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The Royal Visit 1954

Ivor Hele (1912-1993), Opening of Parliament by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 1954, 1955, Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection.

On 13 February 1954, a RAAF Dakota aircraft landed at Canberra’s Fairbairn Airfield. Approximately 4,000 people lined its tarmac, to welcome Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. Two days later, the Queen opened the Third Session of the 20th federal Parliament, a historic moment not just for the Parliament but for the entire Federal Capital. This whirlwind five-day visit to Canberra was part of a broader eight-week national tour, the first visit to Australia by its reigning monarch.1

The opening of Parliament
By convention, the ceremonial opening of a parliamentary session takes place in the Senate chamber.2 As this was the first time that a royal sovereign – rather than the Governor-General – would open the Australian Parliament, the Senate had amended its Standing Orders to provide for this.3 It was an occasion of ‘magnificent pageantry’ as the Queen, wearing her coronation gown embroidered with emblems of the British Commonwealth of Nations, arrived at Parliament House.4 Her father King George VI (then the Duke of York) had opened the building back in 1927, while her grandfather King George V (then the Duke of Cornwall and York) had opened Australia’s first Parliament in 1901. As Queen Elizabeth II stood before the assembled parliamentarians and guests in the Senate chamber, she declared that, ‘It is … a joy for me, today, to address you not as a Queen from far away, but as your Queen and a part of your Parliament. In a real sense, you are here as my colleagues, friends and advisers’.5

She further stated:

When I add to this consideration the fact that I am the first ruling Sovereign to visit Australia, it is clear that the events of today make a piece of history which fills me with deep pride and the most heartfelt pleasure, and which I am confident will serve to strengthen in your own hearts and minds a feeling of comradeship with the Crown and that sense of duty shared which we must all have as we confront our common tasks

It is, I think, fitting that I should, speaking to you today, recall to mind those elements of unity which combine in the fabric of the British Commonwealth. The great institutions of parliamentary sovereignty, a democratically controlled executive, the just and impartial administration of the law; these exist and flourish in each of the great realms which call me Queen. They have, in this century, survived great trials of war and economic hardship. And they have done so, I am proud to say, because of the great qualities of my peoples, qualities which have shown themselves through labours manfully performed, duties courageously done by men and women, sorrows sustained, and happiness earned...

Moved by these feelings, it is my resolve that, under God, I shall not only rule, but serve. This is not only the tradition of my family; it describes, I believe, the modern character of the British Crown.6

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh on the steps of Parliament House, 1954. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia (150807971).
NAA: A1773, RV382
Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh attending Parliament in Canberra during the Australian visit in 1954. Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia (A1773, RV382).

In his Address-in-Reply, Prime Minister Robert Menzies acknowledged that the Address:

… [was] the signal for the greatest, most moving and enduring unanimity that this Parliament has ever seen. By our Address [to the Queen] we recognize our homage and the duty of our allegiance, but we desire to express much more than that – our love, our pride and our thankfulness to God that, whatever troubles may beset the world, and however man may be set against man in unhappy parts of the world, we of the great British family are privileged to live in unity under a young and lovely Queen, a great Queen to-day but one who is bound to be greater and greater as the years move on.7

On his return from the Korean War, official war artist Ivor Hele was commissioned to paint the 1954 opening of Parliament by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Hele was buoyed by the challenge and commented that ‘it offers a tremendous lot of problems and I love problems of that kind’.8  Prior to the ceremony, which lasted only 20 minutes, Hele visited the Senate chamber to choose his vantage point. He chose the corner, close to where William Mclnnes worked in 1927 when he painted the inaugural opening of Parliament by the then Duke of York. To overcome the challenge of recreating the scene, Hele made dozens of sketches of the Senate chamber and also sketched many individual portraits of important figures who attended the event, including Prime Minister Robert Menzies and his wife Dame Pattie, and President of the Senate Alister McMullin. The final painting was well received with reports that it held ‘great gusto and strength of characterisation — an unusual achievement in official pictures of this kind’.9

The following morning, the Queen presided over a meeting of the Federal Executive Council, where she signed her assent to the Flags Act 1953. The Act, which enabled the transition from Union Jack to an Australian national flag,10 remains one of the few examples of an assent signed by the Sovereign rather than a Governor-General.

