Queen Elizabeth's 1953 coronation, a 'madhouse on the streets'

Canadians at home and abroad were part of the celebrations of Queen Elizabeth's coronation on June 2, 1953, a pomp-filled ceremony that reverberated around the world and set a new bar for royal pageantry.

Celebrations drew hundreds of thousands in Canada, millions in London

Len Delaney, right, wears the same dress blues he donned as a young private with the Royal Canadian Regiment when he marched with other members of the Canadian Forces in the Queen's coronation procession in London on June 2, 1953. (Left: AFP/Getty Images; Right: Courtesy Len Delaney)

Picture what the streets of Toronto would be like if the Maple Leafs ever get their hands on the Stanley Cup again.

Len Delaney imagines just that when he remembers London, England, on the night of June 2, 1953, a few hours after Queen Elizabeth's coronation.

It was "a madhouse on the streets of London," he says, "dancing, singing, drinking, climbing light poles etc. And I took it all in."

Now 83 and living in Brockville, Ont., Delaney was in the British capital 60 years ago as part of the Canadian Forces contingent that was marching in the coronation procession taking the Queen in her golden state coach to and from Westminster Abbey.

After all the pomp and pageantry of the day, Delaney, a private with the Royal Canadian Regiment, and a buddy snuck out of their quarters after 11 p.m. to see what was going on in central London.

"And let me tell you, I've never seen the likes of the celebration in all my life.

"There were people climbing flag poles, telephones poles and light posts, you name it. It was just out of this world. And then we had to sneak back in again. "

Delaney was one of 900 members of the Canadian Forces who lined the parade route or marched in the procession to the abbey, where a 27-year-old Elizabeth was anointed and crowned, formally taking on the role she assumed when her father, King George VI, died 16 months earlier.

Lion dances and French-Canadian celebrations

Those serving Canadians weren't the only ones marking a coronation that has become almost an iconic symbol of how royal ceremonies are done.

Canadians were celebrating at home, too. About 100,000 revellers gathered on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, while Quebec celebrants flocked to the Plains of Abraham and members of the Chinese community in Victoria did a celebratory lion dance.

"A version of God Save the Queen in French was authorized for the coronation celebrations so that they were inclusive of both English and French Canadians, and there were enormous celebrations in Quebec as well," says Toronto-based royal historian Carolyn Harris.

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"It was very much a unifying event for Canadians in 1953.

"Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh had just visited Canada in 1951 on an extremely popular royal tour. So the enthusiasm that accompanied that tour carried forward into the coronation celebrations."

Meanwhile, many of the Canadians who went to London were able to find a spot for themselves on a viewing stand reserved for them at Parliament Square, and the Canadian government threw a big picnic lunch at Canada House.

Photographs from the lunch "show it being packed and people sitting on the floor," says Harris.

"Compared with previous coronations, when it was simply more difficult to travel overseas, there was a tremendous Commonwealth presence and Canadian presence at the 1953 coronation just as there were celebrations all across Canada."

Millions line the street

Delaney, a Korean War veteran, had never been to England before this.

We meet again

Len Delaney, right, waits as the Queen greets guests at a garden party at Rideau Hall in Ottawa in 2010. (Office of the prime minister/Len Delaney)

Fifty-seven years after he was in London for the coronation, Len Delaney donned the same dress blues he wore during his march through the streets of the British capital for a garden party with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in Ottawa.

"The Queen came down and nodded to all of us," Delaney says. "I saluted."

Philip came along soon after. It wasn’t the first time Delaney had met either the Queen or her husband. The duke is colonel-in-chief of Delaney’s regiment, and a few years after the coronation, he visited its troops in Germany. Delaney was posted there, and met the duke during that time.

At the 2010 garden party, Delaney remembers Philip looking at him and saying " 'What are you doing here?' He said: "The last time I saw you was in Germany."

The soldiers, sailors, air force and RCMP personnel who were part of the contingent left Quebec City on the Franconia, a Cunard Line vessel at the end of April.

After landing at Liverpool, they boarded the train to London, and eventually ended up at the Pirbright army camp south of the capital, where training for the coronation procession began.

Delaney talks with great pride about his coronation experience, and about how the soldiers were moved up to London shortly before the big day.

He remembers the sheer size of a parade that featured military representation from throughout the Commonwealth. The procession included 16,000 participants and was almost three kilometres long.

The crowd lining the streets was estimated at three million.

"It was quite a day. The streets were crowded, and [people were] hollering and screaming at us as we went by: 'Oh, there goes the Canadians,' " Delaney recalls.

"You really felt good. This was my first big public parade I was ever on. The people were just going crazy."

Delaney never did see the Queen on June 2. But he later took part in the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, an experience he found particularly significant.

He had the chance to stand guard outside Buckingham Palace where he met Queen Elizabeth in the garden behind the palace the day after the coronation.

She gave him and others coronation medals — "Quite an honour, you know," he says now.

'One of the biggest thrills'

"We did the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace three days after the coronation," Delaney recalls.

Len Delaney takes his turn doing guard duty at the main gate of Buckingham Palace in June 1953. (Len Delaney)

"We had our big brass band, 55-piece military brass band, and they marched us through the gates playing The Maple Leaf Forever. That was one of the biggest thrills I think I ever had. And then we did 24 hours guard duty of the palace."

Men from the Royal Canadian Regiment, the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and the Royal 22nd Regiment (the Van Doos, as they were more commonly known) shared the duty at Buckingham Palace and nearby St. James Palace.

"I was on first relief at Buckingham Palace, the main gate, and that was the night the Queen held a big party for all the heads of state," says Delaney.

He didn't have a straight-on view of the guests, but he could glance over and spot them in their cars, including then British prime minister Winston Churchill.

'Fantasy world'

David Mulligan, a retired sergeant with the First Canadian Highland Battalion (The Black Watch), was also marching in London on June 2, 1953.

Like Delaney, he's now 83, and looks back in awe at the experience.

"It was something out of a fantasy world," says Mulligan, who now lives in Oromocto, N.B.

Sightseers settle in for the night on June 1, 1953, by the roadside in Trafalgar Square so that they will have a good spot from which to view the coronation procession. (George W. Hales/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

"You were not quite sure what you were doing. It was really something spectacular. You couldn't describe it, really."

Mulligan's voice trails off as he tries to recall the details. He remembers the weather — "a little rain, a little sunshine" — the boxed lunches the marchers ate on the road, and the difficulty knowing exactly where they were because there were so many people everywhere they looked.

Like Delaney, he didn't see the Queen on June 2, but did the next day. He's seen royalty several times since, including having a chance to talk to the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh when they were in Halifax in 2010.

With the passage of time, fewer and fewer of the men who marched with Mulligan are still around. But he remembers talking with a friend about their experiences a couple of years ago.

They realized, Mulligan says, that they "were in some places nobody's ever seen before."

"And it was really something."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.