1939: When Canada cheered loudest

Globe and Mail Update

The Queen Mother waves to cheering crowds as she passes in the landau on Parliament Hill July 5, 1989. Photo: Ron Poling/CP file

The 1939 tour of Canada by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth was the first visit to this country by a reigning British monarch and the first of 15 trips for his Queen. Coming just 2½ years after the traumatic abdication of George's brother, Edward VIII, the trip helped re-establish the permanency of monarchy in the minds of Canadians.

With war shadows lengthening in Europe, security was high during the month-long excursion. The Globe assured its readers that all crewmen on board the Empress of Australia, which would carry the royal couple across the Atlantic, were British subjects.

On May 6, huge throngs of Londoners bid them bon voyage as they journeyed to the coast. Thousands sat up all night to catch a glimpse of the parade. In Portsmouth, shouts of "Happy voyage," and "Don't let the Canadians keep you" arose from the crowd as the King and Queen drove through the gaily decorated streets.

Their crossing was hindered by ice and poor weather. "Fog may delay His Majesty's arrival," said The Globe. "Possibility looms that royal liner three hours late." On board ship, the Queen wore a Canadian parka.

Their landing, at Wolfe's Cove, Que., caused quite a stir. "Up on the hillsides, men and women stood bareheaded in the golden sunlight and wept."

"Her pictures don't begin to do her justice," said one Quebec woman. For the royal tour, London dressmaker Norman Hartnell had created two colours to be used in the Queen's high-profile fashions: Regina blue and Mayflower lilac.

A special 12-car train, painted blue and gold, carried the royal couple around the country. Its library included gems of Canadian literature such as the poems of Bliss Carman, The Constitution of Canada by W.P.M. Kennedy and The French Canadian Today by Col. Wilfred Bovey.

In Montreal, their majesties "abruptly but graciously left a banquet table midway through a royal dinner to greet a tremendous crowd of people ... The crowd went almost hysterical with joy as the young King and Queen stepped out on a balcony of the Windsor Hotel here. Even the double line of soldiers who were keeping roughly 100,000 people in restraint so far lost themselves as to lift their hats and cheer wildly."

In Ottawa, where the King celebrated his birthday, Mrs. Vincent Paquette gave birth to a daughter while waiting to see the royal couple. The Queen laid the cornerstone of the new Supreme Court Building, then shook hands with three construction workers. "Ah, what beautiful French she speaks," declared one of them, Jean Baptiste Gauthier. "Never have I heard such good French like she talks."

In Toronto, 1.5 million people managed to see the royal couple, although thousands more missed them, despite waiting for up to 10 hours in chilly, wet weather. The Dionne quintuplets came to the city and gave the King and Queen their autographs.

The Queen, as colonel-in-chief, presented colours to the Toronto Scottish regiment. An Ontario civil servant, who had been a shepherd boy on the Glamis estate in Scotland where she was born, met the Queen. He said she was "just the same, but without the pigtails, of course."

Tens of thousands of Americans converged on Winnipeg to see the King and Queen as they journeyed west. In Regina, rugged plainsmen wearing sweat-stained overalls and "five-gallon" hats met their monarch. Calgary was also informal, with Indian chiefs in full regalia. The Queen met William Whyte, a wheat farmer who had once lived on her parents' Strathmore estate in Scotland.

The Queen Mother (2nd from left) appears on the balcony at Buckingham Palace with King George VI following his coronation in 1937. Photo: Associated Press

In Banff, an impetuous 10-year-old schoolgirl startled the Queen momentarily by lobbing a bouquet of wildflowers into the open royal car. The driver slammed on his brakes. After her surprise, the Queen rose and gave a friendly wave to the horrified girl to reassure her.

In Vancouver, the sound of 25,000 Scots singing old Scottish airs brought tears to the Queen's eyes. "And the strangest scene of all," said The Globe, "was the sight of thousands of Orientals, most of them youngsters, waving Union Jacks, although they have no citizenship in the British Empire."

On the return journey to the East Coast, the royal couple visited a mine in Sudbury and descended half a mile. Ten thousand people waited anxiously for the safety of their majesties. As the minutes dragged by, a restless murmur passed through the crowd. Eventually, the Queen emerged, carrying a flashlight and wearing her shining brown miner's helmet at a rakish angle. She put her ungloved hand into the grimy hands of the miners accompanying her and shook with them all.

On June 7, the royal couple entered the United States, headed for Washington and a visit with president Franklin Roosevelt. Crowds were charmed, especially by the youthful, 5-foot-2 Queen. Their verdict was: "She's mighty purty." A cop at the White House said: "She certainly does dress swell."

"That's the Queen," explained a journalist travelling with the tour. "Give her a crowd and she mows 'em down."

Mrs. Roosevelt told reporters the Queen seemed greatly interested in social welfare. "I find it astonishing in one so young."

In New York, mayor Fiorello LaGuardia declared that their majesties were "real people — like you and me." At a picnic in New York state, hosted by the Roosevelts, they were given American hotdogs, which they ate with evident relish.

A 1912 picture of the girl who would become Queen and then Queen Mother. Photo: Reuters

At the New York World's Fair, the royal couple sat in a miniature train that was to carry them from building to building. For several minutes, as New Yorkers ogled and stared, it was motionless. "Let's get started," said the King, frowning. "Get started." The Queen caught the impatient note in her husband's voice and laughed at the crowd, as if she were enjoying a joke he had just told. The moment of tension passed.

Back in Canada, their majesties met a Great War veteran in Rivière-du-Loup, Que., who pulled off his beret to show them a big silver plate where his forehead used to be. He had been wounded by shrapnel at Vimy Ridge. "Her Majesty was anxious to know if it still hurt me," said 56-year-old Jim Thomas. "I told her my head sometimes ached."

By now, the King and Queen were tired, but they kept up appearances. Bob Davidson, a "coloured" porter on the royal train, told a Globe reporter that the Queen "is a charming lady and so young in her ways. The other morning, she went skipping down the [railway] ties just like a schoolgirl." He added that she spent much of her spare time waving to stray groups of people who stood along the tracks in the hope of seeing her.

In Halifax, where they would leave Canada for Newfoundland, the royal couple sat for 20 minutes in the hot sun and watched an open-air pageant, the Baronets of Nova Scotia. In a radio address, the Queen told Canada: "Dieu vous bénisse."

Thousands of Haligonians, eager to catch a glimpse of the royal couple as they boarded the Empress of Britain, trampled the dockside red carpet into ruins before workmen could rescue it.

As their liner sailed away, The Globe's scribe wrote: "Suddenly the world grows cold, and a vast emptiness sweeps upon us and something very human, and, oh, so understanding, seems to have gone out of life, and one wonders when, if ever, they'll pass this humble way again."