Queen Elizabeth to wave the whole journey—so we have this arm.’ Frances was taken in at first.”

A Rocky Start

For all the fun of her later royal years, Frances was brought up in the shadow of deep sadness. Born in the closing months of World War I, she was named Frances Grenfell after her uncle Francis Grenfell, who won the Victoria Cross in Belgium in 1914 and was killed a year later. “Every time you cried as a child, you’re told you can’t cry because you’re named after a V.C.,” Frances said wryly. “I began to hate it.”

Francis’s twin, Riversdale Grenfell, was also killed, in 1914. The pair were so celebrated that John Buchan wrote their biography, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell: A Memoir (1920). Two of Frances’s other uncles were killed in action, one in the Second Matabele War, in 1896, another in Omdurman, Sudan, in 1898. Two cousins, Gerald “Billy” Grenfell and the poet Julian Grenfell, were also killed in World War I.

“I remember my father [a banker] saying, ‘I think we’ve given enough: Francis and Rivy and Billy and Julian,’” said Frances. “It was a high order, wasn’t it?”

Campbell-Preston’s uncles Francis Grenfell, after whom she was named, and Riversdale Grenfell in 1914. Both brothers would die tragically by the next year.

By a cruel accident of fate, Grenfell Tower, a West London tower that tragically burnt down in 2017 with the loss of 72 lives, was named after another military Grenfell, Field Marshal Lord Grenfell (1841–1925)—Frances’s great-uncle (and, incidentally, my great-grandfather; I’m a cousin of Dame Frances’s).

“At the time of the Grenfell Tower fire, it was uncomfortable having the name of Grenfell,” she said. “It was really nothing to do with them.” (The tower, built in 1974, is named after Grenfell Road, the Victorian street on which it stands, and the street was named after the Field Marshal in the late 19th century.)

She wasn’t in the slightest bit pompous about these connections. William Waldegrave, the former Conservative Cabinet minister, is her nephew. She was distinctly jokey when we last chatted in her Chelsea flat, overlooking the Royal Hospital—where she went to church on her 100th birthday, and where she spent much of her childhood, because her maternal grandfather was governor of the Royal Hospital.

For all her later royal life, the young Frances Grenfell was mocking about coming out as a debutante in 1937. She wrote to her mother that the Queen (later the Queen Mother) “looked delicious in a very lovely high tiara, which was obviously very uncomfy; so she had to keep easing it. And he [King George VI], looking very sunburnt and handsome in Air Force uniform, sat looking very small and young at the end of the room, in two enormous thrones. Somehow the whole procedure seemed out of date, impersonal, and very ridiculous. I should have thought it would obviously be one of the first Court ceremonials to die out.”

Frances was right. The Duke of Edinburgh thought the ritual so silly that debutantes fizzled out in 1958. “We had to curtsey to a cake, coming down the stairs at Dorchester House to some frightfully pompous piece of music,” she said.

She recalled, too, her sister-in-law Joyce Grenfell. Eight years her senior, Joyce taught Frances and her sister about powder, rouge, and Tangee lipstick. Joyce first tried out her characters—including “Shirl,” her boyfriend “Norm,” and an inane debutante—on Frances. “I do remember being rather resentful when the characters became public.”

Frances also knew Joyce Grenfell’s aunt, Nancy Astor, the first female member of Parliament. “Nancy Astor was scary,” she said. “She just said what she thought and, when challenged, she said, ‘I know what I’m thinking and I’ve said it.’ Nancy was furious about Joyce being on the stage.”

In 1938, Frances sailed to Canada to stay with John Buchan and act as informal lady-in-waiting to his wife, Susie (an old family friend). Buchan is best remembered for his 1915 novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps. As Lord Tweedsmuir, he was governor general of Canada from 1935 to 1940.

“You would say he was humorless,” Frances said. “I remember [him] being ticked off because I was being facetious about the Scots, at the age of 19.”

Campbell-Preston, the author Christopher Balfour, and Queen Elizabeth II.

In Canada, she met Buchan’s aide-de-camp, Patrick Campbell-Preston; they married in December 1938. In June 1940, he was imprisoned after the Highland Division was captured at Saint-Valéry-en-Caux in Normandy. “We heard a rumour that he was O.K., but we didn’t know for certain,” Frances said. “It was two months before we knew officially that he was alive and captured.”

Imprisoned for five years, Campbell-Preston often tried to escape, through tunnels and via a bridge (built from bookshelves in the prison library) laid over the camp fences. “I’d rather he’d sat tight, but I don’t suppose I really expected it,” said Frances, who served as a Wren in Oban during the war.

Because of his escape attempts, Campbell-Preston was sent to Colditz, where fellow prisoners included Bader. “They didn’t talk about Colditz much,” Frances said. “You got it out of him gradually. All those war things—when everything’s over, you don’t want to go on about them. They used to be quite amused by Douglas Bader. He used to try to escape—and fill up his wooden legs with food.”

After the war, the Campbell-Prestons were living in Scotland with their four children (Frances has 13 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren), when tragedy struck. Patrick Campbell-Preston had a serious heart condition and died shortly after a car crash in 1960, aged 49.

In the early months of Frances’s widowhood, Joyce Grenfell visited her, and was inspired to write a well-known poem:

If I should die before the rest of you,
Break not a flower nor inscribe
a stone.
Nor, when I’m gone, speak in a
Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I
have known.
Weep, if you must.
Parting is hell
But life goes on.
So sing as well.

Frances may not have sung ever since, but she remained remarkably jolly —while staying discreet about her old employer. When she collected an Oldie of the Century award (from The Oldie magazine, which I edit) for the Queen Mother in 2000, The Oldie’s James Hughes-Onslow asked after the 100-year-old Queen Mother’s health.

“Did you ask whether I’d like any ice cream?” said Frances, putting him off the scent.

“She really was firing on all cylinders right until the end,” Frances said of the Queen Mother. “Her last outing was in a force-eight gale at the Castle of Mey. Oh Lord, she was funny. All the time.”

Frances Campbell-Preston was born on September 2, 1918. She died on November 22, at age 104

Harry Mount is a London-based journalist and the editor of The Oldie. Et Tu, Brute? The Best Latin Lines Ever, his new book co-written with John Davie, will be published on January 17