Today in royal history: Greek queen’s visit to Claridges leads to protests, 1963.

The State Visit to London of King Paul and Queen Frederica of the Hellenes, between 9 and 12 July 1963, occasioned demonstrations by pacifists, nuclear disarmers, Communists, militant Christians, Greek left-wingers, anarchists, and others.

Greece had been almost completely divided between left and right since the end of World War 2, when a civil war between a strong communist movement and a rightwing monarchist government backed by the US/Britain ended in massacre and exile for much of the left. In the early ’60s Greece was intermittently authoritarian and precariously democratic, sliding towards the 1967 Colonels’ Coup that would put a basically fascist military in power. Elements in the Greek monarchy and army were constantly active in keeping the left and working class movements down. Greece’s crucial strategic position was vital for NATO, meaning the US was keen to back them to prevent any possibility of Greece drifting to the left, or any social change that even hinted at such a thing.

Greece’s Queen Frederika was a notorious right winger, having been a member of the Hitler Youth during her early life in Austria. She neatly linked the national and international skein, having also had an affair with CIA director Allan Dulles; she was generally reckoned to be a powerful influence against the Greek left, through her husband king Paul, and then her son King Constantine.

Her visit to London coincided with two things. First the aftermath of the assassination of leading Greek left social democrat MP and peace campaigner Grigoris Lambrakis, that had caused international outrage. And secondly the national campaign run by the Communist Party for the release of Greek seafarers’ leader Tony Ambetelios, who had been imprisoned in Greece for 18 years. His wife Betty (née Betty Bartlett) was a former central leader of the British Communist Party, and toured the country gathering widespread support for the release of Greek political prisoners.

On a previous visit in April queen Frederica had been jostled by demonstrators and chased down the street – she was forced to hide in a nearby house to escape their attentions… This time the authorities were determined their royal guest would not be embarrassed by lefties.

For a week during Frederika’s stay every evening demonstrators assembled in Trafalgar Square with the ambition of marching down the Mall to Buckingham Palace. Each time the police blocked them and there were running battles around adjacent back streets.

“They were protesting against the murder of Lambrakis by Fascists with police connivance, the brutal suppression of Greek anti-bomb marchers, the retention of political prisoners sixteen years after the civil war, Queen Fred’s membership of the Hitler Youth, Queen Fred’s support of EOKA in Cyprus, the expense of State Visits, the nastiness of States, and what-have-you. But for all their variety the demonstrators were not numerous. Three thousand at the most, well out-numbered by the five thousand or more police whose leave was stopped for the occasion.

Tuesday evening, the ninth, the demonstrators set out from Trafalgar Square to march along The Mall to Buckingham Palace and hold a silent vigil. But the ceremonial gates of The Mall were closed against them, so they marched down Whitehall to the Cenotaph and held a noisy riot. And from there they went by several routes to the Palace after all.

Wednesday, the Royal Party went to the Aldwych Theatre….” (Donald Rooum)

So that the royal party could see Shakespeare’s “A midsummer night’s dream” in security, the foreign office was driven to buy up all 1,100 tickets for one night’s performance at theAldwych Theatre. A false report that a bomb had been planted in the theatre led to delays as police in evening clothes searched with a mine detector. Six rows of police held back thousands of protestors, who greeted the royal arrivals with shouts of “Sieg Heil!”. Leaving the theatre, Queen Elizabeth was seen to look startled and dismayed at being intensively booed.

“This time no attempt was made to keep demonstrators away, and the police found no difficulty in controlling them. It was a noisy demonstration of course — the King and Queen of Greece and the Queen and Prince Consort of Britain were roundly booed whenever they appeared — but it showed no sign of getting out of hand.

Then the Home Secretary, Mr. Henry Brook called a press conference. Mr. Brook is not an emotional man; one of the things that annoys his opponents is his apparent coldness. Now, however, he was reported (Daily Express, 10 July 1963) to be red-faced and trembling.

“The Queen of England was booed tonight,” he said, “and I am furious.” He went on to call on loyal citizens to “show contempt” for demonstrators.

