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The Royal Romance exhibition examined Australia's passionate response to Queen Elizabeth II's first visit in 1954. The tour was a high-point of royal adulation in Australia. It was one of the nation’s last great pre-television events.

Previously on show at the National Museum of Australia from February to October 2004.

In our collection

Souvenir badge in commemoration of the Royal visit to Australia in 1954, worn in Canberra by Petronella WensingMetal souvenir badge of the 1954 Royal Visit to Australia with a plastic-coated picture of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip and a metal pin attached to rear.

1954 Royal Tour of Australia

On 3 February 1954, the royal barge pulled into Farm Cove, Sydney. The newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II stepped ashore, becoming the first reigning British monarch to visit Australia. Australians responded passionately to the young Queen, turning out in their millions to catch a brief glimpse of their sovereign.

For the next two months, until her departure from Fremantle, the Queen's visit provided Australians with a chance to celebrate and demonstrate their loyalty. Almost three-quarters of the Australian population took advantage of the opportunity, seeing the Queen at least once during the visit.

Royal Romance takes a look back on this, the most celebrated of royal tours. Decades later, the passionate response of Australians to the Queen's 1954 visit requires some explanation.

In our collection

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Second 1954 by William DargieAn accomplished war artist during the Second World War, William Dargie (1912-2003) was an eight-time winner of the Archibald Prize for portraiture. In 1954 he was commissioned by Melbourne industrialist James P. Beveridge (1881-1954) as the first Australian to paint the portrait of the newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth II (1926 - )....

Changing role of the monarchy

The royal tour by the Queen in 2000 attracted considerable interest, but not the mass excitement of her first visit. In 1954, Australians overwhelmingly supported remaining a constitutional monarchy.

By the 1990s, the mood had shifted to the point where becoming a republic was the focus of major public debate. While Australians rejected the 1999 referendum proposal for Australia to become a republic, the proposal revealed a fundamental shift in Australia's attitude to the monarchy.

In developing Royal Romance, the National Museum explored the response of Australians to the Queen, why some people were so infatuated with her 50 years ago and whether we have fallen out of love since. The exhibition also examined the role of the monarchy as the living embodiment of Australia's British heritage. It explored the link between the Crown and the people and the way in which the Queen can become part of our daily lives even though she lives half a world away.

In our collection

Doll - Queen Elizabeth IIPlastic female doll wearing a big floppy black brimmed hat, and a blue white & red cape over a silver metallic dress. 'HM Queen Elizabeth II Garter Robes" is printed on its booklet label.

Australia on show

The 1954 Royal Tour of Australia provided Australians with a chance to celebrate their country’s achievements and potential. What the Queen was shown, and the mass display of loyalty by the Australian people who turned out in such numbers to see her, has even greater significance when viewed in the social, political and economic context of the times.

Australia on parade

During their two-month stay in Australia the Queen and Prince Philip were shown a bewildering variety of people, places and products.

Australia was displayed as a youthful and vigorous place, a land of endless resources and possibilities. There were displays of youngsters en masse in most major cities. Children danced, sang, performed gymnastics and presented flowers to the Queen.

The royal couple met servicemen, Indigenous people, civic dignitaries and sportsmen; attended garden parties, horse races at Randwick and Flemington, a cricket match in Adelaide; and a surf lifesaving carnival in Sydney. They visited rural Australia, metropolitan Australia, sailed the waters of the Great Barrier Reef and visited the Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains.

In our collection

Souvenir program of the visit to Bathurst by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, 12 ...A paperback souvenir programme, the cover features a colour photograph of Queen Elizabeth II and text "VISIT TO BATHURST / OF / HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II / AND HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS THE DUKE OF EDNIBURGH / SOUVENIR PROGRAMME / FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 1954".

Industry and resources

The postwar shift from production to consumption was only just beginning in Australia. Increasing numbers of women were returning to the workforce and adding to households’ disposable income. The public imagination was still dominated by images of Australia as a land of resources and Australia was still an economy based heavily on primary industry.

In Newcastle, the royal party visited the steel foundry and met with workers. At Dubbo, the itinerary included a pastoral review with woodchopping demonstrations and sheep shearing contests. In Victoria, the Queen and Duke met workers at the brown coal mine at Yallourn.

The Duke visited the rocket range at Woomera to see the latest in Anglo-Australian rocket technology. Although signs of Britain’s decline as a world power were already evident, most people were happy to ignore them. The explosion of the Anglo-Australian atomic bomb at Maralinga was not only seen to have put Australia on the modern technology map, but also confirmed Britain’s role as one of the few nuclear powers on the globe.

Commemorative ceremonies

The Queen also visited war memorials. In 1954, veterans from the First and Second World Wars were joined by veterans from the Boer War and Sudan Campaign. In Melbourne, the Queen opened the forecourt of the Shrine of Remembrance, while the Melbourne Cricket Ground was the scene of a display by massed ex-servicemen.

Queen Elizabeth also opened the third session of Parliament in Canberra.

Queen on show

During the 1954 royal tour, Australia was on show, but so too was the Queen. In political terms, the particular relevance of the Queen’s first visit was set by the Statute of Westminster, issued in 1931.

Prompted by the governments of Canada and South Africa, the Statute gave the Dominions of the British Empire the chance to establish themselves as independent nations of equal status to Britain. This formal independence changed the role of the Crown, which now became the foremost symbol of unity among the independent peoples of the British Commonwealth.

However, successive Australian governments did not see fit to ratify the Statute until 1942, when British power east of Suez had collapsed at Singapore and the fear of Japanese invasion gripped the Australian nation.

