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Monday, 26 March 2012

Peter Horsfall


Picture of Yorkshire Post
A Life Less Ordinary
Shunned by the Royal Marines at the age of 16, Leeds lad Peter Horsfall retired 49 years later as Staff Superintendent of the House of Lords. Karen Joyner delves into a fascinating career

AS CAREER RISES GO, PETER HORSFALL IS PRETTY IMPRESSIVE. From being the son of a Leeds bus driver and joining the Army at 16, the former Sheepscar schoolboy joined the Coldstream Guards as a drummer boy and 34 years later retired as Major Quartermaster.
Now living in North London, he is still fiercely proud of his Yorkshire roots, and his recent biography is packed with anecdotes from his travels.
Even the title of the book, Hard to Believe - Too Old at Sixteen, tells a story. "I was turned down for both the West Yorkshire Regiment and the Royal Marines because, having had my 16th birthday, I was too old," he recounts. "Indeed it was the latter who wrote to me suggesting that I apply to the Brigade of Guards, as they accepted Drummer Boys at the grand old age of 16. It is questionable whether the Royal Marines' loss was the Coldstream Guards' gain".
Right from being a youngster, it was clear that Peter Horsfall would make his mark. With his older brother Terry, he was a tearaway child, spending the early 1930s in blissful ignorance of impending war and emulating his cartoon heroes in the The Dandy comic.
"When we lived in Sheepscar, there were a number of derelict houses," he recalls. "We took timber from these, chopped it and tied it into uniform bundles, and went round the houses selling it. It seems ridiculous now but the prices charged were one penny for a small bundle and two pennies for a large one".
A regular at Elland Road to watch Leeds United and Headingley for Rugby League and cricket with his father, Peter remembers the warm atmosphere at football matches.
"We never saw Dad during the actual games," he says. "In those days children were passed over the top of adult spectators and stood in front of the crowd".
A Drum Major in the West Yorkshire Regiment cadets before he was 15, he had a spell as an apprentice electrician at the Yorkshire Switchgear, then signed up for nine years with the Colour and three years on the Reserve with the Coldstream Guards.
Travelling with the battalion for 35 days at sea in 1948 to reach the Far East was Horsfall's first taste of life abroad. This two-year stint was the start of tours to Germany and Kenya, but after returning to Britain in December 1960, Horsfall and his young family knew exactly where to settle.
"Mary and I bought our first house in Pudsey," he says. "What a shame that Terry and Bob were not born there. They would have qualified to play for Yorkshire at cricket."
By 1976 Horsfall and his family were out in Londonderry with the Coldstream Guards. Amid numerous recountable incidents, there are a few light-hearted moments which he enjoys sharing. His wife Mary had a Smith's alarm clock which broke down, so Peter packed it up and sent it to the Smith's factory in Scotland to be mended. He recalls: "A couple of days later my telephone rang and a voice said `Captain Horsfall? Stay where you are sire, I'm coming to see you'". The corporal in charge of the Postal Depot informed him the clock had started ticking and caused a huge bomb scare. This had closed the whole department while the bomb disposal squad checked the suspect device.
"It goes without saying that I have never felt so stupid in all my life. I felt a right berk," he smiles. "A story for the biter bitten."
At the age of 50, Horsfall made the decision to retire from the regiment, securing a job with a computer company and just working out his notice. "Life takes strange twists and there was about to be a big one," he recalls. Contacted by the Black Rod of the House of Lords, Sir David House, he was invited to apply for - and got - the position of Staff Superintendent.
This led to some intriguing insights into the highest echelons of society.
When Lady Thatcher arrived to take up her office at the Lords, the Iron Lady told her secretary the room would suit her fine.
"Then came a classic moment as she said to me, `Major Horsfall, if I bring a couple of pictures in, would I be allowed to bang a couple of nails in the wall?' I replied. `No my lady. If you bring some pictures, WE will bang a few nails in the wall!" Horsfall is immensely proud of all the famous people he has met in the course of his career. Golfer Henry Cotton, footballer Ted Drake, and cricketer Denis Compton feature in his memoirs. And in the world of entertainment, names such as Arthur English, Tommy Steele, Mollie Sugden, Bill Moore and Pauline Collins crossed his path.
Regular brushes with Royalty also featured in the diary. "Anyone who has been in the company of the Queen at a `private' event will know that she has a spontaneous wit and an infectious laugh," he confides. "Everyone now seems to know that Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) is determined to live until 100 to receive a telegram from her daughter. Pray God that she does."
"Of course, all is not laughter and light-heartedness. Operation Marquee is the name of the procedure laid down for the Lying in State of a sovereign in Westminster Hall. Regrettably, as the Queen Mother nears her century, the meetings and rehearsals become more frequent. She is the most loved lady in the land and her demise will cause great sadness."
In 1995 Peter Horsfall finally retired from his post and a year later was given the freedom of the city of London. "As a Yorkshireman, I enjoyed being described as a `citizen of London'," he jokes, his final thoughts being with the county of his birth.
"This seems an appropriate moment to mention the ridiculous statement made by the author Beryl Bainbridge in 1999. She seems to think that people with regional dialects are either uneducated or should not be considered for prestigious posts. In recent years I have met with so many `senior' people with strong regional accents that this makes a mockery of her comments."
As an ex-Coldstream Drummer Boy who has made it to the very top, Yorkshire boy Peter Horsfall is the living proof.