Why was the 1953-54 royal visit such a huge event for New Zealanders?
- This was the first time a reigning monarch had set foot in New Zealand. Previous royal visitors had been sons or brothers of the monarch: Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh in 1869, Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York in 1901, Prince of Wales in 1920, Duke and Duchess of York in 1927, Duke of Gloucester in 1934-5.
- Hopes for a visit by the monarch had been raised over the previous decade:
- There had been discussions about a visit by George VI in 1940, but the war prevented this.
- A detailed itinerary was prepared for a tour by the King in March 1949, but he fell ill.
- A shortened tour was planned for May 1952, and when the King again fell ill it was decided Princess Elizabeth would come instead. But at the first stop on this tour, in Africa, the young princess learned of her father’s death and she returned home.
- The Queen’s coronation in June 1953 heightened interest in royalty in New Zealand.
- The state was heavily involved in overseeing preparations for the tour and ensuring its success. Internal Affairs were the main organisers, but the Tourist and Publicity, Defence, Railways (which supplied the special royal trains), Works, Maori Affairs, Police and Education departments all put enormous energy into the tour.
- The war had strengthened New Zealanders’ sense of their relationship with Britain. Where Britain went, New Zealand went. New Zealand’s trade was overwhelmingly with Britain (in 1953, 67.5% of our exports and 56% of our imports), and most immigrants came from Britain (65% in 1953-54).
- By 1953 New Zealand had recovered from depression and war. Indeed the boom in wool prices created by the Korean War had given New Zealand the second-highest standard of living in the world. There was general satisfaction with life in New Zealand and the royal visit became a way to present this ‘modern paradise’ to the world.
Opposition to the royal visit
While there was considerable debate and controversy about details of the royal tour, including the ‘battle of the royal visit milk tops’ provoked by the decision of Internal Affairs that the use of the royal crest on Wellington City milk tops was unconstitutional, there was very little overt opposition to the tour as such. Some individuals protested. The communist mayor of Brunner, Leonard Richardson, refused to wear a suit and boycotted the reception at Greymouth. A Whanganui resident refused to leave a shop to watch the royals pass by, saying, ‘I’m not getting up for those Pommie buggers!’ But even the Communist Party did not speak out against the Queen, merely criticising the amount of money spent on decorations. In later tours there was more organised protest, encouraged especially by the Republican Association of New Zealand.