By Jennifer Thorpe
Jean Alice Rowcliffe has always dreamed big. Growing up in London, Ontario, Jean was rooted in her English-Scottish ancestry, besotted with the history and literature of England and inspired by all things royal. While other teenaged girls were swept up in Beatlemania, Jean was a devoted Anglophile drawn to the mysteries of Stonehenge, Arthurian legend, and the romance of a real-life Heathcliffe. Inspired by her parents to “never live with regret,” Jean wrote a list. She was only twelve-years old but that list proved to be the beginning of a great adventure.
Jean’s adventure “Upstairs Downstairs – My Life With The Royals And Beyond” was presented on Saturday, May 12th by the St Marys Museum and the Stonetown Grans to a sold-out audience at the historic St Marys Town Hall Auditorium.
The Auditorium was decorated splendidly by the Stonetown Grans; draped in Union Jack pennants and flags, the historic Town Hall was transported back to a patriotic time with strong colonial ties. The stage was set with many items from Jean’s personal collection, including her son James’s Make-A-Wish photo with Barack Obama and her early uniform from palace days, which the audience enjoyed viewing during intermission.
The afternoon opened with a greeting and blessing from Patsy Day, followed by a brief talk on the history and important work of the Stonetown Grans from Nancy Vermond before the audience welcomed Jean to the stage.
Eloquent, intelligent and humorous, Jean regaled her audience with stories that were as poignant as they were fascinating. A selection of accompanying photos, documents, tickets and momentos were projected onto a large onstage screen throughout, providing further insight into the opulent world of the royals and into Jean’s later work and life. Her journey from London, Ontario to “Downstairs” Dining Room Assistant at Buckingham Palace, to “Upstairs” Norland Nanny for Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, living next door to Charles and Dianna at Kensington Palace, captivated the audience entirely.
Her incredible story began with her list. Jean came across her original list, written some fifty years ago, while preparing for her presentation. Sharing it on-screen, there were a few items not yet realized: raising sheep in Scotland, playing the harpsichord, supporting artists. But her achievements greatly outnumbered those few items. In addition to travelling to Venice, and Paris, and swimming in all the oceans (excepting the Indian ocean), Jean had boldly written: work for the Queen/King.
When, at fifteen, she announced that she was going to work for the Queen, her friends thought she was “totally nuts.” Nevertheless, Jean persisted and, after lengthy hand-written correspondence with the Master Of The Household at Buckingham Palace, Jean received an invitation for an interview in 1974.
Her supportive parents took her to England and from the moment she stepped onto the tarmac at Heathrow, she felt like she was returning to an ancient home. Never doubting her success, she surprised her mother, who secretly thought nothing would come of this and they would all soon be back in Canada, by being offered a position as Dining Room Assistant. In September 1974, Jean Alice Rowcliffe moved into Buckingham Palace to begin her work “Downstairs.” She was seventeen years old.
Her insights and knowledge of running of a royal household were of great interest to the audience who appreciated the details about footmen hired to polish silver and gold all day long or hired for their small stature so they could walk down the longest table in the world – in stocking feet – to place the heavy silver.
And, as if tales of palaces and royal households weren’t enough, her post-intermission story continued with an interview by none other than Ivana Trump – a position she declined gladly – when she decided to work in America. After many interviews, she decided to accept a position with writer Danielle Steele and moved to California, where she also later worked for Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post.
Her work has taken her all over the world, but in San Francisco Jean’s dream of marriage and a child of her own came true; in 1991, she gave birth to her son, James. While Jean continues to be in touch with her “first babies,” the children of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, it was obvious to everyone just how special her son James was. Princess Michael would visit his public school to fundraise, and her son, Prince Frederick, was James’ godfather.
Though her own marriage ended in 2003, Jean remained committed to serving families. She started a non-profit organization The Village Well in 2007, a community support centre that served over two thousand families and also provided music, art and story-time to families living in homeless shelters.
Sadly, Jean lost her son to a form of rare cancer in 2009 and decided to return home to London to care for her aging mother. Working through her grief, Jean wrote the memoir, “The Last Tear,” a book she wanted to read in her darkest hours but couldn’t find. It took her a year to write.
Now a resident of St Marys, Jean continues to work as a “modern-day Mary Poppins,” providing short-term maternal and new-born support with work taking her from Switzerland to Geneva to Beyreuth and beyond. Two years ago, her work with a bereaved family was featured in the first of Becel’s “Baking With Heart” series; it has been viewed on YouTube over a million times and was shared with the audience at the Town Hall at the close of the program. Amy Cubberley of the St Marys Museum presented her with a lovely bouquet of flowers and sincere thanks.
Jean graciously took questions following her presentation, answering queries about the response to Princess Dianna’s death (shocking to see how the country was plunged into such sorrow), whether there was air conditioning in the nursery on the top floor of Kensington Palace (no, there wasn’t), and if she received a Christmas present from the Queen (yes, she did, and a private audience on Christmas Day when she worked “Upstairs.”). Her audience stayed afterwards for a book signing.
Today, Jean is grateful for her rich journey. She loves this community and couldn’t be happier to live in St. Marys. “There’s no better time than today to embrace an opportunity. Stay open to all things. At sixty-two, it’s good to know there is still much to explore.”