The Queen’s former private secretary shares his story of life in the palace

Sir William Heseltine with Richard Offen
Sir William Heseltine with Richard Offen

Schoolboy Bill Heseltine developed a strategy to follow his school’s church services.

“I found that if I stayed behind and collected the hymn books, I could avoid going to the gym,” said a smiling Sir William Heseltine, now 91.

The Queen’s former private secretary was speaking to a jam-packed audience in the same church where he collected the hymn books 80 years ago, Claremont’s historic Christ Church.

Sir William’s extraordinary life has come full circle. 

Dubbed by the media as ‘the boy from Wyalkatchem’, Sir William is proudly a Fremantle-born boy who spent three years in Wyalkatchem as a toddler.

“Both sides of my family came out to Australia on the first fleet of convicts – although none was a convict, I hasten to add,” he laughed.

“I come from rather a strong strain of teachers. Both my parents were teachers and my father took up a teaching post in Wyalkatchem.”

In a rare public talk, Sir William was being interviewed in a fundraiser for the Royal WA Historical Society by its president, Richard Offen.

Sir William’s high-ranking public service career began when he became private secretary to Prime Minister, Robert Menzies.

“Menzies seemed to accept that you couldn’t come from a place called Wyalkatchem. Until one day on the prime minister’s plane when we were diverted over WA and the pilot announced: ‘We have just flown over Wyalkatchem.’ 

“I said: That’s my hometown.”

Sir William said Menzies (later Sir Robert) “had such high standards. He would loathe if things were not done for his own personal standards.” 

This included changing ageing curtains.

“We were a team of just nine staffers, not like the 80 or 90 prime ministerial staff today who must get under the feet of each other,” he said.

After five years as Menzies’s aide, Sir William was seconded to Australia House in London, becoming a press secretary, then permanent member of the Royal Household at Buckingham Palace as the Queen’s private secretary and Keeper of the Queen’s Archives.

“In the summer holidays, when the royal family went up to Balmoral, I grew a beard. When the Queen saw it, she just said: ‘Well, I suppose it’s alright up here.”

“So I thought I’d better have it off before we meet in London,” he said.

Sir William said he had close contact with the Queen over the 27 years he worked at the palace and got used to seeing her over the breakfast table and in her riding clothes after her early morning horse rides.

He joined royal deer shoots and said that anyone who has an issue with blood sports should consider that deer were in big numbers in the highlands, no longer with natural predators. 

“This is the most humane way to cull them,” he said.

Sir William was given an instruction before his first hunt: “You have to catch and kill every wounded stag. The other piece of advice was to drink the dram of whisky we were all issued with.”

While picnicking with the Queen in Balmoral’s extensive grounds, Sir William said a group of Scottish youths wandered in (public access to Scottish royal grounds is protected by law). 

“A girl called out to the Queen: ‘They tell me you’re the Queen. What are ya doin’ here?

“I live here’, said the Queen.”

In 1975, Sir William was woken by a phone call from Australia. It was David Smith, official secretary to Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. 

“David said ‘I’m ringing to tell you the Governor-General has dismissed the Prime Minister.’

“What? But I thought at 3am I wasn’t going to ring the Queen when she could do absolutely nothing about it. 

“My colleague and I knew to get to the Queen at breakfast before she turned-on the 8 o’clock news.”

Sir William said he had great respect and affection for the Queen and her existence is really what matters as head of the parliament, the government, the church and the military.

“Everyone agrees, the Queen has done a responsible job,” he said.

Sir William Heseltine, GCB, GCVO, AC, QSO retired in 1990. He received a long and faithful service medal in 1985 for 20 years of service to the royal family.

Before leaving on his walking stick, Sir William told the historical society’s huge crowd: “You’re the first audience that’s ever paid to listen to me. I hope you got your money’s worth.” 

Thunderous applause.

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Journalist, commentator, broadcaster and author. Lee, columnist for Have a Go News has reported for The Australian Financial Review, The Australian, The West Australian, Sunday Times, Albany Advertiser, Melbourne Herald, Launceston Examiner, Business News and national magazines. Lee has covered federal politics, industrial relations and national affairs. A public speaker, newspaper columnist and author of two books, Lee co-hosted 6PR’s current affairs radio. He also co-founded a stable of national business newsletters. Lee is former communications manager for a non-profit, mental health carers’ organisation.