England's Tower Guards Told Time Is Running Out
LONDON — THE name "Beefeaters" suggests that they are a well-fed, jolly band of men.
But the 38 splendidly attired Yeomen Warders who guard one of Britain's prime tourist attractions - the Tower of London - are far from happy and see lean times ahead.
The government has ordered that they must retire at 60, instead of 65.
And the news is producing near-mutiny in their ranks.
Brian Canderton, chairman of the union that represents the Beefeaters, straightens his flat-topped hat and squares his shoulders in his scarlet and gold Tudor-era uniform. "They have classed us as civil servants," he says. "It's an insult."
He complains that compulsory retirement at age 60 means he and other Yeomen Warders will have to give up their free lodgings within the Tower precincts five years earlier than planned.
"It affects me financially, and will change my life," Mr. Canderton explains.
Like many other Beefeaters, who earn a salary of 10,500 a year (about $16,000), he has a mortgage on a retirement home in the country and says early departure will give him money problems.
Canderton, along with many of his colleagues, is a former soldier. He moved to the Tower when he left the army after 30 years of unblemished service.
The decision to retire Beefeaters at 60 was made by Virginia Bottomley, Britain's Heritage Secretary and a senior Cabinet minister.
An official in her department said it was "in line with government policy," which is making 60 the compulsory retirement age for all civil servants.
Such arguments do little to sway men whose uniforms were designed by King Henry VII and say their job was invented by William the Conqueror.
Nor do London tourists take to the idea that the Beefeaters are mere civil servants, bound to conform with government employment policy.
An American woman, watching the Ceremony of the Keys - one of the oldest military ceremonies in the world where the gates of the castle are locked nightly - says: "They are doing a wonderful public relations job for the whole of Britain."
Her husband pipes in: "I can't imagine Beefeaters being younger men. They have to be older to look convincing."
More than 12,000 people visit the Tower of London each day in the summer, to look at the Crown Jewels and to stroll through rooms and courtyards, where distinguished victims walked to their death at the hands of the royal axe man.
Anne Boleyn, one of Henry VIII's wives, was brought up the River Thames by barge and entered the Tower through Traitor's Gate before being beheaded.
The most recent prisoner to be held in the Tower was Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy, who was incarcerated there after fleeing wartime Germany and landing his plane in Scotland.
Nobody really knows how Beefeaters got their name. Canderton and his fellow Yeomen Warders, in between feeding the Tower's resident ravens (each gets a daily ration of raw steak), will tell you that it may have been because of fondness of roast beef.
According to one account, Grand Duke Cosimo of Tuscany in 1669 described them as "great eaters of beef."
What is not in doubt is the Beefeaters' outrage at having to retire early.
But they may be on unsure ground if they base their case on a claim that they are not civil servants.
During a nationwide civil servants' strike two years ago, the Beefeaters joined in the strike. Two years earlier they managed to avoid becoming part-time switchboard operators by threatening industrial action.
This time, muses Canderton, stronger action may be necessary. "Petitioning the queen is an option," he says. "After all, we are her guards."