The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953, came sixteen months after her father’s death had postponed yet another royal tour. The significance of the coronation has been erased by the 1954 tour, eight months later. At the time, however, the coronation was much more than a warm-up.

In a late gasp of seeing Britain as “Home”, Australians imagined ourselves over there or conceived of the coronation as happening here. Illustrated books of the ceremonies guided families through the day’s progress as they tuned their radio sets – in effect a DIY television. Letters from listeners to Prime Minister Menzies suggest that they had “channeled” themselves into the Abbey by following his presence over the broadcasts. As one woman wrote, we “felt that we were beside you”. The ABC secured a seat in the Abbey for Gwen Meredith so that devotees of her radio serial “Blue Hills” could accompany her.

Australians created personal relationships with the Royal Family. A lady monarchist told Menzies that “our Little Queen needs a spanking” for her treatment of the Duke of Windsor. From Perth came word that another supporter had just proved his “descent from King Edward the first”. Well-wishers who received form replies from the Queen’s Secretary responded as if they had been offered a peerage.

Thousands did make the journey “home”. The Secretary of Prime Minister’s Department, Allen Brown, warned Menzies that because most visitors were bound to be disappointed at not getting into coronation functions, the government needed to spend more on advice for the tourists. Sending them to the Royal Mews was no solution, Brown concluded, “as most Australian think they have seen horses before”.

The visitors’ expectations were satirised by an office girl at Australia House:

Bill has a seat in the Abbey
Jim two troopings has seen,
But my request is more modest –
I want to dine with the Queen.
When I get back to Australia
Think how impressed folk will be;
So fix it up, there’s a good fellow,
And see that it’s dinner, not tea.

The majority were told to enter an Australia House ballot for 6000 seats along the route, priced at £5.10.00 under cover and £3.10.00 out in the open.

All manner of government and public bodies were funded to send representatives to march in the procession. An aircraftsman had to be dropped as “not a clean skin” because he had deserted his wife and children for a lady in Kings Cross. When dobbing him in, his wife expected “a good hiding”. The RAAF investigated the adultery, but not the domestic violence.

The omission of an Aborigine from the official parties led to suggestions that Captain Reg Saunders, fresh from the Korean battlefront, be dispatched. No one asked Saunders whether he wanted to be a trophy of how colonization had helped his people triumph over what one of his advocates called “nomadic savagery”. The Board of Missions recommended a Cairns nurse who “would conduct herself as well as any white woman”. In the end, Menzies regretted that Aboriginal representation “was not practicable”.

British possessions would be represented at the expense of the Colonial Office. Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, realized that the one exception would be Papua-New Guinea, an Australian Trust. The dispatch of twenty-five members of the Papua Constabulary was a black comedy. The RAN and RAAF declined transport. Commercial carriers were reluctant. Eventually, the party went on an immigrant ship and returned QANTAS to Sydney before joining a copra boat to Moresby. By such means did Hasluck present “the Throne as a symbol of a direct and personal concern with their welfare and of a benevolent rule over them”.

Backbenchers returned owing the government money. Alex Downer’s father, for instance, dismissed the demand that he return £42 as “most ungenerous”. A Victorian Labor member hired a car to drive him alongside his liner from Suez to Port Said, at £30 pounds. He was “shocked and surprised” on being asked to refund over £300 pounds. Three years later, Menzies agreed to nominal settlements, minuting the by-now mountainous file, “Quieta non movere” – let us pay and look pleasant.

Independence movements and republicanism on the Indian sub-continent, and de-dominisation in Canada and South Africa, meant that the Coronation Oath had to be amended. Australia therefore needed a new Royal Style and Titles Act. Menzies had “no sympathy” with a wording which put “Queen of Australia” ahead of Queen of the United Kingdom. The first title, he argued, could only be a consequence of the latter.

Whitehall, meanwhile, knew that oil was thicker than blood. Her Majesty’s government granted the Sheikhs of Kuwait and Bahrain the status of other monarchs within the Empire, “in view of the desirability of encouraging their connection with the United Kingdom”. The Foreign Office also used the coronation to promote the Empire in the USA. The British Ambassador to Washington thought its importance second only to atomic tests in Australia.

The prohibition against using the royal name or image to promote products was suspended for confectioners. Manufacturers re-branded refrigerators and plastic table-ware with monarchical tags. Diamante tiaras, fashioned by Gaycharm in Sydney, became popular.

Male attire proved a source of anxiety. Would the Papuans be warm enough in lap-laps? Chief Justice Owen Dixon fretted that his robes would use up his baggage allowance. Menzies wore morning dress and not full evening dress to the rehearsal in he Abbey and sulked back to his hotel. On the next day, correctly attired, he had to endure the coo-ees of his countrymen.

The distribution of Coronation Medals to public servants began according to the numbers in each division. Menzies ordered a re-allocation of half to the most senior officers, a move which contradicted the Communist Party’s condemnation of the monarchy as a “weapon to stifle class consciousness”. ASIO used those comments as a pretext to raid Party headquarters for more information towards its case about wartime espionage. Two years of boosting of a New Elizabethan Age did more to get Menzies over the line at the 1954 elections than did any Petrov conspiracy.

Humphrey McQueen