There was a time when an invitation to a Buckingham Palace garden party was the imprimatur of respectability. But not any more, according to The Daily Mail.

Proof of this? The Queen`s sadness  -  and dismay  -  at the disappearance of irreplaceable pieces of her personal crockery and cutlery from her private tent which, I can reveal, followed the deluge that washed out Tuesday`s tea party.

At the height of the storm, as about 60 garden party guests huddled together under the awning, she beckoned them in to give them shelter.

Only when staff were clearing up after the party was it discovered that guests had responded to this unprecedented act of royal hospitality by stealing the Queen`s prized possessions.

`It was an unbelievable abuse of what was a gesture of kindness,` says a Palace aide.

I understand the pieces missing include Georgian and Victorian forks and spoons, and plates and tea cups bearing the Queen`s cipher.

`Some of these items you cannot put a price on,` I am told.

Staff believe at least eight pieces of silver cutlery from King George III`s reign, eight sideplates and cups marked `EIIR`, and pieces from Queen Victoria`s time were taken.

More than 5,000 people were strolling in the Queen`s gardens when the thunderstorms struck Buckingham Palace. Hailstones the size of 20p pieces rained down on guests, who were forced to shelter under trees and in the public tents.

Many more cowered under umbrellas close to the Queen`s tent, where she was having tea with Prince Philip, Prince Andrew and the Duke of Gloucester. It is the tent where the Queen entertains friends, senior members of the royal household and heads of charities  -  strictly by invitation only.

Inside, guests were eating strawberries and cream, sandwiches and ginger cake. They were drinking tea, iced coffee and lemon refresher.

`The rain was hammering down. The Queen could see all these people getting soaked, so she signalled to them to come inside. There were 50 to 60,` says the aide.

`It seems people slipped items into coats or bags, because when staff came to clear up they discovered not everything could be accounted for. It`s very sad that an act of kindness could be treated with what really was two fingers. We can`t believe it. It`s the talk of the Palace.`

A Buckingham Palace spokesman declined to comment.