The 1939 Royal Visit

19 May 1939

In early May 1939, King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth sailed from England on the Empress of Australia bound for Canada on a month-tour of North America. It was the first visit by a reigning sovereign to Canada, for that matter to any overseas Dominion. It was also the first time that a British monarch had visited the United States of America. With the clouds of war darkening Europe, the tour had tremendous political significance as Britain sought allies in the expected conflict with Nazi Germany. Lesser known is the constitutional significance of the trip, with the King visiting Canada, not as the King of Great Britain, but as the King of Canada.

Lord Tweedsmuir, Canada’s Governor General, raised the possibility of a Canadian Royal Tour in early 1937, with Prime Minister Mackenzie King extending the official invitation while he was in London for the King George’s coronation in May of that year. Tweedsmuir, also known as John Buchan, the famous Scottish novelist, was a passionate supporter of Canada. He sought to give substance to the Statute of Westminster. The Statute, passed in Britain in December 1931, effectively gave Canada its autonomy, recognizing that the Canadian government was in no way subordinate to the Imperial government in either domestic or international affairs, although they shared a common allegiance to the Crown. At a time when many Canadians saw their first loyalty as being to the Empire, Tweedsmuir hoped that a Royal Tour of Canada would strengthen a still nascent Canadian nationalism. He believed that it was essential that King George be seen in Canada doing his kingly duties as the King of Canada rather than a symbol of Empire. Earning the ire of Canadian imperialists, Tweedsmuir publicly stated that “A Canadian’s first loyalty is not to the British Commonwealth of Nations but to Canada and Canada’s King.” When U.S. President Roosevelt heard that a trip to Canada was being planned for the royal couple, he extended an invitation to the King and Queen to come to the United States as well, writing that a visit would be “an excellent thing for Anglo-American relations.”

Although the British Government was supportive of a North American Royal Tour, the trip was delayed for almost two years owing to the political situation in Europe. When the decision was finally made to proceed in the spring of 1939, the original plan to use a battleship for the transatlantic voyage was scrapped in favour of a civilian ocean liner in case the warship was needed to defend Britain. Even so, the trip was almost stillborn given deteriorating European political conditions. The cruisers HMS Glasgow and HMS Southampton provided a military escort for the King and Queen. The two vessels also secretly carried fifty tons of British gold destined for the Bank of Canada’s vault on Wellington Street, out of reach of Germany, and ready to be used to buy war material and other supplies, from Canada and the United States.

After taking leave of their daughters, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, at Waterloo Station in London, the royal couple made their way to Portsmouth where they met the 20,000 ton Empress of Australia. Delayed two days by heavy seas and fog, the gleaming white ship received a rapturous welcome on its arrival in Québec City on 17 May. In the days before the Quiet Revolution, the Crown, seen as a guarantor of minority rights, was held in high esteem in French Canada. More than 250,000 people crammed onto the Plains of Abraham and along the heights overlooking the St Lawrence to greet the ocean liner, and for a glimpse of their King and Queen. The crowds roared Vive le Roi and Vive la Reine as the King and Queen alit on Canadian soil for the first time at Wolfe’s Cove. A National Film Board documentary covering the event described King George as the “symbol of the new Canada, a free nation inside a great Commonwealth.”

The royal couple was greeted by federal and provincial dignitaries, including Prime Minister Mackenzie King and Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis, as well as an honour guard of the francophone Royal 22nd Regiment—colloquially known in English as the Van Doos—that escorted them through the crowded, flag-bedecked streets of old Québec to the provincial legislature building. There, the King and Queen were officially welcomed, with the King replying in both English and French in the slow, deliberate style he used to overcome his stammer.

