Alan Kingshott, Yeoman Gaoler at the Tower
You might think that when a man has reached the position of manager of the Comet store in Bognor Regis, he had reached the summit of his achievement, but Alan Kingshott always knew there was more to life. One day when he was visiting Crawford Butler – a close friend from his twenty-five years in the Royal Hussars, who had become a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London – Alan learnt there was a vacancy and realised he needed a change.
“Crawford said, ‘Apply,’ and I did,” Alan told me, still a little startled even fourteen years later to find himself behind a desk in the twelfth century Byward Tower, in this legendary fortress by the Thames. Yet, from the moment you meet Alan, and he fixes you with his dark, glinting eyes deep-set beneath straggly eyebrows, peering at you over his magnificent specimen of a nose, you are aware of an appealing balance of gravity and levity, as if he were born to this role which requires a lofty hauteur on ceremonial occasions and a playful nature greeting young visitors to the Tower. His sombre poise is such that he appears to have stepped from one of George Cruickshank’s engravings of the Yeoman Warders, with the dramatic possibility that at any moment he might reveal himself as a comic impostor – which is another way of saying that while Alan treats his job with utmost seriousness, he does not take himself too seriously.
Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Martin Usborne and I ducked our heads as we stepped through the low doorway, leaving the clamour of the tourist crowds in the Autumn sunshine and entering the peace and shadow of the octagonal medieval chamber where we found Alan, the Yeoman Gaoler in his red and blue Tudor uniform, enthusiastically tip-tapping at his computer keyboard. The paraphernalia of his job – bunches of huge keys, ceremonial axes in sheaths, and a gleaming brass lantern – complementing the usual office furnishings of filing trays, corporate calendars, telephones and box files.“I look after the day to day running of the Yeoman Warders, keep the diary, prepare for all the ceremonies and corporate events, and I order the uniforms – I’d be fibbing if I didn’t admit there were challenges” admitted Alan, removing his spectacles and reclining in contemplation with the urbane confidence of a senior executive, “It’s a varied job, but the amount of paper that comes at me is massive and it’s coming at me from all angles.”
Much as I was in thrall to the historical romance of gaoler’s role, I was happy learn that this benign managerial job has replaced the incarceration and torture of a bloodier age. In this respect, Alan’s experience at Comet has proved to be as crucial as his time in the forces.“Becoming a retail manager, after twenty-five years in the army,” he recalled, “it was a mountain to climb, learning to deal with customers, yet I quite enjoyed it.” On 1st April 1998, Alan came to the Tower as a Yeoman Warder and was appointed to Yeoman Sergeant in 2004, ascending to the role of Yeoman Gaoler just four months ago. “I don’t get to engage with the public anymore, that’s one of the sadder parts,” Alan confided regretfully, “- to me that was the icing on the cake of this job and I hugely enjoyed it.” An observation which led me to ask why he wore the uniform, an impertinent question that Alan took with good grace. “I could be called out at any moment if there’s a first aid incident,” he explained politely.
Living up above with his wife, Pat, in the twelfth century apartments at the top of the gatehouse, Alan climbs out of bed each morning early, pulls on his colourful uniform and descends the spiral stone staircase to his office.“I was down here at quarter past seven today and I might finish work at nine in the evening. Some days, I’ll work fifteen or sixteen hours – it’s a long day. My wife works in the Jewel House and we used to get the same days off a week, but now we only get two days off a month together.” he revealed with a frown, outlining the rigours of his task, as we ascended to the room over the gate itself and he pulled up panels in the floor to expose the stone chutes where once boiling liquids were dropped upon unwelcome guests below.
“We’ve been to Parliament, climbed up Big Ben, visited Number 10 and I’ve met the Queen.” Alan informed me in a near whisper, conceding some perks of the job, while indicating the mural painted here in 1300 of angels upon a ground of sage green, emblazoned with fleur de lys and popinjays. We stood in silent awe in the room where the shades are permanently down to protect the mysterious ancient painting, as more figures came into focus from the ether – the Angel Gabriel holding scales with the balance of righteousness tipped against Lucifer, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist – all shimmering in the half-light.
Alan led me through a door onto the perimeter wall where he has cultivated a secret garden with cherry trees, crab apples, azaleas and rhododendrons in pots. An experienced gardener, he explained that these acid-loving shrubs need watering with rainwater, filling a can from the rainwater butt and taking this opportunity to irrigate his precious charges. Then, as we made our farewells down in Water Lane, a crowd of excited visitors formed seeking Alan’s attention and instantly he switched to performance mode. Next year when John Keohane, the current Chief Yeoman Warder retires, Alan is the only one qualified to be his successor. “It’s going to be steep learning curve for me,” he confessed with a grin. Alan Kingshott is a man on the rise at the Tower of London.
Photographs copyright © Martin Usborne
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