A Day in the Life of the Chief Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London
Chief Yeoman Warder John Keohane wakes at 6:45am in his quarters in the Old Hospital Block and the first sight to greet his eyes as the daylight comes into focus is the mythic White Tower, gleaming in the dawn outside his bedroom window. At 7:50am each morning, trim in his Tudor uniform, he steps from his blue front door and crosses the Inner Ward of the Tower, walking down Water Lane between the ancient stone walls to reach the octagonal office in the twelfth century Byward Tower. Here John assesses the duties of his thirty-seven fellow Warders for the day, before commencing the Opening Ceremony of the Tower at 8:50am, when a contingent of soldiers in bearskins accompany him to unlock the heavy black gates at 9:00am precisely and admit the tide of visitors whose flow is as ceaseless as the Thames.
And so it has been for many years at the Tower of London. And so it was last week, when Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Martin Usborne and I accompanied John for a day. And so it will be today.
Only it will not be so tomorrow – because this is John’s last working day in the post of Chief Yeoman Warder. And thus the day that Martin and I shared with John was both an echo of all the other days, yet underscored with a certain poetry by the imminent conclusion of John’s time at the Tower – where he has been a Yeoman Warder since 1991.
Once John had ensured the Opening Ceremony had been completed with the essential aplomb that such rituals at the Tower require, we all strode up the hill past Tower Green to John’s Office in the Waterloo Barracks which he now shares with his successor and protégé Alan Kingshott, the current Yeoman Gaoler. Instantly, the two slipped into the freewheeling Morecambe & Wise style banter that characterises their relationship. “I just want to check my emails,” pleaded John in mock petulance, as we all piled into the tiny room and Alan vacated the work station. “I can’t get used to this desk,” John continued, squeezing himself and his voluminous Yeoman Warders’s uniform behind Alan’s newly installed office furniture with feigned distaste,“he’s got one of these ergonomically-shaped keyboards.”
“When I first arrived he was my mentor, he taught me everything,” confessed Alan reverentially, changing tone to add playfully,“It’s his fault I’m here!”
“I’ve written six pages of notes for him of things not to forget,” John confided to me to while Alan took the opportunity to get out the Brasso from a filing cabinet and polish up his belt buckle as John tip-tapped at his keyboard with one hand, stroking his beard in thought with the other. “John cleans his buckle every day,” Alan whispered to me. “And my shoes,” added John without lifting his eyes from the keyboard.
With free time on his hands, John took us on a tour of the casements, as the dwellings built into the walls of the Tower are called. Here, in the private areas of the Tower, live forty-seven families and washing lines and flower pots, even a doctor’s surgery, attested to their presence. Yet these spaces carry history as the original location of the Royal Mint and of the shooting range where Josef Jacobs, a German spy who was the last to be executed at the Tower, was shot in 1941. During his time, John has become increasingly drawn to study the events that happened here and out of all the locations it is the Bell Tower where Thomas More was imprisoned that touches him most. “It is just a bare room with a stone floor and a garderobe in the corner,” said John,“where they kept him for three months in 1543 before they took him out to Tower Hill and beheaded him. One of things that strikes me about it, the temperature is always the same. You always feel how cold it is.”
This is John’s special quality – through engaging with the past on a personal level, he has come to embody the soulful history of this place and because of his presence, and that of his fellow warders, visitors are able to appreciate the reality of the human history that has been enacted here among these monumental structures.“It’s been the epitome of my career,” John confessed to me as we sat in his quiet living room looking out onto the Inner Ward, where he once came as a ten year old child on a visit and then returned in 1972 as a young soldier on temporary duty at the Tower – though he never anticipated the part that the Tower would eventually play in his life. “I’ll miss living here,” he admitted to me, “but the house I have in Paignton is on a hill looking out across the sea towards Brixham.”
We joined the tourists in the cafeteria next door for lunch before ambling back to the Byward Tower for the Ceremony of the Word at 3pm, in which a contingent of soldiers from the barracks at the Tower collected a wallet with the password that is changed daily, necessary so the guard may know who can be admitted in case of an emergency. Then it was back to John’s office to await Mr Barley, a dapper gentleman who is a veteran of fifty-four years at Mappin & Webb, bringing John’s engraved silver salver that will remain to commemorate his time at the Tower. John scrutinised the simple text and found it satisfactory.
Already the January afternoon light was fading and it was time to prepare for the Closing Ceremony, as the Warders shepherded the sparse visitors from each of the buildings and John made the rounds collecting the bunches of keys, until the last stragglers left the Byward Gate and Warder Chris Skaife rang the bell high in the tower at 5:00pm. Later, at 10:00pm, the Ceremony of the Keys would ensure the final lockdown at the Tower. And tonight, after more than twenty years, it will signal the end of John Keohane’s tenure.
“The Tower is closed now and my day is over,” he said simply as we shook hands. It was a day in the life of the Chief Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London.
Waiting to open the Tower for the day.
Opening the gates at the Byward Tower to visitors.
John Keohane with Alan Kingshott who will succeed him as Chief Yeoman Warder.
John steps out of his front door.
John wakes each morning to the sight of the White Tower.
John stands for pictures taken by schoolchildren.
John eats a bowl of soup for lunch among the tourists in the cafeteria.
John takes delivery of the salver from Mappin & Webb commemorating his time at the Tower.
The silver figure of John presented to him as a leaving gift by the Tower.
John collects the keys from his fellow Yeoman Warders.
Chris Skaife ringing the bell at the closing of the day.
John Keohane - “The Tower is closed now and my day is over”
Photographs copyright © Martin Usborne
Residents of Spitalfields and any of the Tower Hamlets may gain admission to the Tower for one pound upon production of an Idea Store card.
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