The Royal Visit and Canberra

In 1954 the national capital was a city of just over 30,000 people,11 almost half of whom were directly employed in the Commonwealth public service.12 Though a nucleus of almost 2,000 people was established in Canberra by 1930,13 development had stalled with the onset of the Great Depression.14 World War II only compounded this, as the government’s core functions were consolidated in Melbourne and its finances, labour and materials focused on national defence.15 These constraints continued into the post-war years, so much so that at the time of the royal visit, a third of all the Commonwealth public service remained in Melbourne due to Canberra’s critical housing and infrastructure shortages.16 Not until the late 1950s would the pace of Canberra’s  development accelerate, and make the capital more than ‘a few disjointed suburbs on either side of the future Lake Burley Griffin site’.17

After decades of relative stagnation, the royal visit refocused the nation’s attention on its capital city. Canberra rolled out a grand program of events for the royal party, with some 30,000 visitors flocking to the capital to see the Queen and the Duke. The single largest group incorporated approximately 17,000 children from all over the Southern Tablelands, including 50 Indigenous children from Wreck Bay, who attended Manuka Oval for the Children’s Assembly.18 The Queen’s and the Duke’s packed program included a tour around Canberra, a public reception, the opening of University House at the ANU, an investiture and garden party at Government House, troop reviews, a state banquet and ball, visits to Cuppacumbalong Homestead and the Australian War Memorial, a veterans’ gathering, the opening of the Australian–American Memorial, and presentation of a Royal Charter to the Australian Academy of Science.19

Young fans welcome Queen Elizabeth II on her arrival at Fairbairn Airfield, Canberra, 1954. Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia (A1200,L25136).

The Royal Visit and Australia
The royal couple’s eight-week Australian visit was the longest leg of their six-month travel across the Commonwealth, with the Australian Government’s share of the costs an estimated £510,000 ($18.2 million in 2021 costings).20 Overall, the trip spanned 44,000 miles (71,000 kms) and encompassed 13 countries across the West Indies, Australasia, Asia and Africa. It would be Queen Elizabeth II’s longest-ever Commonwealth tour.21

The visit garnered intense media interest across Australia as radio, newsreels and newspapers chronicled the royals’ progress. Travelling 27,000 miles (43,000 kms) by air, rail, sea and road, the Queen and Prince Philip attended more than 250 formal engagements in 57 towns and cities across every state and the ACT.22 It is estimated that nearly three-quarters of Australia’s population saw the royal couple at least once during the tour, testament to the depth of the nation’s devotion to the Crown and affection for the young Queen.23 Prime Minister Robert Menzies declared:

… for our Queen we have within us, sometimes unrealised until the moment of expression, the most profound and passionate feelings of loyalty and of devotion.

… when eight million people spontaneously pour out this feeling they are engaging in a great act of common allegiance and common joy which brings them closer together and is one of the most powerful elements converting them from a mass of individuals to a great cohesive nation.

In brief, the common devotion to the Throne is a part of the very cement of our whole national structure.24

Since the 1954 visit, the Queen visited Australia another 15 times. As part of this, she opened federal parliamentary sessions on 28 February 1974 and 8 March 1977.25

