Photo by John Harper/Getty Images
When Christine Martin was six years old, she got her head stuck in the railings outside Buckingham Palace. She had travelled down to London from the town of Crook in County Durham with her parents, aunt, uncle and a cousin to watch the Changing of the Guard. ‘My cousin put her head through to get a better view and I did the same, but when it came [time] to take it out I couldn’t,’ she recalls. ‘I started to cry and they sent for the fire brigade.’
Eventually she wriggled free, but a part of her remained forever ensconced just beyond the palace gates.
Martin is now 65 and a dedicated collector of royal memorabilia. Cherished among her collection of hundreds of items (she has long stopped counting) are those produced to celebrate various jubilees – including a Golden Jubilee tin of biscuits with all the Commonwealth countries ringed around the outside, and a Ruby Jubilee bone-china cup and saucer she bought at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, a favourite spot of Queen Victoria’s. ‘I’ve no idea how much I’ve spent,’ says Martin, a former nurse. ‘It’s all been worth it so it doesn’t matter.’
Her favourite piece is the first she ever received: The Country Life Book of the Royal Silver Jubilee, written by Patrick Montague-Smith and illustrated with photographs celebrating 25 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. It was a gift from her parents when she was 20. Like most mass-produced jubilee memorabilia, it is not worth much in monetary terms – you can currently buy a used copy on Amazon for just over £1. But for Martin it is the jewel in the crown of her collection. ‘That is the thing I treasure the most.’
Commemorative items have long been churned out to celebrate significant moments in royal life. The earliest known trinkets produced in England date back to the Restoration in 1660. However the Industrial Revolution turbocharged a relatively artisanal process to make memorabilia more accessible. Royal chintz became the opium of the masses – and the age of the super-collector was born.
Jubilee items proved especially popular. In 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, commemorative coins were minted for the first time. Other souvenirs were also produced to meet almost insatiable demand – from teapots, butter dishes, handkerchiefs and clay pipes to wallpaper, an ornate golden affair featuring a portrait of the Queen.
It wasn’t until the Silver Jubilee of George V in 1935 that the first specific jubilee sets of stamps were issued, not only in the UK but also in the dominions, including Canada, India and New Zealand.
Today, collectors like Christine Martin are a loose-knit, disparate community, scattered around the world in a subculture of their own. Not for Martin the likes of Sotheby’s and other auction houses where one-off items connected to the royals are sold for often exorbitant prices. (In 2021, a ‘large slice’ of marzipan and icing from the Prince and Princess of Wales’s wedding cake was sold at an auctioneer’s in Cirencester for £1,850.)
By contrast, she and her fellow super-collectors tend to acquire their memorabilia in charity shops and on bargain auction websites, or they are sent it by friends, family or even strangers who can’t bring themselves to throw an item away. This is the beachcombing of collectibles; amassing the flotsam and jetsam of centuries of royal life.
Martin says most ardent collectors of Queen Elizabeth II memorabilia are women – and in particular women of a certain age who associate with her reign. Martin herself was married and divorced in the same years as the Duke and Duchess of York, and she can trace landmark events of her life alongside those of the Royal family. ‘[The Queen] has always been there through my lifetime,’ she says. ‘Somebody to admire and follow in the footsteps of. If I need confidence with something I always think, “What would the Queen do?”’ [This article was written before the Queen’s death in 2022.]
But, she adds, ‘It’s a bit like being a trainspotter. People call you an anorak.’
She avoids the online communities populated by other royal-memorabilia collectors, but is close friends with one fellow enthusiast, Anita Atkinson, who is among the world’s leading collectors. In the 2000s, Atkinson held a Guinness World Record for the size of her royal-memorabilia collection – 1,781 items when she first took the record – although that accolade has since been taken by a woman in Australia.
During lockdown, Atkinson, 65, took stock of her much-expanded collection. She says she has counted 12,500 items, which she believes is the largest collection of royal memorabilia in the world.
It began 45 years ago with a pack of Silver Jubilee playing cards. She still treasures the cards, which have one deck each for the Queen and Prince Philip – and has never removed them from their plastic film. ‘As the year progressed, everything and anything was Silver Jubilee,’ she recalls. ‘It was the biggest event of my life.’
