I was 16. We drew lots in school to select two girls from each class to watch the procession. My heart thumped with anticipation as my name was first out of the hat.
At 8 o’clock in the morning of Coronation Day we arrived by motor coach to take our places lining the route decorated with bunting and flags. A loudspeaker played music; mounted police patrolled the route, and a street cleaner with a pushcart and broom swept up after the horses. We cheered. A sustained buzz of excitement played through the crowd.
Then on the speakers came the news that Sir Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tensing had conquered Everest. Later we learned that this announcement was delayed for three days to coincide with the festivities. How we cheered!
At long last the procession started, accompanied by the Horse Guards in scarlet tunics and black busbies. A mile long procession of horse drawn coaches, some of them open, others covered, and footmen clinging on behind, conveyed hundreds of distinguished guests on their way to the Coronation.
In one open coach a very large lady with exotic head dress sat opposite a very small man in naval uniform with medals. We recognized them as the Queen of Tonga and Emperor Haille Selassie of Ethiopia.
(Elsewhere, Noel Coward, watching the Coronation procession with friends, was asked “Who is that in the coach with the Queen of Tonga?” “I don’t know,” he said, “I think it’s her lunch.”)
Princess Margaret was beautiful. I had never seen such a glamorous face, tanned and exquisitely made up. In those days films and television (if we were lucky enough to see them) were in black and white. Members of the Royal Family gave us their characteristic, restrained wave with stiff hand atop an upright elbow, but their smiles were genuine as the children roared with excitement.
With my back to the River Thames, the Queen was on my side of the Golden Coronation Coach as she passed from right to left on her way to the Abbey, and we could just see Prince Philip next to her. She smiled and waved right at me and I became a lifelong Monarchist.
Military bands thumped their drums and blew their trumpets. The horses danced and jangled in their peculiar gait, with unsynchronized bounces, but keeping their ranks. The mounted soldiers sat proudly upright, steadying their horses as the crowds applauded and cheered. Brasses shone and the sleek horse coats gleamed.
More televisions were sold for that occasion than for any other in history. That evening we went to our friends’ house to see the Coronation on their flickering 12 inch screen.
In the Abbey we watched again and again as the Crown was placed on Queen Elizabeth’s head. Vivat! Vivat! shouted the choir. The organ and our hearts swelled; tears welled and the music was wonderful.
All over Britain there were street parties. Trestle tables laden with party food lined the streets and people danced. I danced outside the Town Hall at Catford with two girlfriends, and three young airmen we met in the crowd.
At grammar school we had an Elizabethan Fair in the field, a summer fete and pageant. There were games and competitions and a real lemonade stand. I guessed correctly the number of Quality Street sweets in a large tin (250) and won it. There was a competition for the best scrapbook on the Coronation Theme, and I won that too. I sewed together large pages of black art paper and wrote captions in white ink, in script we had learned in Art class, under cuttings from magazines and newspapers. I reproduced the scene I’d sketched while waiting on the Embankment near the bridge. I lugged this scrapbook fondly through a dozen house moves I until the 1990s, when I donated it to Ealing Library for their Archives.
It’s difficult to appreciate now the lift these celebrations gave to our spirits after the austerity of WWII and the years that followed. Society was more cohesive then, and there was a conviction that Things were going to keep getting better. Rationing had only ended about 1951. There were plenty of jobs for everyone. Mass immigration had not yet begun. The Labour Government that was elected after the War brought in the National Health Service with health care and pensions as a universal right. It was a wonderful time to be young!
Watching the Queen’s 60 Years Jubilee celebrations on television where I now live in Virginia, I had the benefit of hindsight and deep admiration for her life’s work. The Queen has been an outstanding example of dedication as monarch, head of State and 32 Commonwealth realms since 1952. Counselor to thirteen prime ministers, she has been a rock like presence for the people through sixty years that transformed the world. She exemplifies continuity and service, fulfilling an unenviable role magnificently and with quiet dignity. She is loved by millions. Perhaps that’s why the people danced again in the streets this time and cheered their hearts out.
From The Royal YouTube Channel – Long to Reign Over Us: The Coronation