The King and Queen spent two days in la belle province, also stopping in Trois Rivières, and Montreal before making their way to the nation’s capital. By one estimate, 2 million people were on the streets of Montreal to greet the monarchs. Their luxurious blue and white train, its twelve cars each equipped with a telephone and radio, pulled into Ottawa’s Island Park Station at about 11am on 19 May. Despite the cold, inclement weather—drizzle and what suspiciously looked like snow—tens of thousands had assembled to greet the King and Queen. Many had gone early, either to the train station, or to find a viewing spot along the processional route. At morning rush hour, downtown Ottawa was deserted “as though its entire population had been mysteriously wiped out overnight” according to the Ottawa Citizen. In actual fact, the city’s population had doubled with many coming from outlying areas to see the King and Queen. Thousands of Americans had also come north to witness history in the making.

King George in Ottawa

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth en route to Parliament, Wellington Street, Ottawa, 19 May 1939.

Descending from the train onto a red-carpeted platform under a canopy draped with bunting, King George and Queen Elizabeth were met by Lord and Lady Tweedsmuir, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, members of cabinet who were not presented at Québec City, and Ottawa’s mayor Stanley Lewis. A 21-gun salute was fired by the 1st Field Battery of the Royal Canadian Artillery to honour the sovereigns’ arrival. Church bells began pealing. With the clouds parting, the royal party, accompanied by an escort of the 4th Princess Louise’s Dragoon Guards, rode in an open landau from the Island Park Station through the Experimental Farm, along Highway 16, down the Driveway to Connaught Place, and finally along Mackenzie Avenue and Lady Grey Drive to Rideau Hall, the home of the Governor General. Along the route, the royal couple was greeted by a continuous rolling applause by the hundreds of thousands that line the eight-mile route.

With the King now resident in Canada, the Governor General, as the King’s representative in Canada, was essentially out of a job—exactly what Lord Tweedsmuir wanted to achieve with the Royal Visit. According to Gustave Lanctôt, the official historian of the tour, “when Their Majesties walked into their Canadian residence [Rideau Hall], the Statute of Westminster had assumed full reality: the King of Canada had come home.” One of his first acts as King of Canada was accepting the credentials of Daniel Roper as the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, something that the Governor General would normally have done. Later that afternoon in the Senate, after another procession through the streets of Ottawa to Parliament Hill, the King gave Royal Assent to nine bills; again, this typically would have been the job of the Governor General. The King subsequently ratified two treaties with the United States—a trade agreement, and a convention on boundary waters at Rainy Lake, Ontario. For the first time ever, King George appended the Great Seal of Canada. Prior to the Royal Visit, The Seals Act 1939 had been passed specifically to allow the King to append Canada’s Seal rather than the Seal of the United Kingdom. Once again, this underscored Canada’s sovereignty as a distinct nation within the British Commonwealth.

King George in Senate 1939

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in Canada’s Senate. Prime Minister Mackenzie King is to the King’s right, 19 May 1939.

That evening, a State Dinner was held at the Château Laurier hotel for more than 700 guests consisting of clear soup, a mousse of chicken, lamb with asparagus, carrots, peas, and potatoes, followed by a fruit pudding with maple syrup. While a formal affair, the meal was held “in an atmosphere of democratic ease.” After dinner, the King and Queen stepped out on the balcony of the hotel to receive a thunderous applause from the 40,000 people in the Square below.

The following day, 20 May, was declared the King’s official birthday; his actual birthday was 14 December. With great pageantry, a Trooping of the Colours was held on Parliament Hill to mark the event. This was followed by the laying of the cornerstone of Canada’s Supreme Court building on Wellington Street by Queen Elizabeth as her husband looked on. Speaking in English and French, the Queen remarked that “Perhaps it is not inappropriate that this task [laying the cornerstone] should be performed by a woman; for a woman’s position in civilized society has depended upon the growth of law.”

After the laying the Supreme Court’s cornerstone, the royal couple had a quick tour of Hull, with an impromptu stop in front of the Normal School so that the Queen could accept a bouquet of flowers. They then returned to Ottawa via the Alexandra Bridge for a private lunch with the Prime Minister at Laurier House. That afternoon, the King and Queen took a break from their official duties to tour the Quebec countryside near Alymer. On their way back home to Rideau Hall, they stopped at Dow’s Lake where they talked to a small boy who was fishing. When informed that he was talking to the King and Queen, the little boy fled.

