Unlike more recent Royal visits, the visit by the Royal Family to South Africa in 1947 was a full marathon and not a 100-metre dash. It was a two-month swirl of introductions, photographs, handshakes, toasts and speeches. Even the vivacious Princess Elizabeth, the heir apparent, was afforded the opportunity to make a speech, her first. The two-month long sojourn to a land on the cusp of fundamental change, would include two days, the 26th & the 27th February 1947, to make the acquaintance of the peoples of arguably the most English city in South Africa, Port Elizabeth.
Brigadier Arthur Coy with the Mayor of PE, Mr Neave, inspecting the Ex Servicemen with the King and Queen at Crusaders ground, St. George’s Park in February 1947. The princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were in attendance. There was a garden party in Victoria Park afterwards.
A political and social overview
A trip to South Africa by the Royal family was fraught with contradictions and conundrums. With a white population cleaved into two and the Nationalist Afrikaner wing of the population on the ascendant, it cast a pall over the visit in certain quarters. As a minimum, it called its question the wisdom of this visit. Being so English-speaking, the citizens of Port Elizabeth were probably blissfully unaware of the currents of discontent swirling within the veins of the nation.
What motivated the Royal Family to tour South Africa at this juncture? Probably foremost amongst the inducements was as an opportunity to express their gratitude and goodwill for the South African contribution during WW2. This would explain the length of the visit. General Jan Smuts, who as Prime Minister, extended the invitation, seemingly wanted to consolidate ties between South Africa and Britain. It is even speculated that an additional reason could possibly have been to strengthen or maybe invent a South African national identity. The nationalists with very different ideas about social order, race and hierarchy, did not view the visit in the same light. In retrospect, this could have been a misstep by General Jan Smuts, the Prime Minister at the time, as one can argue that it was a significant factor in costing Smuts and the United Party the 1948 election.
Bound as the English-speaking South Africans were to their mother country, the concept of a hereditary kingship was not alien to them. For them these ties reinforced and inculcated monarchical fervour. Furthermore it must be recalled that the regent – King George VI – was the constitutional head of South Africa, and one of his tasks was to open the 1947 session of the Union Parliament shortly after his arrival in Cape Town. None of this resonated with the Afrikaner with their republican, racist and meritocratic view of government.
All social activities offer some insights into the politics of the day, social customs and history. So too was it with the Royal Visit to Port Elizabeth. Whenever an aspect or event illuminates such an insight, that fact will be highlighted.
After a leisurely voyage from England aboard the HMS Vanguard, the party arrived at Cape Town on Monday 17th February 1947 at 10:00. It was in Cape Town, that Princess Elizabeth would celebrate her coming of age party. This visit would be bookended by her father opening Parliament on Friday 21st February at noon. At 4pm, they clambered aboard the White Train, on a four-day train trip to Port Elizabeth. En route, they spent a day each at Worcester, George, Oudtshoorn and Graaff Reinet.
On Wednesday 26th February at 10:00, the Royal Family arrived at the terminus railway station in the Friendly City of Port Elizabeth. Instead, its detractors would have used the adjective Windy to describe the city. After the official welcome, His Majesty inspected the Guard of Honour. Twenty-five minutes later, the Royal Procession departed from the railway station for St. George’s Park. Even today, I can visualise their journey as their route was via Station Street, past the Palmerston Hotel in Jetty Street, up Whites Road to Western Road with Trinder Square with its wild fig trees on the left, and finally past the Cenotaph into Park Drive South.
At the Crusader Grounds, where two decades later Michael Baker and I would watch every Friday night as the local soccer team, P.E. City, got thrashed by the likes of Highlands Park or Hellenic, their first engagement was held. In those days of my youth, the main stand was reserved for whites only and the smaller stand was reserved for non-whites. For this Royal event, it was strictly a whites-only affair; not intentionally but due to the fact that the entourage was meeting a gathering of pupils from white schools. According to the program, there could have been little time for idle chit-chat with the pupils and other plebeians, as the time allocated for the meeting and greeting was a fleeting 28 minutes.
