Belfast Telegraph

The gracious host who made the Queen, presidents, politicians and dignitaries feel at ease

 

Lindy McDowell

The death of Ards-born David Anderson, who was Hillsborough Castle's Household Manager for a quarter of a century, has seen tributes flooding in.

In the words of former Northern Ireland Secretary of State Shaun Woodward, the late David Anderson MBE,MVO, "embodied decency to his very core ..."

It's hard to think of a finer obituary for any man. And judging by the sheer warmth of the tributes this week from David's friends, his colleagues, those who knew him and those who loved him, no man deserved that description better.

The boy who grew up in Newtownards, studied at the Movilla High School and the College of Business Studies in Belfast, spent his entire working life in the hospitality industry - in the early part of his career with hotels in Switzerland, then with the Hastings Hotel Group and, in the later stage, as manager of Montalto House in Co Down.

But it was the extraordinary quarter of a century he spent as Household Manager at Hillsborough Castle, the official residence in Northern Ireland of Her Majesty, the Queen, and venue for some of the most momentous political meetings of our times, that defined his career.

He was the man "who kept the machine oiled". The backstage dynamo, the front-of-house maestro, the consummate professional who welcomed into the Georgian elegance of Hillsborough some of the most powerful men and women in the world.

And made them feel right at home.

In doing so David Anderson was more than just a gracious host. He was an intimate eyewitness and an enabler to history.

He was the man who made the Queen feel "cosy" and smoothed the way for presidents and prime ministers and politicians to do the deals that shaped our history.

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Dame Mary Peters and David Anderson at Down Royal

And whatever he witnessed in the course of his work, he kept to himself.

A tall, distinguished-looking man with a shock of silver hair, David was, above all, the very soul of discretion.

For his services he was awarded the MBE in 1997 and was made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order in 2010 - a particularly prestigious honour, granted in recognition of personal service to the Sovereign and the Royal Family.

He dedicated that award to his three children, Connor, Lauren and Neve.

David started work in Hillsborough on Valentine's Day, February 14, 1984, and his love affair with the place and the job lasted for the following 25 years, a period that saw truly seismic political change in Northern Ireland.

Hillsborough Castle, built back in the 18th century has, since the 1970s, been the official residence in Northern Ireland of successive Secretaries of State. During David's watch, that involved no less than 12 Secretaries of State.

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The Queen with with David Anderson at Hillsborough Castle

Former SoS Shaun Woodward, who in the warmest of tributes described David as "a true friend", says: "He was able to make Hillsborough Castle a home to families like myself.

"David was able to keep the machine oiled so people could be there, work there, live there and make agreements there."

And the enormity of that can't be overstated. Because it wasn't just Secretaries of State David made feel at home.

Hillsborough Castle has, down the years, hosted many prominent international guests from royalty to presidents, from politicians to religious leaders.

The roll call of the great and the good made welcome by David Anderson includes the Queen, Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Tony Blair, George Bush, Bertie Ahern, Hillary Clinton (bottom right), the Prime Minister of Japan, the Dalai Lama and many, many more.

Shortly after he began work in Hillsborough, the castle was the venue for the signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement - a taste of the momentous political theatre which was to follow.

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Hilary Clinton

In the run-up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement it was a hub where local politicians met together, and separately, for talks with the main players.

It was also the place where Blair and Bush held historic talks. Gerry Adams, David Trimble, Ian Paisley, John Hume ... they and other local politicos came to Hillsborough to talk and negotiate and do business.

"So many secrets," as Anderson's friend Willie Jack puts it. "So many stories kept in-house."

Willie Jack is the owner of a string of pubs in Belfast's city centre - The Duke of York, The Harp, The Dark Horse. But he and his good friend and colleague, the late Bruce Kirk, also operated the firm Hamilton Kirk, taking care of the catering at Hillsborough.

"David taught us how to do the job. He was just so meticulous. He would take us to garden parties at Buckingham Palace to observe. He always, always wanted to up the game.

"No detail was too small. The food had to be local produce. He'd pick the flowers himself from the garden. He knew what was in season, when.

"The waiting staff had to be immaculate. He knew how to address people. The correct order when welcoming guests. Everyone's dietary requirements. He would go out at any time of the day or night to fetch something that a guest requested from a 24-hour shop. He was the consummate professional. The best.

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Princess Royal was the guest of honour at a reception hosted by Save the Children at Hillsborough Castle in County Down. She is pictured with David Anderson signing the visitors book

"And there were so many aspects to the job that people wouldn't be aware of," Willie adds. "Things always were planned to perfection by David. But he also had to expect the unexpected."

Willie recalls tricky moments like the day George Bush helicoptered in and all his many presidential cars got stuck, unable to turn around "the wee circular rosebed".

Unlocking the traffic logjam came as easily to David as ensuring every guest had everything they needed to feel right at home.

In an interview he, himself, once described how the Queen's requirements were surprisingly modest.

"Somewhere quiet, somewhere private, somewhere comfortable to sit between engagements. A blanket. A footstool ... things that made it comfortable and more cosy."

The idea of making a Queen feel cosy says something about his skills as a host.

"He was so very good with people," says Willie Jack. "He treated everybody the same. No school can teach you that. He put his own wee stamp on everything - in his Newtownards accent.

"With his height he had this real presence when he came into the room. He made everybody feel at ease."

Shortly after the Omagh bombing, Willie recalls that Secretary of State Mo Mowlam (below) decided she wanted to host a reception to thank the many emergency workers and others who had been involved.

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Diana

The guest list very quickly grew to well over 1,000. But David saw that the event, planned at such short notice, and "stretching the old place to its limits", passed off smoothly.

The award of the George Cross to the RUC was another occasion which called for meticulous planning to mark the solemnity and dignity of the ceremony.

Willie's own dignity was salvaged by David after an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction on the day.

"It was all live on television and I'd ripped my trousers. David lent me a pair of his," he laughs.

During Mo Mowlam's tenure David oversaw the Castle being opened to the public and the launch of The Gallery showcasing an exhibition of the Queen's gowns and Downing Street silver.

David moved on from Hillsborough Castle in 2009, taking up a new post at Montalto House, another beautiful Georgian country house in Co Down.

Montalto's managing director, David Wilson, describes him as a man "who went out of his way to help anybody; so generous with his time".

Mr Wilson adds: "He had that great ability to be able to make anyone, whether the Queen or a cleaner, feel at their ease."

By the time David left, Hillsborough Castle had been taken over by Historic Royal Palaces. Receptions that would previously have been held there had been moved to Stormont.

The role of the old place he loved had been downgraded.

"I think in a way it broke his heart," says Willie Jack simply.

After a few years at Montalto, David moved on to live in London, where he died at the relatively young age of 58.

"He was a larger than life character," says Willie Jack. "An absolute gentleman. My thoughts and those of all his friends are with his children and all his family. He was a good man who will be sadly missed."

Sadly missed. And so very warmly remembered.

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