On Sunday, 21 May, the King formally unveiled the National War Memorial in front of more than 100,000 spectators and 10,000 veterans of the Great War. Commenting on the allegorical figures of Peace and Freedom at the top of the memorial, the King said that “It is well that we have in one of the world’s capitals a visible reminder of so great a truth that without freedom there can be no enduring peace, and without peace, no enduring freedom.”

After the unveiling, God Save the King and O Canada were played. There was considerable press commentary that the King remained in salute for O Canada, which was until then just a popular patriotic song. It is from this point that the song became Canada’s unofficial national anthem, something which was finally officially recognized in 1980. The King and Queen then strolled into the crowd of veterans to greet and talk to them personally. This was an unprecedented event. Never before had the King and Queen walked unescorted and unprotected through such crowds; an act that delighted the ex-servicemen and terrified the security men.

Mid-afternoon, the King and Queen returned to their train, leaving Ottawa for Toronto, their next stop on their month-long Royal Tour of Canada and the United States. Interestingly, on their short U.S. visit, no British minister accompanied the King and Queen. Instead, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King was the sole minister present to advise the King. This underscored the point that King George was visiting the United States as King of Canada. After four days in the United States, with stops in Washington and New York, including a visit to Canada’s pavilion at the World Fair, the King and Queen resumed their Canadian tour in eastern Canada.

After crisscrossing the continent by train, King George and Queen Elizabeth bade farewell to Canada on 15 June, leaving Halifax on the Empress of Britain, bound for St John’s, capital of Newfoundland, then a separate Dominion. The royal couple left North America two days later, returning to England on 21 June.

The trip was an overwhelming success. The King was seen and widely acclaimed as King of Canada—the objective of the Governor General. It was a political triumph for Prime Minister Mackenzie King who accompanied the royal couple throughout their trip. It was also a huge success for the King and Queen. Later, the Queen remarked that “Canada had made us, the King and I.” The handsome, young couple charmed their Canadian subjects. With the world on the brink of war, they pushed the grim international headlines to the back pages, and reminded Canadians of their democratic institutions, and the freedoms they enjoyed. The King and Queen also enchanted President Roosevelt and the U.S. public. The goodwill they earned was to be of huge importance following the outbreak of war less than three months later. Lastly, the visit was a triumph for the new Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). With more than 100 journalists covering the Royal Tour, the event established the broadcaster as the authoritative voice of Canada.

Sources:

Bousfield, Arthur and Toffoli, Garry, 1989. Royal Spring: The Royal Tour of 1939 and the Queen Mother in Canada,” Dundurn Press Ltd: Toronto.

British Pathé, 1939. Royal Banners Over Ottawa, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PFkqjWuUio.

Canadian Crown, 2015. The Royal Tour of King George VI, http://www.canadiancrown.com/uploads/3/8/4/1/3841927/the_royal_visit_of_king_george_vi.pdf.

Galbraith, J. William, 1989. “Fiftieth Anniversary of the 1939 Royal Visit,” Canadian Parliamentary Review, http://www.revparl.ca/english/issue.asp?art=820&param=130.

————————-, 2013. John Buchan: Model Governor General, Dundurn Press Ltd: Toronto.

Harris, Carolyn, 2015. “1939 Royal Tour,” Historica Canada, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/1939-royal-tour/.

Lanctôt, Gustave, 1964. The Royal Tour of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in Canada and the United States of America, 1939. E.P. Taylor Foundation: Toronto.

National Film Board, 1939. “The Royal Visit,” https://www.nfb.ca/film/royal_visit.

National Post, 2004. “It made Us, the King and I,” http://www.canada.com/story.html?id=277DDDEB-AF29-433D-A6F3-7FCC99CB6998, November 16.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1939. “Over 10,000 Veterans Ready To Line Route For Royalty,”1 May.

