Buckingham Palace secrets exposed – from stinking sewage to rat troubles

From party-loving princes to heartbroken heirs, Alexander Armstrong is digging up the royal drama behind the king’s abode in Channel 5’s Buckingham Palace With Alexander Armstrong. Although, not everything he’s discovered is as glamorous as seen in The Crown.

“The palaces didn’t have any flushing loos until the Victorian era,” he reveals. “The kings and queens had a ‘chamber’ but there was no provision for guests – all thousands and thousands of them!

“It meant guests would make a point of not eating or drinking for hours before going! In fact, the sanitation issue was one that clung to the palace like a, well, a bad smell. Most of the waste was just slung into a cesspit in the cellars and, consequently, the palace, for all its gilded glory, absolutely stank.”

The Pointless host is joined by Strictly star JJ Chalmers and archaeologist Raksha Dave throughout this series, detailing how the landmark palace has been transformed since it was first occupied by King George III.

“It’s the social history of Buckingham Palace, but told through the actual structure itself,” JJ says. “So taking
you through its journey from being Buckingham House to the Buckingham Palace we know today.”

Since becoming a royal residence in 1761, Buckingham Palace has seen numerous renovations, with the original house being “subsumed into the mega- scale building” that’s fit for a king. “I imagine it’s what it must be like if an old friend goes off to become a bodybuilder,” Alexander says.

However, despite its grandeur, the historic building has faced a number of challenges over the centuries – including terrible rat troubles.

“At the time of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s wedding, the palace itself and its staff were in an appalling state,” Alexander says. “It was overrun with rats, the whole building was pretty squalid. But they pulled it off – and conditions improved.”

This was partly down to the monarch hiring her own rat-catcher named Jack Black. “No, not the rock star actor!” Raksha says. “But a bona fide Victorian gentleman who was incredibly proud of his job. He was quite a colourful character and proudly wore a sash embroidered with the Queen’s initials and the profiles of two rats.”

After discovering that Buckingham Palace was “riddled with vermin,” Raksha says the documentary should “dispel the myths of luxurious palaces” and instead will expose them as “cumbersome, draughty, smelly places”.

“I can’t really imagine working there in the past, they didn’t have all the mod-cons, tech and sanitation, like proper drains and flushing loos! There would have been endless walking, fetching and carrying,” she adds. “In some regards Buckingham Palace is too big. If I was the sovereign, I’d think seriously about downsizing!”

While the palace was large, Alexander reveals he was “really touched” to discover it was home to a “tight” community under Queen Victoria, who was surprisingly warm and generous to her servants. “She has a reputation of such ‘we-are-not-amused’ starchiness – and clearly she was a formidable person who wouldn’t suffer fools, gladly or otherwise – but her affections were extremely strong and she was fiercely loyal to those who looked after her,” he adds.

And the rotten revelations concerning the royals’ toilet situation didn’t stop The Palace’s presenters from being dazzled by the property. “I’ve always been starstruck about the palace – it’s such a famous building. Growing up in Northumberland, coming up to London as a child was very rare and about the most exciting thing imaginable,” Alexander says, adding that no landmark was as “truly jaw-dropping to see in the flesh” as Buckingham Palace.

“As a building, it’s not cosy, nor I suppose is it very lovely – it’s just this great big edifice, after all – but it is momentous and it is right at the heart of our nation. I adore it.”

Meanwhile, learning about the building’s scintillating secrets gave new meaning to the “personal connection”
JJ Chalmers had with it. “I will look at Buckingham Palace differently every time now, particularly when I work on Trooping the Colour,” JJ says.

“I look at the royals on the balcony, knowing that 25 metres beneath the surface of Buckingham Palace there’s actually a river,” he says, adding that it’s “tall enough that someone could stand upright” while “wearing a top hat”.

Meanwhile, Raksha’s highlight of the whole show was dressing up in a Georgian ballgown during one afternoon of filming. “The real purpose of these ridiculous clothes was to look like a Christmas tree decoration in the hope of securing your future – otherwise known as nabbing a husband.”

“Let’s just say I channelled my inner Bridgerton!” she adds. “If Shonda Rhimes happens to be reading this – I am available.” Let’s hope the chamber pots don’t make it into the Netflix drama’s new season…

The Palace airs Saturday 29th July at 9:15pm on Channel 5.