On 7 February 1952, New Zealanders woke and – whether they turned on the radio or picked up the morning newspaper – only then did most learn that the previous afternoon King George VI had died, and that his daughter Princess Elizabeth was now our queen, Queen Elizabeth II. 70 years ago, before most of us were even alive.
To look at today’s New Zealand media one might suppose that some decades ago New Zealand had angrily tossed out the monarchy. There has been barely any mention of the 70th anniversary of the accession of New Zealand’s Head of State and what coverage there has been seems determined to treat it as British news, not as news about our own Head of State – she holds that office by laws passed by New Zealand’s Parliament, and polls suggest that today’s New Zealander’s still favour the system of constitutional monarchy that we share with the UK, Australia, Canada, and a variety of other countries. Much as a significant chunk of the media class might lament it, Elizabeth is our Queen, and has been for 70 years now. Whether as Queen of New Zealand or of her other realms and territories, her reign is now one of the very longest ever in recorded history. If one dates modern New Zealand from some time in 1840, she has been our head of state for almost 40 per cent of our history. A remarkable life of service.
(And, in fairness, while the media have preferred to play down any sense of Elizabeth as our Queen, the Prime Minister did put out a gracious and fitting statement.)
Anyway, I got a bit curious about how the accession of the Queen, 70 years ago, had been marked in New Zealand and recorded in the New Zealand media. Papers Past is a wonderful resource although of the major city papers sadly only the Press is available for 1952.
I started with the edition of Tuesday 5 February. In that paper it was reported that preparations were well underway for the planned visit to New Zealand in May of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip – undertaking the tour that the King himself had originally hoped to do. The Assistant Comptroller of the Royal Household had arrived on the 4th “to discuss final details and matters of etiquette. The economist is me could not, however, help noticing this element of the story.
It was a different time indeed, when the Cabinet was allocating cement.
The arrival of the Princess and her husband at the Kenyan lodge, where she was receive the grim news of the death of her father, was recorded in another story in which it was noted that the Queen and the Duke had attended Evensong at the small local church where “she spoke to the man who alone laid every stone of the church”.
What of Wednesday 6 February? It was a normal working day in New Zealand (and, as far as I can see from the table of contents there were no stories about the Treaty of Waitangi or the like). The Prime Minister – Sid Holland – was in Paris. Back here there were further reports of the forthcoming royal visit, including a push to keep handshakes to a minimum, and stories from the visit to Kenya. It was mid-summer and in Dunedin the touring West Indies cricket team had just beaten Otago.
King George VI died at Sandringham in the early hours of 6 February (New Zealand time being 12 hours ahead of that in the UK). The news was announced to be public at 11am (UK time).
In those days, the front pages of newspapers still seemed to be devoted to classified advertisements. It was no different in the Press of 7 February 1952. The news of the King’s death, and of the accession of Queen Elizabeth, appeared on page 5. This appears to be the editorial, and these were the first few sentences.
Despite the late hour – and presumably only for later editions – there are large numbers of stories, and photos (including one of the new heir to the throne, Prince Charles) over two pages (even managing to note that the forthcoming visit to New Zealand was now cancelled). There was an article about the visit by the then Duke and Duchess of York to New Zealand – and Christchurch in particular – in 1927 (among many other details, the Duke had had dinner with Labour leader Harry Holland in Westport).
The death of the King was marked immediately by the closure of all New Zealand schools on 7 February, and the closure of all government departments (other than essential services) for the afternoon of 7 February. No doubt there were many statements by local dignitaries around the country, but this was the statement by the (Labour) mayor of Christchurch.
In Greymouth, the mayor had requested that the bell of the local Catholic church be tolled 15 times (soon after the news first came through), once for each year of the King’s reign.
By the next issue of the newspaper – that for Friday 8 February – we still got through a great deal of other news first (the cricket test began that day in Christchurch) before the best part of three pages of coverage of the royal news.
There was a thoughtful editorial, even if it was a little wide of the mark with its suggestion “many [ in New Zealand] will never see her”, given the huge crowds for her first tour of New Zealand two years later. There was news of the forthcoming New Zealand official proclamation of the accession of the Queen, to occur the following Monday (more details here from the next day’s paper). The article is well-worth clicking through to for the details of official mourning, for the suggestion that employees should as far as possible be given time off on that Monday to attend local ceremonies marking the accession. This is just one snippet
Tributes from all manner of individuals and bodies – here and abroad – flowed in, and find a place in the pages of the Press. Here is an account of official American tributes and observances. And preparations for the funeral. From the next day’s paper, many resolutions of sympathy and loyalty.
By Monday 11 February, plans were in place. The King’s funeral was to be held that Friday (the Queen had requested that the day not be a public holiday). And the Prime Minister – who had been visiting West Germany when the King died – made a broadcast to New Zealand from London. In the same article it was reported that Mr Holland would be received by the Queen on Wednesday. Meanwhile back here the Governor-General, the Cabinet, and other dignitaries had attended a memorial service at (now Old) St Paul’s in Wellington. There were reports too of the special services in the churches of many denominations. If you wanted legal detail on the accession process, the Press had it covered.
In the Press of the 12th, you could read the (quite lengthy) account of the Christchurch civic proclamation of accession ceremony held the previous day – several thousand attended that ceremony, and there were similar smaller occasions in the boroughs around the city.
On the 13th we read that both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition (Walter Nash), both of whom had already been in London, would represent New Zealand at the funeral for the King. We also read of the Queen’s own declaration in taking her oath.
Back in New Zealand, in the following day’s paper we read some remarks made by the Minister of Education at a combined (four schools) memorial service in Wellington Town Hall.
The next day’s paper was full of articles about the funeral, but also carried this report of the Prime Minister’s meeting with the Queen, including this snippet.
And on the 16th, we read of the two minutes silence in memory of the King, and of great bell in Christchurch Cathedral tolling 56 times, once for each year of the King’s life, and so much more.
It was another age in many ways, but these surely were the monarchs of New Zealand, not by force or coercion but by the free consent, and loyalty of people, high and low, of all races and religions up and down New Zealand.
As indeed, Elizabeth II today is, by free choice of our own Parliament,
“Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of New Zealand and Her Other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith—”
We shall not see her like again, whether in New Zealand or in her other realms and territories. But the 70th anniversary of her accession, to our throne, should very much have been New Zealand news.