The 1951 Royal Visit

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5157266 Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh sporting a “ten gallon hat” watching the rodeo at Calgary during their tour of Canada, © Mirrorpix.

As we are in the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Year, many Canadians have looked back at the visits Queen Elizabeth II has made to Canada during her reign. In all, she has made 22 official visits as Queen. Today, I thought it would be interesting to look at the first visit, when she wasn’t even Queen yet.

It was back in 1951, from October to November, that Princess Elizabeth, The Duchess of Edinburgh, arrived in Canada with her husband Duke of Edinburgh, on a tour she was taking on behalf of her father.

Just over a decade earlier, in 1939, her father and mother had come to Canada on the first-ever Royal Tour of Canada. I covered that in a previous episode and it was one of the biggest events in Canadian history to that point.

While the visit of Princess Elizabeth would not be the on the same level as that visit, it would become an important moment in Canadian history. When her parents arrived, Canada was leaving The Great Depression and about to enter the Second World War.

This time, Canada was six years out from the Second World War and was entering a time of prosperity, when Canada started to become the country we know today.

In early July 1951, it was announced in a statement that the Princess and Prince Philip would be coming to Canada for a tour of the country. In Canada, this announcement was completely unexpected. The Ottawa Citizen stated on July 5, 1951 quote:

“Yesterday’s announcement by Prime Minister St. Laurent that a royal tour was planned for October came as a distinct surprise. There had been no previous intimation that such a visit would be made this year. It is taken for granted that in addition to coming to Ottawa, they will visit such major centers as Montreal, Toronto, some of the western Cities and Vancouver.”

St. Laurent would state quote:

“Their Royal Highnesses have expressed the hope that their first visit to Canada, to which they are looking forward with keen anticipation, will be kept as simple as possible, having regard to the circumstances of their times and I know that their wishes will be respected.”

Unlike Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, St. Laurent would not spend the entire tour with the Royal Couple, instead focusing more on the early days in Quebec and Ottawa.

For Princess Elizabeth, there had been a long wish to come to Canada. She and her sister Princess Margaret were apparently quite disappointed when they were left behind in England while their parents toured Canada in 1939. Upon the return home of the King and Queen, Princess Elizabeth, then 13, would pour over the scrapbooks and photographs of the trip.

The invitation had actually come about because the Secretary of State for External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson, had invited the couple to come to Canada. Governor General Harold Alexander, who was also in London at the time, also aided in extending the invitation to the Royal Couple to come to Canada.

Pearson would become a travel agent of sorts to the planning of the Royal Tour. He would show them a large map of Canada and marked tentative routes in red, blue and black lines for plane, train and ship journeys. Walter Johnson, the Canadian National Railway publicity chief, who had worked out press arrangements for every royal visit to Canada since 1924 also came out of retirement to help plan this new tour. The Royal Couple, for their part, wanted a simple trip. No cornerstones, no university degrees, no long discourses of their own as possible. The motto of keep it simple was often spoken. The couple wouldn’t get all their requests but the trip was toned down to accommodate what they were hoping to do. One request Princess Elizabeth had was that school children be given the opportunity to participate in any public gathering arranged for the Royal Couple.

In the 1939 Royal Tour, one car was used to transport the Royal Couple through various cities. For this Royal Tour, 60 cars were being used, with Ford, Chrysler and General Motors each providing 20 cars each. Six cars were assigned to each of Canada’s ten provinces, and half would be open topped, while half would not.

At the last moment, the tour was almost cancelled as her father King George fell ill and many wondered if he was going to survive. In mid-September 1951, he would have a lung removed in an operation, and Princess Elizabeth stated she wanted to stay by his side. As he improved, the tour was once again back on, just one week later than originally planned.

On Oct. 8, 11:40 a.m., the couple arrived in their plane at the Montreal Airport, where they were greeted by Governor General Harold Alexander, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and several cabinet ministers. Around the airport, 25,000 people were waiting to see a glimpse of the couple.

At a state dinner the next evening, Quebec Premier Duplessis would state quote:

“The majority of the people of the province of Quebec are Canadians of French origin. They have for centuries been faithful to the Crown recognizing it as a symbol of authority and freedom.”

