The Beefeaters at the Tower of London

The chief warder raises the pewter punchbowl and, with the words ‘May you never die a yeoman warder’ welcomes another new recruit to the centuries-old ranks of the Beefeaters. For arcane ritual, curious titles and elaborate ceremony, there are not many places on earth to beat the Tower of London.

The Tower gave the sprinkling of Middlesex villages around its walls the collective name of ‘the tower hamlets’ and hence the borough’s name to this day. But why beefeaters? It’s all part of the strange mixture of palace, prison and pantomime that is the Tower of London.

Yeoman Warders at the Tower of London

The select band of beefeaters (there are 36 yeoman warders at the Tower, plus the yeoman gaoler and the chief yeoman warder) have to be a special sort: part soldier, part tour guide and ever-mindful of the solemn history of the Tower of London. There’s plenty of ceremonial to master, including the nightly Ceremony of the Keys, 900 years of history to learn and they are, should you be deceived by the colourful uniforms, all hardened professional servicemen.

There’s no shortage of men putting themselves forward for the job … but most are turned away. Even to apply for a position as a Yeoman Warder, the men have to have 19 years of service with good conduct as a senior non-commissioned offer from the Army, RAF, Royal Marines or Royal Navy. So the typical Warder is a sergeant-major, retiring in their late forties from active service.

Bloodsoaked past of Tower of London

The typical sergeant-major character comes in pretty handy with the tour guide side of the job too. Dealing all day with tourists, questions and recounting grisly tales of the Tower’s bloodsoaked past is a basic part of the job. The gallows humour, boundless self confidence and loud voice that comes from years of knocking soldiers into shape on the parade ground must come in handy.

Of course officially you’re not a Beefeater but a ‘Yeoman Warder of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London and Member of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary’. The Beefeater nickname arose from jealousy at the special privileges this elite guard enjoyed through the ages.

Ann Boleyn and the Bloody Tower

At a time when meat was an expensive luxury, rarely seen by the common people, the Yeomanry always got their ration. And in Georgian times they were still munching their way through extraordinary quantities of flesh. In 1813, the daily ration for the 30 men on duty was 18lb of mutton, 16lb of veal, and of course beef … 24lb of it.

The new Warders have to do a ‘knowledge’ of the Tower similar to that demanded of black cab drivers. Where was Ann Boleyn beheaded? (The usual answer is just below her chin)? Why is the Bloody Tower so called? What happened to the Princes in the Tower? All these and hundreds more are asked of Beefeaters every day.

German spies in Tower of London

The Warders get two uniforms, the ceremonial red-and-gold worn for state occasions, such as when the monarch visits the Tower, and the everyday blue ‘undress’ uniform. They and their families get a grace-and-favour residence at the Tower (the tidy little houses faces Tower Green) though they must own a home elsewhere so they have somewhere to go when they retire.

It is many centuries since the Tower of London was a royal palace (it was first established by William the Conqueror to secure his hold on London and the Thames of course). And it’s a long time since it was a prison, though interestingly it has been pressed back into service during times of threat to the nation.

During both World Wars, German spies were held and then executed at the Tower. The Government, recognising the propaganda value, felt that executions at this symbolic spot would have the greatest impact in Britain and Germany.

Queen’s House, Tower of London

But the Warders consider their role far more than mere symbol. Having sworn an oath of allegiance (and oath that dates back to 1337) they still take the nightly Ceremony of the Keys seriously. A Yeoman Warder hands over the prison keys to the Queen’s House within the Tower, and this most ancient of English palaces is safe for another night.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
This entry was posted in Royalty and the East End of London, Tower of London. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Beefeaters at the Tower of London

  1. susan says:

    I would like you to help me please.
    My father is deceased and he told me when I was young a family member was a Beefeater.I will submit a couple of names. (Surnames)
    Smoker not sure what country
    Wallace Scotland
    Scott Scotland

    I know it is a big ask I would appreciate it if you could help

    Cheers Susan Hawkes

  2. George.E.Smoker says:

    Hi Susan,
    You are right there was a beefeater by the name of Smoker,he was my great uncle,I have pictures of him and a plaque that is in the tower of London,
    I am 81, if I can be of any help please email me. I have the family tree going back a long way.

  3. Glenis Hunt says:

    Hi Susan and George,
    I have been told by my father in law and his sister that they had un uncle named Smoker and was chief beefeater and I’m trying to find the connection in my family tree I am hoping that you might know more

  4. Alan Springett says:

    Hi all my fathers name was Royston Albert Smoker Springett I know as a young boy he lived with Smoker (sorry don’t know other names, although I also have a photo of the plaque from the tower. My father died many years ago and would be aged about 100 yrs old now if still alive. when I was much younger my father used to alway speek of him. I am 61yrs old and live in Australia now moved here at the age of 35 and became a citizen of australia, moved back to uk age 41yrs moved back to aus age 51 still here.I would be very interested if there is a connection . Isn’t internet fantastic best regards Alan .

  5. Alan Springett says:

    Hi all my fathers name was Royston Albert Smoker Springett I know as a young boy he lived withSmoker (sorry not sure of other names ) although i also have a photo somewhere of the plaque from the tower. My father died some years ago but would be aged around 100 yrs old if still alive. when i was much younger my father used to always speak of him. I am 61 yrs old and currently live in Australia. I orginally moved here in 1988 moved back to uk in 1994 returned to aus in 2005 .I would be interested if there is any connection.I did send a message in on 29th jan 2015 via phone (google) but nothing has yet appeard on this forum, so thought i would try again . best regards Alan

  6. Janine says:

    Hello Susan, George and Glenis

    I live in Australia.

    My Grandmother Millicent Waller nee Smoker said she had an uncle? who was the Chief Warden (The Keeper of the Keys).
    I am just starting to research our family and would be very interested in anything you have on the family tree.
    This is very exciting.
    Janine Macken

  7. Margaret Springett says:

    My husband also was a descendant of George Smoker and his niece and I have the family tree plotted out showing this timeline. Also we have a copy of a newspaper showing him as Kepper of the Keys. I have a photo of the plaque in the Tower of London.

  8. Margaret Springett says:

    Sorry , should read Keeper of the Keys.

  9. Sandy Edwards says:

    Hi George
    Smoker was a great uncle of mine too! Would love to see pictures and know where the plaque is – I’ve been told about it by cousins but wouldn’t know where to look. Would appreciate any info
    Many thanks

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