First female Beefeater takes post guarding famed Tower of London

Yeoman Warder Moira Cameron, left, the first female Beefeater, poses for pictures along with male colleagues, at the Tower of London on Monday. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, LEFTERIS PITARAKIS


Yeoman Warder Moira Cameron, left, the first female Beefeater, poses for pictures along with male colleagues, at the Tower of London on Monday. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, LEFTERIS PITARAKIS

By Robert Barr

LONDON – The first woman to join the ranks of the Beefeaters in more than 500 years has mastered the Ceremony of the Keys, the nightly locking-up ritual of the Tower of London guards.

But she says she is still learning the bloody history of the site that holds the Crown Jewels to prepare for guiding more than 2 million visitors every year.

Dressed in a dark blue coat with red trim and matching top hat, Moira Cameron on Monday became the first female Beefeater, or Yeoman Warder, since the corps of Tower guards was founded in 1485. She told The Associated Press the medieval castle is a wonderful place to work.

“You do the job for prestige, and because you meet people every day,” she said. She relishes contact with visitors after 22 years of desk work as an army accountant.

“It’s wonderful to meet these people because they so want to be here and are interested in anything you can tell them. And you can have a really good laugh with them as well,” she said.

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The Tower, arguably Britain’s most famous historic site, was founded by King William I shortly after he conquered England in 1066. Henry III started his coronation procession from the site in 1236, a royal tradition that persisted into the 17th century. The fortress is also home to Britain’s Crown Jewels including St. Edward’s Crown, worn by Queen Elizabeth II during her 1953 coronation.

Cameron, 42, started dreaming of a job in the Tower after six years in the army. But back then, she doubted whether she would last the minimum of 22 years’ service required to apply.

The attraction is the “depth of history” in the place, she said.

While there was never any formal ban on female Beefeaters, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said it was only recently that many women, who can now count maternity leave as part of their service in the forces, were notching up as many years as men.

Chief Yeoman Warder John Keohane said the guards had anticipated that a woman would one day join their ranks, and only one or two had expressed reservations.

“She’s been here for two months and been accepted by the community,” said Keohane, very much the traditional image of a bearded Beefeater.

Cameron, who was chosen in December and has been training at the Tower since July, said only one visitor had expressed strong objections to her appointment. She shot back: “I’d like to thank you for dismissing my 22 years of loyal service to Her Majesty’s services.”

Yeoman Sgt. Alan Kingshott, a member of the selection panel, said Cameron’s voice made a strong impression at her job interview where each candidate makes a short presentation.

“We like to see whether they have the presence, the bearing, the voice to be able to put it across … in front of 300 people,” he said. “She’s from Scotland. She’s got a lovely tone to her voice.”

Cameron relished telling the story of a fellow Scot who got away from the Tower in the 18th century.

“There was a Lord Nithsdale. He was part of the Jacobite rebellion, who actually escaped,” she said. “His wife, she came in with her lady in waiting and dressed him up in a frock, and he escaped.”

Cameron found the Beefeaters’ distinctive Victorian costume an improvement over the meager provision of plain army uniforms.

“Now I’ve got these wonderful huge pockets,” she said, revealing the pockets beneath her coattails.

“Because of the style of the coat you can’t see whatever it is in my pockets. I’ve got a bottle of water, my phone, my diary.”

Cameron says she is still learning the rich history of the Tower.

Famous prisoners have included Sir Walter Raleigh, three times; Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up Parliament; Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess; Roger Casement, later executed for his role in plotting an Irish uprising during World War I; Samuel Pepys, the diarist accused of selling naval secrets to the French; and Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth I.

The Beefeater nickname is thought to derive from the guards’ former privilege of having their fill of beef from the king’s table. Formally, they are Yeoman Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Members of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary.

Cameron succeeded after two other women failed in earlier applications to become Yeoman Warders.

“I didn’t think I’d actually get the job, and I’ve already retrained myself to be a plumber and an electrician,” she said.

There was no big celebration in December when she learned that she had been chosen.

“There was no one at home except my brother’s dog,” she said, laughing. “There was only the dog to dance with.”