It was nine hours that transfixed Toronto. Nine hours when all eyes and hearts turned to King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth during the first visit to Canada by reigning British monarchs.
Schoolchildren cheered themselves hoarse. Veterans of the Great War wept in their wheelchairs. And everyone from urchins to the upper crust lined the streets, filled windows and covered rooftops to show their undying adoration and loyalty to the royal couple.
In return, the King and Queen “gave the city a taste of old world pomp and ceremony, and with it a living portrait of true majesty — nobility, friendliness and devotion to duty,” the Toronto Daily Star observed on one of 40 pages covering the history-making event on May 22, 1939.
The journey across the Atlantic began May 6 when the royals left their daughters Elizabeth, 13, and Margaret, 8, for their month-long Canadian visit, which included five days in the United States. Two warships escorting them carried a secret cargo of gold worth $120 million (about $2 billion today) to help pay for the looming Second World War that was to begin four months later.
Ottawa had planned a train tour that would cross the country twice, beginning in Quebec City and ending in Halifax, with 50 “brief personal appearances” along the way.
From the moment the blue and silver train pulled into North Toronto station (now the Summerhill LCBO store) at 10:30 a.m. on a grey, wet morning until it left Union Station at 7:30 p.m., the city was swept up by emotion.
“Joyous citizens massed at every vantage point,” the newspaper reported. “Little hands were grasped firmly around the small staffs of Union Jacks, waving them joyously. Everyone seemed to be wearing something red, white and blue.”
Among the jubilant throngs, a war veteran in a khaki beret “hustled down Bay St. with a spring in his step that probably hadn’t been there in years.”
Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Pocklington of Deloraine Ave. brought their movie camera downtown as they took up a 10-hour overnight vigil in the pouring rain.
“Certainly we got good and wet but … something like this is the thrill of a lifetime,” Mrs. Pocklington gushed hours later.
“Sheer human will power” stopped the rain from falling on their majesties as they criss-crossed the city, commented Star journalist Gregory Clark.
And warmth emanated from every encounter as the regal pair waved and smiled their affection to the crowds. Scheduled for a seven-minute stop in front of Christie St. Military Hospital (long since demolished), they were still shaking hands and offering comfort 45 minutes later.
It was an “unforgettable scene of human tenderness . . . of a King and his tired soldiers” still paying the price of a long-ago war, said one account.
“Men who had lost their sight, men without legs and arms, men broken with unseen physical disabilities shouted and cheered and wept unashamed as a kindly monarch and his Queen walked among them.”
Their majesties, the reporter continued, “gave something of their own hearts to men and women who had given so much for the empire.”
It was a similar scene at Toronto General Hospital, where 16-year-old Mary Hamblain was one of five polio patients taken out of iron lungs to watch the procession.
“I am the happiest girl alive,” she declared. “Just imagine it, seeing the King and Queen right from my hospital bed.”
Even the Dionne quintuplets, whom the Star called the “five most famous sisters in the world,” got in on the action, travelling from North Bay, Ont., for a private meeting at Queen’s Park.
Six days shy of their fifth birthdays and dressed in white organza frocks, the excited siblings “took the situation into their own hands,” according to Clark.
The children “looked at the lovely lady in blue and the tall man in the gold-braided naval uniform and . . . threw their arms around the Queen, who knelt to meet the onslaught,” Clark wrote.
No less enamoured was then-mayor Ralph Day’s daughter, 8-year-old Elizabeth Marie, who presented the Queen with a bouquet at city hall.
Her impression? “Gee, she’s awful nice. She has a voice even sweeter than honey and sugar mixed.”
During the welcome ceremony, two newly upholstered throne chairs went unused as the couple remained standing so thousands of cheering subjects could see them.
“Isn’t this a lovely scene?” a beaming Queen remarked to an official.
The visit was also an opportunity for David Williamson to renew acquaintance with his childhood playmate. The Toronto resident, who was invited to a private audience, had taught Elizabeth to fish at Glamis Castle in Scotland where they both spent time as youngsters.
“I was fly-fishing, trying to imitate my father, who was a great fly-fisherman,” Williamson recalled. “Well, she got very interested … I gave her the rod and showed her how … And she caught a fish.”
Children gleefully greeted the monarchs by the hundreds of thousands at Riverdale Park and Exhibition grounds, according to media reports.
And another 50,000 well-wishers — mostly adult — were no less vociferous at Woodbine Park in the east end where a 3-year-old colt named Archworth romped to victory in the 80th running of the King’s Plate.
But it was the guard of honour that caught Star writer Fred Jackson’s eye: “Dragoons in brilliant scarlet, their helmets glistening despite the lack of sunshine, might have been a great painting come to life, so perfectly were they attired; so majestically did they await the royal couple.”
By day’s end, an estimated two million exhilarated spectators had swarmed the provincial capital — about three times its population of 650,000 — for an event that wouldn’t be repeated.
King George VI never returned to Canada before his death in 1952 after years of ill health. Elizabeth, who became known as the Queen Mother after her daughter took the throne, made many more solo trips before she died 15 years ago at the age of 101.
As their royal highnesses pulled out of Union Station after that exhausting day on May 22, 1939, “the King was smiling and the Queen still radiated a fresh loveliness that fatigue had not touched,” wrote reporter Culver Jones.
“Toronto’s 26-mile-long cheer came to an end in the soft and still rainless evening,” the newspaper’s coverage concluded.
Source : TheStar