The Queen’s Guelph go to was a giant deal, however I had no concept

As a historian who has had books published and has reached an age at which I can legitimately be called “an old guy,” I am well aware that there are moments in life that have historical significance and which should be seized. Moments that are genuine big deals. I had a chance at such a one when I was eight years old, and I missed it.

It was July 2, 1959, and Queen Elizabeth was coming to Guelph. She was in Canada to participate with President Dwight Eisenhower at the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and was making a tour of the country. Guelph was one of the many stops on her busy schedule.

At the time, I didn’t understand – as I do now – what a big deal that was, particularly for Guelph, which was, after all, known as the Royal City. Guelph had been the surname of the British royal family at the time of the city’s founding. It had once been one of those Canadian communities with such strong feelings about its British heritage that it was said to be “more British than Britain.”

At the time of Queen Elizabeth’s 1959 visit, Guelph was not far removed from an era in which royalty was still held in some degree of awe, when homes had portraits of the reigning monarch hanging in a place of honour. Many Guelph families might still have had pictures of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, and Georges V and VI (and maybe even the abdicator Edward VIII) in a closet if no longer on a wall.

I know from many hours of going through old newspaper archives to research historical events that the activities of the Governor General of Canada, the monarch’s representative, were closely followed in the press. If the Governor General made a statement, travelled to a specific Canadian location, or so much as coughed, it made the papers. How much more important then, a visit from royalty in person! The Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), another Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), and George VI and his Queen Consort (later the Queen Mother) had all been greeted by cheering crowds when they visited Guelph.

Even at age eight, I knew the Queen was important. Every morning at school we looked at her picture at the front of the classroom and sang God Save the Queen. Some kids would even get in trouble if the teacher heard them sneaking in some words of their own.

“God save our gracious Queen, Send her a jelly bean.”

We also saw her picture on TV, at the movies, and on our money – mixed with coins that still bore the image of her father. And in Cub Scouts I had to solemnly swear to “do my duty to God and the Queen.” So, I certainly knew she was important.

But when one is only eight years old, some things are more important than others. At that time, the movie Tom Thumb was playing in Guelph, and I wanted to see it. Compared to Tom Thumb, the Queen didn’t seem like such a big deal. My mother – a war bride from England – took my sisters and me downtown to see the Queen. The whole place was decked out in flags and bunting. Police had streets barricaded off. But I wanted to see Tom Thumb, and so I went to the movie.

Thanks to the Guelph Mercury’s coverage of the event, available in microfilm archives in the Guelph Public Library, I know what transpired that day while I was sitting in the Palace movie theatre.

Queen Elizabeth arrived in a 16-coach train. It was 12 minutes behind schedule, but if anybody in the waiting throng had grown impatient, the Queen easily won them over. She was standing on a rear platform as the train pulled to a stop, and when she went down the steps, she made a little jump from the last one. That simple move, almost like something a kid would do, immediately endeared her to the crowd.

Federal Minister of Health J.W. Monteith was supposed to greet her, but he was late. Not knowing who any of the people waiting there were, Elizabeth simply smiled and extended her hand. Mayor David E. Hastings shook her hand and then introduced himself and other people in the formal reception committee.

The 11th Field Regiment Band played God Save the Queen, and the crowd politely waited for it to finish before they erupted in a loud cheer. A red carpet had been put in place for Elizabeth’s walk from the train station to city hall, but she used the sidewalk instead, another of those little gestures that seemed to help break the barriers between the monarch and the people.

On a specially constructed dais, Kathy Hohenadel, age eight, presented the Queen with a bouquet of orchids and stephanotis, and performed what the Mercury called “two perfect curtsies.” Elizabeth signed the city and county guest books. Then, accompanied by lady-in-waiting Alice Egerton (Philip was in London, Ontario), Elizabeth got into an open car that led the motorcade of ten vehicles.

The royal procession went along Carden St., then Wyndham and Woolwich to London Road. It travelled along Exhibition and Division Streets, then back along Woolwich to downtown and the train station. Thousands of cheering people lined the route. Many watched from upper-storey windows and from rooftops. One man had even used climbing spikes to watch from the top of a telephone pole.

Elizabeth got back aboard her train and as it pulled away. She stood waving from the rear platform until she was gone from sight. She would do it all over again at her next stop, Kitchener.

The Queen’s visit to Guelph had taken a little more than half-an-hour. When I emerged from the movie theatre, the big event was all over. Now I am much older than that eight-year-old boy, although probably not much wiser. But I wish I had skipped the movie and seen the Queen. It was a moment in history that was indeed a big deal.

The Queen also visited Guelph in 1973.

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