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Remember This? Princess Elizabeth's first Canadian tour

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip arrived in Ottawa from Quebec City at 10 a.m. on October 10, 1951 by train, stopping at a special station at Island Park Drive, just as her parents had done 12 years earlier.
1951-royal-visit-lac-4301669
Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip on their tour of Canada, October 1951. Photo/ Library and Archives Canada, 4301669

CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the Ottawa's history.

October 10, 1951

In early July 1951, Clarence House, the London home of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, issued a statement that the Princess, the heir presumptive to the throne, and her husband would be making a country-wide tour of Canada in the autumn.

The announcement was totally unexpected.

The invitation for the Royal Couple to come to Canada had been made by Lester Pearson, the Secretary of State for External Affairs, who had been touring Europe on behalf of the Canadian government.

The news that the glamorous young princess and her dashing naval prince, then captain of HMS Magpie, would be coming to Canada sent the country into a frenzy.

It was to be the first Royal Visit since the wildly successful 1939 Royal Tour made by the Princess’s mother and father just prior to the outbreak of World War II. Like that earlier visit, the Princess and Prince would be making a month-long, coast-to-coast tour of the country, mostly by train. As well, a short side trip to the United States would be arranged.

This would be Princess Elizabeth’s first major Royal Tour and her first visit to North America.

The tour was almost cancelled at the last moment owing to her father becoming gravely ill. As watchers of the television series 'The Crown' may recall, King George, who was an inveterate chain smoker, had lung cancer, though at the time the nature of his illness was not revealed. In mid-September 1951, a medical bulletin reported “structural changes” in one of his lungs. A few days later, surgeons removed the lung at Buckingham Palace in a make-shift operation room. In the days immediately after the surgery, Princess Elizabeth quite naturally wished to stay by her father’s side.

Canadian Prime Minister St. Laurent said that her Canadian tour, which was scheduled to begin on October 2, should not go ahead if it were to upset the King’s peace of mind.

However, with the King steadily improving, the tour proceeded, albeit a week late. Another change in plan was that instead of travelling by ship, the couple would arrive by airplane.

The blue and white BOAC Stratocruiser had been outfitted with new engines and equipped with a special cabin for the Princess and Prince. The four-engine propeller aircraft had a cruising speed of 300 mph and a cruising altitude of 18,000-24,000 feet. There was an eleven-member crew aboard, of whom two were Canadian—the co-pilot and the navigator. Owing to rough weather, the plane couldn’t make it all the way from London to Dorval, but instead stopped briefly at Gander, Newfoundland.

The aircraft arrived at Dorval at 11:40 a.m. on October 8, but waited on the runway until noon, the official start time. The Royal couple was greeted by Viscount Alexander, the Governor General, Prime Minister St. Laurent, Transport Minister Chevrier, and Veterans Minister Lapointe. After taking a walking tour of the airport perimeter to stretch their legs in front of 25,000 spectators, the Princess and the Prince boarded their train for Quebec City, which was the official start city of their Canadian tour.

The Royal couple was met with a thunderous welcome in the “old capital,” where they were greeted by tens of thousands of spectators -- the crowds held back by the Royal 22nd Regiment.

At a state dinner the following evening, Premier Duplessis gave homage to Princess Elizabeth, saying “The great majority of the people of the province of Quebec are Canadians of French origin. They have for centuries been faithful to the Crown recognizing it as a symbol of authority and freedom.” Princess Elizabeth replied “When I first set foot on Canadian soil…I knew myself to be not only amongst friends but amongst fellow countrymen.”

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip on their tour of Canada, October 1951, Library and Archives Canada, 4301669.

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip arrived in Ottawa from Quebec City at 10 a.m. on October 10, 1951 by a CNR train, stopping at a special station at Island Park Drive, just as her parents had done 12 years earlier.

The 30th Field Battery fired a 21-gun salute on their arrival.

According to the Ottawa Evening Citizen, “It was love at first sight.” The newspaper went on to gush, “A radiant and beautiful woman, she was the story book princess come to life,” and “as for the Prince, tall, blond, handsome, he was a man’s man.”

