Nostalgia on Tuesday: Royal appointment

Prince Charles and Princess Diana admire a bouquet by florist Annie Valentine, March 15, 1984.
Prince Charles and Princess Diana admire a bouquet by florist Annie Valentine, March 15, 1984.
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Prince Charles and Princess Diana made their first visit to Sheffield as a couple on March 15, 1984.

Prior to this, Prince Charles had made his first call in the city on December 18, 1975, for an appointment at the University of Sheffield. This was followed by an engagement on November 1, 1979, to open the Royal Hallamshire Hospital and also to drop into Abbeyfield Old People’s Home plus a further visit in 1981.

Days before the Royal couple’s arrival in Sheffield in 1984, massive industrial unrest had begun in South Yorkshire, quickly spreading like wildfire across the country. On March 6, 1984, a walkout at Cortonwood colliery, precipitated the year-long miners’ strike.

Charles and Diana arrived in Yorkshire at Finningley, near Doncaster. From there they travelled to Sheffield where they were due to call in at the Westall Richardson cutlery factory, attend a reception at the town hall and finally visit St Luke’s Hospice. En route the Royal car was contacted by radio and asked to delay the couple’s approach through the thronged city streets.

A little earlier, a steeplejack, John Shaw, had collapsed and died as he raised the Prince of Wales’s Standard on the roof of the cutlery factory.

The Royal arrival went ahead a few minutes late amid the cheers of crowds in the street, most of whom knew nothing about the tragedy.

Sheffield’s Lord Mayor, Coun Peter Jones, a doctor, said the Prince had been most distressed by the news and was anxious that a message should be taken to the family as quickly as possible. Mr Shaw was a foreman with the steeplejack firm of WF Harrison with whom he had worked for 27 years.

As the visit went ahead, Princess Diana was seen wearing a blue wool Bellville Sassoon suit with inverted pleat sleeves along with her trademark John Boyd hat. She was soon in animated conversation with many of the Westall Richardson workers. The company was established by Westall Richardson in 1839 and was responsible for introducing the first wooden knife block in 1960, and the ‘laser’ edge, the first ‘no need to sharpen’ knife, in 1979.

At the end of the factory visit Prince Charles was presented with a cook’s knife and paid for it with a 1981 Royal Wedding crown. He had been told of a Yorkshire tradition that to accept the gift of a knife without payment was to risk cutting a friendship. Because the firm feared the Prince might follow Royal tradition and have no cash in his pocket, he was sent a half-pence coin.

That was not needed, as Prince Charles drew the large silver crown from his pocket to pay the canteen assistant, Ivy Coggin, who presented the knife to him.

Further engagements in Sheffield by the couple followed. Princess Diana visited Sheffield Lodge Moor and Jessop Hospitals on April 8, 1986; Charles was at Lodge Moor Hospital on June 9, 1987; Orchard Square, the Lyceum and City Hall, February 18, 1988; and the Leadmill, November 16, 1988. Both Charles and Diana visited victims of the Hillsborough Disaster on April 18, 1989. The Princess of Wales was at the Children’s Hospital and family service unit on November 29, 1989.

If we are to believe biographers and newspaper reports, Princess Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles was seriously floundering when she dropped into Sheffield for a solo visit on July 16, 1991. Yet, typically, she betrayed no hint of her personal troubles as she chatted, joked and laughed with Sheffielders – and there were dozens of them – who turned out on that memorable visit to the city. It was also to be her last official visit to Sheffield before her untimely death on August 31, 1997.

A key part of the Princess’s 1991 tour was a visit to Sheffield’s Harris Birthright Centre for Reproductive Medicine in Jessop Hospital. Crowds of Royal watchers began gathering outside the building hours before she was due to arrive. Armed with Union flags and flowers of welcome they stood in the bright sunshine waiting for Diana. Grateful mother Deborah Newton, whose 13-month old daughter Kate was born with the help of the Birthright Centre, was a VIP guest at the hospital.

Princess Diana – wearing a cream and blue pinstripe suit – arrived at RAF Finningley, and travelled by car to Sheffield, getting to the hospital just before noon. The Birthright charity’s progress had been closely followed by Diana, who was the organisation’s patron. She officially opened the centre in 1986 and returned on that day to learn about breakthroughs in research into infertility.

She was introduced to hospital staff, charity trustees and South Yorkshire businessman Kevin McDonald and his wife, who were major sponsors of Birthright. He was managing director of Doncaster firm Polypipe. Princess Diana posed for a picture with some of the children whose parents sought help from Jessop’s special unit.

The Princess’s visit proved to be one of the biggest crowd-pulling occasions Sheffield had ever seen and outside the hospital she chatted to some of the hundreds who turned up to catch a glimpse of her. Later, she moved on to the Cutler’s Hall, where a special lunch was organised to raise money for Birthright by Master Cutler Hugh Sykes and his wife Ruby. It was hoped the lunch would raise up to £20,000 for the charity after guests paid £75 a head for the pleasure of having lunch with the Royal visitor.

After lunch, the Princess broke protocol and set off on unscheduled walkabouts in Sheffield city centre. She then travelled to Rotherham, taking part in another walkabout before calling in at Rotherham Relate, the marriage guidance organisation.