Princess Elizabeth would state in reply quote:

“When I first set foot on Canadian soil, I knew myself to be not only amongst friends but amongst fellow countrymen.”

At Quebec City, the Royal Couple were greeted by thousands of people as a royal salute of 21 guns boomed out as Princess Elizabeth walked the red carpet from the train to the dock. She would say in a speech quote:

“I felt, as I think must always be the case for one who comes for the first time across the Atlantic to the new world, not only wonder and excitement but also a feeling of strangeness, the strangeness of the unknown.”

On Oct. 10, Princess Elizabeth arrived at Ottawa on a CNR train where the 30th Field Battery gave her a 21-gun salute.

The Ottawa Evening Citizen wrote quote:

“It was love at first sight. A radian and beautiful woman, she was the storybook princess come to life. As for the prince, tall, blond, handsome, he was a man’s man.”

Like in Montreal, 25,000 people were on hand to welcome them to the city. Across the city, the Union Jack was on display, except at the Soviet Embassy. At the Holden Manufacturing Company, the largest Union Jack in the world, five stories in length, was displayed.

At Lansdowne Park, 14,000 children had assembled to greet the couple, along with Mayor Charlotte Whitton and city councilors. At Confederation Square, another 50,000 people were on hand, some who had been there since the previous morning to get the best place to stand.

With some time to spare, Prince Philip would visit the National Research Council to speak with the scientists there. He would say quote:

“From the national and provincial research councils through the associated committees, a simple and effective pattern exists for getting problems to the right research worker and the right answer back to the people who need it.”

The couple would then have lunch at 24 Sussex with Prime Minister Laurent, and were then given a tour of the House of Commons. Princess Elizabeth would then ascend to the top of the Peace Tower, which she said gave her a better view than the one from the Eiffel Tower. They would also enjoy a lunch with Mayor Charlotte Whitton. The menu was specifically made to have something from every province in Canada. There was cream of peas from Quebec, salmon from Newfoundland, elk from Alberta, grouse from Saskatchewan, wild rice from Manitoba, cheese from Ontario, oysters from Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, maple Chantilly from New Brunswick and candied fruits from British Columbia.

During the visit to Parliament Hill, Prince Philip saw Filip Konowal, who had been hired as a janitor there by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. The prince had seen the Victoria Cross ribbon on Konowal’s coat for his actions at the Battle of Hill 70 in the First World War. The prince took time to speak with him about his experience.

The next day, the couple took a cruise along the Ottawa River on a ship dubbed the Royal Barge. Two RCAF boats preceded the barge, while two RCN boats followed it. Another 25 pleasure boats supplied by the Ottawa Power Boat Association accompanied the boat down the river.

The Sault Star would describe the scene of the Royal Couple travelling down the Ottawa River, which was the same river her great-grandfather, the future Edward VII, travelled down in 1860 when he was the Prince of Wales. The Sault Star wrote quote:

“Dozens of smaller boats got into the act unofficially. Thousands of people watched from the shores from bridges and from the cliffs overlooking the broad river. The Royal Couple, both happy to get this outing, went down the river on the Ontario side and back up the Quebec side, their boat the centre of a diamond-shaped formation headed by four crash boats of the navy and air force.”

Upon leaving Ottawa, Princess Elizabeth would say quote:

“My husband and I will never forget the golden beauty of Ottawa as we have seen it today and yesterday. But still more shall we remember the wonderful and inspired welcome given by its citizens.”

For Princess Elizabeth, the tour was the first major tour of her life and there were some accounts that she was feeling overwhelmed by it. The Sault Star wrote quote:

“So Princess Elizabeth acts sometimes as though she were mentally pinching herself to make sure she isn’t dreaming. She forgets to smile. Occasionally she looks hesitant, sometimes even a bit scared, sometimes just shy. She turns to her husband and he grins and she is all right again.”

Through the journey, Captain Stewart Cowan, who had over 5,000 hours as a pilot and was a former pilot for a torpedo bomber, was the man who flew the plane for the princess around the country. The Royal Canadian Air Force would also fly a spare plane in case they needed to use it due to mechanical problems with the first plane.

