After 70 years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth has seen, well just about, everything. And that includes an evolving Canberra.
This month marks the anniversary of the first visit of a reigning monarch to our shores in 1954. The then recently-crowned Queen Elizabeth, and Prince Philip, spent two months travelling Australia, covering 40,000 kilometres and visiting every state and regional area.
She attended 26 banquets, made 141 speeches, conducted 999 investitures, and engaged in about 13,213 handshakes. And they visited Canberra for five days.
Not quite 28, the young Queen tackled her royal duties with all the pomp and ceremony required, and made quite an impression on adoring Australians, including those in the national capital.
The excitement leading up to and during the visit was palpable. A few short years before the introduction of television, the best images were caught by those present, witnessing the new Queen in real time. An estimated three in four Australians saw the Queen at least once during her tour.
In Canberra, there was a huge buzz to prepare the city for the event. Canberra in the 1950s was more of a sparsely-developed country town than a capital city.
With a population of 28,000, the city’s suburban boundaries extended roughly between Narrabundah, Curtin, Yarralumla, Braddon, O’Connor and Ainslie. The suburbs of Hackett and Barton were yet to be gazetted while Belconnen and Woden were more than a decade away.
The lake had not yet been created, popular suburban shopping centres were at O’Connor and Ainslie, and the development of the capital to date was fairly ‘ad hoc’.
It wasn’t until the late 1950s (after the Queen’s visit) that Prime Minister Robert Menzies became actively involved in developing the city, moving public servants from Melbourne, approving hostels to solve the housing shortage and overseeing the establishment of the National Capital Development Commission. It’s not surprising Prince Philip declared Canberra as a city without a soul. There really wasn’t much here in 1954.
Even so, organisers for the royal visit set about to spruce up the city. The year before, a fire had gutted the western side of the Melbourne Building. It and the Sydney Building formed the commercial hub of the city at the time, so skates were on to repair the damage before the Queen arrived. Especially in readiness for a citizens’ reception planned for nearby City Hill.
The weather that summer had been unforgiving, hot, dry and windy. Gardens were suffering and Parks and Gardens staff were working overtime to keep them alive, as well as establishing extra garden displays to ensure colour during the visit. All this without additional budget.
Water restrictions added to the difficulties. Water was redirected from lawns to the gardens, resulting in lawns browning off.
The Queen’s schedule was full, comprising many formal functions including opening the 20th Australian Parliament, an investiture, reviewing of troops, a garden party at Government House, a school children’s display at Manuka Oval, and a very formal State Ball in the Provisional Parliament House.
Local identity Dawn Waterhouse, now almost 100, attended the ball after she was invited for her Ikebana skill when arranging flowers for the Queen’s Parliament House visit. Most of the flowers were picked from the House gardens, with some even contributed from local private gardens. Flowers fit for a Queen!
Dawn made her own dress from red satin and tulle, and trimmed in white silk for the occasion. That dress hangs today in the cupboard at Calthorpe’s House museum, Dawn’s childhood home.
Before the Queen was due to arrive, the issue of ‘fly control’ was raised. Concern had been expressed about the number of flies (it was a hot, dry season after all) and all potential issues were being considered. To avoid the ‘royal Australian salute’, the team was ready to go with high-pressure spray equipment from a truck dispensing pesticide to kill the flies (and most likely everything else too) within the Parliamentary Triangle.
The Queen was provided the offices of the Clerk and President of the Senate in Parliament House as her personal dressing rooms so she could refresh and change (we could also make reference to the Queen’s throne here too.) The royal couple was accommodated at Government House over the five-day visit.
As a young, attractive and committed royal, thrown to the task of serving her people, Her Majesty was enthusiastically received around the country in that gruelling two-month tour.
Over the years she has visited the capital on many occasions. She has opened buildings, unveiled statues, viewed Canberra’s plans and future development concepts, and seen them come to fruition. Over the last seven decades, she has certainly witnessed that sparse ‘soul-less’ country town become a thriving, busy, capital city.