June 2012

The Nation Reviewed

A Royal Pilgrimage

By Robyn Annear
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Queen Elizabeth’s Melbourne Visit

At 5.06 pm on the last Wednesday in February 1954, the appearance of a black car at the city end of Melbourne’s Government House Drive tripped a switch in the 100,000-strong crowd waiting to see the Queen. Right and left, people – 416 by official tally – collapsed into faints.

It was the end of the royal progress, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh’s 18-kilometre odyssey from Essendon airport to their lodgings at Government House. There had been royal visits before, by a succession of Queen Victoria’s offspring, their sons and grandsons; but this, as every schoolchild knew by rote, was the First Visit by a Reigning Monarch.

In 1954 Elizabeth II had been two years on the throne – 2012 marks her 60th year as Queen – and she was touring her Commonwealth from end to end. Melbourne, as capital of a province named for the goddess-queen Victoria, had long held a view of itself as regally, if not divinely, favoured. True, the Queen and Prince Philip had made their first Australian landfall at Sydney, but Melbourne’s civic pride was assuaged by press reports retailing Sydneysiders’ every gaffe and gaucherie: the royal visitors had been jostled and ogled and hailed familiarly as ‘Liz’ and ‘Phil’. A psychiatrist quoted in Melbourne’s Argus newspaper characterised Sydney folk as “highly strung” compared with the “easygoing” inhabitants of the southern capital, who were assured that “there will be none of Sydney’s mass hysteria and selfish scrambling” when it came their city’s turn to welcome the Queen.

Her royal progress through Melbourne began on the windswept tarmac at Essendon. A person retracing the Queen’s route to Government House today finds herself snarled almost at the outset by that great disrupter of any suburban pilgrimage, the freeway system. The loop of an on-ramp has obliterated or reduced to stubs the streets that were the first the Queen saw of Melbourne up close.

Wait, though: here’s Treadwell Road, almost intact. Interspersed with modern townhouses are California bungalows that would have been dressed up in 1954 with flags and bunting. Outside one of them, two days before the Queen’s arrival, a family was snapped by a Sun photographer. Kids balancing on the brick fence, mum still in her dressing gown, all waving Union Jacks, they cheered like billy-oh as part of the final rehearsal for the royal progress.

At something before eight that morning, a thousand-odd spectators had ringed the airport perimeter fence to ‘welcome’ the stand-in royal couple. A great gasp went up when there emerged from the plane, hand raised in greeting, Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Kiel playing the part of the Queen. The requisite yard behind came a police sergeant, standing in for the Duke. The pair received salutes and curtsies, then rode in an open car all the way to Government House, putting civic and government officials through their paces en route. In Treadwell Road the bogus royals drew inauspicious hoots of “Good on you, Phil!” and “What a husband you’ve got there!”, while the mother in her night-clothes was heard explaining to a kiddie, “That’s the Queen – in the blue tie.” Today, a salon at the corner offers services on the spectrum of ‘HAIR, LIFESTYLE, PHILOSOPHY’, hinting that, in Treadwell Road as elsewhere, conundrums persist.

I’d come perhaps a crooked kilometre from my starting point and already I was pretty certain that I wasn’t going to find what I was seeking; that I could walk all the way to Government House, executing the same cockeyed minuet through the city as had the royal cortège, and be not a step closer to knowing what had gripped folk back then. But I kept on walking. A kind of superstition drew me on, an inkling that had stirred a few years ago when I researched the long and destructive career of Whelan the Wrecker, the legendary Melbourne demolition firm. A superstition, or more nearly a conviction, that nothing’s ever gone.

I walked along the Keilor Road shopping strip and into Mount Alexander Road, which broadens into a stately promenade, fitting for a royal progress. Past red-brick, red-brick, weatherboard, red-brick. Essendon is a suburb of red bricks and tiled roofs – the better to climb for a view of the Queen. Near Buckley Street on Q-Day in 1954, two elderly women on a glazed-tile roof held on tight to each other and their Union Jacks.

For we were still Britons then, or more so than we are now. In photos and footage of the 1954 royal visit, Union Jacks far outnumber the newfangled Australian flags. Close to a million people, or four-fifths of Melbourne’s population, turned out to line the streets on the day the Queen arrived. “Emotion travelled down the road like a wave,” said a report in the next day’s paper. But what was that emotion, and where did it go?

Brian Watson, a collector by trade and calling, lives just off Mount Alexander Road and kindly laid on a cuppa for a parched royal pilgrim. Though old enough to remember the young Queen’s visit, he can’t explain the frenzy, the fainting. His late wife, Vera, had a soft spot for royal memorabilia – tea caddies, souvenir spoons – but, says Brian, “There are two subjects that are deader than dodos, so far as collectors are concerned. And they are religion and royalty.” At collectors’ fairs, you can hardly give the stuff away.

But that is now; this was then. To catch Her Majesty’s eye, full-grown men hung off the railway bridge at Flemington, heedless of a hooting train. In front gardens, homemade stands, two and three tiers high, swayed as their occupants craned towards the cortège. Ill-strung tents sagged on the median strip in Flemington Road, where spectators had staked out positions the night before and played canasta by carbide lamp, waiting for the Queen.

For the footsore investigator, inclined to think (yet doubting) that some residue of so cataclysmic a day in a city’s history might show itself still in situ, a couple of hotels seem to offer promise. Opposite the university in Grattan Street, the publican of the Prince Alfred Hotel – named for Melbourne’s first-ever royal visitor – was perched on a stepladder when, as the Queen’s car approached, two other men clambered up to share his vantage point. Under their collective weight, the ladder collapsed and the publican became the only known fatality of the royal progress.

Further on, in Spring Street, a sign in a hotel window offers ‘$5 Crownies on ice, all day Friday’. The royal progress went on, but this’ll do me. The Queen passed here and people swooned. The Crownies are on ice. Nothing’s ever gone.

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

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