In Kingston, the couple were treated to a visit at the Royal Military College as 350 officers marched past the couple to welcome to the community. They would review the ranks, while also being greeted by thousands of residents who lined the streets during their trip to the school. At one point, a dog ran through the line with a Union Jack tied to his tail. A woman from New York who was in Kingston reporting would also ask a person from Kingston quote:

“Is this the capital of Ontario?”

She was told quote:

“No, this is the capital of the world.”

At Iroquois, 2,500 people were there to watch the train pass by the station even though Princess Elizabeth did not appear, but Philip did, waving from the window. At Prescott, 4,000 people waited for the Royal Couple to pass by. This time, they were treated to both Elizabeth and Philip, who waved to the crowd as the train slowed to a crawl before moving on to its next destination.

Elizabeth would also visit Belleville, where she met with Indigenous leaders who showed her a plate that had been given to the tribe in 1714 by Queen Anne. The Royal Couple then walked past the crowd of 15,000 people, 6,000 of them children.

On Oct. 12, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip reached Toronto where 300,000 people gave the couple a tremendous welcome as they were driven from the airport to city hall. At city hall, she was greeted by Mayor Hiram McCallum. She would sign a register, pay her respects to Toronto’s war dead and attend a civic reception.

The Sault Star described the immense crowd quote:

“Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, hardly able to believe what they saw, told intimates they were thrilled, that never had they seen what they saw here. It dazed 3,000 police who said they had never anticipated anything like this. It boomed well beyond 1.2 million the number of Canadians who had seen the Royal Couple since their arrival in Montreal Monday. It even made Santa Claus look like a piker. Police said the princess outdrew Toronto’s famed annual Santa Claus parade at least two to one.”

At the Canadian National Exhibition grandstand, 30,000 children were on hand to see the couple.

The couple would spend two days in Toronto, during which they attended a hockey game at Maple Leaf Gardens. This wasn’t quite a normal hockey game. The Leafs were supposed to play the Chicago Black Hawks that night to kick off the 1951-52 season, having won the Stanley Cup the previous season. There wasn’t enough time in the itinerary for the Princess to attend the game in the evening. To accommodate this, a 15-minute exhibition game was played for the benefit of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. The game started at 3 p.m. and ended at 3:15 p.m. Proceeds from the mini-game were then given to the Crippled Children’s Fund, the favourite charity of Conn Smythe. The couple were escorted into the arena by Conn Smythe and Premier Leslie Frost. Leafs Captain Ted Kennedy then skated up to the couple in their Royal box to greet them. He would say quote:

“Don’t speak unless they speak to me. I call them each Your Royal Highness. I don’t bow, just shake hands and bow my head slightly.”

In the arena, more than 14,000 people were at the game. Sportswriter Ed Fitkin would write quote:

“Princess Elizabeth’s eyes sparkled as she intently followed the play. She recoiled slightly at the heavy checks and talked and smiled with Mr. Smythe frequently.”

Danny Lewicki, a player for the Leafs would say quote:

“It was a very exciting day for us. Just to think she would be there.”

The game ended in a scoreless tie, but Kennedy would say it was the most intense 15 minutes of hockey ever played at Maple Leaf Gardens.

The couple would visit Windsor, where there was a massive crowd of 500,000 people who had come to the city to line the 20 kilometre route to see the Royal Couple. Many of the people in Windsor had also come from the United States for the visit.

At Cornwall, Ontario, a crowd of 20,000 cheering citizens broke through the police barriers and began to swarm around Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth. The train was only making a 15 minute stop but there was not serious disorder and after a short wait, the train pulled out.

Reaching Winnipeg, the Royal Couple were greeted by a howling prairie storm but that did not stop thousands of people from once again greeting the couple. While in Winnipeg, the couple would also see a performance of the Winnipeg Ballet Company.

Indian Head, Saskatchewan would get an unexpected visit from the Royal Couple when the Royal Train stopped there for 10 minutes. Most of the crowd was not expecting to see the royal couple, but then the train suddenly stopped and the couple walked out to wave to the crowd and greet the gathered children.

