A nation beset by grief when Diana died
DEATH OF PRINCESS SHOCKED THE WORLD 20 YEARS AGO
FOR the 90s generation, this was their ‘Kennedy moment’.
If, 34 years earlier, the American president’s assassination would help define the 1960s decade, everyone would remember where they were when they heard Princess Diana had died.
The news broke in the early hours of Sunday, August 31, 1997. The 36-year-old princess and cover-girl superstar of the Royal family had been killed in a car crash in Paris with her companion Dodi Al Fayed.
In an age before Facebook and Twitter, most people in the North East woke up to shell-shocked TV presenters breaking the news. Some later editions of the Sunday newspapers also carried the story.
‘World In Mourning’ was the Chronicle headline leading our coverage of the violent and premature death of the world’s most famous woman.
We reported: “The funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales will take place on Saturday at Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace announced today.
“She will then be buried at the Spencer family home at Althorp in Northants.
“Her coffin was moved earlier today to the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace where mourners are being invited to sign a book of condolence.
“There will be no lying in state. At the request of both families the coffin will lie privately in front of the altar of the Chapel Royal until the funeral which starts at 11am.
“The Princess’s coffin will be carried in procession from the Chapel Royal to Westminster Abbey on the morning of the funeral.
“Following the service in the Abbey, at which the Princess’s family and the Royal Family will be seated in the front rows, the coffin will leave by road.
“It will travel to the Spencer family home at Althorp, Northamptonshire, for private burial.”
In the week leading to the funeral, the nation was plunged into a period of collective and public grief unprecedented in the 20th century.
Here, in Newcastle, thousands queued to sign a book of condolence and leave cards and dedications in the Chronicle’s reception.
New Labour Prime minister Tony Blair was at his constituency home in Co Durham when he learned of the Princess’s death.
Visibly moved while speaking on television, his phrase describing Diana – “the people’s princess” – struck a chord with the nation.
Meanwhile, as more than a million bouquets of flowers were left outside Diana’s home, Kensington Palace, the Royal Family began to receive criticism for not mourning more publicly.
As huge crowds built in London in the lead-up to the funeral, people openly wept in the streets.
It was a far cry from the solemn public reaction to the deaths of past monarchs such as Queen Victoria in 1901 and King George VI in 1952.
Indeed the huge losses and hardships of two World Wars had largely been borne with a stiff upper lip, but as the historian Dominic Sandbrook points out: “In 1997, Britain was just emerging from a period in which crying in public was regarded as a sign of weakness.”
Seven years earlier, Geordie boy Paul Gascoigne had famously burst into tears on the football pitch at the World Cup, Italia ‘90.
On the day of the funeral, the Chronicle reported how: “Across the region shops, restaurants and charity stores will close in respect.”
Meanwhile another story revealed: “Stocks of Princess Diana’s favourite flower, a white lily called Casablanca, have been wiped out as North East mourners snap them up.”
And we told how: “Workers at Tyneside’s Longbenton Findus factory, opened by Princess Diana 14 years ago, will observe two minutes’ silence tomorrow morning.”
Three hundred miles away in London, moving images of Diana’s two young sons William and Harry, her brother Charles, and her former husband and father-in-law, Prince Charles and Prince Philip, slowly marching behind the coffin as it was transported on a gun carriage were beamed to a worldwide TV audience of 2.5 billion.
Three million people – many from the North East where Diana had been a regular and popular visitor – descended on the streets of London. Tens of thousands, many openly sobbing and wielding flowers, lined the route of the cortege to Westminster Abbey.
The world’s great and good were there, and pop star Elton John famously performed a re-worked version of his hit song Candle In The Wind. Released as a single, it would eventually sell five million copies.
That’s the way we were 20 years ago.
None of us who experienced that week will ever forget it.
Across the region shops, restaurants and charity stores will close as a mark of respect Newcastle Chronicle
Prince Charles, right, with Prince William and Prince Harry, and Viscount Althorp, left, on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral, September 6, 1997; left, Princess Diana; right, how the Chronicle reported the day of the funeral