The Queen’s Silver Jubilee was the first royal event for which Buckingham Palace expanded its memorabilia range beyond the usual remit of souvenir cups and saucers, and the manufacturers of unofficial memorabilia followed suit. Glass pint bottles of milk were adorned with Silver Jubilee foil tops. In her collection Atkinson has Silver Jubilee ashtrays, soap, matches, a compact and even nail clippers in a faux-leather case.
Until recently she kept it all in her home, a farmhouse in County Durham where she lives with her husband John and three children. ‘My husband is not fussed about the royals but he will watch the Queen on Christmas Day,’ she says. A few years ago, fed up with the clutter, she moved the collection into the dairy shed, which had been spruced up – the stalls painted with Union flags – and which she runs as an appointment-only museum and tea room.
Her most prized artefacts, though, she still keeps in the house: a table mat belonging to Prince Charles when he flew to Teesside airport on 16 October 1977 (her aunt worked there as a security guard), and the safety card in the front of his seat, signed by the whole air crew. Her aunt gave it to her for her 21st birthday.
Other items, meanwhile, were given to her by strangers. In 1999, she was sent a Silver Jubilee birthday card containing the inscription: ‘To Hague, love and wishes on your 12th birthday from Mother and Dad.’ Accompanying it was a letter from the mother, who explained that she had written the card for her son but he had died unexpectedly and she wanted Atkinson to have it. ‘I wrote back to her and thanked her and said I would look after it for the rest of my life,’ Atkinson says.
‘And I will. Most of this collection has been given to me. I’m the custodian of all these peoples’ memories.’
In recent years, the quality of memorabilia has somewhat reduced. Asda’s garden gnome depicting a rosy-cheeked Queen in honour of her 90th birthday (priced at £30) was widely regarded as the nadir of royal tat – although Atkinson happily points out one at the front door of her barn.
In 2012, Macleans launched a ‘Diamond Jubilee edition’ Union-flag-branded toothpaste to mark the event. Meanwhile, in February it emerged that 10,000 items of Platinum Jubilee memorabilia produced in China had been misprinted with the inscription: ‘To commemorate the Platinum Jubbly of Queen Elizabeth II.’ A clearance website has since stepped in to sell the botched items, hoping they will become collectables in their own right.
Back in 2012, Branston also produced 60 special Diamond Jubilee jars of pickle, one of which was presented to Margaret Tyler, another of the country’s foremost royal super-collectors. (The first jar, she says, was sent to the Queen herself.) A decade on, Tyler, who lives in Wembley, still keeps the pickle in pride of place among her collection of more than 10,000 ornaments. ‘I won’t open it,’ she laughs, cradling the purple velvet packaging.
Tyler, 78, has so many items of memorabilia that she even has her own ‘jubilee room’ at home. She regularly fields telephone calls from collectors abroad enquiring about her extensive collection – but insists, ‘I would never sell.’ To her great pleasure, she was once contacted by Kensington Palace, asking to borrow some of her bone china for a photo shoot.
Her favourite piece is a Diamond Jubilee dinner plate, which is part of a set in royal purple, printed with a smiling Queen and Prince Philip. ‘It was £250, which is probably one of the most expensive ones that I have bought – but I just thought it was lovely.’
She prefers to browse charity shops for items rather than buying them online – now retired, she spends roughly nine hours a week scouring for additions to her collection. Her motto? ‘If it is quirky or if it is royal I will take it home.’
As much as Anita Atkinson loves her collection, above all she cherishes the people who inspired it – the royals themselves. Over the years she has met the Queen Mother and the Duke and Duchess of York, and treasures the memories.
‘I never set out to get a record collection,’ she says, ‘it just happened because I’m a well-known supporter of the monarchy. I would defend it with my last breath.’ She pauses. ‘It is difficult to find a word to describe the atmosphere or how you feel when you see one of the Royal family in the flesh. It is absolutely electric – it is a real tonic. It is the magic of the monarchy in action.’