The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The British love queues. The queen’s death brought one for the ages.

Grace Gothard of London smiles after getting her wristband for the viewing. She was third in line. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

LONDON — It is the queue to end all queues.

The line to see Queen Elizabeth II lying in state stretched from Westminster Hall, across the River Thames and then onward, past the London Eye Ferris wheel and the Tate Modern museum and Tower Bridge. On Thursday evening, it reached as far as Southwark Park in Southeast London.

A government tracker on YouTube said Thursday night it was nearly five miles long. That was an underestimate, though. A government spokeswoman confirmed to The Washington Post that the distance measured was “as the crow flies” and didn’t include the labyrinthine zigzag section in the home stretch.

But the mourners have been undeterred. Their beloved monarch has died, and they are determined to pay their respects. If they have to wait eight hours? Ten hours? They would prefer sooner rather than later, but they are fully committed.

After all, forming a queue is what the British do. Americans like to call it a “line,” but that word doesn’t quite encompass the almost holy rule-bound nature the British have developed of waiting patiently behind someone to achieve a goal.

Asked to explain the concept of British queuing, Robin Wight, 78, launched into an impassioned speech.

“The queue is something that we have in Britain. … We’re used to being obedient in that way,” said Wight, who was about a five-minute walk — or more than two hours away — from the front. “But this queue is different to all other queues I’ve ever been in. Because everybody here is here for a purpose: to see the queen.”

William and Harry walk together behind Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin

“If you go to Stansted Airport, you’re in a queue for your holiday. Well, that’s fine,” he continued. “But here, this is not a queue, this is a magical moment we’re all sharing together.”

When he finished, thousands around him broke into (polite) applause.

This reporter joined the queue around 6 p.m. on Wednesday evening, meeting people who were planning to stay up all night if they had to see the queen’s coffin, which is lying in state — draped in the imperial standard and bearing the imperial state crown on a purple velvet pillow — until the funeral Monday morning.

I was quickly educated in queen queue decorum. Get a wristband with a number and obey that number. Stay in the queue. Do not push or shove. Do not cut.

There was a rumor that someone, six snaking rows in front of us, tried to jump the queue. But then someone else pointed out that this was unverified, as if to suggest the very notion was slightly scandalous.

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Later it emerged that lawmakers had been given passes to jump to the front of the queue along with four guests of their choosing — which has, unsurprisingly, caused a stir. “Revolutions have been sparked by less,” wrote the Telegraph’s Tom Harris.

For context: In a major speech on Brexit in 2018, then-Prime Minister Theresa May called Europeans in Britain queue jumpers. That was considered a serious insult.

In line for the queen, people formed little queuing families. As they hours stretched on, they banded together and offered comfort. They shared biscuits and tea and, sometimes, stronger drinks. Strangers who would normally never talk to each other in public situations were suddenly fiercely loyal. If you needed to use the toilet — there were portable “loos”; this was a well-planned queue, after all — then your queuing family held your place in line.

Everyone had a story about the queen: about times they saw her or met her or received a medal from her or had her as a boss. Surveys show that about a third of Britons met or saw the queen in person during her 70-year reign.

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Queen Elizabeth II
Laid to rest
Queen Elizabeth II has been buried in her final resting place next to Prince Philip, her husband of more than 70 years, capping an elaborate state funeral, which was invested with all the pomp, circumstance and showmanship that the monarchy, military and state could put on display for a global broadcast audience of millions. Here are some of the most memorable moments in photos and videos.
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“The queen personally put this around my neck. It was a magic moment,” said Wight, the philosopher of queues, about his Royal Victorian Order medal for raising millions for charity. “I really want to come and say goodbye to her, with all these people here. … I’d stay here for 30 hours if I had to.”

Hilary Beckley worked as a chef for Princess Margaret, the queen’s sister, and Beckley’s husband, Gary, worked as a palace carpenter.

“We met through the royal family. We have been married for 31 years,” said Beckley, 61. “We couldn’t not come.”

Of course, the queen was not just head of state of United Kingdom, but of 14 other countries — and head of the Commonwealth, which covers a third of the planet. Her death has stirred conflicted feelings in places scarred by the legacy of British colonialism. And several Commonwealth realms are reassessing their relationships with the crown.

In former British colonies, ghosts of past haunt mourning for queen

But Queen Elizabeth II also had fans around the world, with many people explaining that they separated her as an individual from imperial rule. The queue for the queen has been a testament to her international appeal.

The first three ladies were from Sri Lanka, Wales and Ghana. The Washington Post also interviewed people from India, Bangladesh, Ireland, Germany, Sierra Leone, the United States, Spain, Italy, Hong Kong, China, Australia — to name a few countries. They spoke of her mostly scandal-free life, which made her a model, and her children’s scandalous lives, which made her seem human. They referenced her devotion to country, sense of humor, work ethic, travels abroad, longevity.

Joyce Skeete, 74, a retired nurse, has lived her adult life in London but was born and raised in Barbados, where she was a star netball player. As a 14-year-old, she was invited to have a meal with the queen, who was visiting one of her realms. “She has given her whole life to this country and all the other countries,” she said. “I think, for her, it is worth queuing.”

The queen queue has become a thing of its own. This isn’t the “mother of all queues” — that title can be retired. This is “The Queue.”

“I don’t particularly care either way about the Queen. But the queue? The Queue is a triumph of Britishness. It’s incredible,” wrote one social media user in a post that went viral. #QueueForTheQueen was trending on social media.

Another pointed out that “queue” is a beautiful word: “The actual important letter, and then four more silently waiting behind it in a line.”

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For those of us joining the queue Wednesday night, it started off well enough. We moved forward at a decent clip — offering a false sense of optimism about how it would all unfold. About four or five hours in, things started looking bleak, as we hit the zigzag section, reminiscent of a bad day at the airport.

We learned that a royal guard standing next to the queen’s coffin fainted around 1 a.m., putting everything on pause for a bit.

Then, finally, we were inside. After 7½ hours of leisurely chattiness in the queue, the scene inside Westminster Hall was starkly different.

Mourners entering the hall, with its cavernous hammer-beam roof, were met with silence.

Still in an orderly line, we were guided past the queen’s coffin, on its raised platform, guarded by soldiers wearing bearskin hats. Some mourners bowed and curtsied or nodded or whispered “thank you.” Anyone inclined to linger was urged along by officials motioning that it was time to go.

“It’s a whole other atmosphere in there, the world around you stops and you’re in the moment,” said Megan Foy, 35, after leaving the hall.

She was there with her husband and their 9-month-old daughter and said they had “only” queued for six hours, reaching the hall around 2 a.m. “We got to skirt around a little bit because of the buggy situation,” she said, referring to her stroller.

But for our portion of the queue, the waiting wasn’t quite over. A funeral rehearsal was underway in the wee hours of the morning, and no one was allowed to walk through the area around Westminster while the soldiers practiced their marching.

And so, together with everyone else who had just exited the hall, we were back in another queue.

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