———————–, 1939. “Magnificent Royal Welcome Given By Quebec,” 17 May.

———————-, 1939. “Complete Official Program For Royal Visit To Ottawa Contains Ceremonial Detail,” 18 May.

———————, 1939. “Palace on Wheels Official Residence Of King And Queen,” 18 May.

———————, 1939. “Our King And Queen, God Bless Them!” 19 May.

———————, 1939. “Their Canadian Capital Extends Affectionate, Warm-Hearted, Greeting,”19 May.

ThemeTrains.com, 2015. “The Story of the Canadian: Royal Train of 1939,” http://www.themetrains.com/royal-train-timeline.htm.

Vipond, Mary, 2010. “The Royal Tour of 1939 as a Media Event,” Canadian Journal of Communications, Vol. 35, 149-172.

Images:

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in State Landau, Wellington St, Ottawa, 19 May 1939, British Pathé, 1939. Royal Banners Over Ottawa.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth giving Royal Assent to Bills in Canada’s Senate, 19 May 1939, Imperial War Museum, C-033278.

First Royal Visit–Prince of Wales Lays Cornerstone of Parliament

1 September 1860

In May 1859, the Legislature of the Province of Canada invited Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert to come to British North America “to witness the progress and prosperity of this distant part of your dominions.” Specifically, the Legislature hoped that the Queen would officially open the Victoria Bridge (le pont Victoria), the first bridge to span the St Lawrence River, which joined Montreal on the north shore with St Lambert on the south shore, that was nearing completion. The visit would also “afford the opportunity the inhabitants [of the Province of Canada] of uniting in their expression of loyalty and attachment to the Throne and Empire.”

Queen Victoria regretfully declined the invitation, saying that “her duties at the seat of Empire prevent so long an absence.” Transatlantic travel in the mid nineteenth century was still an arduous journey, taking two weeks or longer, even if the weather was favourable. Instead, she offered to send her eldest son, Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales. It would be a “coming out” event for the nineteen-year old prince who would later become King Edward VII. Her suggestion was enthusiastically embraced. On hearing that the prince would be visiting British North America, U.S. President Buchanan invited him to tour the United States as well.

The extended North American tour took the young prince to all the major cities of the British colonies of North America, as well as to the major cities of the United States as far west as St Louis, Missouri. The prince’s tour naturally included Ottawa, the city selected by his mother to be the new capital of the United Province of Canada in 1857. Fortuitously, construction of the new Parliamentary buildings had commenced at the end of 1859, and the prince was invited to lay the cornerstone of the Legislature building while he was in the city.

HMS Hero

HMS Hero, Ship that brought the Prince of Wales to North America, 1860

The Prince of Wales departed England for North America on 10 July 1860 on board HMS Hero, a 91-gun, screw and sail powered ship of the line, accompanied by HMS Ariadne, a wooden, screw frigate, and was met in Newfoundland by the screw steam sloop HMB Flying Fish. He and his entourage arrived in St John’s during the evening of 23 July, after having encountered heavy seas and dense fog on the crossing. Although the Newfoundland government knew roughly when the prince’s would arrive, his ship’s entrance through the Narrows caught people by surprise; ship-to-shore telegraph communications was still in the distant future. That night, the city hastily finished erecting ceremonial arches made of evergreens, and put up flags and bunting, in preparation for the prince’s official landing the next morning.

Over the following month, the prince made his way across the Atlantic colonies with considerable pomp and ceremony. After St John’s, he visited Halifax, St John, Fredericton, and Charlottetown, before the royal squadron left for the Province of Canada. It arrived in Canadian waters on 13 August where it was met by the Governor General, Sir Edmund Head, and members of the Canadian government on board two Canadian steamers in the mouth of the St Lawrence River. The flotilla reached Quebec City on 18 August. The first major event was a reception at Parliament House where he was greeted by the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly. The prince then knighted the speakers of the two houses of Parliament. He subsequently visited Trois Rivières and then Montreal, where he officially opened le pont Victoria, laying the cornerstone to the entrance to the bridge as well as setting in place a ceremonial “last rivet.” In truth, the bridge, the longest in the world at the time, had been completed the previous year, and was already open for rail traffic.

