Princes William and Harry were in bed at Balmoral when their father broke the news of their mother’s death, but around the world thousands already knew. The press conference at which the British ambassador in France confirmed Diana’s death was at 6am French time, but the accident was reported on British and American media not long after it happened at 12.23am, albeit with some confusion at first. I heard it on the radio as I travelled home from a party just after midnight UK time. At that stage the report said Diana had a broken leg, so when I woke next morning to hear she was dead, it came as a huge shock.
This was the JFK moment for our generation. Our parents could remember exactly what they were doing when they heard the American president had been assassinated in 1963, and this felt every bit as significant. In this blog, I’ve collected some of the memories I’ve been sent, most of them very emotional.
Like me, Sandie Smith heard the news within hours: “I had been on nursing night duty, finished my quota that morning and should have been very tired by bedtime but couldn’t sleep. Went downstairs to watch TV and saw the breaking news about the crash – Dodi a broken arm – watched unable to move and it was announced Diana had died. I just cried and cried.”
Christina Jansen was eight months pregnant at the time: “I was driving back from Oxford with a sleeping husband in the passenger seat, listening to the radio. Suddenly out of the blue there was s break in the programme to let us know that Princess Diana had been involved in a car crash but she was still alive and they thought she would be alright. We arrived home and went to bed. I got up later that morning and turned on the television and to my horror I saw a photo of Diana with the date of her birth and death – 1961–1997. I ran upstairs to tell my husband and we were both in shock and disbelief. I personally felt very sensitive about her death since I was carrying a new life in my tummy.”
For Sue Bond, the news came at a very difficult time: “I was going through a personal hell as my husband and I were in the throes of separating and he had taken our two young sons off for the weekend around Anglesey on our boat – the first solo trip without me. I stayed at home and, in the early hours of the morning turned the radio on as I was finding it difficult to sleep. The music that was playing was so different from that you would normally get on Radio 2, I knew something was wrong and then, of course, the announcements were made. The whole of that day I was in tears – partly because of the news of Diana’s death, but also because I was mourning the disintegration of my marriage … I can never see pictures of Diana and her boys without remembering my situation.”
Cheri Class got a phone call from a friend in the States in the early hours telling her that Diana had died. “I put on the TV,” she says, “and the BBC were only saying that she had been in an accident. It was hours before they announced her death.”
Everyone remembers who they were with when they heard the news. Julie Boon says: “I first heard about the death of Diana when my husband came to wake me up. Our son was two at the time and when my husband put the radio on there was only solemn music playing. He put the news channel on the TV and came straight up to tell me what had happened. It was a Sunday morning and I went to mass and was very sad that nothing was mentioned there. I lit a candle for her then.”
Judith Coote misheard the announcement at first: “I was at home with my newborn daughter and I thought they said Dodi Fayed had been killed but Diana was not even in the car. It was a shock when I realized the truth. Diana was a lovely caring lady who, even though you had never met her, you thought you knew her.”
Peggy Morley says “I was in my mother-in-law’s flat when I heard the news very early in the morning… I was so upset all day.”
“I was in the shower of my friend’s house in Ealing,” says Alyzen Thynne. “She was on the phone to her mother. She shouted through the door ‘Diana’s Dead’ and I asked ‘Diana who?’ ‘Princess Diana! She was killed in Paris in a car crash.’ The familiarity of ‘Diana’s dead’ I guess sums up how a lot of people felt – as though they knew her. I remember we went for a walk in central London and it seemed eerily quiet and subdued.”
Louise Wykes remembers: “I was still living at home with my mum, stepdad and brother. No internet then so we all just stayed in our pyjamas glued to the TV coverage for the whole day. Just couldn’t believe it was true.”
“I was with my father, in his friend’s shop, getting our TV repaired,” says Emmanuel Ray. “I remember everybody talking about Diana’s death. Dad’s friend switched on all the TVs in the [window] display and people on the street gathered to watch. Soon, there was a massive crowd!”
Karen Bench Vanderputt recalls: “I went to bed quite late, around 2am … I was watching a film on Sky so I was unaware of what had happened. I was woken by a phone call from my husband around 6am when he arrived at work. He told me to switch on the television because Diana and Dodi had died in a car crash. He told me not to worry if I didn’t hear from him because he would be late home as they were getting ready for a press conference. He worked as an engineer for Harrods at the time and they were waiting for the arrival of Mr. Al-Fayed. I just couldn’t believe it. I went downstairs, switched on the television and was horrified at the sight of the car. Slowly one by one my children woke up and joined me on the sofa, where we stayed for most of the day watching the news as it unfolded. Such a sad day.”
And Maggs Jenner says: “My husband came into the bedroom at 6 am and told me. I jumped straight up in total disbelief saying ‘My God, this is huge!’ We went to The Great Dorset Steam Fair for the day and it seemed quieter than usual, subdued somehow despite the displays and the fun fair. It didn’t feel right to be out enjoying the sunshine; a very sad and unreal day.”
