How many men can say they have had their portrait drawn by the Prince of Wales, presented Princess Diana with a wedding gift on her honeymoon, sailed around the world eight times, was given an affectionate nickname by the Queen, was picked out of a crowd at Portchester by Princess Anne, and cut the Duke of Edinburgh’s hair?
Just one. Ellis Norrell, 83, a royal yachtsman in Britannia for 35 years.
Ellis was born in Portland, Dorset, grew up in Littlehampton and went to Chichester High School.
His father, Charles, was also a royal yachtsman serving in the previous yacht, Victoria & Albert III.
Ellis joined the Royal Navy as a boy seaman at HMS St Vincent, Gosport, on October 4, 1949, three months short of his 16th birthday.
On passing out he was drafted to the navy’s last big-gun ship, the battleship HMS Vanguard. He later put his name down to volunteer for a new royal yacht that was being built on the Clyde – Britannia.
In 1953 while at HMS Terror, Singapore, he was ordered to an interview and having passed was flown home for a second. This was conducted on board the outgoing yacht Victoria & Albert III in front of four commanders.
He passed this interview and was told he had been accepted. He then joined the 83rd royal yacht when still under the Red Ensign in 1953.
After sea trials and working up she sailed for Portsmouth arriving on February 25. Portsmouth would be her permanent home for the next 43 years.
A few months later and Ellis was on the yacht’s first voyage. Along with the young Prince Charles and Princess Anne, then aged five and three, they sailed to Tobruk to meet their parents. The yacht then set sail on the first of her 948 official voyages and Ellis was on every trip until 1988 when he retired.
Royal yacht sailors were the cream of the navy. Life on board was strict and the men had to be on their best behaviour when on shore leave.
Any misdemeanour and you were despatched back to general service.
Their uniform was a little different from the normal square rig of the time. Their jumpers were tucked into the waist of their trousers and whereas general service sailors had seven creases across the lower leg, royal yachtsmen ironed their trousers flat with no creases at all. No belt was worn as a gusset at the back of the trousers kept the waist tight.
The footwear on board was white gym shoes. Originally they had black soles but Ellis told me they marked the gleaming wooden decks and were soon changed to white soles. I asked Ellis what the sleeping arrangements were like in the lower deck. He says: ‘Could have been better. Very cramped and until 1974 hammocks were still in use on the yacht. Even after the refit of that year it was very cramped for those down below.
‘The relationship between yachtsmen and general service sailors was amicable. Considering the perks of the job I was quite amazed.’
Was the food on board special? ‘In the early days the food was somewhat ‘‘take it or leave it’’ for the lower decks. Rationing had come to an end but servicemen’s families never had enough.
‘Some men took home flasks of soup as they were in such dire straits. At that time, men ashore were paid an allowance to feed themselves which always helped with the family budget.’
I asked what the routine was when the royal family were aboard.
‘If you were in a gangway and a member of the family passed by, you had to stand stock still until they passed.’
Over the years hundreds of famous people from kings and queens to world leaders, prime ministers and film and stage stars were welcomed aboard. Who impressed Ellis the most?
Without pausing he said: ‘Margaret Thatcher. She was the most down to earth person. She talked to everyone, no airs or graces. One famous woman who had a drink in the senior rates mess was President Reagan’s wife Nancy.’
I asked Ellis who least impressed him. ‘No one in particular,’ he replied.
One of the ship’s company’s favourite times was family days when they could take their friends and families on board, obviously when the royal family were not present.
Ellis’s late wife Grace visited the ship many times along with their three daughters.
Ellis told me the Queen was a wonderful, warm person. The Duke of Edinburgh could be a little brusque at times ‘but all right most of the time’.
The Queen had such a relationship Ellis and she had a pet name for him, Nollie.
He told me a story about Palmerston Island, an atoll and part of the Cook Islands in the Pacific 2,000 miles east of New Zealand. In 1863 a sailor by the name of Marsters, originally from the west country, jumped ship and took several Polynesian women with him to Palmerston Island where he annexed it from the British.
As the women began to learn English so they did so with a west country accent. Ellis says: ‘We visited this island in the late 1950s. Prince Philip and Lord Mountbatten stepped ashore from the rubber dingy and were greeted with these people talking as if they came from deepest Gloucestershire. It was very strange and quite funny as well.’
I then asked Ellis about Diana, Princess of Wales.
He says: ‘Oh, she was marvellous. We took the Prine and Princess of Wales on their honeymoon trip around the Greek islands. One day we came back to the yacht after a picnic ashore. Diana arrived on one of the yacht’s boats first and on coming aboard she disappeared.
‘A while later Charles arrived. As he reached the top of the gangway he was soaked to the skin by a shower of water. I thought someone’s head would roll as they might have left a hose running or something. Nothing like it.
‘Diana had gone up to the verandah deck and asked one of the seamen for a bucket which she filled with water.
‘She then threw it all over her new husband from the upper deck soaking him, the future king of England. She couldn’t stop laughing. Of course, we all tried to keep straight faces but it wasn’t easy.’
During the honeymoon Charles and Diana were presented with a large engraved glass goblet from the crew.
It was during another cruise to the Persian Gulf that Ellis was asked to sit for Prince Charles so he could draw him.
‘The prince had been taking drawing lessons from a professional artist. He asked me to sit for him. At the end of the session he let me have the drawing. I wonder how many other people have anything like it?’ It is now one of Ellis’s most treasured possessions.
And cutting Prince Philip’s hair? There was no barber on board so Ellis and his mates bought cutting equipment. They practiced on members of the crew for three weeks and when proficient charged a nominal sum for their service.
It was then that the duke asked Ellis to cut his hair.
Another anecdote Ellis told me was of a visit to Fiji. It was the custom to present the head of state with a whole roasted pig. Several locals in costume carried the still-warm pig, dripping juices, up the gangway intended for the galley. They dropped it on the pristine deck.
Ellis recalls: ‘As you can imagine there was grease everywhere. Up the gangway and along the deck. It took a devil of a long time to get it all cleaned and polished again.’
In 1988 Ellis had to retire. Nollie, as the Queen called him, left the ship with many marvellous gifts. The Queen presented him with cufflinks and a signed photograph.
In 1974 he had been presented with the Royal Victorian Medal by the Queen and on retirement in 1988 he went to Buckingham Palace again to be presented with the MVO (Member of the Victoria Order) for service to the Queen, again presented by the Queen herself.
Into civilian life and Ellis was interviewed by the Master of the Royal Household for a position in Windsor Castle.
‘It was the custodian of artefacts, some worth millions. I had an apartment in the castle grounds and could, for the most part, walk where I wanted.’
For another five years he joined the Corps of Commissionaires which he loved. ‘I wish I had joined the corps on leaving the navy but did not know about them at the time,’ he said.
And so it came to full-time retirement. After a lifetime of service, being as close to the royal family as any commoner can be, travelling the world and to places most can never dream of Ellis settled down to a calm life at home in Portchester.
But that was not the end of it. Some time after, Princess Anne was in Portchester opening a charity shop.
Ellis went and stood with the crowd. The Princess Royal emerged from the shop and went to meet the crowd when she spotted Ellis among them. With a broad smile she pointed to Ellis: ‘I know you,’ she called and stopped to have a short chat with him.
Like Ellis, the Royal Yacht is now in retirement. She is moored at the Edinburgh port of Leith and 200,000 people visit her a year.
One of the ship’s old propellors was melted down and recast as a statue of Ellis in the dress uniform of an able seaman. An honour indeed. It was placed alongside the gangway of the yacht. What greater tribute could a man have?