Emotional fan pictured embracing Meghan Markle in Brixton reveals her 'special relationship' with the Royal Family that goes back over 100 years
- Helen Wiltshire, of Crawley, West Sussex, told Meghan how much she loved her
- The fan's grandfather signed the 1900 Bugunda Agreement with Queen Victoria
- And her Uncle, King of Busoga, welcomed a young Elizabeth II to Uganda
When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle visited a radio station housed in an old shipping container in Brixton on Tuesday, the crowd went into over-drive — cheering wildly, straining at the barriers, brandishing flags and flowers.
But Helen Wiltshire, a 60-year-old grandmother of eight, really went for it.
First, she whooped, then she wept and then, during an impromptu walkabout by the couple, she repeatedly clutched Meghan’s cashmere coat with both hands and told her, many times, how very, very much she loved her before bestowing a bunch of white roses on her.
A photograph of their emotional encounter made the front page of the Mail, while TV channels ran footage throughout the day.
Helen Wiltshire (pictured) clutched Meghan’s cashmere coat with both hands and told her, many times, how very, very much she loved her
Afterwards, Helen, a second-hand clothes shop owner who was born in Uganda, stunned onlookers by claiming that her family had had a ‘special relationship’ with the Royal Family, going back over a century.
‘My grandfather signed the 1900 Bugunda Agreement with Queen Victoria,’ she said, referring to the official agreement which formed the relationship between the British Uganda Protectorate and the subnational Kingdom of Buganda. ‘Because of the royal connection, we’ve always felt close.’
Needless to say, it all caused quite a stir. Partly because, as everyone knows, protocol dictates that one shouldn’t grab the royals — even those who are new to the fold and perhaps more forgiving, like Meghan.
‘I didn’t know you’re not supposed to touch them,’ Helen told me yesterday. ‘But even if I did, I wasn’t able to control myself. All I could think was: ‘‘Look at [Harry’s] glow. That lady’s going to make him happy!’’ ’
But also because, as wonderfully unselfconscious as her welcome was, at first glance Helen doesn’t look like someone whose life has ever been intertwined with British royalty. Some people dismissed her as a fantasist. Mutterings were heard about a new type of deluded ‘Meghan super-fan’.
The 60-year-old, grandmother of eight, bestowed a bunch of white roses on Meghan during her visit to Brixton
I met Helen in the second-hand clothing shop she’s run for 25 years — sandwiched between a DIY store and a discount fabric shop in an archway opposite Pop Brixton, where the royal visit took place.
It was freezing cold, the electric heater spluttered and then died half way through our chat and Helen — surrounded by shoes, copycat designer bags, battered leather jackets, fur coats and a framed picture of the Queen — was wrapped in layers of cardies and scarves. But she was still beaming.
To begin with, those claims of a royal connection really do feel like a bit of a leap. She tells me that her grandfather, Chief Muwanga Kitxunzi, as a special adviser and close confidant of King Muteesa I of Buganda (until the latter’s death in 1884), was most definitely one of the signatories to the Buganda Agreement.
And that her Aunty Juliana married William Wilberforce Kadhumbula Nadiope, who was King of Busoga, one of five constitutional monarchies in present-day Uganda.
There’s more. In 1954, and with Helen’s parents as part of the entourage, Uncle ‘Wilbur’ and Aunt Juliana welcomed the young Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to Uganda for the official opening of the country’s first hydro-electric power station.
And blow me, if she doesn’t have the photos to prove it.
Her Uncle Wilbur, kneeling low in ornate kingly garb; Her Majesty in fragrant florals on the right; and a ceremonial spear in the middle. Helen’s parents are somewhere in the crowd.
Pictured her Uncle Wilbur, kneeling low in ornate kingly garb; Her Majesty in fragrant florals on the right. Helen’s parents are somewhere in the crowd
‘The Queen met my aunty and my parents,’ she says. ‘It’s just a shame it was before I was born so I missed out.’ It turns out that Helen has missed out on far more than a brief meeting with the Queen and Prince Philip one hot day back in the Fifties.