In the interim, the White Train was relocated to the area close to the “S” Bend in Humewood and the HMS Vanguard anchored in the Bay. A special siding had been built at King’s Beach (“S” Bend) where a green fence was erected from a barrier down to the sea, thereby partitioning King’s Beach off giving the royalty privacy in that part of the strand. One wonders whether the name “King’s Beach” is derived from the fact that King George VI had briefly strolled upon its golden sands.
After their allotted 28 minutes had expired, the Royal Cavalcade left Crusader Ground for the Royal Train via Park Drive (South and North), Rink Street, Cuyler Street, Bird Street past the Snake Park, Belmont Terrace, Military Road, Lower Baakens Street, North and then South Union Street and then along Humewood Road to the “S” Bend.
Sarah Millin of the Spectator described the Royal Party as follows: “They were affable, modest, pleasing and easily pleased, carrying out their duties with dedication and commitment. They were a model King and Queen for a democratic age but with an empire trailing behind. It was an empire transitioning towards independence in the wake of the Second World War but with a future less clear at the time. Who better to make that transition than a modest second son king with a stammer and his slightly plump but feisty Scottish queen? The glamour factor was there too; the queen and her daughters must have required an entire train coach to convey their wardrobe.”
Nowhere on the Souvenir Brochure does it mention that the Royal Entourage pay a visit to the Snake Park in Bird Street; yet they clearly did so. It is assumed that this visit must either have occured after the functions at Crusader Grounds / St George’s Park or after Thursday’s luncheon at the Port Elizabeth Club.
After an almost four-hour interlude at the “S” Bend for lunch and possibly a walk on the beach, the Royal Party was once off to their next engagement; a Garden Party at Victoria Party in Walmer. Instead of taking the shortest route, they were taken on a mini-Cooke’s’ tour of the town. The route took them along Humewood Road, onto South and then North Union Streets, Market Square where they might have even slowed down to view to view the statue of King George’s grand-mother Queen Victoria gracing the pavement outside the Public Library. Known publicly as Albert until his accession, George VI was called “Bertie” among his family and close friends. After the momentary pause, the party travelled along Main Street, up Russell Road, along Cape Road and then Roseberry Avenue and down Target Kloof to Walmer. After crossing the Baakens, they travelled up River Road, 8th Avenue, Church Road, 11th Avenue, Main Road, 6th Avenue, Villiers Road, 4th Avenue, Heugh Road, 1st Avenue and then along Victoria Park Drive.
A cousin of mine recalls that as a young cub with sixty odd other cubs and brownies, they stood to attention on Outspan Road, that linked 7th Avenue River Road/ Target Kloof, to 8th Avenue, Church Road Walmer. They all gave the Royal family what today could be called vulgar, a two-finger salute, as the cars passed on their way to Victoria Park.
It was here that the Royal Party would have tea and scones under a shelter on the island in the pond which was specially built for the royal visit. Amongst the numerous guests were my aunt Kathleen and her husband.
During two nights above King’s Beach, the South African cabinet minister Harry Lawrence and his wife Jean introduced the princesses to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. One reporter, on seeing Princess Elizabeth in a bathing costume, noted she had ‘curves in all the right places’. This act of lese-majesty so infuriated the king that he insisted that the crowds be kept back and no photographs permitted when Lawrence gave him and his daughters lessons in surfing. As Lawrence was emboldened to take the king and later Princess Margaret firmly by the hips and give them and their wooden boards a shove onto promising waves, the queen and her ladies-in-waiting paddled in the shallows.
The Family Connection
As is my wont, I always include a comment on my family’s connection, however tenuous, to the subject at hand. In this case, it was my aunt, Kathleen Wood and her husband, George, who attended the tea party at Victoria on the afternoon of the 26th February at 16:00 sharp. My recollections, as a youth, of my aunt was a person of aristocratic, regal bearing who would not have been out of place at a castle on the fair fields of England.
