I taught the Queen to drive

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The late Miss Maud L.MacLellan, OBE, TD, of Auchenault, Helensburgh, tells of the period during her wartime service with the Auxiliary Training Service when she commanded a centre where the then Princess, now Queen Elizabeth, learnt to drive.

ONE morning in March 1945, when I was commandant of No.1 M.T. Training Centre, A.T.S., at Camberley, Surrey, I received instructions from the War Office to make arrangements to train a very important person as a motor car driver and in motor mechanics. 

Later I received an order to go to Buckingham Palace to be interviewed by the Queen and to take a programme for the training of the ‘very important person’.

Now I knew my trainee to be Princess, now Queen Elizabeth. Another thing I learned was that the Princess had taken this step entirely on her own. For a long time she had, I was told, ‘bothered the King’ about learning to drive. He had finally consented to her taking a course of instruction with the A.T.S.

I discussed my proposed programme with both the King and Queen, in the presence of the Princess, who took a close interest in every little detail. Map reading, it was decided, would be included in the course.

During the first three weeks the Princess received her driving lessons in Windsor Great Park. She had never previously been at the wheel of a car, and in every respect went through the complete training of an A.T.S. driver. She thoroughly enjoyed it.

Princess_Elizabeth-2Next she moved to the Training Centre and became 12th member of a senior N.C.O. class. At nine o’clock every morning a car picked her up at Windsor Castle and brought her to Camberley.

With a driving officer beside her, the Princess drove the car to the centre by way of practice.   On her arrival she went to one of her classes in maintenance, map reading or A.T.S. administration.

She left the centre between 5 and 5.30 p.m. and drove the 15 miles to Windsor on her own. 

The Princess at this time also drove a car to London, a distance of 45 miles — no mean feat for a beginner. She did ‘all the sights’ in her Austin utility — Piccadilly, Marble Arch, Trafalgar Square etc.

“A wonderful time!” she described it to me with undisguised enthusiasm. Only ‘fly in the ointment’ was that when on the road she was spotted and identified by some American soldiers.

They shouted her name and it was rather an embarrassment for her. To escape the Americans attention, the officer-driver diverted the car down a side road. It did seem remarkable that, while none of her own people recognised her, American soldiers should spot her so readily!  

Driving her Austin utility into Buckingham Palace, Princess Elizabeth was rather brusquely held up by the policeman on duty. Obviously he didn’t expect a vehicle of this description to be using the front entrance to the Palace! He received an even greater shock when he identified the young lady at the wheel! And that was an end to the delay in admittance! 

One morning the Princess came into my office. With a mischievous smile and at the same time an air of pride she showed me her knuckles and announced: “I’m a mechanic at last. I’ve scraped the skin off my knuckles!”

There was the time too when, on a visit to Wokingham, she found herself in a traffic jam. To get out of it (as she thought) the Princess whisked the car around and tried to make off the way she had come, only to find she had caused another jam. 

A stern-faced bobby descended on her and demanded what the blankety-blank-blank she thought she was playing at? Rather sheepishly the Princess looked at the officer and said ever so meekly: “Oh, I am just learning to drive.”  

“You’re telling me!” he rasped and withdrew.

On reporting the incident to me the Princess admitted she had been just a bit too clever in trying to get out of the traffic jam.

One of the most wonderful days was when the King and Queen came to have tea with us.

There was great activity getting things ship-shape for Their Majesties. The Princess did her share in washing out the courtyard and cleaning her car.

Princess_ElizabethShortly before the arrival of her parents she said to me: “You know, I never knew how much trouble we give people when we go to inspect anything. I must tell the King and Queen what happens when they go visiting!”

Until the visit of the King and Queen the secret of the identity of our Royal trainee had been well kept — and that by an organisation entirely of women.

The local police were convinced we had Princess Elizabeth on our establishment. Our girls, from privates upwards, so consistently denied that she was with us that, in the end, the bobbies believed them! After the King and Queen looked us up, further denials were out of the question.

The King was immensely proud of his elder daughter, and he took a great delight in teasing her. On the occasion of this visit to us with the Queen the Princess’s class were set the task of fault-finding in their vehicles.

Elizabeth soon found the fault in hers and quickly remedied it. But wasn’t her face red when the car refused to start. And what a broad grin the King wore at his daughter’s discomfiture!

Princess Elizabeth had not seen what had happened. I had. Her father had nipped off the high tension lead to the distributor.

When I felt the joke had gone far enough — for the Princess was really upset — I said to the King that he shouldn’t have done it. Immediately the high-tension lead was restored, the car started. All was well.

When we were at tea that afternoon the Royal parents visited us I asked the Queen if Princess Elizabeth talked about her work at the Training Centre. The Queen, with a broad smile, replied: “Well, last night we had sparking plugs during the whole of dinner!”

The King and Queen and the Princess herself insisted there would be no privileges or favours for her. She was to be treated as a junior officer. As such, she called me Ma’am and was ever ready to open a door for me and do other little services. She was there as a junior officer — no more, no less.

As a driver we discovered she was considerate and kind. To old people on the road she gave first priority.

princess_elizabethOn her last night with us I suggested she say a few words of goodbye in the mess anteroom. But the Princess insisted on shaking hands with every one of the 37 officers. She was very upset at having to leave.

The previous day, when talking about her departure, I asked if she was to become a regular officer in the A.T.S.

She answered: “I’d give everything I possess to be an ordinary person like one of my own friends and be an A.T.S. officer. But I cannot do that. I have to be always at everyone’s beck and call. Therefore, I should be of no use.”

As a parting gift we gave the Princess a clock, the frame of which was made in the Training Centre workshops. On the front of the clock were modelled the three types of car Her Royal Highness had learned to drive — a utility, an ambulance, and a saloon.

As she went about her job at the centre the Princess was bothered in no way. No one turned a head to look at her. She was treated like an ordinary trainee and that was how she wanted it.

For a send-off she was driven around the centre perched on the hood at the back of a car. She was cheered to the echo. We knew she was popular with the girls, but the proof that day was an unmistakable as it was deafening.

If I were asked to name the new Queen’s outstanding characteristic, I would unhesitatingly say: “Conscientiousness.”

What a strong sense of duty she has and what a grand sense of humour. And her eye and memory for detail. They’re wonderful. She forgets nothing.

All of us who served with her at No.1 M.T. Training Centre of the A.T.S. at Camberley wish the Queen a long, happy and prosperous reign.

This article was first published in the Inverness and Northern Counties People’s Journal on Saturday February 23 1952, and was kindly photographed for this website by Eileen Moran and Kerrin Evans of the Local History Centre at Dundee Central Library, where bound copies of the paper are kept.

Miss MacLellan was born in Kelvinside, Glasgow, on October 6 1903, the daughter of iron merchant Walter Thomas MacLellan JP and wife Jane. The family came to Helensburgh the year she was born and lived in Northwood House, Sinclair Street, for three years, then moved to Auchenault, East Abercromby Street, her home for the rest of her life.

She received the OBE for her services to the First Aid Nursing Auxiliary which she joined in 1929. During World War Two she served in the ATS in Edinburgh, Camberley, Stirling and then Camberley again as commandant.

When the Royal Yacht Britannia visited Faslane in 1974, Miss MacLellan was invited to a private reception on board with the Queen and Prince Philip. She died suddenly on May 22 1977 at the age of 74.