After a tour of the Eastern Townships, Prince Edward proceeded from Montreal to Ottawa on 31 August. As there was no direct train link, he travelled by way of a special train to Ste Anne-De-Bellevue, followed by boat trip to Carillion, another train ride to Grenville, where he picked up the steamer Phoenix for the last stage of his journey up the Ottawa River. He arrived in Ottawa at 7pm to be met by an armada of one hundred and fifty canoes paddled by several hundred lumbermen dressed in white trousers and red shirts with blue facing. The canoes, flying banners, escorted the steamer the last two miles to the Ottawa wharf. When the Phoenix rounded the Rockcliffe promontory, the Ottawa Field Battery fired a royal salute.

Little Ottawa, with a population of less than 15,000 people, was abuzz with excitement. Nothing like this had ever happened in the rough-and-tumble lumber town. Bunting and flags bedecked every home and office building. Ceremonial arches were built along the route to be taken by the prince and his party through the city. One such arch, spanning Spark’s Street near the Bate building, was constructed of evergreens, interspersed with heraldic shields, mottos, and 60 foot towers. It was topped by two immense urns of flowers and a huge statue of the goddess Minerva clad in armour.

 

arch-1860-at-113-114-sparks-st-library-and-archives-canada-c-002183

Triumphal Arch at 113-114 Sparks Street, 1860, Library and Archives Canada, C-002183.

In front of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, “four chaste and elegant towers” were erected across Wellington Street “draped and festooned at their caps with cornucopias of flowers, royal standards, shields, and various other appropriate devices.” At the Ottawa end of the Union Suspension Bridge (where today’s Chaudière Bridge stands) to Hull was a massive wooden arch made of 180,000 feet of sawn lumber assembled without a single nail. The wood, worth $3,000, a huge sum in those days, was provided by the company Perley, Pattee & Brown. The suspension bridge itself was decorated with transparencies of the Queen, the Prince Consort, and the Prince of Wales which were illuminated after dusk. Similarly, Sappers’ Bridge, which connected Lower Town and Upper Town, was festooned with hundreds of Chinese lanterns. The Ottawa Citizen commented that “Ottawa appeared lovely and anxious as a bride awaiting the arrival of the bride-groom to complete her joy.”

Lumbermen's Arch

Lumbermen’s Arch erected for the Royal Visit of the Prince of Wales to Ottawa, 1 September 1860

Unfortunately, the start to the prince’s Ottawa visit was marred by a torrential rain shower just as Mayor Alexander Workman, dressed in his robes of office, commenced his dock-side welcome speech. While he soldiered on despite the soaking, the thousands of onlookers scattered for cover. After the prince thanked the mayor, he and his entourage were taken by carriage to the Victoria House Hotel at the corner of Wellington and O’Connor Streets. In their wake followed a somewhat bedraggled parade of soldiers, firemen, and government employees.

