In Depth

Royal weddings a time for charity

Following the announcement of the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton, individuals, organizations and countries have begun the delicate process of determining what is an appropriate wedding gift.
Prince William and his fiancée, Kate Middleton, pose for the media at St. James's Palace in London on Nov. 16, 2010, after they announced their engagement. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)

Following the announcement of the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton, individuals, organizations and countries have begun the delicate process of determining what is an appropriate wedding gift.

That's no small feat considering the groom is a member of Royal Family. Given his wealth and status, a toaster just doesn't seem to do the trick.

However, unconfirmed reports say the couple will only accept presents from personal acquaintances. Everyone else will be asked to donate instead to charities.

"This is something out of the ordinary," said Dickie Arbiter, a royal commentator and former press secretary for the Queen.

It would mark the first time a royal couple has directly and publicly asked for charitable donations in lieu of traditional gifts, he said.

Heated debate

Deciding what to buy for a wedding can often be a cause of distress for many, and governments are no exception.

On Oct. 2, 1947, a Canadian Press article in the Toronto Daily Star reported a "hot debate" in Bermuda's House of Assembly over the official gift for Princess Elizabeth.

A special committee recommended the purchase of a cedar desk, lounger and four chairs, but assembly member H.T. North called the $2,000 (Bermuda dollars) cost "excessive."

His colleague, Capt. W.V. Ross-Winter, was not amused.

"I think it extremely poor taste to raise the question of how much the gift is to cost," he said.

A more heated political exchange took place in Australia, according to an Associated Press article from Oct. 31, 1947.

Joseph Abbott, a member of the opposition Country Party, called his government's present of two silver fruit dishes and two silver salvers a "mean and paltry gift" that was "not worthy of the devotion of Australia to the future Queen."

"You are a despicable fool," shouted Commerce Minister Reginald Pollard in response.

Prime Minister Joseph Chifley seemed a little more diplomatic, relying on the old adage that the amount spent is less important in evaluations of what is proper. "It is the spirit and feeling behind the gift that matter," he said.

But a charitable benefit from a royal wedding would not be unprecedented. For previous nuptials, many people have given to the less fortunate in the name of the bride and groom. 

Buckingham Palace spokesman David Pogson said it might simply be understood that people can give to the less fortunate instead of sending gifts to the monarchy.

"There has always been a thread, a theme [of giving], particularly during celebration years whether it be weddings, significant birthdays or jubilee years," he said.

Pogson's standard response to inquiries about what the royals would like to receive from members of the public on special occasions is a donation to charity. 

Prior to the nuptials of Princess Elizabeth and Lt. Philip Mountbatten in 1947, a campaign was started by Toronto ciy council, and led by then mayor Robert H. Saunder, to collect and deliver a vast quantity of food to England, which was still in the early process of rebuilding from the destruction wrought by the Second World War.

Residents were urged to "Give Royally!" by donating canned meats and soups, tea, coffee, spaghetti and whole wheat cereals in a series of advertisements that appeared in the Globe and Mail in October of that year. People were also asked to give cash.

Around 400 tons of food was shipped to England a few days before the Nov. 20, 1947, wedding, representing the city's gift to the royal couple.

The Ontario cities of Kitchener, Hamilton, Brantford and Cornwall, as well as Edmonton and Vancouver, were reported to have started similar projects. According to a Toronto Daily Star article from Sept. 25, 1947, Kenya's wedding present also took the form of a donation of food.

Charity is said to start at home and some in England decided to give to the less fortunate in their own country. The citizens of Ipswich, located 120 kilometres northeast of London, collected $20,000 and renovated a local retirement home for their gift.

The spirit of giving also came from the Royal Family itself.

Marilyn Braun, a blogger and royal commentator who has appeared on the CBC, CTV and BBC, said 32,000 food parcels were distributed to needy widows after the wedding along with a personal note from Princess Elizabeth.

Some in Britain even tried to donate to the royal couple despite the extreme austerity of the time, which included heavy rationing of consumer goods.