Today, she lives in a small but cosy council flat in Willesden Green, North-West London, worships at her local church and has spent the last 35 years working hard to support herself and her three children.
She walks everywhere to keep fit, devours the newspapers despite advancing glaucoma, and gives anyone and everyone a huge smile and a bearlike hug.
She is the sort to make the absolute best of what fate hurls at her — and in her case it is rather a lot — but she was destined for a rather different life.
Born in Uganda in 1957, she, her two sisters and two brothers grew up in a large house with four enormous verandas, sweeping gardens and staff coming out of their ears.
‘There were loads of servants,’ she says, rolling her eyes. ‘Cooks, nannies, maids and gardeners — the gardens were so beautiful’.
Her father, Yoasi Sebuliba Muwanga, owned more than 80 miles of land, farms, houses, coffee plantations and, as custom allowed, had at least 30 wives and about 90 children. ‘He was very grand. My dad was the first person to buy a Mercedes Benz in Uganda!’
Helen herself was, as she puts it modestly, ‘a bit beautiful’. Certainly striking enough to catch the eye of a young British engineer of mixed race called Simon Wiltshire who spotted her on her way to school, pursued her for a year until, aged 18, she married him.
‘He was very taken with me,’ she smiles. Meanwhile, her parents partied with Busogan royalty — attending countless cocktail parties, dinners and birthday celebrations.
Helen, from Crawley, West Sussex, at her shop with her 39-year-old daughter Sandra
‘We were so close to the [Busogan] royal family — we were bought up like that. So when I see the Queen — or anyone from the Royal Family — I feel a part of them; a love; a connection perhaps, to what is gone.’
Helen caught only the tail end of her parents’ high life. In 1967, KingMutesa II of Uganda — who, following Uganda’s independence in 1962 had become its first president a year later — was deposed and forced into exile by the prime minister, Milton Obote. He fled to Britain.
‘My mother sent him £20,’ she says. ‘I remember seeing his note. He wrote to say: ‘‘Thank you so very much for helping me.’’ ’
And then, in August 1972, President Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of 90,000 Asians, who had worked and prospered in Uganda for decades, and everything changed. Soon, Amin was seizing land belonging to anyone considered to be a threat — including Helen’s father. After returning to power in 1980, Obote pursued the same policy.
Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, tens of thousands fled the country while up to 300,000 were murdered by the brutal regime. ‘Those married to the British were the first to leave,’ she says. ‘But none of us wanted to go.’
So they stayed and had three children. But in 1982 her husband — by then a successful building contractor with a large team of workers who worked for the Bank of Uganda — was detained by government officials.
Wow! What a woman and what a life. And what better reward for all that love, hard work and gritty determination, than an invitation to a very special wedding on May 19? Go on, Harry and Meghan — please
‘Everything was destroyed — everything. Lots of members of my family had already been killed,’ she says. ‘And eventually I realised we’d all die if we stayed.’
And so in 1982, after two weeks on the run with her children — hiding in bushes, cellars and even someone’s storage unit until they were forced to move on — they finally made it to the airport and, thanks to the help of a family friend, onto a flight to London.
‘We’d been so, so grand, but I came with nothing — just the dress I was wearing and three young children.’
Their first year in London was spent sleeping on the sitting room floor of her brother’s flat in Kilburn, North-West London.
‘It was such a shock,’ she says. ‘I cried every day for a long time. It wasn’t the life I’d planned. The flat was tiny and there was no garden even.
‘Everything was different. The weather, the city — we were used to the countryside; it was so noisy and busy we never went out — and the welcome. In Uganda, everyone knew our family name. People knew who we were. Everyone welcomed us. Here we were refugees.’
Her husband’s British family wanted nothing to do with them. There was a run of dismal bedsits and B&Bs, until finally the family were housed in Willesden Green. Her husband eventually joined her, but sadly their marriage didn’t weather the strain.
