A stones throw away from where our tour begins you will find the Tower of London, a building with a story every bit as sinister and as gruesome as the story of Jack the Ripper. There are many famous things to see at the Tower. The torture chambers, the Crown Jewels and the ravens to name but a few. But amongst the most famous of the attractions are the Yeoman Warders or, as they’re better known throughout the world, the Beefeaters.
Why Beefeaters? Well, to be honest, nobody knows for certain. One theory is that it was possibly acquired during the days when part of their wages was paid in beef, as well as mutton or veal.
There are 34 of them in all, including one woman, Moira Cameron, who in 2007 became the first female Beefeater, amid much publicity, and a Chief Warder. They all live in the Tower of London along with their families, if applicable, in what is known as tied accommodation – lodgings that are provided as part of the job.
Theirs is a very tightly-knit, integrated community. They all live and work together every day and even have their own club for socialising – out of bounds to the public. It’s almost like a little village and here, if you like, is the village green and village church.
The Yeoman Warders are the ceremonial guards of the Tower of London. In days of old, they were the actual guardians of the Tower and their responsibilities included maintaining the security of the fortress, keeping an eye on prisoners and protecting the Crown Jewels.
These days their role is more symbolic – in the morning, they open up the complex to the tourists who flock here in their thousands, they give their entertaining and informative tours around the site every half hour every during the day; and at night, they lock up the Tower in a ritual that has taken place for over seven hundred years, whatever the weather, in peace or wartime, called the Ceremony of the Keys.
This is a daily event that the general public is welcome to attend (although you do need to apply in writing well in advance) and it begins at 9.53 every evening, when the Chief Yeoman Warder appears from the Byward Tower, down by the river where we began our tour, and makes his way along Water Lane carrying a candle lantern in one hand and the Queen’s Keys in the other.
There, he is joined by an armed guard of four men and together, they take a tour of the precincts, locking each of the gates that lead from the Tower.
As they pass through the bloodyTower, they are challenged by the sentry there on duty who shouts “Halt. Who comes there?” “The keys.”, comes the reply. “Whose keys?” “Queen Elizabeth’s keys” “Pass, Queen Elizabeth’s keys. All’s well”. The Escort to the Keys then proceeds through the bloodyTower, whereupon the Chief Warder raises his hat and calls out “God Save Queen Elizabeth”, to which the guard and the assembled Yeoman Warders all respond “Amen”. As the first note of ten o’clock strikes, the last post is sounded and the Chief Warder marches off to lodge the keys in the Queen’s House for the night.
This is one of the unique traditions of this country and it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end – fabulous! Many people who take our Jack the Ripper Tour like to attend the ceremony after the walk as it’s just a short walk away from Mitre Square where our walk ends. However, it is popular, space is limited and you must book in advance. Here are the details should you wish to book.
How exactly do you get to be a Yeoman Warder?
Well – simple. Actually, not that simple. You need to have served in the British Armed Forces for at least 22 years and possess an unblemished record, or as the Beefeaters themselves put it – with 22 years of undetected crime.
So the current contingent has seen active service in places as far afield asNorthern Ireland, the Falklands,Bosnia, Gulf War One and Gulf War Two andAfghanistan. Then they apply for the position and this can take a long time – an existing Yeoman Warder has to retire and move out before a new Beefeater can move in and take his place. Still, it is position of great honour and privilege and, as I mentioned earlier, one of the most important parts of the Tower.