'We want to help'

Many gave what little they had hoping to contribute to the celebration in some way, whether to help create a proper dress for Elizabeth or to ensure there would be enough to eat at the celebration.  

"People did give clothing rations, although these were sent back [and] people did give food rations in order that this could be a good wedding," said Arbiter. "It was the people's way of saying we approve and we want to help."

There are examples of more recent acts of celebratory giving, including for the wedding of  Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. The July 29, 1981, ceremony, which was viewed by an estimated 750 million people around the world, became a global phenomenon and led to several charitable acts.

Canada's official gift

Though by no means as spectacular or opulent when compared to other gifts received by the royals, gifts from the Canadian government traditionally are indicative of some particular aspect of the country's identity.

The government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King presented a coat made of wild Canadian mink skins to Princess Elizabeth for her Nov. 20, 1947, wedding to Philip Mountbatten. Several styles were sent for her approval beforehand and the final design was a closely guarded secret. Canada also sent a chest of antique silver.

For the wedding of Charles and Diana on July 29, 1981, the Canadian government delivered Canadian-made antique furniture from the 18th and early 19th centuries, including a four poster maple bed, two wooden cabinet stands, a mahogany mirror and a small drop-leaf desk.

The Edinburgh district council promised to donate $92,500 to the Thistle Fund, a charity for the disabled, as its gift, according to a New York Times article from 1981.

The city council in Manchester took a different route. It agreed to find engineering apprenticeships for three unemployed youths.

The most well-documented case of charitable giving for the wedding of Charles and Diana came from an exhibition at St. James's Palace, where a mere fraction of the more than 6,000 gifts they received was on display. The proceeds from the £1.50 admission were to be donated to the Prince's Charities Foundation, a collection of humanitarian organizations supported by Charles. 

People showed up in droves between Aug. 5 and Oct. 4, 1981, to see just a small selection of the presents the two received from around the world. As many as 4,000 people showed up each day, waiting five hours in a line that at one point stretched more than 2.4 kilometres.

A similar showcase took place following the wedding of Elizabeth and Phillip, according to the official website  of the British monarchy.

A public appeal to donate to charity is a smart move for the royal couple, said Hugo Vickers, a royal commentator and author of several books on the British monarchy.

"What are they going to do with a whole mass of plates and all of the stuff they get sent? It's unbelievable when you see the presents that people send in," he said.

"So it's a very good idea."

Reflection of character

Besides, said Artiber, because of the sheer number of gifts received, some of them have ended up at charities anyway, albeit in a roundabout way.

"They got all sorts of things: salt cellars, and book cases and hampers and jewelry and books and a lot of these things are kept for historical reasons but some of them were sort of passed down to various charities so that they could benefit from it," he said.

Braun said a call for charitable donations can also help reduce any potential backlash as a result of seeing people who have a great deal receiving even more, especially during a serious economic crisis in Britain — and the world.

"There might be that kind of resentment that they already have so much money [so] why are they receiving all of these extravagant gifts?" she said.

The supposed plan of accepting less is also a reflection of the character of the two, said Braun.

William and Kate seem "like very normal people and so that's probably an extension of wanting to give to charity as opposed to receiving things themselves," she said, adding that William has taken on a number of his mother's compassionate crusades.

Possible controversy

Because of the nature of the relationship between the royals and the press or public, however, Braun said eschewing the extravagant could also net the two some controversy.

If Kate "didn't appear with say millions of dollars worth of jewels, people would be complaining about it," she said.

Although exact predictions of how much could be donated are hard to nail down — especially given the fact the plan is, as yet, unconfirmed — Arbiter said it will be of a substantial benefit to charities.

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"It's impossible to say," he said. "But you know, people will give generously because they will want to be seen as giving generously supporting this particular wedding."

However, Arbiter, who spent 12 years in the Buckingham Palace press office until his retirement in 2000, said it is likely the two will confirm the charitable plan.

"It probably is going to happen because it's one way of avoiding those unwanted presents, if you see what I mean."