James Orr: Private secretary to Prince Philip
Monday 01 September 2008
James Orr was Private Secretary to the Duke of Edinburgh from 1957 to 1970. The two had first met as pupils at Gordonstoun in Scotland in the 1930s where Orr, who had dropped out of Harrow, became head boy or, in the Platonic idiom adopted by the school's founder, Kurt Hahn, "Guardian". Orr always remembered the younger boy for his friendliness, sense of fun, complete lack of swankiness, particularly where his royal relations were concerned, and his "white, white hair".
After school, Orr went to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, after which he enlisted in the British South Africa Police, spending much of his time policing occupied Ethiopia and Eritrea until 1949. In the Fifties he transferred to Kenya, where he served with the police once more.
In 1956 he was standing on the quayside in Mombasa when the Royal Yacht Britannia docked. The ship was on a controversial voyage, taking Prince Philip to open the Melbourne Commonwealth Games and from there to remote pink dots on the map which members of the royal family did not usually visit – such places as Ascension, St Helena and Antarctic bases that were only inhabited for 20 days in the year. The Prince was amazed to find his old Gordonstoun head in Mombasa and after expressing his surprise he invited Orr on board for a gin and tonic.
At the end of the voyage, Mike Parker, Prince Philip's ebullient Australian Private Secretary, resigned as the result of divorce proceedings brought by his wife, although there were those who felt this was a smokescreen to distract attention from rumours of a "royal rift". Orr was appointed as Parker's successor. The two men could not have been more different. Where Parker had been hail-fellow-well-met, an iconoclastic egalitarian, Orr was more deferential, polite and inclined to avoid rocking the boat no matter what. "'He was My Fag, But He's the Master Now,' said Jimmy With a Wink" was one newspaper headline that greeted the appointment. Orr hated it, not only because he loathed all publicity but because he had never spoken to the paper concerned and also because it was inaccurate. There was never any fagging at Gordonstoun.
For the next 13 years, Orr ran Prince Philip's household, together with Rear-Admiral Christopher Bonham-Carter, who succeeded Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick "Boy" Browning. Orr did so in a courteous, self-effacing manner which gave full rein to his boss's exuberant personality.
Although Orr always remained in the background, this did not suppress a sardonic sense of humour and a keen facility for observation. In later years he remembered how Prince Philip, when wearing a bearskin low over his eyes at the annual Queen's Birthday Parade, always said that it felt as if it were raining. Standing next to President Dwight D Eisenhower's Press Secretary, Jim Hegarty, as the Royal Yacht steamed magnificently down the newly opened St Lawrence Seaway in 1959, Orr was asked whether he had seen the presidential yacht. When he said no, Hegarty, all too familiar with the White House cabin cruiser which tootled up and down the Potomac from time to time, breathed a sigh of relief, and said "Thank God for that." Small wonder that Orr, like other traditionalists, believed in preserving the trappings of monarchy.
Orr always remembered the Gordonstoun years when the boys, many exiled from Germany, were suspected by the locals of being Nazi spies. He often remarked when analysing his previous boss, "You must remember that he is more German than English."
In 1970 he left royal service, becoming an "Extra Equerry" and spending the rest of his working life as Secretary of the Medical Commission on Accident Prevention. His retirement was spent in Shepperton in Surrey, where he lived alone with what to others was a distinctly unappealing dog which was nevertheless scrupulously loyal to its master. His main recreations were horse-racing and cricket, both of which he followed assiduously.
James Bernard Vivian Orr, courtier: born 19 November 1917; Private Secretary to the Duke of Edinburgh 1957-70, Extra Equerry 1970-2008; CVO (1968); died Uxbridge, Middlesex 14 June 2008.
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