But the next day was bright and sunny for the laying of Parliament’s cornerstone. At 11am, the prince, followed by the Governor General, members of the prince’s party, Canadian Cabinet ministers dressed in blue and gold, and other dignitaries, entered the Parliamentary grounds through yet another triumphal arch; this one decorated in a Gothic style. The cornerstone ceremony was held on a dais under an elaborate canopy, surrounded by wooden bleachers to allow several thousand Ottawa citizens to view the proceedings. Following prayers offered by the chaplain to the Legislative Council, the prince approached the white Canadian marble stone. It bore the inscription This corner stone of the building intended to receive The Legislature of Canada was laid by Albert Edward, The Prince of Wales, on the first day of September MDCCCLX. The stone was suspended from a pulley above a Nepean limestone block in which there was a cavity. Into the cavity was placed a glass bottle containing a parchment scroll detailing the cornerstone ceremony and the names of the day’s participants. A collection of British and Canadian coins were also placed in the hole. The clerk of the works then supervised the laying of mortar, with the prince providing the last touch with a silver trowel engraved with a picture of the Parliament buildings. After the cornerstone was lowered into position, the prince tapped the stone three times. Following more prayers, and after officials had checked the stone with a plumb in the shape of a harp, and a level held by a lion and unicorn, the prince declared the stone to have been well and truly laid. At the end of the ceremony, Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones of Toronto and Thomas Stent and Augustus Lever of Ottawa, the architects of the three Parliament buildings under construction, were presented to the prince. The royal party then went to view a three-dimensional model of the future library made by Charles Emil Zollikofer, a Swedish-born sculptor.

Cornerstone  Laying Ceremony

The Prince of Wales Lays the Cornerstone of Parliament, 1 September 1860

After a lunch hosted by the legislature in a wooden building on the Parliamentary grounds, the afternoon was taken up with fun and games. After the prince and his entourage had toured the city on horseback to admire the city’s decorations and the many triumphal arches erected for the occasion, they were taken to the Chaudière Falls for a singular Ottawa experience—a ride down the Government log slide used to send wood down river to avoid the falls. Two cribs of timber had been constructed to accommodate the royal party and journalists. Cheered by thousands who stood on the shore or on the many bridges over the slide, the prince shot through it to be met by hundreds of canoes mid river. While the two cribs descended without incident, the Ottawa Citizen reported that “the visages of some of the occupants of the cribs were considerable elongated on descending the first shoot.” A regatta with several canoe races followed.

The evening was marked by a very curious event—a mounted torchlight procession of “physiocarnivalogicalists” to the residence of the Prince of Wales. The members of this obscure order, who billed themselves as “the tribes of Allobrentio Forgissario,” were dressed in some sort of costume. The procession was the source of considerable amusement on the part of onlookers. On reaching the prince’s residence, the group raised a loud cheer, which the prince acknowledged through the window, before they dispersed.

After Sunday services at Christ Church (the predecessor of the current Anglican cathedral) the following morning, the prince visited Rideau Hall, the home of John McKay, the noted New Edinburgh lumber baron, and toured its magnificent grounds. Five years later, the Canadian government leased the mansion for the home of the Governor General; it purchased the home in 1868.

At 8am, Monday, 3 September, the prince and his party, escorted by the Durnham Light Infantry, left Ottawa for Brockville, the next stop on the Canadian leg of his North American tour, via Alymer, Chats, and Armprior. He did not get back to Britain until the middle of November.

Fifty-six years to the day after the Prince of Wales had laid the cornerstone, his brother, the Duke of Connaught, re-laid it as the cornerstone of the new Parliament Building that replaced the original building, gutted in a mysterious fire in February 1916.

 

Sources:

Cellem, Robert, 1861. Visit Of His Royal Highness The Prince Of Wales To The British American Provinces And United States In The Year 1860, Henry Rowsell: Toronto. http://scans.library.utoronto.ca/pdf/3/32/visitofhisroyalh00celluoft/visitofhisroyalh00celluoft.pdf.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1860. “Preparing To Receive The Prince! The Council & Citizens At Work!” 18 August.

———————–, 1860. “On Preparations To Receive H.R.H. The Prince of Wales,” 1 September.

————————, 1860. “The Prince in Ottawa,” 8 September.

Images: HMS Hero, anonymous, From Edward VII His Life and Times, published 1910.

Cornerstone Laying Ceremony, 1860, City of Ottawa Archives, http://www.ottawacitizen.com/Cornerstone+laying+ceremony+construction+Parliament+buildings+September+1860/7281798/story.html.

Lumbermen’s Arch, Illustrated London News, http://urbsite.blogspot.ca/2011/06/royal-arches.html.