This week, thousands of tourists visiting the Tower of London were met by a picket line. After being told they could not strike in uniform, staff abandoned their distinctive red, navy and gold outfits for orange high-vis jackets.
The same day, staff walked out at the Tudor palace currently starring in movie The Favourite – Hampton Court Palace – following strike action at the two palaces and Kensington Palace just before Christmas.
The action by members of the PCS and GMB unions was in support of 120 workers at three of the six historic palaces, which also include the Banqueting House, Kew Palace and Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland, who are all facing pension cuts.
Among those affected are some of the iconic Beefeaters – whose presence at the Tower dates back to 1485 when Henry VII set up a special unit of soldiers to guard prisoners there – as well as a broad range of staff including conservation, admin, ticketing, retail warding staff, maintenance and gardeners.
This is despite the fact that last year the charity that runs the palaces, Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), reported record revenue of nearly £100million and a profit of £3.1million.
“The modern-day Beefeaters have all served a minimum of 22 years in the armed forces and reached the rank of warrant officer and hold the long service and good conduct medal,” one of their colleagues told me.
“They wouldn’t be on strike unless it was important. But many of the people affected by the pension changes have been here a long time, helping to make the company what it is today.”
The historic palaces are officially owned by the Queen, but the Beefeaters were at pains to stress they do not hold the Royal Household responsible. Since 1998 the palaces have been run by HRP.
“That’s who we blame,” one Beefeater said. “We’re angry we’ve been put in this position.”
When many staff joined they were civil servants with good pensions which transferred with them when the charity took over.
Since 2002, new staff members have been on inferior pensions. Now, longer-serving staff are being switched to the inferior scheme.
This is despite the fact last year was a record year for HRP, with 4.7 million total visitors to the six historic sites it manages.
The Tower alone attracts three million visitors a year and the popularity of Netflix series The Crown is only likely to increase the number of visitors to royal palaces this year.
According to the charity’s most recent financial statements, the pension plan has a deficit of £4.9million and total assets were £86.4million.
Today’s Beefeaters, who still come from the military, guard priceless royal jewels and direct tourists instead of imprisoning people in the Tower.
The origin of their nickname is disputed but may come from French slang for English people, “les rosbifs”, their love of hearty beef broths known as “beffy”, or their similarity to ceremonial bodyguards who were given a large daily ration of beef.
The staff member I spoke to said that of 1,000 or so workers, it’s only around 150 of the longest-serving, most loyal staff who are affected. “It feels like quite a small team to attack,” she said.
“And it’s the most loyal group of people.”
Staff have been told there’s no money but she points out HRP has spent £4.5million on renovating the pagoda at Kew Palace.
“And we’ve just been given staff training where they had cakes from a place called Choccywoccydoodah which we were told cost thousands of pounds – and most people never got a slice,” she says.
John Barnes, chief executive, Historic Royal Palaces, said the old pension scheme was “financially unsustainable” and the strike action would not change the decision.
“A very small group of staff went on strike earlier this week for a day over the closure of our defined-benefit pension scheme,” he said. “The strike had no impact on the day-to-day running of our sites, and we remained open throughout.”
He said trade unions had rejected a “generous” offer that included “substantial compensation”.
“This is not just about Beefeaters,” it’s much wider than that,” Michael Ainsley, GMB organiser at the palaces said.
“Pensions are a ticking time bomb.”
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, meanwhile, pointed out his members “are not paid a king’s ransom and the pension is one of the things that encourages people to stay”.
At Kew, the recent multimillion pound renovation of the pagoda featured the recreation of 80 gold gilded dragons. They had been missing since 1784 after they were sold off to settle George IV’s gambling debts.
Staff are not suggesting HRP sells off assets, but they want the dragons’ custodians to balance their right to a fair pension with upkeep of the glittering palaces they protect.
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