Meeting them at the station, were the Governor General, members of the federal Cabinet and their wives, members of the diplomatic corps, the speakers of the Senate and House of Commons, and 25,000 cheering Ottawa residents.

Also present was Charlotte Whitton, who had just been confirmed in her seat as Mayor of Ottawa a few days earlier after the untimely death of her predecessor Grenville Goodwin. Mayor Whitton, an ardent royalist, gave a proper curtsey when she was presented to the Princess. The Evening Citizen described Whitton as “Ottawa’s bachelor-girl mayor—the only civic woman of a big Canadian city.”

Unlike 12 years earlier, when Princess Elizabeth’s parents had arrived in Ottawa, it was a brilliant, sunny day.

Adding to the blaze of autumn colours were the red, blue and white bunting and flags that decorated buildings and homes, the one noticeable exception being the Soviet Embassy on Charlotte Street. The biggest Union Jack in the world, more that five stories in length, covered the face of the Holden Manufacturing Company on Albert Street. This was the third time the flag had been displayed, the first to celebrate the 1939 Royal Visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and the second to mark the end of World War II.

Princess Elizabeth giving a speech, Royal Tour, October 1951, Library and Archives Canada, 4301668.

The Princess and Prince were whisked along to Confederation Square through packed streets thronging with cheering Ottawa citizens and visitors in a motorcade that went along the Driveway to Elgin Street.

They stopped on the way at Lansdowne Park where 14,000 children were assembled to greet them. There Mayor Whitton, accompanied by city councillors, presented the Princess with the keys to the City. Little 3-year-old Sheila Hamilton, daughter of Alderman Wilbert Hamilton, presented Princess Elizabeth with a nosegay of pink carnations and roses.

Exiting from the eastern gate, the motorcade made its way to the War Memorial.

Fifty-thousand people waited in Confederation Square for the Royal couple. Some had been there since the previous morning on the pavement to get the best viewing.

At the Memorial and in front of veterans from three wars and members from all armed services, the Princess laid a poppy wreath in honour of Canada’s war dead. Also present at the ceremony were a number of disabled veterans and Silver Star mothers who lost a son in either the First or Second World War.

After a private lunch with Prime Minister St. Laurent and his wife at 24 Sussex Street, the new, official residence of Canadian prime ministers, the Princess and Prince took a tour of Hull, crossing to Quebec on the Alexandra Bridge, named in honour of Prince Elizabeth’s great grandmother.

At Hull’s Council Chamber, in the presence of Acting Mayor David Joanisse, and lay and ecclesiastical officials, the couple signed the city’s “golden book.”

The motorcade then returned to Ontario via the Chaudière Bridge for a tour of Parliament Hill.

With the Royal Couple ahead of schedule by 10 minutes, Prime Minister St. Laurent missed giving them a tour of the House of Commons, the honour falling instead on the Speaker. St. Laurent caught up with the Princess and Prince for the tour of the Senate chamber.

While in the Centre Block, the Royal Couple proceeded to the Railway Committee room where Princess Elizabeth presented to the National Gallery of Canada, represented by Vincent Massey, an embroidered floral carpet made by her grandmother, Queen Mary.

Princess Elizabeth and Queen Mary’s Carpet, Railway Committee Room, Centre Block, Parliament Hill, October 1951, Canadian Georgraphic

Before leaving Parliament Hill, the Royals played tourist and ascended the Peace Tower to get a view of the Gatineau Hills in their full autumn glory. The Princess was overheard to say to her husband that the view was better than that from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

While on Parliament Hill, Prince Philip broke away to talk to Filip Konowal who was standing in the House of Commons corridor. The prince had spotted the Victoria Cross ribbon on Konowal’s coat. Konowal, who was a janitor on Parliament Hill, had won the Empire’s highest award for gallantry in 1917 at the Battle of Hill 70 near Lens, France.

The hectic day of touring and shaking hands ended with a visit to the National Archives, where there was some brief excitement when a photographer’s light bulb exploded close to the Princess. Fortunately, the bulb was behind safety glass which protected the Princess from being showered with glass splinters. She took the incident in her stride, and reassured the apologetic journalist.