1. Department of the Interior, Annual Report on the Administration and Development of Canberra and the Australian Capital Territory: year ended 30th June 1954, Canberra, 1955, p. 1; ‘Colourful Canberra welcome to Royalty’, The Canberra Times, 15 February 1954, p. 1; ‘Royal tour itinerary announced for 1954’, The Canberra Times, 7 February 1953, p. 1. Websites accessed August 13, 2021.
2. ‘The Opening of Parliament’, Senate Brief no. 2, July 2019; H Evans, ‘The Traditional, the Quaint and the Useful: Pitfalls of Reforming Parliamentary Procedures’, Papers on Parliament, no. 52, Department of the Senate, December 2009. Websites accessed 6 August 2021.
3. R Laing, ‘The opening of Parliament: Standing Order 4: Opening of Parliament by the Queen’, Annotated Standing Orders of the Australian Senate, accessed 6 August 2021.
4. ‘Magnificent pageantry as Queen opens Parliament’, The Canberra Times, 16 February 1954, p. 1, accessed 13 August 2021.
5. Queen Elizabeth II, ‘Speech of Her Majesty The Queen’, Senate, Debates, 15 February 1954, p. 5; ‘Queen’s Memorable Address To Parliament’, The Canberra Times, 16 February 1954, p. 2, accessed 13 August 2021.
6. Ibid., p. 6.
7. R Menzies, ‘Speech of Her Majesty The Queen’, House of Representatives, Debates, 15 February 1954, p. 7.
8. ‘Canberra interview’, The Bulletin, Vol. 75 No 3873, 5 May 1954, p. 9, accessed 19 November 2021.
9. ‘Artist’s crowded working day’, The Sunday Times, 30 January 1955, p. 38, accessed 19 November 2021.
10. ‘Documenting a democracy: Flags Act 1953 (Cth)’, Museum of Australian Democracy, accessed 13 August 2021.
11. Australian Bureau of Statistics, cat no. 2108.0, Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1954, ‘Volume 5, Part 3: Territories’, accessed 6 August 2021. The count did not include Indigenous Australians.
12. N Brown, A History of Canberra, Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 155.
13. Australian Bureau of Statistics, cat no. 1301.0, ‘Year Book Australia, 1931’, accessed 17 August 2021. The count did not include Indigenous Australians.
14. Planning and Development of Canberra – 1901 to 1951, Archives ACT, accessed 10 August 2021.
15. T Ling, ‘Commonwealth Government records about the Australian Capital Territory’, Research Guide, National Archives of Australia, Canberra, 2013, p. 41; National Capital Authority, ‘Building Canberra up to 1958’, accessed 6 August 2021.
16. Brown, op. cit., p. 133.
17. Ling, op. cit. p. 54.
18. ‘17,000 Schoolchildren in Spontaneous Welcome’, The Canberra Times, 17 February 1954, p. 4; ‘Adults tried hard to gatecrash at children’s assembly’, The Canberra Times, 17 February 1954, p. 8. Websites accessed 6 August 2021.
19. Brown, op. cit., p. 140; J Connors, ‘The Glittering Thread: The 1954 Royal Tour of Australia’, PhD thesis, University of Technology, Sydney, 1996, p. 200; ‘Full Programme For Queen’s visit to Capital City’, The Canberra Times, 29 January 1954, p. 6. Websites accessed 8 August 2021.
20. K Cumming, ‘Royalty and Australian society’, Research Guide, National Archives of Australia, Canberra, 1988, p. 134, accessed 19 November 2021.
21. Royal Collection Trust, ‘Queen and Commonwealth: The Royal Tour’, Buckingham Palace exhibition, accessed 5 August 2021.
22. Connors, op. cit., p. 2; ‘Queen begins long journey home, The Age, 2 April 1954, p. 1, accessed 5 August 2021; Australian News and Information Bureau, Department of the Interior, Canberra, Royal Visit to Australia of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1954, p. 3.
23. P Spearritt, ‘Royal Progress: The Queen and her Australian Subjects’ in J Arnold, P Spearritt, D Walker, eds, Out of Empire – The British Dominion of Australia, Mandarin Australia, Melbourne 1993, p. 212
24. R Menzies, ‘The Queen’s visit is first by a reigning Monarch’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 February 1954, p. 2 (Royal Tour Supplement), accessed August 10 2021.
25. ‘Dates announced for The Queen’s visit to Australia’, Press release, Buckingham Palace, London, 23 September 2011; D Elder and P Fowler, eds, ‘Chapter 7 – the parliamentary calendar: a session’, House of Representatives Practice, 7th ed., Canberra, 2018, p. 231.

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