Official war artist Ivor Hele was commissioned to paint the Queen opening the third session of the 20th parliament on 15 February 1954. An artist with a strong sense of history and a talent for portraiture, was ideally suited for the commission.

In our collection

Interior for Opening Parliament, C/SColour, oil paint on masonite, empty Senate Chamber. Handwritten on back in white chalk - "Interior for Opening Parliament, C/S"

Show of loyalty at a time of conflict

The 1954 visit gave Australians the chance to reaffirm their connections with Britain and for Britain to witness scenes of loyalty from Australia. These fulsome expressions of loyalty must have provided great comfort for some in London who feared that Australia was being lost to the Americans and may have given some illusory hope that the British Empire was still a force in world politics.

Two years later the Suez crisis underlined the loss of British power and highlighted American ascendency. From that point on, Britain and Australia were clearly subordinate allies of the United States in the Cold War confrontation between communism and capitalism.

That conflict was something that the Queen didn’t see during her tour, but it was widely present in Australian society. Chifley’s Labor government had crushed the striking miners of New South Wales in 1949 and Menzies tried, unsuccessfully, to outlaw the Communist Party of Australia in 1951.

Although this attempt failed in the short-term, the communist issue split the labour movement, ensuring that the 1950s are popularly remembered as a period of Menzies-inspired conservatism.

The 1954 tour was a high-point of royal adulation in Australia. It was one of the nation’s last great pre-television events.

Despite the continuing relevance of the constitutional monarchy in Australia’s political system, the royal tour in 2000 generated far less enthusiasm. It is difficult to imagine a visit of the scale, excitement and fervour seen in 1954, occurring in today’s Australia.

In our collection

1948 Daimler landaulette, used in the 1954 Royal Tour of AustraliaA black and blue Daimler landaulette with a partially soft top. The car has three windows along each side. There is a bench seat in the front and back as well as two seats that fold away in the middle. The front bench seat is leather whilst the back is fabric. The monograph 'D' appears on the hub caps and there is wooden detail...

Exhausting itinerary

The Queen’s tour was comprehensive and she visited every state and territory, except the Northern Territory, from her arrival on 3 February to her departure on 1 April. The royal party was based in major cities for most of their stay, but made numerous side trips to other locations.

New South Wales
Sydney: 3–18 February, Newcastle: 9 February, Lismore: 9–10 February, Casino: 10 February, Dubbo: 10 February, Wollongong: 11 February, Bathurst: 12 February, Katoomba: 12 February, Lithgow: 12 February, Wagga Wagga: 13 February.

Australia Capital Territory
Canberra: 13–18 February.

Tasmania
Hobart: 20–23 February, Wynyard: 23 February, Burnie: 23 February, Ulverstone: 23 February, Devonport: 23 February, Cressy: 23–24 February, Launceston: 24 February.

Victoria
Melbourne: 24 February – 9 March.

South Australia
Mount Gambier: 26 February.

Victoria
Hamilton: 26 February, Flinders: 2 March, Sale: 3 March, Traralgon: 3 March, Yallourn:3 March, Warragul: 3 March, Benalla: 5 March, Shepparton: 5 March, Echuca: 5 March, Rochester: 5 March, Bendigo: 5 March, Castlemaine: 5 March, Maryborough: 5 March, Ballarat: 6 March, Geelong: 6 March, Warburton: 6 March.

Queensland
Brisbane: 9–18 March, Bundaberg: 11 March, Toowoomba: 11 March, Cairns: 12 March, Townsville: 13 March, Mackay: 15 March, Rockhampton: 15 March.

New South Wales
Broken Hill: 18 March.

South Australia
Adelaide: 18–26 March, Whyalla: 20 March, Port Lincoln: 20 March, Woomera: 22 March, Renmark: 23 March, Mildura: 25 March.

Western Australia
Kalgoorlie: 26 March, Perth: 26 March, Busselton: 30 March, Albany: 30 March, Northam: 31 March, York: 31 March, Fremantle: 1 April.

Facts and figures

The 1954 tour was a high-point of royal adulation in Australia. It is difficult to imagine a visit of such scale occurring in today’s Australia. Here are some interesting facts and figures from the 1954 Royal Tour:

  • 510,000 pounds sterling approximately in total contributed by the federal government
  • 500,000 miles travelled by the cars of the Royal Visit Car Company
  • 200,000 pounds sterling contributed by the federal government for the use of the yacht Gothic
  • 200,000 people filled the streets in the city of Sydney when decorations for the royal tour were illuminated for the first time
  • 20,000 cars trapped in the gridlock that choked the city of Sydney when decorations for the royal tour were illuminated for the first time

Air travel

  • 10,000 miles travelled by the Queen
  • 57 hours spent by the Queen in aeroplanes
  • 35 flights by the Duke
  • 33 flights by the Queen

Road travel

  • 2000 road miles travelled by the Queen
  • 207 car journeys made by the Queen
  • 130 hours spent by the Queen in motor cars

Food usage aboard Gothic

  • 10,000 cartons of canned fruit from Shepparton
  • 5000 cartons of tomato juice
  • 3237 bags of milk powder
  • 1500 cases of canned meat

Public engagements

  • 100 speeches made by the Queen in towns and cities she visited
  • 5 engagements per day

13 Feb 2011

Collectorfest: a right royal celebration

Curator Guy Hansen and passionate royal memorabilia collector Professor Peter Spearritt discuss Australia’s fascination with royalty and then showcase five items belonging to collectors from the audience.
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Presenters: Guy Hansen and Professor Peter Spearritt
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