Commander Michael Parker

Friday 04 January 2002 01:00

John Michael Avison Parker, naval officer and courtier: born Melbourne, Victoria 23 June 1920; Equerry-in-Waiting to Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh 1947-52; Private Secretary to the Duke of Edinburgh 1947-52; MVO 1953, CVO 1957; AM 1995; married 1943 Eileen Allan (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1958), 1962 Carol Thompson (one daughter, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved), 1976 Jean Ramsay; died Melbourne 29 December 2001.

Michael Parker was best known as a friend of the Duke of Edinburgh and his sometime Private Secretary. This was unfair to Parker, a man who was a strong and endearing figure in his own right and who enjoyed a distinguished naval career before his royal relationship, and a colourful but successful business life after his untimely departure from royal employment in 1957.

Parker was born in Melbourne in 1920, the son of a captain in the Royal Australian Navy. On the outbreak of the Second World War Mike Parker joined the Royal Navy on the characteristic grounds that by doing so he was more likely to see action and could also not be charged with winning promotion because of parental influence. In June 1942 Prince Philip of Greece was posted as a sub-lieutenant to the same destroyer flotilla as Parker.

Although Parker was breezy and gregarious, he was also something of a loner. He had a typically Australian ambivalence about authority and a strong streak of independence, not to say competitiveness, which was mirrored in the faintly mysterious Prince Philip. Once, looking across at Prince Philip on the deck of his rival destroyer, Parker said to himself, "You're a poor bloody orphan, just like me!"

Parker later fought at the Battle of Narvik, an engagement he recalled many years later when he was the Master's guest on the QE2. He graphically described how the German ships were closer to him than the length of the Cunarder's upper deck. He could see the whites of the enemy gunners' eyes.

In 1944 Parker and Prince Philip came together again in the Far East, where they served in sister ships of the 27th Destroyer Flotilla, and their friendship really developed. They spent a memorably high- spirited leave together in Australia.

Then, after the marriage in 1947 of Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth, Parker was appointed equerry when the young couple took up residence at Clarence House. This was by all accounts an extraordinarily happy period although, despite the elder-statesmanlike presence of Lt-Gen "Boy" Browning as Treasurer to the Household, the old-school establishment of the day regarded the young Duke of Edinburgh and his maverick Australian friend as distinctly dodgy. King George VI was a supportive exception to this rule but others, including Winston Churchill, were suspicious if not positively antipathetic. Parker was riled by this and made little attempt to conceal his irritation with what he regarded as the stuffier elements of British society.

It fell to Parker, in February 1952, to tell Prince Philip the unexpected news of the King's death. The Edinburghs were on a visit to East Africa at the time and Parker remembered how, on hearing of his father-in-law's death, Philip looked "as if you'd dropped half the world on him".

Parker continued to serve at Court, becoming Prince Philip's private secretary and remaining a thorn in the flesh of the Establishment. He and Churchill had a particularly crusty exchange during the build-up to the Coronation when Parker arranged for Prince Philip to use helicopters to enable him to meet as many visiting Commonwealth troops as possible. Churchill asked Parker if it was his intention to destroy the entire Royal Family. The Prime Minister regarded helicopters as impossibly new-fangled and dangerous – a suspicion which he evidently extended to Parker himself, if not to his boss.

In 1956 Prince Philip sailed with a small staff including Parker on the Royal Yacht Britannia. This round-the-world trip was prompted by an invitation for Prince Philip to open the Olympic Games in Melbourne and was used as an opportunity to visit some of the more far-flung outposts of the Commonwealth where royal appearances were virtually unknown. The press, however, decided to treat this lengthy trip as if it were some sort of jamboree and rumours even appeared about a "royal rift".

At the same time, Parker's marriage ran into difficulties and his wife, Eileen, sued him for divorce. Parker quixotically decided to fall on his sword, resigning his position and flying back to London from Gibraltar. At Heathrow he was greeted by hordes of reporters as well as his old sparring partner, Commander Richard Colville, the Queen's resolutely old-fashioned Press Secretary.

Parker first thought that Colville had come to offer support but said that in fact Colville told him, "I've just come to let you know that from now on you're on your own." Colville's supporters believe there must be some mistake about this story but to Parker it confirmed all his suspicions of the "Old Guard" at Buckingham Palace and in the corridors of power.

Despite his resignation, Parker remained on close terms with both his former employers; corresponded regularly with them and always called in at Buckingham Palace when he was in London. He was courteous and helpful to royal biographers and journalists, although he never lost an understandably jaundiced attitude towards some members of the press. When one popular London paper asked him to name his sum for an interview to mark Prince Philip's 80th birthday, his response was "They can't afford me because I simply don't trust the bastards".

For a time he worked with the Lockheed aircraft corporation in Europe but later returned to Australia where he was involved in a number of business ventures. Even in his late seventies he was still bubbling with excitement over his scheme to send Russian satellites into space from the old rocket range at Woomera in South Australia.

He lived most recently in the Toorak district of Melbourne, where he took to painting and was the patriarch of a large extended family. Ill-health took its toll, though he remained indomitable as ever. It was entirely characteristic that it took a combination of cancer, pneumonia, a stroke and a heart attack finally to account for him.

Tim Heald

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