When the Queen got her crown, Canada soon saw it all

A joint effort by the CBC, the BBC and the air forces of two countries meant that Canadians at home were watching Queen Elizabeth's 1953 coronation within 11 hours of it happening.

Film of 1953 coronation was flown over the Atlantic and on TV in Canada before the U.S.

A person wearing a crown carries an orb and sceptre.
Elizabeth wore the bejeweled Imperial Crown as she left Westminster Abbey on June 2, 1953, at the end of the coronation ceremony. (The Associated Press)

Canadians knew the coronation of Queen Elizabeth was happening on June 2, 1953. And thanks to a joint effort by the CBC, the BBC and the air forces of the two countries, they were watching the event on television within 11 hours. 

They were also watching the Queen of Canada get her crown 27 minutes before anyone in the United States could see any of the pomp and pageantry.

Films of the coronation were put on the air by CBC nearly half an hour before they got to the American networks ABC, NBC or CBS. 

Radio listeners, on the other hand, could hear the coronation coverage live as it happened, via shortwave radio.

The Queen before the coronation

King George VI dies and Elizabeth, just 25, becomes Queen.

The accession of Queen Elizabeth  — the day she became the reigning monarch — came on Feb. 6, 1952, when her father, King George VI, died at the age of 56. She was just 25.

Queen Elizabeth, left, stands with her grandmother, Queen Mary, centre, and her mother, Queen Elizabeth, at the entrance to London's Westminster Hall as her father's coffin arrives to lie in state on Feb. 11, 1952. (Ron Case/The Associated Press)

"The high and mighty princess, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, is now, by the death of our late sovereign of happy memory, become Queen Elizabeth the Second," a BBC radio announcer said in a broadcast carried by CBC Radio that day.

Nearly 16 months later, the crown was placed on Queen Elizabeth's head in a coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey in London.

A grand procession

Royal procession takes Elizabeth to Westminster Abbey

4 years ago
Duration 2:31
A golden carriage travels on a crowd-lined route to take the monarch to her coronation.

A gilded horse-drawn carriage — one that had been used for every coronation since 1820 — carried Elizabeth and her husband, Philip, along the procession route from their home at Buckingham Palace to the site of the ceremony at Westminster Abbey.

Throngs of cheering onlookers lined the streets to watch the carriage, drawn by eight horses, pass by.

"The procession passes through Admiralty Arch, along with five companies of the footguards, the band and corps of drums of the Welsh and Irish guards ... and the King's Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery leading the state coach on its way to Westminster Abbey," said Canadian-born BBC commentator Bernard Braden.   

The broadcast continued inside the abbey as a choir sang.

"Elizabeth is led here in solemn procession to be anointed Elizabeth the Second, by the grace of God, of the United Kingdom, Canada and her other realms and territories," Braden said.

'The infinite richness of London'

Canadians at the coronation

4 years ago
Duration 1:03
Louis St-Laurent and Tommy Douglas are among the Canadians invited to London for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.

Canadian Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent and his wife, Jeanne, had sailed across the Atlantic for the occasion, as well as many other Canadians.

"Also come hundreds of other official visitors invited by the coronation committee," said an unnamed commentator in a film from the CBC archives showing the St-Laurents, as well as Ontario Premier Leslie Frost and Toronto Mayor Allan Lamport.

Two Quebec cabinet ministers were also on hand.

"Premier Douglas of Saskatchewan takes his family for a little outing with his family in London traffic," said the TV voiceover, as film showed Douglas touring in an open car with his wife, Irma, and daughter Shirley.

According to the Globe and Mail, approximately 10,000 Canadians went to London for the coronation.

The moment arrives

How a princess became a Queen

4 years ago
Duration 3:32
In a ceremony full of pageantry, the crown is bestowed on Elizabeth on June 2, 1953.

Part of a coronation involves the monarch being anointed with holy oil, a combination of orange, rose, cinnamon, jasmine and other oils.

But that portion of the ceremony was not aired on television.

As seen in the video above, the Queen's mother, Elizabeth, watched the ceremony with her grandson Prince Charles, then age three, by her side. Princess Margaret, the Queen's younger sister, was on his other side.

"Now, invested with the great golden mantle, the imperial robe, the Queen receives the cherished symbols of her exalted office," said Braden.

The choir continued to sing as the Archbishop of Canterbury presented the Queen, seated on the centuries-old Coronation Chair, with one of the symbols.

"Receive this orb, set under the cross, and remember that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our redeemer," said the archbishop. 

Then came the moment when the crown was carried out on an ornate pillow.

The guests looked on silently as the archbishop raised the crown high in the air with both hands before placing it on the Queen's head.

"All hail the Queen!" said many voices in unison as a fanfare of trumpets sounded.

A familiar scene

Waving from the balcony on coronation day

4 years ago
Duration 1:58
The Royal Family waves to the crowds massed outside Buckingham Palace after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth as formations of airplanes execute a flyover.

After the ceremony, the Royal Family gathered in a place that anyone who has watched a recent royal wedding will recognize: the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

The crowds out front roared as Elizabeth, still wearing her crown, emerged from within with her extended family.

Prince Charles and his sister Anne stood with their father, Prince Philip.   

The Queen waved and Philip could be seen pointing at what came next: a flypast by Britain's Royal Air Force, featuring 144 Gloster Meteor fighter jets, as well as 24 F-86E Sabres from the Royal Canadian Air Force.

'Gorgeous tapestry'

Halton reports on the new spirit and new Queen in England.

Matthew Halton, the CBC Radio correspondent who covered much of the Second World War and the Queen's wedding in 1947, was inside Westminster Abbey for the coronation.

He painted an audio picture of the event for CBC listeners, describing the colours, the music and the steps of the ceremony.

"The scarlet thread of continuous history makes up the gorgeous tapestry we saw unfolded today," he said. "But that tapestry itself helps to make the history continuous."

Operation Pony Express

"Operation Pony Express" will fly film of the Coronation from Buckingham Palace to Canada by helicopter, RAF bomber and RCAF fighter.

CBC Television had been on the air for less than nine months in Montreal and Toronto when the coronation took place, and covering it was the network's greatest challenge to date.

As heard in the radio report above, the plan to get footage on Canadian TV was a joint effort by the BBC, the CBC, the RAF and the RCAF.

"They call it Operation Pony Express: this exciting co-operative effort to race the television films across the Atlantic," began the BBC's Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. 

"Viewers in Canada and the United States can see pictures of the coronation within the very same day that it happened in Britain," he said.

As the Globe and Mail reported the next day, the CBC made recordings of the BBC broadcast, processed the film using an accelerated method and put them on RAF bombers to Goose Bay.

The films were then flown by RCAF jets to Montreal and aired in the three cities with CBC Television service — Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, which had started that very day. 

"[The recordings] went on the air 27 minutes ahead of those of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) of the United States," the newspaper reported.

Queen Elizabeth wears her coronation gown as she and Prince Philip enter the Senate to open Parliament in Ottawa on Oct. 14, 1957. (The Canadian Press)

Coronation gown comes to Ottawa

Elizabeth and Phillip had already been to Canada on a coast-to-coast tour, in 1951, before her accession and coronation.

But in 1957 they returned to Canada, visiting Ottawa, where she wore her coronation gown as she opened Parliament. Canadians could finally get a first-hand look at the gown — one that, until then, they had only seen on TV.