As far as I can gather, their invitation came for both husband and wife because George Wood was a prominent businessman, who also represented a very powerful and old British trading family, the Cotts, in Port Elizabeth. My aunt Kathleen was invited on the recommendation of Lady Cotts in the UK to the Royal Tour organiser, who was a friend of my aunt, and who regularly visited her at the family home in Walmer whenever she was in South Africa. In this idyllic setting, the couple drank tea and socialised with the Royals and even shook the Queen’s hand. Aunt Kathleen must have been in seventh heaven.
My aunt liked and knew how to wear cloths. According to one of her children, she owned a very snazzy hat, one of many, that she wore to meet the Queen. She wore it at a very rakish angle, almost covering her right eye and ear. She always tended to wear hats this way and obviously understood the feminine statement that it made. With her tallness, ram rod like posture, and ability to look down on you from her large nose, she looked impressive – or so they thought as a child. None could believe that royalty could match her when she wanted to look snooty.
The drive back was more direct being via Victoria Park Drive, Partridge Avenue, Walmer Road, South Union Street and Humewood Road.
Thursday’s events were ostensible reserved for members of the other races. First on the list to pay homage to their King, was the Coloured community. In essence the drive was a repeat of the previous morning’s drive to the Crusader Ground except that the venue was St. George’s Park via the south gate. Here they were greeted by members of the Coloured community, scholars and adults. After twenty minutes, they departed for New Brighton. The route was via Park Lane, Albany Road, Princes Street, Adderley Street, Uitenhage Road, Commercial Road, new road to McNamee Village, Ferguson Road, Grattan Street, Aggrey Road, Jolobe Road, Pendla Road, Dubula Street, Limba Road, Avenue “A”, Ferguson Road. From the Souvenir Program, it does not appear that they even meet Black dignitaries. Instead it appears that this journey was more of a “sight-seeing” trip rather than a meet and greet. The return journey to the “S” Bend was essentially the most direct route.
I have presented two first-hand views of this event which so enraptured the public’s imagination. Firstly a more intimate evocation of the event from Kariem Jeftha’s Book about Newtown Port Elizabeth also known as Stuart Township South End.
A view from a South End resident
Newtowners recall a major event which happened in Port Elizabeth in February 1947. This was the occasion of the Royal family visit to Port Elizabeth.
St. Georges Park was chosen as the venue to meet and welcome the Royal family of King George V1, his gracious Queen, Elizabeth and their two daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.
The Herald reported: ‘The highest pitch was reached at St. Georges Park, where 26,000 people, the majority of whom were school children, were assembled.From before six o’clock in the morning people had started to take up positions on vantage points on the ground and around Park Drive, and shortly before 7am children began to enter and take their seats on the spacious stands.
Thunderous cheering rolled and surged throughout the half- hour’s duration of the ceremony, in which leading citizens were presented to Their Majesties, a loyal address was handed to the King and the members of the Royal Party signed the City Council’s Golden Book.
According to correspondents covering the Royal Tour and speaking to the Eastern Province Herald of Thursday, February 27th 1947 Port Elizabeth gave the Royal Family the greatest welcome they had yet received in South Africa.
‘For hours men and women, many aged and infirm, slowly drifted into the large arena and were escorted to their seats to the strain of music from the Permanent Force Band.They were followed by streams of school children and ex-servicemen and women and next–of–kin.
Great volumes of cheering greeted the appearance of the Royal procession round Park Drive, and when the cars drove up to the front of the grandstand, weeks of constrained and pent-up feelings burst forth in a tremendous ovation. ‘To the children it was more than a historical occasion, it was the greatest thrill that had ever pounded their hearts-and probably ever will. ‘Even after the Royal Party had mounted the dais there was unbroken waving of a wall of flags and wildly enthusiastic roars rose, wave on wave. Apart from the 23,000 children about 3,000 ex-servicemen and women, under the command of Brigadier A Coy, were on parade-European, Coloured, Indian and Native.
There were also about 600 next-of-kin and 400 invited guests. ’To them in no less a degree, it was a momentous occasion. ‘As the King and Queen and the princesses stood in a row facing the vast crowd, the Permanent Force Band struck up ‘God Save the King’ and followed this with ‘Die Stem van Suid Afrika’. Never before had the anthems been sung in the city with greater fervour. The King gave the Mayor Mr. J.S. Neave a signed photograph of the Royal Family.
