Beefeaters mourn fading tradition

The guardians of the Tower fear early retirement is the beginning of the end. Steve Boggan reports
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Perhaps only the ghost of Anne Boleyn groans louder than the Beefeaters in the Tower of London these days.

Among the blue- and red-robed yeomanry of the ancient palace, an air of gloom has descended. The old soldiers still pose for tourists, but onlookers may have noticed that recent smiles look more like grimaces.

The reason for the despondency is the decision to pension off the 38 Yeoman Warders at 60 instead of 65, a move designed to save money for the Government but one which has thrown the Beef-eaters' retirement plans into chaos.

"After we left the Armed Forces, most of us had planned to contribute to pensions or to keep paying mortgages until we were 65," one Beefeater told the Independent yesterday. "But, completely without warning, we were told we'd be retired at 60."

As warders are given cheap accommodation inside the Tower as a perk, many are concerned about the high cost of returning to the outside world.

The decision to pension off the Beefeaters early was made within the Department of National Heritage in line with government policy to reduce civil service pensionable ages to 60. Within the department, the Historic Royal Palaces Agency was obliged to follow suit.

Its 445 staff, including warders, gardeners and other workers at the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace, are all affected by the decision, but the Yeoman Warders are particularly vulnerable. They are all former members of the Armed Forces with at least 22 years service. On joining, they must be under 50, they must have attained the rank of warrant officer or staff sergeant and they must be in possession of a long-service good-conduct medal.

Although they will be in receipt of a modest forces pension, their Civil Service pension will be smaller than they expected because of their limited service - most were approaching 50 when they were appointed.

"It's really going to mess things up for a lot of us," said another Beefeater yesterday. "This is all about money and cost-effectiveness - they don't give a toss about heritage. We pride ourselves on our loyalty and dedication to this job, but loyalty's a double-edged sword. Morale is very low among the men."

The warders, whose pounds 10,500-a-year job includes conducting guided tours, helping tourists, and performing historic ceremonies, are concerned that their numbers are to be cut.

One said pressure was on to introduce part-time Beefeaters living outside the Tower. Another said he believed plans were afoot to clear out the warders and use their family accommodation as hotel rooms.

"They've done it at Hampton Court and now we believe they plan to do it here," he said. "Bit by bit they'll get us out, use our rooms for rich tourists and bring in part-timers living outside. There should be 42 of us but they've just appointed a 39th and we understand he's been told he'll have to live outside."

David Beeton, chief executive of the Historic Royal Palaces Agency, said he sympathised with the Beefeaters' predicament but he denied that parts of the Tower would be let to tourists.

"I am very concerned that morale is low and, given the circumstances, I can understand how the men can add two and two and make five. But we're planning to open up more sections of the Tower so we may need more, not fewer warders."