From the archives Montrealers delirious at royal couple”s first visit

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This story was first published on May 20, 2002, in the Montreal Gazette


The young King in his admiral’s uniform, and the lovely Scottish lady who is his Queen, saw from the Chalet heights a great metropolis stretched out below them, bathed in sunshine, and south of it, the river and the hills, and it seemed that no sound was down there, and the city was quiet. But the city was not quiet. The city was seething with an excitement that passed all bounds when a maroon automobile came into view and a hand was raised in salute, and a Queen smiled.

Gazette, Friday, May 19, 1939


At the Queen Mother’s funeral service last month, the archbishop of Canterbury praised her strength, dignity and laughter. Strength and dignity she certainly had on her first visit to Canada, the famous royal tour of 1939. The shy and stammer-afflicted King George VI needed all the strength and dignity his consort could supply as they coped with the tour’s seemingly endless and all-too-public demands. But that support was lent unobtrusively, and it surely was the queen’s highly visible laughter – that is, her gay spirits and a genuine delight in all that was going on, as expressed in her constant smile – that left the greatest impression on everyone else who saw her.

The tour was the first of Canada by a reigning monarch and would take King George and Queen Elizabeth to the West Coast and back, with a side trip to the United States. Like all such junkets, it was an exercise in public relations, designed to strengthen the ties between the crown and Britain on the one hand and the countries visited and their peoples on the other. Yet in 1939, the stakes were unusually high. War was in the air and would finally break out in Europe by the end of the summer. Would Canada, would the United States, stand beside Britain? The welcome the royal couple received would be a crucial test.

Certainly if the reaction of Montrealers was anything to go by, there could be no doubt of where Canada would stand. The city went nuts. From the moment the royal train pulled into the Park Ave. station early in the afternoon of May 18 until it left late that evening, the cheering and adulation scarcely stopped.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth wave to crowds on Sherbrooke St. in 1939, during their Royal Visit to Canada, which started in Quebec City.

There was a marathon motorcade through the city: down Park Ave., through Outremont, past Fletcher’s Field, east to a rally of Catholic schoolchildren in Delormier Stadium, over the Jacques Cartier Bridge to the fort on Ile Ste. Helene, back to city hall where the king and queen signed the Golden Book, through Place d’Armes and up the hill to McGill University’s stadium and more schoolchildren (this time Protestant ones), up to the Chalet on the Mountain where daughters of the socially prominent served them tea and canapes, back down the slopes and through Westmount, past the house of Lady Amy Roddick where 200 Mohawks were assembled on the lawn (the procession did not stop, for by now it was running late), finally coming to a halt, four hours and 23 miles later, at the Windsor Hotel.

Everywhere along the route, there were crowds of people deliriously cheering their hearts out. Some too deliriously: when the king and queen stepped out onto the balcony at city hall, the excitement was such, The Gazette reported, that at least 10 women fainted. It was here that the unsinkable Mayor Camilien Houde is said to have told the king, “You know, your majesty, some of those cheers are for you, too.”

It’s not recorded if the king smiled at this, though it seems likely the queen did. Her smile seemed inextinguishable. “The King and Queen, especially the latter, smiled and waved their greetings as they passed by,” we could report; “throughout the proceedings . . . the Queen, smiling graciously, and the King, almost boyish-looking, won all hearts by their grace and unaffected charm.” The issue of whether one could ignore court protocol and dare to shake a royal hand, in addition to offering a bow or curtsy, proved a non-starter: guests put out their hands, and the king and queen duly took them in greeting. Indeed, it went even further than that, we reported: “One lady presented to the Queen almost tripped, and she clung to Her Majesty’s hand for support. The Queen smiled in understanding as the support was readily given.”

Outremont residents cram balconies to get a glimpse of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during their Royal Visit to Canada in 1939.

That evening, more than 1,000 guests attended a gala banquet for the royal couple at the Windsor, filling both the Windsor Hall and the Rose Room across the corridor. Houde was their host, and at one point, the king, perhaps amused by the lese-majeste that afternoon, took the mayor’s notes outlining the order of procedure for the evening and in a teasing voice asked him, “Now, did you remember to do that?” The royal finger moved down the list, item by item: “Are you sure you didn’t forget?” The mayor, The Gazette assured its readers, “threw back his head and roared with laughter, then reassured his Sovereign that he had forgotten nothing.”

The queen exercised the prerogative of royal command and asked for Alouette. “The Queen joined in the chorus,” we said. “The great hall shook with sound as the thousand-odd guests, French and English alike, sang the old song. Her Majesty was seen to beat time with one hand.” Later, as the king and queen moved to the Rose Room for dessert, “debutante and dowager, as well as men, rose to cheer” and finally, as the couple left down the main corridor, guests from both dining rooms crowded out along either side and spontaneously sang God Save the King.

The month-long tour proved an unqualified success. The smiling queen and modest king were exactly what everyone wanted to see. And while Canadians surely would have been at war four months later even without the tour, untold thousands doubtless felt more strongly than they would have otherwise that their effort was on behalf of a crown truly their own.

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