Pic of the day. Tuesday, October 10th

[Pic: Rob Coles]

A recent image l published of a Union flag – hanging from a broken rope – brought back memories for our ‘man with a cam’ Rob Coles.

He writes:

‘When HRH Princess Anne gave birth to her first child, on 15th May 1981, it was not known by those in charge of protocol of such things whether the event merited the flying of the flag on the Empire Hotel – then being the Ministry of Defence and a Crown Building.   

It was  decided, locally, that it should so Earnest, whose office was on the first floor, was tasked with hoisting the flag, and being ex Royal Navy he knew about such things.

Out of his office and down corridor trots Ern, with flag under arm, into lift to fourth floor, up wooden stairs to floor not served by lift, out of a window, up a vertical iron ladder, over the battlements, onto the roof of the “castle” tower and flag pole. 

The ladder can still be seen from Orange Grove and – take it from me – it is un-nerving to look straight down to the pavement from the ladder.

With flag correctly hoisted Ern returns over the battlements, down the ladder, through the window, down the wooden stairs, lift to first floor and office.  No sooner is a cup of tea poured,  a phone call is received from  London, “the birth does not merit the flying of the flag”.   

Off Ern goes, corridor, lift, stairs, window ladder, battlements, roof and lowers flag. He retraces his steps with flag to a cold cup of tea.

Phone call from London, “sorry correct protocol instructs that the flag should be flown.  Out of office, corridor, lift etc, up the pole goes the flag again and Ern goes back to his office. 

Phone call from Army Officer living in Bathwick Hill, “why is your flag at half mast, suggests Ern should check”.  Ern goes out of office corridor this time to ground floor, into Orange Grove, and yes, the flag is at half mast. 

This time starting from the ground floor, lift, stairs, ladder, battlements, roof and flag raised to full height. Retracing his steps Ern returns to his office in time to go to lunch

Where is Ernest when we need him!

PS. I forgot to mention that Earnest was an excellent railway photographer and sound recordest and that was how we met!’


  1. Great story. When Bath Arts Workshop were lent the soon to be developed Cleveland Hotel in Pulteney Street for their alternative festival, my carpenter friend and I decided to surprise everyone by erecting a huge cartoon cloud cutout on the roof. The cloud was that year’s festival logo. Imagine carrying all that plywood, paint, struts etc up in a tiny lift, then stairs and then up a wobbly stepladder through a hatch into the space between the two rooves. Frequent journeys down to the street to view it. Of course, you couldn’t see it, so we made it higher and higher. Finally it was just about viewable so I had the idea of going up to Camden Road to check it out, We were so excited but even with binoculars there was no sign of it We hurried back to find bits of our creation scattered around the neighbourhood, including on the pavement in Pulteney Street. The wind had caught it, and it had broken up and blown away, taking several roof tiles with it. Most of it had landed in the rear ‘area’ and luckily nobody was hurt. At least we didn’t have to carry it all down again at the end of festival fortnight!

  2. I worked in the Empire in the late ‘70s and then again in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, until it closed, and staff moved to the new Pinesgate Building (near Sainsbury’s). During its period of tenure, the MOD did the absolute minimum of care and maintenance, apart from the occasional lick of paint on the walls, but the structure itself was largely untouched (no doubt because of its listed-building status). So former bedrooms became individual offices and the main reception rooms, large open-plan offices. The huge wall mirrors remained in the old ballroom, with cabinets and cupboards placed in front of them. Wash basins and fireplaces were undisturbed and former bathrooms simply became loos – with the baths and washbasins more or less intact. The staircase was supported by scaffolding but no efforts were made to carry out whatever repairs were deemed necessary. And the gilded Edwardian mirrors remained on the staircase walls. We were instructed not to go out on to the balconies, because they were deemed unsafe, and not allowed to move filing cabinets or cupboards without clearing it with building maintenance beforehand – presumably in case they went through the floor/ceiling beneath. I believe that the original revolving front door was found in the basement (along with many other ‘treasures’), when the MOD moved out. The Grand Pump Room Hotel (now Arlington House) and the Pulteney Hotel were amongst the other buildings requisitioned by the Admiralty/MOD in 1939, but none remained in MOD hands for as long as the Empire. But I have to say that I loved working there: the quirkiness of the place added interest to the world of work, and visitors were always fascinated by it. People even still came in to see if they could book a room! I subsequently worked in other ‘quirky’ MOD buildings in London: The Old War Office; Old Admiralty Building; and Admiralty Arch itself. But none had quite the same fascination for me as the Empire. It always amuses me to look up at the floors where my offices were (now rather grand apartments). And there must (still) be many more who do likewise. Long may it stand!

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