The Australian Government invited the Duke and Duchess of York for the opening of Parliament House, Canberra, as part of a gruelling and exhausting tour.
Albert Duke of York (George VI) and the Duchess of York (Queen Elizabeth) were also representing Britain and its Empire’s trading interests, so their visit was of great importance to the Australian Government and King George V.
One feels the stirrings of a new birth of quickened national activity, of a fuller consciousness of your destiny as one of the great self-governing units of the British Empire.
Britain faced a tough economic crisis at the time as the Government was forced to operate within a very tight budget.
The Dominions Office pressured the Treasury in October 1926 to provide a government grant to cover the Yorks’ expenses whilst on tour. The Government provided £3,500 upfront for official and extraordinary expenses.
An extra £3,500 was promised in March 1927, included a clothing allowance for the five male staff and the Duchess’ two ladies-in-waiting. (Several Labour Members of Parliament objected claiming it was “a joy ride”.)
The Duke was prepared to pay for everyday expenses, but both he and the Duchess actually spent a lot more of their own money to cover the trip’s expenses.
George V often gave strict instructions, advice and complaints in telegrams regarding protocol and formalities, including what the Duke and Duchess should wear.
The King was very annoyed by the immense press coverage of the Duchess’s outfits, but Australian women clamoured for details about the Duchess’s clothes. Many newspaper and magazine articles were only too happy to provide this information.
The Duchess was not happy about leaving Princess Elizabeth behind, as she poured out her depression in her diary. “Feel very miserable at leaving the baby. Went up & played with her & she was so sweet.”
George V and Queen Mary proved doting grandparents as they sent regular updates on the baby’s progress when she tried standing, learning to roll over, wave goodbye and say, “Ta-Ta” and “By-ee”.
Royal paediatrician Dr George Still prevented the little princess from visiting her grandparents at Sandringham when she had eye trouble and cutting her first tooth.
The HMS Renown was fitted out to accommodate the Duke, the Duchess and their entourage. They travelled across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean, via Tahiti, Fiji and New Zealand.
Arrival in Australia
The Renown arrived in Sydney during a perfect autumn morning on 26 March 1927. Boats came out to welcome the battlecruiser and over one million greeted the royal couple’s arrival. The Governor-General, Lord Stonehaven, welcomed the royal couple to Admiralty House.
They attended a ball at Town Hall, a service at St Andrew’s Cathedral and the Duke was presented with an honorary degree at Sydney University.
Enthusiastic crowds greeted the royal couple in Brisbane, despite Queensland’s reputation as the Bolshie State, as Labor ministers tripped over one another to meet the royal visitors.
A twenty-gun salute marked Princess Elizabeth’s first birthday in Melbourne.
The Duke and Duchess attended an Anzac Day service on 25 April where thousands witnessed the salute taken by the son of the monarch where sacrifices were made in his name. They laid a wreath on the Cenotaph in front of Parliament House, before Sir John Monash and his staff led the parade, followed by 25,000 veterans proudly wearing their medals, including twenty-nine recipients of the Victoria Cross.
The Commonwealth’s New Capital
They arrived in Canberra for the opening of the Australian Parliament on 9 May. The Duke inspected the guard of honour, before Prime Minister Stanley Bruce presented a golden key to the Duke to unlock the door of the new Parliament House.
The Duke made a moving speech: “One feels the stirrings of a new birth of quickened national activity, of a fuller consciousness of your destiny as one of the great self-governing units of the British Empire.” It was the start of a new era, a moment to dream “of better things”.
Dame Nellie Melba sang the National Anthem, God Save The King, before the procession moved inside for the unveiling of a statue of George V.
The formalities continued in the Senate Chamber. It was a very small room crowded with people, and the lights belonging to the film cameramen quickly increased the room’s temperature within minutes. (The film covering the Duke and Duchess’ participation in the ceremony was later distributed by Pathé News.)
The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia was finally declared open after a fanfare of trumpets, a twenty-one gun salute and the clock struck twelve.
They returned to Melbourne to rejoin the Renown and sailed for home via Albany, Fremantle, Mauritius, Suez Canal, Malta and Gibraltar. Best of all, they were reunited with their baby daughter.
The journey proved a turning point in their lives as it gave the shy Duke new confidence to face the world, especially with his wife by his side. The Duchess won immense affection for herself, her husband and their country.
Pike, Philip W, The Royal Presence in Australia 1867-1986, Royalty Publishing, Dulwich South Australia, 1986
Shawcross, William, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography, Macmillan, London, 2009
© 2010 Carolyn M Cash
This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 4 June 2010.