The tumultuous cheering became even more intense when, with delightful informality the King and Queen and Princesses stepped off the dais into the ranks of ex-servicemen and women and next-of-kin.
Presentation of bouquets
Joan Assam was the fortunate schoolgirl of St. Monica’s School who was chosen to present the Queen with a bouquet of flowers. Joan said there were 7 girls chosen at her school to go on training on how to curtsy and speak to the Royal Family. Only one would be selected.
At the end of the training the 7 names were put into a hat and Joan’s name was drawn.
From two other schools, Shirley Warney was chosen to present a bouquet to Princess Elizabeth and Ruwayda Samodien to Princess Margaret. Joan Assam presenting the bouquet to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. The King can be seen standing to the left of the queen. On Joan’s left is Shirley Warney and to the right Her Majesty Princess Elizabeth.
Mayoral Luncheon at the PE Club
After a brief freshening up, the party was again on the road, this time to the Mayoral Luncheon at the Port Elizabeth Club. At 16:00, they commenced their final tour of the city from the “S” Bend up Whites Road, along West View Drive, into First Avenue, Newton Park, then Cape Road, Mount Road back to the “S” Bend.
At this point, the Royal Family had completed their visit to the city. Given the level of discretion displayed by the Royals, one will never have an inkling what their perceptions and thoughts were of this little part of England transplanted onto African soil. Certainly the residents of Port Elizabeth showered them with warmth and enthusiasm which was reciprocated by the Royals easy grace and affable nature.
On Friday 28th February at 10:30 sharp, the Royal Entourage departed Port Elizabeth in the Royal Train bound for Alicedale.
With the National Party’s triumph at the polls in 1948, their antipathy towards the British government was palpable. This would effectively preclude another Royal Visit to South Africa but after the demise of Apartheid, they again visit South Africa. On these occasions the visit was brief, and Port Elizabeth was not considered significant enough to warrant a visit. Fraternal and family bonds no longer counted. Realpolitik did.
Report in the Eastern Province Herald
There was, however, one particular day when Port Elizabeth was en fete, and that was the occasion of the Royal visit in 1947. It is a matter of pride that the ground was chosen as the meeting place where large numbers of citizens could pay homage to a great King, George VI and his gracious Queen, Elizabeth.With them were the two young Princesses, Elizabeth, now Queen of England, and Margaret.
According to correspondents covering the Royal Tour and speaking to the Eastern Province Herald of Thursday, February 27, 1947, Port Elizabeth gave the Royal Family the greatest welcome they had yet received in South Africa. The Herald reported:
“The highest pitch was reached at St George’s Park, where 26,000 people, the majority of whom were school children, were assembled. Thunderous cheering rolled and surged throughout the half-hour’s duration of the ceremony, in which leading citizens were presented to Their Majesties, a loyal address was handed to the King and the members of the Royal Party signed the City Council’s Golden Book.
“From before six o’clock in the morning people had started to take up positions on vantage points on the ground and round Park Drive, and shortly before 7am children began to enter and take their seats on the spacious stands.
“For hours men and women, many aged and infirm, slowly drifted into the large arena and were escorted to their seats to the strains of music from the Permanent Force Band. They were followed by streams of school children and ex-servicemen and women and next-of-kin. Great volumes of cheering greeted the appearance of the Royal procession round Park Drive, and when the cars drove up to the front of the grandstand, weeks of constrained and pent-up feelings burst forth in a tremendous ovation.”
“To the children it was more than an historical occasion, it was the greatest thrill that had ever pounded their hearts – and probably ever will. Even after the Royal Party had mounted the dais there was unbroken waving of a wall of flags and wildly enthusiastic roars rose, wave on wave. Apart from the 23,000 children about 3,000 ex-servicemen and women, under the command of Brigadier A Coy, were on parade – European, Coloured, Indian, Malay, and Native. There were also about 600 next-of-kin and 400 invited guests.”