I believe it was his fury which decided the police, when the Royal Party visited Claridge’s Hotel on Thursday the eleventh, to move all demonstrators well out of booing range. Whether his call to show contempt had any effect, I cannot say.” (Donald Rooum)

On Thursday 11th July, demonstrators outside Claridge’s were met with slightly more force. Several hundred people were arrested. One of the protesters was Betty Ambatielos, who burst through the police cordon to rush towards Frederika’s carriage shouting, “Release my husband!”.

However, one of the arrests would backfire spectacularly. Anarchist Donald Rooum, then cartoonist for Peace News, was nicked by the notorious Met police inspector Harold ‘Tanky’ Challenor:

“At about nine o’clock on the evening of 11 July, I was captured by a big, stocky, flat-nosed man with a dark suit, boots, and a very-short- back-and-sides.

At the time I was behaving legally. Lines of policemen, shoulder to shoulder across the width of the road, hands clasped as for the Palais Glide, were clearing a huge area surrounding Claridges of all but police and a few press photographers. A Committee of 100 briefing instructed demonstrators stopped by the police to sit down, but I personally could see no point in a sit-down demonstration, or any demonstration, which took place beyond the ken of those for whom it was intended.

So when I was moved on by the police, I moved; but I moved in a circle, in the hope that if I could stay in the neighbourhood until the royal party arrived, I might be permitted to stand silently holding my innocuous paper banner.

I met Peter and Ann who were trying the same tactic, and the three of us did manage to get left behind, somehow, by two separate police-cordons following each other. I believe at one point we were the only people without police permits who could actually see Claridge’s doorway. But of course we were moved on, and at about nine o’clock we were emerging from South Molton Passage into South Molton Lane, still well within the cleared area but no longer within hailing distance of Claridges. The police stopped us again. One of them took my banner, and was making a great show of reading it (it said “Lambrakis R.I.P.”) when four plainclothes men came and took it off him. I waited until they’d all read it, then said politely:

“Can I have my banner back ?”

The big one with the short-back-and-sides stepped forward. “Can you have your what back ?”

“My banner.”

He smiled at me. “You’re fucking nicked, my old beauty,” he said, and gave me a terrific clout on the ear.

Then he grabbed me by the collar, thrusting his knuckles into my skull, and bustled off towards Claridges.

“Please, officer,” I protested. “I’m coming quietly.”

“Don’t say please to me, my old darling. I’ve got a stone ‘art.” (Rooum)

Calling Rooum ‘my old darling’ wasn’t a sign of Challenor’s particular affection for anarchist cartoonists: he apparently called everyone that.

Battering Rooum as he was carted off to West End Central, Challenor decided to add some icing to the cake to ensure the arrest would become a conviction.

“When we arrived at the charge room the big man called out ” I’ve got a desperate one ‘ere,” which someone took as a signal to open the door of a detention room. (A detention room differs from a cell, I’m told, in that it has no inside door handle). He frogmarched me in and the door was locked on the pair of us.

He pushed his face into mine and breathed hard. It was not as bad an experience as it might have been. No alcohol, tobacco or onions discernible.

“Boo the Queen, would you ?” he snarled.

“No,” I said quickly, “not at all.”

“Eh ?” he looked slightly worried, slightly disappointed. Then craftily, “But you sympathise with ’em, don’t you ?”

“No,” I said.

After the clouting up the stairs, I would have been too groggy to defend myself even if I had his weight and training. In any case, I knew that the feeblest attempt to defend oneself against a policeman is seen by magistrates as an unwarranted attack. Let him beat me up and get it over. But at least I could deny him the satisfaction of feeling justified.

None of his business who I sympathised with.

So he didn’t beat me up after all. Just three more clouts to the ears which knocked me flying again, but which after the punishment on the stairs, I didn’t feel.

“There you are, my old darling,” he smiled paternally, ” ‘Ave that with me. And just to make sure we ‘aven’t forgotten it … ” He took from his pocket a screwed-up newspaper, which he opened with a flourish. Inside was a bit of brick.

His smile widened. “There you are, my old beauty. Carrying an offensive weapon. You can get two years for that.”

