Sir Samuel Whitbread: 21 years as Bedfordshire’s Lord Lieutenant

Sir Samuel Whitbread has retired after 21 years as Bedfordshire’s Lord Lieutenant.

He spoke to Jim Stewart.

Becoming Her Majesty’s representative in your county is an honour you will always remember.

For Sir Samuel Whitbread of Southill Park, there is a very good reason he can remember exactly where and when it was he heard the news that his name was going forward as Bedfordshire’s Lord Lieutenant.

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He was one of three names initially suggested for the post by the outgoing Lord-Lieutenant Colonel Hanbury who was due to retire in January 1991.

He recalled: “I had heard nothing by the middle of December so I assumed someone else was going to be appointed so we took a family holiday in East Africa and I was in Nairobi on Christmas Day when I had a message from my secretary to ring urgently.

Not knowing what it would be I rang in the middle of her Christmas dinner, and was told I had a letter marked confidential from Downing Street”.

It was a letter from the then Prime Minister John Major asking if he would allow his name to go forward as Lord-Lieutenant. In the space of 11 days he was taking up the role – initially having to combine it with his chairmanship of Whitbread plc where he was head of 30,000 employees and shareholders.

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That was the beginning of 21 years in the exalted position as the Queen’s representative in Bedfordshire which came to an end earlier this year when Sir Samuel reached the compulsory retirement age for Lord-Lieutenants of 75.

Although he hasn’t kept count himself he has been reliably informed that his time has encompassed more than 80 Bedfordshire royal engagements including visits from all senior members of the royal family.

Speaking in his Southill home, he said: “Royal visits are probably the most important parts of the job. That’s when people see you all dressed up or as my children like to say, dressed up like a Christmas tree!

The Queen has visited three times during his stint. In 1996, she went to Bedford to open the new Cygnet Wing at Bedford Hospital, visit the Westbourne Centre in Queens Park, Harrowden Middle School and the County Fire & Rescue Headquarters at Kempston.

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In 1999, Her Majesty came to Luton to visit the Bedfordshire and Luton NHS Trust, The Noah Enterprise and Welbeck Centre, The University of Luton and opened the new airport terminal and Luton Parkway Station. The Duke of Edinburgh spent part of this visit at Vauxhall Motors. Then in 2006, she made her first ever visit as Queen to east Bedfordshire in a visit that took in Samuel Whitbread College in Clifton, officially opening the new Chicksands council offices and St John’s Moggerhanger. The Duke spent part of his time at Stotfold Mill.

Sir Samuel said of Her Majesty: “She has always been incredibly warm, incredibly friendly and the greatest tribute you can make is that you almost forget who she is after half an hour in her company.

“The Monarchy is as popular now as it ever was. There has been the occasional hiccup over the years but the Queen hasn’t put a foot wrong in 60 years, and nor has Prince Philip.”

He has agreed with the sentiments offered in the recent BBC documentaries to mark her Diamond Jubilee – that all royal jubilees are preceded by concerns they wont be as popular as the last one, yet every time they are.

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All royal visits take a significant amount of planning for a Lord-Lieutenant, and keeping all engagements to time has been a crucial element of the day: “I have always prided myself on getting him or her away on time because they are often going to another engagement.”

“I have always admired the way members of the Royal Family seem to know exactly how long to take meeting people at an engagement and to never overrun.”

The Lord-Lieutenant role extends further than royal visits. There is local involvement with the Armed Forces, cadets and the Royal British Legion. Sir Samuel chairs the Lord Chancellor’s advisory committee on JPs, using his experience serving as a Magistrate for 14 years on the Biggleswade bench. And as Lord Lieutenant, he is invited to numerous public engagements throughout the year.

He spoke warmly of this time in office: “It is a wonderful club, the Lord Lieutenants, and I have made a great many friends in other counties. I have also had the opportunity to go to places and meet people in the county I would never otherwise have met”.

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He leaves with no regrets – ‘21 years is long enough’ and is looking forward to spending more time with his family.

He wished his successor Helen Nellis of Bromham well and merely offered one piece of advice: “You do have to have a sense of humour, because some of the things you are faced with are quite funny!”

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