POST WAR AUSTRALIA - DEATH OF GEORGE VI - 1951
the death of King George VI reached Australia late in the evening of 6
February 1952. His health had been bad before a 1949 tour of Australia
had to be postponed until 1952 when he withdrew in favour of his
daughter after he had a lung removed. In his fifty-fifth year, “death
came as a friend”, as Churchill put it.
the visit of Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, who had been
due in three weeks, had to be postponed. Their portraits were taken down
from the streets as hers was projected in cinemas where audiences stood
for “God Save the Queen”, Australia’s imperial anthem. Lloyds paid
out to purveyors of commemorative teaspoons and to dressmakers left with
lines fashioned in the four pastels nominated by the Princess.
draped their windows in black and purple. Two minutes silence was
observed at noon on the day of the funeral, March 15. Drivers pulled
over to the side to stand at attention beside their vehicles. Men wore
black ties to the city. Few women were in black, though many had pinned
black and purple to their frocks. The Bulletin’s
society columnist observed that the wearing of black represented little
more than “what it has been for the past ten years: the badge of the
well-dressed woman”. That evening, all radio stations rebroadcast the
funeral service till 2am, more than two hours past their usual
shut-down. Throughout Sunday – the official day of mourning –
wireless sets emitted sacred music.
In 1927, many
Australians had seen their future king passing by when, as the Duke of
York, he had opened Parliament House in Canberra. Some treasured
memories of winning the ballot at Australia House for “a command to
attend a Buckingham Palace garden party”.
The king had been a
cypher. Terrified of his father, he suffered a disabling stammer and
seasickness, drank and smoked heavily, undergoing surgery for an ulcer
when he was 21. He was not allowed to be crowned with his own name,
Albert, but had to accept his fourth given name, George, to restore
continuity after the abdication of his brother. The king’s popularity
came from the winning ways of his wife, their creation of the model for
a lower-middle-class family, and their refusal to quit London during the
bombing. Typically, he created the George Cross for civilian bravery. He
fretted at the postwar Labour reforms, but knew his place.
To escape the
editorial cliches, Australia’s most popular columnist, Professor
Walter Murdoch, dared to quote the Times obituary for George IV in 1830:
“there never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures
than this deceased King. What heart has heaved one sob of unmercenary
sorrow?” To be equally candid about George VI, Murdoch continued, was
to admit that his greatness had been in filling an office in which he
believed absolutely but which he had neither desired nor enjoyed.
The press took up the
chant of A New Elizabethan Age, redolent of Drake and Shakespeare. In
this mood, the Australian public subscribed to the Elizabethan Theatre
Trust, a forerunner of the Australia Council.
Coronation was held-up for sixteen months to allow the maximum of pomp
to reassert Britain’s place in the world, Elizabeth became the monarch
instantly, under the fiction that “The King Never Dies”. She was
never an empress because her father had lost that title when the Indians
their republic in 1947.
The king’s death
obliged prime minister Menzies to advocate changes to the law that he
could never accept in his heart: “all of us are the King’s
lieges”, he had affirmed in 1948. A prime ministerial conference in
London in December 1952 agreed that each member of the Commonwealth
should bestow a style of royal title appropriate to local politics and
that Elizabeth was Queen of Australia because she was Queen of the
United Kingdom. He enacted this ill-punctuated phrasing:
the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom, Australia, and
Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth,
Defender of the Faith.
Menzies had “no
sympathy” with those seeking to place Australia in front of the United
Kingdom. Nor would he concur with today’s Constitutional Monarchists
who pretend that the Governor-General is our head of state. Whitlam
inserted the necessary commas when restyling her “Queen of
Australia” in 1973.
2002 is the Queen’s
Golden Jubilee. In 2016, Her Majesty will be able to abdicate in favour
of her grandson, William, after reigning longer than her