Princess Diana: how The Salvation Army responded to public grief in 1997

published on 25 Jul 2017

On August 31, 1997, the UK awoke to the news of Princess Diana’s tragic death. Twenty years on, the BBC is marking one of the most “extraordinary weeks in modern history” with a documentary titled, Diana, 7 Days. The film hears from people who were affected by her passing, including her sons, and looks at the public’s demonstration of grief, for which The Salvation Army was a comforting presence during the week that lead to her funeral.

Images courtesy of Sandpaper Film

Majors Muriel and Robert McClenahan, then based in Hoxton, were responsible for The Salvation Army’s emergency response in London. They remember receiving a call from the London Ambulance Service on 1 September, the day the book of condolence was opened to the public.

Major Muriel recalls: “Thousands of people had gathered during the day to pay their respects, but as night fell and the cold set in they continued to queue.

“Unfortunately many people started to feel unwell so we were asked to come to The Mall with our emergency mobile canteen to provide hot drinks and foil blankets for people through the night.

“Little did we know it at the time, but we were to stay there for the whole week, 24/7, with a rota of volunteers who continued to serve as more and more people came. Some people queued for hours.”

The McClenahans’ mobile canteen remained on The Mall until the evening before Princess Diana’s funeral on 6 September. At the request of Buckingham Palace officials, a second Salvation Army mobile canteen was stationed near the front of the Palace. Volunteers including The Salvation Army’s Major Mark Rose, who is now a corps officer (church leader) in Hendon, were there to provide practical and pastoral support to the growing crowds the night before the funeral and they stayed until the conclusion of the funeral service.

Major Mark is interviewed by the BBC’s documentary maker about his memories of that time. He remembers:

“Many people felt as though they had lost a friend when Princess Diana passed away. They needed the healing power of community to help them mourn that loss and they found it on The Mall that week.

Major Mark Rose

“Thousands of people gathered and they appreciated having The Salvation Army there. We got through 300 cups of tea an hour – some saw it as just a cup of tea, but others were drawn to talk about spirituality. Historically, loss and grief was processed much more in churches, but that week, for a secular society, The Mall became the church – that place of gathering.

“For me it was a seminal moment in history. It’s quite common now to gather in crowds to share common emotions, but back then, people often carried a stiff upper lip. Humanity needs community – it was our desire and love for God that drove us to be there to support that community, which was borne in the centre of London from people’s need to be together, to help each other, at a time of sadness.”

Major Muriel added: “Lots of people felt grief for the Princess but I remember others sharing their own grief for lost loved ones. I served tea to the former Speaker of the House of Commons, Lord Tonypandy, on one of the days – both being from Wales, we talked a bit about the Aberfan disaster and the lives lost. I think the gathering gave people a way to grieve, perhaps even permission to share grief, not just for Diana but for loved ones anywhere.

“Of course many people just wanted to be there for her, to show they cared. I remember a few days in, I got a call from an American Christian radio station. Live on air, halfway across the world, I was asked to share in prayer with their listeners. That’s the effect Princess Diana’s death had – people across the world mourned.”

Members of The Salvation Army were invited to a reception at Buckingham Palace and were personally thanked by The Queen for their service to the public.

BBC One’s, Diana 7 Days, will be broadcast at 7.30pm on Sunday 27 August.