News of 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.

Now 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.

Shops 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.

Although the 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 religion.

Menzies maintained that Elizabeth was Queen of Australia because she was Queen of the United Kingdom. He enacted this ill-punctuated phrasing:

Elizabeth 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 great-great-grandmother, Victoria.