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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.

Surf Lifesaving Carnival, Bondi Beach.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at a surf lifesaving carnival at Bondi Beach, 1954. National Archives of Australia A1773, RV164

Concord Repatriation Nurses

Concord Repatriation Hospital nurses, 1954. National Archives of Australia A1773, RV182

People, places and products 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, the 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.

The Queen inspecting a row of sheep at Dubbo.

Pastoral Review, Dubbo, 1954. National Archives of Australia A1773, RV236

Industry and resources

The post-war 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, they itinerary included attending a pastoral review with wood chopping demonstrations and sheep shearing contests. In Victoria, the Queen and Duke met workers at the brown coal mine at Yallourn.

The Duke of Edinburgh beneath a guided missile.

The Duke of Edinburgh beneath a guided missile, South Australia, 1954. National Archives of Australia A1773, RV1440

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.

The 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.

A painting of the Queen Elizabeth II presiding over a crowded room.

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. Opening of Parliament, Ivor Hele, about 1954, Marcia Rankin collection, National Museum of Australia

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.

Cover of book titled Our Young Queen

The Pictorial Life Story of Our Young Queen, published by Pitkins Pictorial, London. Daphne Mabbott collection, National Museum of Australia

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 last 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.

Display outside Parliament House, Canberra.

Display for 'Our Queen' outside Parliament House, Canberra, 1954. National Archives of Australia A2756, RVK55
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