“As the King and Queen and the princesses stood in a row facing the vast crowd, the Permanent Force Band struck up “God Save the King” and followed this with “Die Stem van Suid Afrika.” Never before had the anthems been sung in the City with greater fervour. The presentation of bouquets to the Queen by the Mayoress, Mrs J S Neave, and her two daughters was accompanied by constant cheering and scenes of great enthusiasm. The Administrator presented the Mayor and Mayoress of Uitenhage, Mr and Mrs M G Currie, and the Mayor and Mayoress of Walmer, Mr and Mrs C R Payne, and they were followed by City Councillors and the Town Clerk, Mr H Tredwell, and their wives, who were presented by the Mayor, Mr JS Neave.”
“A loyal address of welcome was handed to His Majesty who, in turn, handed his reply to the Mayor, and following this the King and Queen and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose signed the ‘Golden Book’. The King then gave the Mayor a signed photograph of the Royal Family. The tumultuous cheering became ever more intense when, with delightful informality the King and Queen and Princesses stepped off the dais into the ranks of ex-servicemen and women and next-of-kin. Strolling in-between the lines and chatting to many, the Royal Party continued to be besieged by a battery of cameras all the way.”
“The Queen noticed the DFM ribbon on his breast and drew His Majesty’s attention to it. Questioning Churchill, their Majesties learned he had been member of Squadron leader Nettleton’s aircraft in the famous Augsburg raid for which Nettlton was awarded the Victoria Cross while Churchill got the DFM. ‘Where was the investiture?’ asked the King. ‘At Buckingham Palace in 1945 Sir; by Your Majesty,’ was the reply. ‘You have given us a wonderful welcome,’ the Queen said to Mr. H. Hubert and Mr. J Wilson. ‘It is a fine turnout and we are very pleased to see you all,’ added Her Majesty.”
“To Nurse Sampson, whose son was killed during the war, Her Majesty said, ‘How sad. You are all so courageous.’ The King greeted many men and when he saw the silver-winged boot of one ex-RAF member, he said: ‘I’ve seen that before. What is it?’ ‘It is an emblem of the late arrivals’ club, Sir,’ replied Mr W B Pearce. ‘And what is that?’ asked the King.”
“’It’s a Club for those who had to walk back, Sir. I got it for walking 50 miles to Alamein after my plane crashed’. ‘The King addressed two able seamen whose Burma medals had attracted his attention. ‘How long have you seen service with the Royal Navy?’ he asked Mr RJ Hubert and to Mr JE Wilson he said: ‘I am pleased to see your naval ribbons.’”
“’In the meantime the Queen was talking to crippled Mrs HW Mileson, who told Her Majesty that all her sons had returned safely. ‘I am glad,’ said the Queen graciously. The King was very interested in a decoration worn by Mrs CD Thwaites. ‘Isn’t that the Canadian Red Cross?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ replied Mrs Thwaites. ‘It was awarded to my brother posthumously.’ Looking at the medals of Mr W Lebrun and Mr TD Newman, the, King said: ‘You have done good service in the war.’
“The King asked the details of the service rendered by a non-European Staff-Sergeant WJ Jansen of the Cape Corps. One ex-serviceman darted out of his position and said. ‘May I shake with Your Majesty?’ The King shook hands with him.”
“The Queen graciously gave two women sprigs from the bouquet she was carrying. There were only a few of the many Royal gestures by the King and Queen and completely captivated the huge crowd.
As the Royal family entered their cars roar followed upon roar and there were bursts of great cheering from the various sections of children as they drove twice round the ground. The procession entered Park Drive and turned west to circle the park and with that ended the finest welcome given to the Royal visitors so far in South Africa.”
The simple dignity of the Royal party won all hearts, and the cheers of the tremendous crowds seated in the stands were entirely spontaneous. It was an epic moment in St George’s Park history and proof that the ground belongs to the people of Port Elizabeth and is always at their service for similar national or civic occasions.
Official Souvenir Programme: The Royal Visit to Port Elizabeth. February 1947
Photographs from the Transnet Heritage Library