As a Royal Navy officer who had met many members of the royal household, Nick Goodrich had personal reasons for mourning Diana: “I was staying the weekend at my then father-in-law’s house … I remember [him] coming in to wake us up with the news about Diana. I watched the story unfold on the TV and decided with my wife and five-yea-old son that we would head home early. I remember feeling very sick and angry. …We got home about lunchtime and decided to drive into Central London with some fresh flowers from our garden, not really knowing where we would go or what we would do. We just knew that we couldn’t sit around watching the news any more. The mood in London was very sad and depressing… My son placed our flowers at the gates to Buckingham Palace; there weren’t many flowers there then but of course the amount grew over the next few days. We drove out of London on the A40 and as we approached Northolt in the afternoon we noticed that crowds were gathering and all the vehicles on both sides of the road were stopping, pulling over wherever they could. We stopped. About five minutes later we watched them drive Diana’s body past on the opposite side of the road towards London. I cried. I continued to cry that night at home. A part of me died that Sunday and continues to do so every 31st of August.”
Husne Tazeen is another person still feeling the emotional effects of Diana’s death: “I was pretty young when the incident took place on 31 August 1997 but I was a big fan of Diana’s work and aspirations. … I often look up the footage of her on YouTube and cry that we lost a beautiful soul from the world.”
Kaisha Holloway was also young: “I was 7 years old, it was a Sunday and I had walked down the stairs and heard ‘the people’s princess has been killed’ on the radio. I wasn’t aware of who she was, but ever since that day, I haven’t forgotten hearing those words. Especially because my mum was the double of her when I was a child.”
Tone Sutterud saw the coffin being driven out of London after the funeral. She recalls: “Our five-year-old son came into our bedroom and turned the TV on. His three-month-old sister was in her cot next to our bed. The picture that came on was a black frame that just said Diana 1961–1997. That was the first I’d heard of it and it came as quite a shock. It was a Sunday, and the front-page headline of the paper I bought said ‘Diana seriously hurt in car accident in Paris.’ Later on, after the funeral, we walked up to Finchley Road to see the hearse with her coffin go by on its way to Althorpe, my daughter in a carrier on my chest, my son holding my hand. It was eerie, Finchley Road was totally quiet, and a kind of collective gasp was heard as the hearse appeared. The windscreen was so covered with flowers the driver could barely see.”
Bryan Romaine recalls: “I heard somebody tell of an argument her father got into on the day Diana died. Her father was mowing the lawn and a neighbour started shouting at him, saying it was disrespectful to mow the lawn at that time.”
Few predicted the scale of the media furore and the mass public outpouring of grief that would follow. Karel Bata said: “I was in the bath. The radio – forget which – was playing classical music. This seemed odd to me. I thought I might have Classic FM on by mistake. Then the news came on. It was a shock, but – looking on the bright side – I thought, ‘Well at least all this Diana hysteria will now be done with, and she won’t continuously be on every front page.’ Was I ever wrong!”
Laurence Wood, clearly not a Diana fan, said his first reaction was to “roll my eyes with irritation, knowing that the story would fill the airwaves and public discourse for days and weeks to come – years as it turned out… My second reaction was that this was almost certainly an assassination.” He wasn’t alone in thinking that. In the months after the crash, a stunning 85% of the British public said in opinion polls that they thought Diana had been murdered, and there are still many who believe that today.
Anna Sullivan was also not a Diana fan. She says: “Not everyone was entranced by this poor woman. I did not subscribe to the public adoration of someone I perceived, as a rather damaged silly girl (don’t like royalty or the patrician classes in general). I awoke on that morning to church bells – which was odd – and discovered the reason for them when I turned on the radio. I was heavily pregnant and planned to spend the day with family having a leisurely lunch. It all seemed very distant. I felt hugely sorry for her little boys and sad for her. She seemed to live a rather pointless and outmoded life driven by vanity, neurosis and an inappropriate self belief. And was undoubtedly a victim of her class, her circumstances and her lack of education and common sense. She is a tragic figure in that respect. I’m dying to read what you have made of her character and legacy. We live in very strange times.”
Dave Yorath has his own tongue-in-cheek (I hope) take on the conspiracy theories in his ‘memory’: “Oddly enough I was driving a white Fiat Panda through a tunnel in Paris at about the same time. Didn’t see anything, but there was an almighty hoohah behind at one point. That’s driving in Paris for you, I thought.”
Meanwhile, three days later, Fiona W reckons she might have been the last person in the world to hear: “We were In Luang Prabang in Laos (the land where time stood still) and when we got back to the capital Vientianne (three days after she died) we saw people reading newspapers with her photo on the front and thought ‘What has she done now???’!!
The winner of the prize draw, who will be sent a signed hardback copy of Another Woman’s Husband, is Judith Coote.