Planting evidence was a crucial part of Challenor’s MO. After WW2 service as a commando in a unit that became the SAS (for which we won the Military Medal), he joined the Metropolitan police in 1951, working in the CID and Flying Squad. Moving to West End Central copshop in Mayfair in 1962. West End Central partly oversaw the policing of Soho, then infamous for crime, much of it to do with vice, prostitution, sex clubs, organised crime… At one point, he had a record of over 100 arrests in seven months and he eventually totalled 600 arrests and received 18 commendations. Challenor’s methods were fast and loose, as with much of policing then, involving threats, violence, ‘verbals’ (alleging you’d heard a verbal confession), mixed in with as much racism as possible.

By the end of his career, Challoner’s modus operandi included punching a suspect from Barbados while singing “Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo”.Various of his accused claimed to have been beaten up or have had evidence planted on them but, at first, this did not prevent conviction.

“Within a matter of weeks he had smashed a “protection gang” who were extorting money from strip clubs. It did not matter that the defendants alleged that they had been beaten and weapons planted on them. They were not believed. Nor were other complaints.

From then on, the short, stocky Challenor was a self-appointed scourge of Soho, and in fairness, that is what his superiors wanted from him… It did not matter that he was loud and aggressive, so long as the arrests and convictions kept coming. It was said that in the witness box he could make Soho sound like Chicago, and he described fighting crime in London as “like trying to swim against a tide of sewage”.

Had Challenor stuck to dealing with the flotsam of the area, there is no knowing how long he would have lasted. In the 1960s, juries and magistrates were not inclined to believe defendants, especially if the officer in the case was a decorated war hero.”

However, Donald Rooum would turn out to be a fit-up too far. A member of the National Council for Civil Liberties, Rooum had read about forensic science.

“Only a week or so before, I had finished reading the cheap paperback edition of Science and the Detection of Crime by C. R. M. Cuthbert, sometime superintendent of the Metropolitan Police Laboratory (Hutchinson “Grey Arrow” edition, 1962). Most of this book is about instances of Edmond Locard’s Principle of Exchange, “Every contact leaves its trace.”

A brick in a pocket would surely be another instance; it would leave brick dust behind. So far there had been no brick in my pocket. If they neglected to put one there; and if this man persisted in his story that he found it there; and if I could prove this was the suit I was wearing; and if I could get it to the Metropolitan Police Laboratory before I had chance to clean the pockets … I might have a defence.”

He refused to sign for the brick as part of his property and, kept in custody overnight, handed over his clothes to his solicitor at the first court hearing the next morning; they were sent for lab testing. No brick dust or appropriate wear and tear were found which would indicate that a brick had ever even been in his pockets. Rooum was acquitted, although other people Challenor arrested at the demonstration were still convicted on his evidence.

Another defendant to appear before Robey called the same scientific evidence as Rooum but was found guilty, although his conviction was later quashed.

The furore over the visit forced the Labour Party’s leader, Harold Wilson, to agree to boycott a state banquet to schmooze the Greek party. Back in Greece, the protests had such a big effect that they caused a political crisis which brought down the Prime Minister, Karamanlis, (who had in fact advised against the royals’ trip).

The new Greek premier, Panayotis Pipinelis, gave Betty Ambatielosa 45-minute hearing. Shortly after, 19 Greek political prisoners – though not Betty’s husband Tony Ambatielos – were freed as a gesture. No doubt the deep impression of extreme hostility to Greece amongst the British public saw releases in an attempt to restore its image. A limited return to civilian rule was permitted and, in the thaw, Tony Ambatielos was able to return to Britain to be granted political asylum and be re-united with Betty for the first time for 18 years.

After the court case, Challenor’s mental condition deteriorated sharply – or more accurately, his superiors suddenly noticed that he was a bad bastard who could cause further embarrassment. Fair to say that while he was putting away ‘lowlife’ with scant regard to the rules of evidence, the Met hierarchy didn’t blink an eyelid, but getting caught out publicly in court can make the blind eyes open all of a sudden. By June 1964, when he appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with three others with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, he was found unfit to plead and sent to a mental hospital. His co-accused were found guilty and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.

Some of this post was nicked from Donald Rooum’s account of his arrest.

And some info on Betty Ambatielios from here

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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