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Rags to Riches : Royal British Regalia Turns Up in, of All Places, Laguna Beach

October 11, 1990|KATHRYN BOLD | Kathryn Bold is a regular contributor to Orange County View.

LAGUNA BEACH — John Harwood never thought to give his grandfather's old British uniform the royal treatment.

In fact, on more than one occasion, the uniform served as his Halloween costume.

"I'd collect candies in the hat," Harwood recalls.

Today, the uniform that Harwood wore trick-or-treating is on display at the Robes of the Realm exhibit in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa. The exhibit, which coincides with the Festival of Britain starting Friday in Orange County, features British ceremonial robes and regalia, including the investiture robe of Prince Charles and, now, Harwood's Halloween costume.

Harwood had no idea of the uniform's significance--or its worth. He only knew that his grandfather, Sir Ralph Harwood, had worn it while serving as treasurer to King George V.

Those in charge of the robes exhibit say the diplomatic uniform, as well as two additional jackets and accompanying medals not on display, are an important find. They indicate that Sir Ralph, as Harwood refers to his grandfather, was a key player in King George's court.

"I still can't believe we found these right here . . . ," says Greg McGroarty, president of the Robes of the Realm exhibit.

One clue that makes McGroarty think Sir Ralph enjoyed a favored position at court is the gold embroidery that covers the front and back of the uniform. As a general rule, the more thread on one's uniform, the higher one's rank.

"There's not much room (on the jacket) for more embroidery," McGroarty says. "He'd have to rank right at the top."

If Harwood finds the right buyer, McGroarty says, he could receive more than $500,000 for the collection.

"I'm afraid I didn't realize the value," says Harwood, who works as a building contractor and lives in Laguna Beach. "My son used one of the jackets to dress up like a penguin for a school play."

Harwood's collection found its way to the exhibit after David Battersby, a career-guidance coordinator at Costa Mesa High School, heard that Princess Alexandra would visit the school while in Orange County for the Festival of Britain. Battersby remembered that Harwood, a neighbor, had a British uniform.

"Since we were having a royal visit at my school, I thought we'd show the uniform to the kids and tell them what it meant," Battersby says.

Even Battersby, a former world history teacher, looks a little sheepish when he admits that he dressed up a fellow administrator in the jacket for a day of show-and-tell with history students.

He then wanted to put the collection on display.

"I wanted (the collection) insured, and the school informed me they would cover it for $50," Battersby says.

When a student told him about the Robes of the Realm exhibit, he decided to show the collection to McGroarty to see if he would be interested in including it.

"He walked in here with a big case and said, 'There's a robe in here I think you'd like to see,' " McGroarty says. "He opened this tin box and inside it said, 'Ede and Ravenscroft."'

Ede and Ravenscroft have served as the royal robe makers since the reign of William and Mary in 1689 and produced all of the robes in the exhibit. The Robes of the Realm collection was assembled in honor of the company's 300-year anniversary.

At first the clothes inside looked like nothing special--the fine embroidery was hidden in the folds of fabric. Then Battersby pulled out a sword with a gold handle that also had the Ede and Ravenscroft name. McGroarty knew only a diplomat of very high rank would have a sword with a gold handle, instead of the standard silver.

"Then my assistant put the jacket on the mannequin, and I saw all of the gold embroidery. I realized this had to belong to a really important person," McGroarty said.

The accompanying medals were also impressive.

They include the Order of the Bath, Victorian Order and Order of the British Empire, all rewards for outstanding service to the crown. In addition, the son of Queen Victoria honored Sir Ralph with five foreign Orders. McGroarty figures that Sir Ralph accompanied the Duke of Windsor to Iraq, Ethiopia, Romania, Afghanistan and Egypt.

"They're worth a fortune," McGroarty says. "I'm amazed there were these medals five minutes away at Costa Mesa High School."

One medal, the Order of the Bath, could be worth up to $45,000. Students got to hold the medals when Battersby brought them to their classes.

Harwood has two other jackets that belonged to his grandfather, one still adorned with a black arm band. Presumably Sir Ralph wore it to King George's funeral.

When Princess Alexandra visits Costa Mesa High School Monday morning, the Harwood collection will be temporarily displayed for her benefit.

Meanwhile, McGroarty has asked Britain's King of Arms in charge of genealogy to research Sir Ralph Harwood's past. Judging from the collection, Sir Ralph could have been keeper of his majesty's privy purse--a kind of accountant to the king, McGroarty says.

While the British fuss over the find, Harwood has already tired of the pomp and circumstance.

"I'm not really a royalist," he says. "I want to be me rather than Sir Ralph's grandson."

Harwood moved to the United States 11 years ago. His mother brought over the box of memorabilia by plane from England three years ago.

"It set off all of the (airport) metal detectors," Harwood says.

He has picked up only bits and pieces of his grandfather's history from his mother.

"He was a genius mathematician. He used to put himself to sleep at night solving quadratic equations," Harwood recalled.

Although some would compare the find with winning the lottery, Harwood is far from elated. Once the festival ends Oct. 28, he must decide whether to sell off the collection or store it in a bank vault.

"It used to be fun. The kids loved to get it out and play with it. My son used to put his feet on the (Ede and Ravenscroft) box while playing Nintendo," Harwood said. "Now I've got to think about insurance."

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