Princess Elizabeth's 1951 royal visit to Canada

Sixty years ago, Canadians were preparing for a princess and her husband to visit their country. It was Princess Elizabeth's first visit to Canada.

As the Queen celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, another historic event is remembered

In 1951, Princess Elizabeth made her first royal visit to Canada. The princess and Prince Philip arrive at the Canadian National Exhibition stadium in Toronto on Oct. 13. (The Associated Press)

When Queen Elizabeth made her first live television address from Ottawa in 1957, she spoke about her first visit to Canada six years earlier.

"I have vivid memories of my journey across the country in 1951," she said of the trip that came only a few months before she ascended the throne.

Canada had thoroughly prepared to host the month-long journey of Eliabeth and her husband, Philip.

Three months ahead of the royal couple's 1951 arrival, government officials were already advising Canadians about proper greetings and correct attire. "It's bad taste to gush," warned one official. "A messed-up curtsy or bow is a horrible thing to behold," observed another, before explaining in detail how it's properly performed.

King George VI, his daughter Princess Margaret and his wife, Queen Elizabeth watch Princess Elizabeth with her year-old daughter Princess Anne at Balmoral Castle, Scotland, in August 1951. Preparations for the royal visit to Canada were well underway but then set back the next month when the king's health declined. (Associated Press)

Preparations were going smoothly until early September 1951, when there was "a first-class row" between the CBC and BBC. The Toronto Telegram reported that CBC was "in a high dudgeon" that the BBC was reneging on arrangements for CBC to provide the commentary for British radio listeners.

Toronto newspapers reported that a BBC spokesman had said their listeners "will expect a British commentator to tell them the story in a British voice."

CBC Radio planned "actuality broadcasts" from 23 cities and a daily royal tour diary.

Both the Telegram and the Toronto Star noted that Stewart McPherson, then the BBC's highest-paid news commentator, was from Winnipeg.

Tragedy at Balmoral Castle

About that time, tragedy struck at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. King George VI's health took a visible turn for the worse.

RCMP officers restrain a crowd in Winnipeg during Princess Elizabeth's visit on Oct. 16, 1951. (Library and Archives Canada/Canadian Press)

As he returned to London to see lung specialists, one newspaper was asking in a front-page headline, "What is wrong with the King?"

Plans for his daughter's royal visit to Canada were put on hold. The visit was soon reconfirmed, but instead of arriving by ship, the royal couple would arrive by plane, the first for a royal visit.

Later that month, the King had to have lung surgery. Elizabeth delayed her visit by one week, with all of the planned events on their 33-day trip across Canada also put back a week.

Organizers redoubled their preparations. Toronto was reported to be preparing for the "worst traffic tangle in history" when the princess arrived, according to a headline in the Star.

Two days before Elizabeth's arrival, the Financial Post wrote that the visit would be "the most-covered news event in Canadian history." Echoing that prediction, the Telegram reported that "4,500 personnel have been accredited to cover the activities."

'Crackpots, Communists' a security concern

Security was a big issue, as it always is for royal visits. A story from the Toronto Telegram detailed some of the security arrangements for their visit to Quebec City, their first stop after landing at the airport in Montreal.

Princess Elizabeth thanks Pullman porter Noel Mapp after leaving the train at Charlottetown, P.E.I., on Nov. 9, 1951, to attend a dinner given by provincial officials. (Associated Press)

Headlined, "Watch Reds, Crackpots: 'Will take care of them' during tour," the story explains that 2,500 uniformed personnel would keep the Quebec City crowds at least 30 feet from the royal couple.

It also mentions a "fat yellow booklet" issued to police forces across Canada that contained the names of "crackpots, Communists and agitators." "At least two Quebecois" listed in the booklet were of particular concern in Quebec City, according to the Telegram.

Finally, the moment arrived. "There was that touch of fairytale atmosphere about her arrival," reported the Globe and Mail.

A nervous 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth stepped out onto the airplane gangway in Montreal on Oct. 8, 1951, a crowd of 15,000 before her on the tarmac. She was about to begin her first major royal visit, during which she would be the centre of attention.

And of course she would be worried about her father's health.

Her two-year-old son Charles and one-year-old daughter Anne stayed home.

A black handbag on her left arm trembled. "Only an iron self-control hid her overwhelming nervousness," wrote the legendary Pierre Berton.

33 days criss-crossing Canada

Over the next 33 days, the princess and prince would travel back and forth across Canada, under intense scrutiny.

In his 1953 book, God Save the Queen, Allan Michie of Life Magazine observed that Elizabeth "was not prepared for either the size or the warmth or the vociferousness of her welcome, or for a newly experienced familiarity in the approach to royalty."

Visit by the numbers

During her 33 days in Canada Princess Elizabeth:

  • Shook hands at the rate of 30,00 times per week.
  • Heard the national anthem played 150 times.
  • Met 53 mayors.
  • Inspected 24 guards of honour.
  • Accepted official bouquets from 23 little girls.
  • Signed 21 golden books.
  • And survived it all.

(Source: Pierre Berton, The Royal Family, 1954)

There were no security crises in Quebec City or elsewhere, not counting an incident at a university football game in Vancouver.

Prince Philip was asked to autograph a football, but before he could, security officers seized the ball. Only after rushing off with the ball, deflating, carefully inspecting and then re-inflating it, did they allow the autographing ceremony to go ahead.

Cities strove to be most enthusiastic

In terms of fervour, Each major city would surpass the ones previously visited — or at least claim to have done so. "Enthusiasm of Toronto's outdoes Quebec, and Ottawa combined" headlined The Toronto Telegram, proclaiming the largest crowd in the city's history had assembled in City Hall Square on Oct. 11.

How many were there? "Nobody knows," the Globe and Mail reported the next day.

The day that story ran, the royal couple did a 48-kilometre driving tour through the Queen City, as Toronto was known in those days. "There looked to have been more than 1,000,000 and there may have been twice that many," George Bain reported in the Globe.

Three weeks later in Montreal, another drive, but this time the route was 120 kilometres and lasted seven hours. An estimated two million people lined the route, according to Trevor Hall in his book Royal Canada.

Next stop was a short visit to the U.S. and a meeting with President Harry Truman at the White House. Canadians were aghast at the way the American media pack went about their work.

In his 1953 book The Royal Family, Berton tells a story about how, once back in Canada, Elizabeth mocked the U.S. photographers while she did some filming of her own. While pointing the camera at her husband, she cried out in a nasally American voice, "Hey! You there! Hey, Dook! Look this way a sec! Dat's it! Thanks a lot!"

After almost five weeks of touring, the nervous princess who had flown into Canada left by ship from Portugal Cove, N.L., "a laughing, relaxed figure," according to Berton.

Three months later, she would begin her reign as Elizabeth II.

Princess Elizabeth had this to say about Canada, once she was back in the U.K.:

"I am sure that nowhere under the sun could one find a land more full of hope, of happiness and of fine, loyal, generous-hearted people."

And she engaged in some prognostication:

"They have placed in our hearts a love for their country and its people which will never grow cold and which will always draw us to their shores."