Throughout those early, grim days, she says the only bright spot for her was the Royal Family. Any mention cheered her. She scoured the paper for royal news and, year after year, would hang on to every word of the Queen’s Christmas message.
‘I became obsessed with them — we all did. Always have been,’ she laughs. ‘We don’t go a day in our family without talking about them — what’s happening, how are they? What’s going on?’
She adores the Queen and says that over the years she has been inspired to keep going by her.
‘She’s such a strong woman and so kind and she just gets on with it, making the best of things.’
Helen was never the sort to lie about moping for long, either. ‘I was born to be humble and kind. I don’t shout, I am kind, I believe in God. And I work, work, work.’
Helen had to flee Uganda. She stayed at her brother’s flat in Kilburn, North-West London. Pictured here is Helen and her brother Christopher around 30 years ago
She started with car boot sales – every Saturday and Sunday.
‘We had a no car, so I took trollies full of stuff on the bus.’
One day, on her way to a sale, she saw Princess Diana and leapt off the bus to greet her. ‘She was on her way to the gym. I waved and waved and she waved back,’ she says. ‘Such a happy moment.’
Another time she spotted the Princess getting out of a helicopter in Holland Park — and again Diana waved back. These were golden nuggets in a tough life. Soon Helen graduated from weekend car boot sales to a market stall in Brixton, travelling across London every day to sell second hand ladies’ clothes.
She liked Brixton, but perhaps not everybody liked her. One day, she and daughter Sandra arrived to find her entire stock on fire.
‘Everything I owned. Everything was gone — our living, our whole livelihood.’ But instead of weeping and wailing, she steeled herself, squared her shoulders, and was back the next day.
‘I just stood there on my burnt pitch. I had nothing to sell but I needed to show them — I’m a strong woman and I’m here to stay. I have to look after my children.’
And that, pretty much, is what she’s been doing ever since.
Her stock looks slight, but as I witness, she is a brutal haggler. She makes just enough money to provide for her family, send a bit home to relatives in Uganda whenever she can and to keep her home warm and welcoming for whoever’s popping by to have some of her legendary mashed green banana with satay sauce, spinach and goat meat.
Helen travelled to Brixton with her daughter Sandra to meet the royal couple and to wish them all the best
There have been few holidays — just a ferry trip to France using a special offer voucher in the Eighties and a couple of trips back to Uganda, usually for funerals.
‘I’d love to travel more and meet people. I’d love to go to Spain,’ she says.
There isn’t much on her bucket list, though. If she ever retires, she’d like to go back to Uganda and renovate the church her father built on their land.
And, of course, she’d love to meet the Queen.
She doesn’t believe in complaining, but if she could have her time again, Helen says she’d like to have lived a bit before she settled down to marriage and children.
For now, though, there’s a royal wedding to look forward to.
Ever since she — along with 2.5 billion others – watched 12-year-old Harry walk with William behind their mother’s coffin in 1997, she has willed him to find happiness. ‘It was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,’ she says. ‘I’ve been praying for him ever since.’
When she learned that he and Meghan were making a visit barely ten yards from her shop, she thought she must be dreaming. But she and her daughter Sandra, 44, a care assistant, were waiting at the crack of dawn.
And, as the world now knows, when she finally saw them up close, she completely lost it.
‘I saw how happy he was finally — he was glowing with it! I was excited and I wouldn’t hide it. Why would I?’
When I ask if her reaction had anything to do with Meghan being the first mixed race member of the Royal Family, she snorts and looks at me as if I’m mad.
‘I don’t see colour! It’s the heart that matters, not the colour. Who cares what colour you are? All I care is she makes him happy, because if she doesn’t she’ll have me to answer to!’
Wow! What a woman and what a life. And what better reward for all that love, hard work and gritty determination, than an invitation to a very special wedding on May 19? Go on, Harry and Meghan — please.
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