A state dinner at Rideau Hall that evening ended the day.

The Princess spoke over CBC radio. She said that it had been “her cherished dream” to come to Canada where she felt “very much at home … still in the family circle.” Speaking in French, she said that French-Canadians were faithful to their language and culture, faithful to their religion, and faithful to the Crown of Canada.” She also spoke of the sacrifice Canadians had made to support “the threatened liberty of Britain and to restore the violated liberty of France” in the war. She called Canadians “the knights-errants of our tragic modern world who were always ready to ride abroad redressing human wrongs.” She added, “I know that wherever the weak are oppressed or justice set at naught by lawless power, Canada will be always at the forefront of the defence.”

The highlight of the Royal couple’s second day in the nation’s capital was a civic luncheon held in her honour at the Chateâu Laurier Hotel. Hosted by Mayor Whitton, the meal featured dishes sourced from across the country—oysters from Nova Scotia and PEI, Salmon En Bellevue from Newfoundland, elk from Alberta, wild rice from Manitoba, and a seasonal salad from the Pacific coast, topped off by a maple bombe from Quebec, B.C. candied fruit and Ontario cheese fleurons.

One thing absent was wine; it was a non-alcoholic affair. Smoking was also not permitted.

After a short address, Mayor Whitton presented the couple with an illuminated scroll bearing the signatures of all of Ottawa’s aldermen and councillors. To the Princess, she also presented a $1,000 cheque in a hand-tooled leather wallet for the Princess’s charities. To the Duke of Edinburgh, she gave into his safe-keeping and rationing a heavy oak box of maple sugar for little Prince Charles, age three, and Princess Anne, age one. Eric Goodwin, 11, the son of late Mayor Goodwin, presented the Royal Couple with a blue windbreaker for Prince Charles, while Nicole Tardif, the daughter of city councillor, Paul Tardif, presented two bunny blankets for Princess Anne.

Following lunch, the Princess and Prince were taken to the old Commissariat building located at the foot of the Rideau Canal where they dropped into the new Bytown Museum recently opened by the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa, the forerunner of The Historical Society of Ottawa. They were the first signatories in the museum’s guest book.

Princess Elizabeth square dancing with Prince Philip, Rideau Hall, October 1951, Library and Archives Canada, 3401052.

Afterwards, they given a boat cruise on the Ottawa River on the Wausau, dubbed the “Royal Barge” for the event. Two RCAF boats preceded the Royal Barge while two RCN boats followed it. A flotilla of 25 pleasure boats supplied by the Ottawa Power Boat Association accompanied them down the river. Many other unofficial craft watched the procession.

As the Wasuau passed under the Alexandra Bridge, their Highnesses took a salute from the Ottawa Sea Scouts.

To provide an example of the forestry industry at work to the Royal visitors, two rafts of pulpwood were towed passed the Royal Barge in the opposite direction, the logs destined for the International Paper Company in Gatineau and the E.B. Eddy Mill in Hull. The firm that had organized the rafts, the Gatineau Boom Company, had earlier that day swept the Ottawa River of floating logs and other debris that might have impeded the Royal boat tour.

That evening, after an informal buffet supper at Rideau Hall, the Princess and Prince joined in an old-fashion square dance with 80 guests, organized by Viscount Alexander who was enamoured with the dance form. Square dances were apparently a common event at Government House. For the dance, the Princess wore a dirndl skirt while the Prince donned a plaid shirt and blue jeans. To get them into the swing of things, the couple had a half-hour square dancing lesson beforehand.

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip left Ottawa shortly after midnight, heading for Cornwall, Brockville, Kingston, Trenton and Toronto on their next leg of their trans-Canada tour which was to take them to Victoria in the west and then back to St. John’s, Newfoundland before their return to England by ship.

In a final broadcast to Canadians from St. John’s, the Princess said that parting was difficult. While she was happy to rejoin her family and children, she was “also leaving a country which has become a second home in every sense.”

Less than three months following the conclusion of her tour of Canada, Princess Elizabeth became Queen, her father, King George VI, died on February 6, 1952.

Queen Elizabeth has made 22 official visits to Canada, with the last one coming back in 2010.

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