Through the journey, Princess Elizabeth tended to be unconcerned with arrival and departure times to ensure as many people as possible could see the Royal Couple during stops, and for other reasons. The Windsor Star wrote quote:

“Princess Elizabeth seems the only one really unconcerned about arrival and departure times. A Royal staff member described her as very easy to get along with. She never hurries anyone, and she refuses to hurry. At least twice she had delayed the morning departure from the Royal train by unhurried dressing, while Philip idly flipped through a magazine in their paneled sitting room.”

In Regina, Princess Elizabeth would praise the government of Tommy Douglas, which was beginning its steps to universal healthcare. She would say quote:

“As I stand now before the Legislative building I feel deeply impressed and conscious of the truly democratic basis upon which the affairs of this country are carried on.”

In Calgary on Oct. 18, liquor stores were required to close for the two hours previous to the visit by the Royal Couple. This was done to ensure staff members could go and see the royal couple, although it may have also been done to prevent any sort of rowdiness as well. In Calgary, she would see one person in the crowd named S.G. Woodeson. He had spent 20 years as the superintendent in charge of safety at Sandringham House, the Royal Family’s home in Norfolk. The Princess would greet him and say it was nice to see him.

On Oct. 19, in order to ensure that Princess Elizabeth could greet children, the Vancouver decided to forgo presentations to her and instead ensure that children could greet her.

The Vancouver Province wrote quote:

“That Princess Elizabeth has made it emphatically clear that she wants to see as many Canadian children as possible and further, children by the thousand have waited long hours, blue with cold, while officialdom introduced itself indoors. Pat Prowd thinks that if the princess knew how those kids had been kept waiting in the cold, she would have been angry. We think so too. Princess Elizabeth is a mother and a gracious young woman.”

Princess Elizabeth would say of the rain and cold weather quote:

“I thought about how all those school children lining the route, and about how cold they must be. I was cold myself and I was in a car.”

After Vancouver, the couple took a destroyer to Victoria where hundreds of thousands of people on Vancouver Island welcomed them. At this point, the couple took a three day holiday. The Edmonton Journal reported quote:

“The press called off its forces and they spent their holiday amid the mountains, forests and streams of the island, doing only what they wished, free from the wearying official receptions, presentations, and welcomes of the previous two weeks.”

Around this same time, the private secretary to the Princess would state that she was doing well and was as fit as a fiddle. He would add quote:

“There is no question about their tiring and it can be categorically denied that there is any question of curtailing the tour.”

On Oct. 27, the couple left British Columbia and arrived in Edmonton where they were given a huge welcome. Just prior to that, 3,000 people in nearby Edson jammed themselves at the railroad station to see the couple who were stopping for 20 minutes in the community. Elizabeth would tell the crowd in Edmonton quote:

“Yesterday, we left the west coast of Canada and this morning we climbed through the Rockies and the famed Yellowhead Pass, the traditional route of explorers and fur traders on their way to the Pacific. And now, I am very glad to stand in this fine city of Edmonton, the gateway to the north.”

In Saskatoon, a Mrs. L. Halliwell would relate how her father was a sergeant in the police force in Windsor, England and he would often keep the way clear for Queen Victoria. When she was a girl and going to school, she would see the Queen go by. As a young woman, she would enter the service of grandparents of Princess Elizabeth. She would state of now seeing Princess Elizabeth quote:

“Thus you understand how I admire and watch our beloved Princess Elizabeth and although I shall see 84 years pass very soon, I will have the honor with my daughter to be present at the station to welcome Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip.”

From Nov. 7 to 8, the couple visited Halifax where they were treated to heavy rain and high winds. That didn’t stop 50,000 people from coming out to greet them.

The tour would come to an end on Nov. 11, 1951 when the couple reached Newfoundland.

Three months later, on Feb. 6, 1952, King George VI would die and Princess Elizabeth would become Queen Elizabeth II.  

Information from Royal Watcher Blog, Nova Scotia Archives,, City News, Wikipedia, Toronto Star, Macleans, Ottawa Citizen, Victoria Times Colonist, Calgary Albertan, Windsor Star, Calgary Herald, Montreal Star, Vancouver Sun, Edmonton Journal,

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