CBC Digital Archives

1939: Royal Tour begins in Quebec City

In the spring of 1939, a new King and his gracious Queen captured the hearts of Canadians. As war loomed overseas, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth toured the country by train to meet their subjects and bolster the bonds of Empire. From small-town whistle stops to bustling cities, eager crowds cheered, sang and waited for hours, eager for a glimpse of royalty. CBC mobilized a crew of 100 to cover the tour, producing a rich radio archive of that royal spring.

At last, the wait is over. After months of meticulous planning on both sides of the Atlantic, King George VI of England and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, are about to begin their month-long royal tour of Canada. The visit - the first by a reigning sovereign to the Dominion - begins two days behind schedule in Quebec City after a nine-day ocean voyage marked by heavy seas, dense fog and towering icebergs.

All along the banks of the St. Lawrence, cheering crowds have lined up to glimpse the King and Queen as they wave from the ship's deck. The excitement is palpable as onlookers wait for the royal couple to step onto Canadian soil. Well, not soil, concedes an eager CBC reporter, but rather red-carpeted cement. "But still, it's immobile, and it's Canada, and the culmination of weeks of planning and hoping and waiting."
• This was not the first time King George VI visited Canada, though it was his first as King. In 1913, as a midshipman with the Royal Navy, the then Prince Albert visited Niagara Falls, Montreal, Halifax and Prince Edward Island.
• The first organized visit by a royal figure to Canada was in 1860, when Albert, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), toured Halifax, Montreal and Southern Ontario.

• Both Prime Minister Mackenzie King and High Commissioner Vincent Massey took the credit for suggesting the idea of a visit to Canada by the King and Queen. King first mentioned it to the pair at George VI's 1937 coronation in London, but Massey had already been discussing the topic for months with royal staff.
• The impending visit was confirmed on Oct. 8, 1938, with an announcement from Balmoral Castle, a royal residence in Scotland.

• The Canadian Pacific liner Empress of Australia was refurbished for the royal pair's journey across the Atlantic. The plan had originally called for them to use the Royal Navy battle cruiser Repulse, but with the threat of war looming, the navy needed all its ships.
• On May 6, 1939, the King and Queen set sail for Canada after saying an on-board farewell to their daughters Elizabeth, 13, (later Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret, eight.

• The ship was beset by poor weather – high waves, fog and pack ice – during the crossing, and the landing at Quebec City was delayed by two days.
• Because the royal itinerary had been painstakingly planned down to the minute, organizers had to scramble to make up for lost time. Before they even arrived in Canada, the royal pair's stay in Ottawa was reduced by a day and a half, and a day in Kingston was pared back to a half-hour.

• The Empress of Australia crossed the ocean in a convoy with the Royal Navy cruisers HMS Glasgow and HMS Southampton.
• The two cruisers carried a secret cargo: 3,550 gold bars from the Bank of England. The gold, worth about 30 million pounds at the time, would be stored with the Canadian government and used to pay for the looming world war.

• King George VI, the younger son of King George V and Queen Mary, ascended the throne in late 1936.
• He became King when his older brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated the position after less than a year. Edward VIII stepped down as King when it became clear that he would be unable to remain the monarch and marry the woman he loved. The British government and public would not accept the twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson, as queen or consort.

• Wives of hereditary kings are known as queen consorts and may use the title of Queen.
• Under a change in British law, Simpson would have been able to marry the King and be known only as his consort, not Queen. But the British Parliament refused to consider changing the law.
• In 1923, King George VI (then Prince Albert) married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. She became Queen Elizabeth when he ascended the throne.
Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio Special: Royal Tour
Broadcast Date: May 17, 1939
Duration: 5:26
Photo: Library and Archives Canada / C-035115

Last updated: March 4, 2014

Page consulted on March 21, 2014

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