Remembering the Real King’s Speech

Celebrated photojournalist Harry Benson recalls hearing the address portrayed in the Oscar-winning film

I remember the first time I heard the voice of King George VI, father of the current queen and the subject of the much-buzzed about film, “The King’s Speech.” It was 1939; Britain had declared war on Germany that September, and everyone was anxiously waiting to hear what our sovereign would have to say to the country during his annual Christmas address.

I was ten years old — old enough to know what was happening. (Funnily enough, I had no idea until I saw Colin Firth’s portrayal that the King suffered from a speech impediment). I remember that when war was declared, my father met two of our neighbors to talk at the bottom of our garden in Clarkston, a suburb of Glasgow where the farmlands began. (These were the same farmlands where in 1941 Hitler’s deputy Fuhrer, Rudolf Hess, would crash-land his plane. To my mind Hess’s actions have never been adequately explained — was he defecting or coming to make peace with Britain and anoint Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, as quisling king?)

1939 had seen a huge call-up of young men, and we were sending our soldiers to fight in France. The roads leading into and out of Glasgow were roadblocked. Balloon barrages were in the sky above to keep German planes from coming in too low. There was no bombing yet; that came the following year. We all got fitted for gas masks. They came in little cardboard boxes, and we had to carry them to school with us. Our family cut up an old coat to make knapsacks to carry them in.

We had a dachshund named Tillie. One day my mother was leaving the grocery store when another woman threw a brick at the dog and yelled, “Go back to Germany, you dirty German.” We kept Tillie at home after that incident.

The King’s speech that Christmas was a very, very important moment to all. He would speak to the whole country for the first time since the war began. My mother, father, grandfather, uncle, three aunts, brother, sisters and I were at the dinner table. The times were grim; rationing had begun, but my mother managed to get two chickens, some boiled potatoes, Brussels sprouts and a plum pudding for our dinner. Now, we didn’t eat until after the King spoke. I got stern looks from my father and my Uncle Eddie, as I was the naughty one and was told to be quiet. I remember it clearly. But after all, it was a holiday and I wanted to go out and play with my pals or paint with the paint set I had received as a gift. My father got up from the table umpteen times to make sure the wireless (radio) was on the correct station.

When the speech was to begin, we all gathered. My father kept asking if we could hear all right. No one spoke a word. There was no one in the streets. Everyone was in their home, listening. The address itself was filled with a mix of hope, strength and a warning of hard times ahead. Afterward, I remember my father and grandfather saying it was a great speech.

What surprised me after seeing the film was learning that King George VI stuttered. I knew he was a very quiet man and an ardent stamp collector — but not that he suffered so poignantly. I asked several friends who are acquainted with the royal family who said they never knew about the stutter either. I did like the film, but I would have rather seen more about what was happening in the country at the time.

The impact of King George’s first radio speech of the war was immense. It united the people. It gave us hope, even though we didn’t know what the next Christmas would bring. Coupled with the rousing and inspiring speeches of Churchill throughout the war, the King’s speech built the morale of the British people. Even during the darkest hours, we believed Churchill when he said, “We shall never surrender.”  And we did not.

7 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    Thank you for your eloquent recollections of that time and place.  We forget how perilous those times were.  Great Britian literally stood alone against Nazi Germany (and was very unprepared militarily to do thanks to those who hoped that the last Great War would be the last and resisted rearming).  The Germans and Russians had entered a non-aggression pact that would last until 1941 when German invaded Russia.  Even those in the United States who saw the danger of Hitler (and most put their heads in the sand on both the right and left) could not fathom getting involved in a European war once again. 

    I am sort of an Anglophile and have read a lot about the monarchy in those days.  I knew that George VI was *shy* and that his wife, Queen Elizabeth never forgave his brother Edward VIII for abdicating his responsibilities and leaving them to her unprepared but very earnest husband.  I did not know that he stuttered or if I heard it, I did not know it was a lifelong struggle for him.   In retrospect and knowing what we know about the callowness of Edward VIII and his Nazi sympathies,  we can thank Wallis Simpson for taking him off the throne even if she was totally devoid of any other redeeming human quality.   Useless people the Windors.  

    Two stories of George VI and his Queen during those days which I think are a credit to all British of that era.  I am not sure if it was Buckingham Palace or Windsor that was partially destroyed in the Blitz.  Queen Elizabeth said *I can now look the East End in the face*.  And her very famous comment when asked if she would send her daughters away for the duration of the war.   *The children will not leave without me.  I will not leave without the King.  The King will never leave.*.   And, the two went to burning sites and manned the fire brigades.  

    Not sure there is that much character in any of us anymore.  


  2. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    To Harry Benson:  Your own writings of your memories of a family’s life, a country’s life, at that particular time were so vivid that they have added so much dimension to the movie itself.  The descriptions have brought back my own memories of our families gathered close around the radio, actually staring at the rather ornate wooden box intently as we processed every word, wondering what it would mean to us and our own futures. 

    For so many years, your work as a photo-journalist have brought to life events and made them real.  We have laughed, we have cried — but your work has impacted our lives and remained in our memories. 

    Keep it up for you are one of a kind!!!

  3. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    I remember seeing bombed buildings in the 50’s in Germany and Great Britain as well as hearing first hand reports about the war. Those memories of terrible destruction and the horror that people lived through were very fresh at the time. You can read about that period but never quite grasp the full meaning until seeing the carnage of burned out bombed out buildings. At the time we had never heard of the king’s speech but we had heard that the British were incredibly brave people. They stood up to Hitler against the odds. The King’s Speech demonstrates the leadership of King George during the war. This speech was all the more remarkable considering that King George hadn’t been groomed as the current leader. He took over when his brother, Edward abdicated the throne. George should be remembered for more than his speech because he visited camps during the war fully supporting his soldiers. Had Edward remained on the throne Great Britain might have had a different outcome.

  4. avatar Kathy says:

    Interesting reminiscenses, but what fascinates me about this article, and so many others, is that nobody who was around at the time seems to recall King George VI having a speech impediment.  It makes one think that the movie took more than the traditional license in telling this tale.  I’ve heard an actual recording of the speech that begins the film, and though the king speaks with great intentionality, and pauses frequently, there is nothing to suggest he stammers.   Nobody would suspect it, which is quite the opposite of the horrified reaction displayed in the film.

    • avatar Chris Glass` says:

      King George’s speech impediment was the elephant in the room nobody ever spoke openly about. After his death the Queen Mother swept it under the rug. The grandson of the speech therapist was on NPR recently pointing out that the present Queen Elizabeth acknowledged the difficulty and applauded the current film. We as Americans knew that FDR had polio too but that was never made a public issue either. At that time the general public had better manners and more restraint than to ridicule a public figure.

    • avatar Anais P says:

      You need to remember how much time has passed since King George VI was alive. His daughter, who succeeded him as monarch after his death, is now in her 80’s! The people who remember King George VI’s radio speech were, like Harry Benson, children at the time the king gave it, and he did not stutter during that speech. A minority of people would have been at the speech he gave a decade earlier, in 1925 at the closing of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley stadium, where he DID stutter. If children had been in the audience, they would now be in their 90’s if even alive today. That is why people alive at the time who have survived do not remember his speech impediment. By the time they heard him speak on the radio, he had already worked hard for years to overcome his stuttering. Many thanks to Harry Benson for a lovely reminiscence on what it was like to hear the real “King’s speech.”

  5. avatar crystalclear says:

    I enjoyed this movie!  Great comments above!!!