Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II had been crowned in 1953 to much celebration, but the visit to Australia in 1954 of the Queen and her Consort, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was a time of great excitement for many Australians who were able to see the Queen in person for the first time; as this was the first visit to Australia by a reigning monarch.
The 1954 Royal Visit was headline news in the weeks leading up to the event. The Royal couple had embarked on a tour of Commonwealth countries in November 1953, visiting Bermuda, Jamaica, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand. On her tour through these countries, the Queen’s activities had been closely followed by the Australian press. Colour films of these earlier tours were shown in Wollongong theatres and elsewhere.
The Australian Women’s Weekly placed the Queen and the Duke on the cover of their magazine the day of their arrival in the country, 3rd February 1954.
With the introduction of television still two years away, the role of print media, radio, theatres and word-of-mouth in Australia in 1954 were common and effective means of sharing news and updates. Anticipation of a visit to the South Coast by the Royal couple was reflected in the local newspapers at the time. The South Coast Times and Wollongong Argus revealed the exciting news to the Wollongong community on Thursday, 7th May, 1953 with the front page piece “Queen’s W’gong Visit, Feb. 11th”. Wollongong had been one of ten regional centres chosen for the Queen to visit during her tour; the visit to Wollongong was set for Thursday the 11th February 1954.
Townships close to the ten regional centres that had been chosen for Royal Visits hoped that the procession would pass through their area. The Kiama Independent reported on 9th May 1953, that the town was disappointed to receive confirmation that the Queen and Duke would not be touring south of Wollongong on their 11th February visit. Nevertheless, in the spirit of national welcome, Kiama announced plans to decorate the town in honour of the Wollongong visit, and for the benefit of the local community and those passing through on their way to Wollongong.
In early 1954, Wollongong began the preparations for officially welcoming the Queen and the Duke to the City. On 5th February, the Illawarra Daily Mercury advised the community of “official arrangements which must be observed by all members of the public coming to Wollongong” on the big day. These arrangements included the closing of roads to general traffic during the Royal procession, situation of rest rooms and first aid posts, and the locations at which national organisations or special groups would assemble on the tour route. As shown in the film A Pictorial Record of the Royal Visit to the City of Greater Wollongong, the full width of Church Street from the Burelli Street junction up to Globe Lane was reserved for ex-Servicemen and Women, hundreds of whom attended dressed smartly with medals pinned to their chests. The South Coast Times and Wollongong Argus of 1st February relayed the message from event officials “to give precedence to children for this is a big day for them”.
In the weeks before the Royal Visit, rumours had been circulating that the Queen and Duke were secretly visiting Dunmore House near Shellharbour on Sunday 7th February. The Kiama Independent reported that hundreds of people gathered at locations near Dunmore House, including near the aerodrome at Albion Park, in anticipation of seeing the Royal couple. Announcements by Council and other officials refuting the claims were disregarded by many members of the public.
Nevertheless, many thousands were rewarded with a glimpse of the Royal couple during their visit to Australia. The Goulburn Evening Post of the 11th February reported that as the Queen and the Duke were driven to Wollongong in the Royal car, thousands lined the streets through to Waterfall, waving to the Queen and the Duke whilst huddled under umbrellas due to the weather. The preparations of thousands of others were rewarded in Wollongong; 120,000 people lined the city streets to catch a glimpse of the Royal couple and were not disappointed. At the Mount Keira Diggers Rest Home, the Queen and Duke changed into an open car, and were attended by a police escort on horseback for the procession through Wollongong. Hundreds of shop owners along the route of the procession had decked out their shop fronts in streamers, flags and lights. The Illawarra Daily Mercury of the 10th February described it as a “brilliant display, the gayest and brightest ever seen in Wollongong”. The Returned Soldiers’ Memorial Hall chose to bedeck its façade and interior in pastel-coloured flowers, in honour of hosting the Royal luncheon.
The local papers provide a narrative of the closely-timed events of the day. The Royal tour route was mapped and included in the papers so that the public knew when and where they could see the Royal procession, from the moment they left Sydney, to when they returned via train from Bulli.
The day after the visit the papers in Wollongong and Sydney were full of stories of the big day, proclaiming it a success, the Queen and Duke evidently having enjoyed their visit. A full page pictorial of the day’s events appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 12th February, showing highlights, including schoolgirl Margaret Buttel delivering a speech to the Royal couple, her school hat barely attached to her head as winds whipped around her on the dais at Wollongong showground.
Transcripts of the speech delivered by Wollongong Mayor, Alderman J.J. Kelly, and the Queen’s response were printed in the papers, and details of the Queen’s twelve minutes at the Diggers Rest Home at Mount Keira were related. Some individual stories of the day were highlighted, such as that of Mrs. Keane of Wombarra, an eighty-year-old woman who walked one and a half miles on her journey to secure a seat at Slacky Flat in Bulli to be able to see the Queen.
At the end of 1954, the South Coast Times and Wollongong Argus proclaimed 1954 as “Greater Wollongong’s Most Momentous Year”. The City had been honoured by the Royal Visit and was proud of the welcome they had given the Royal couple during their brief stay. The Royal Visit was considered the highlight of a year in which the City had experienced great industrial achievements such as the building of the expensive hot and cold strip mill and tinplate mill at Port Kembla, and the opening of the Tallawarra Power Station on Lake Illawarra.
The Queen was to tour Australia again in 1963, though it was not until April 1970 that she was to return to Wollongong.
A list of items related to the 1954 Royal Visit to Wollongong, and compiled by the University Archives, are available through the National Library of Australia’s Trove.