Allan Ledger was just nine years old when he took part in what he calls "the most spectacular royal event in living memory" — Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.
“We were woken at 4 a.m., having had little sleep that night,” Ledger, 77, tells PEOPLE about the early hours of June 2, 1953, when he and the other choristers of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle rose to take part in the historic events at Westminster Abbey.
“From the coach, which took us to London, I was amazed at the crowds lining the streets near the Abbey, some of whom had been there for three days,” Ledger adds about the coronation, which marks its 67th anniversary on Tuesday.
“By 6:30 a.m., as we were lining up in the South cloisters. I remember being told that Mount Everest had been conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary, which I found extremely exciting.” [News of the achievement reached Britain on the day of the coronation, and the press called it a coronation gift.]
While the outside world — and a then-record TV audience of 27 million U.K. viewers, plus millions more overseas — watched the pomp and splendor of the coronation in awe, Ledger and his fellow choristers had a slightly different experience.
Positioned high up in the Abbey rafters on specially-constructed platforms near the organ loft it was "cramped and uncomfortable," he says. The choristers were also there "for nearly 8 hours,” he adds.
Yet there was one huge advantage: a bird's-eye view.
“It gave us a magnificent view of all the dazzling pageantry which stimulated great excitement," says Ledger. "I remember especially all the gold and silver of the mantles of the nobility.
"From our panoramic view, we could see our future young Queen near the High Altar seated on the Chair of Estate, wearing George VI’s State Diadem, made for the 1820 coronation with over 1,300 diamonds and nearly 200 pearls," he continues.
"We saw the Queen curtsey to each corner of the 8,000-strong congregation, north, south, east, west after they had cried out 'God save the Queen!' During the anointing, I remember looking directly down on the canopy held over her Majesty by the Knights of the Garter. It was made of a rich pall of silk and cloth of gold," he says.
"During the anointing with holy oil by Archbishop Fisher of Canterbury, her Majesty had the sign of the cross on her hands, chest, and head. The canopy though prevented us from being able to observe this – the holiest moment of the coronation before the crowning took place."
Yet despite the long hours of rehearsal — recently captured in Series 1 of The Crown — it wasn’t an entirely seamless event. As with all major royal occasions, there was plenty of room for mishaps and funny moments. One particularly memorable moment was when the entire 8,000-strong congregation — including a 4½-year-old Prince Charles clutching a specially hand-painted invitation — rose from their seats to greet the arrival of the Queen "only to find out it was two cleaners,” jokes Ledger.
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Later, when the Abbey’s loudspeaker system announced, “All bishops in Block B may now depart for 10 minutes,” he also got to witness “a mass exodus of scarlet robes waddling off to the loos in the cloisters!” he says.
Unfortunately, Ledger’s own comfort breaks weren’t quite so well thought through. Before they entered the Abbey, the schoolboy choristers were given rations of sandwiches, a Horlicks tablets and a small glass bottle of milk, “most of which was consumed Long before the first note was sung!” says Ledger.
Their headmaster then told them that, having drunk the milk, they “should keep the empty bottle, as it might well be useful over the next eight hours!" he laughs.
Despite this lack of basic facilities, Ledger still has extremely fond memories of the momentous events and being part of a 400-member choir singing William Walton’s The Dreamlands Away, Hubert Parry’s I Was Glad and his own personal favorite, Handel’s Zadok the Priest.
“Even today it still sends shivers down my spine,” says Ledger. "As did the Westminister School scholars shouting out 'Vivat Regina Elizabeth' during the service."
Now settled in rural Oxfordshire with his wife, Brenda, the former teacher and author cherishes the coronation medal he was given for taking part in the events and an even more priceless miniature coronation coach gifted to him by his mother on the eve of the ceremony.
Many years after the big day, Ledger was also privately presented to the Queen at Windsor Castle as one of her Royal Coronation Boy Choristers. During this meeting, they got to share memories of the events of June 2, 1953, and about St. George’s School at Windsor Castle.
“At the time it felt that this meeting was meant to be," says Ledger. "It will always be a greatly treasured memory and a truly significant moment of my life.”