The late Gavin McLean, former Senior Historian with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, looks at Queen Elizabeth's visits to New Zealand.
If ever Walter Bagehot’s ‘dignified part’ of the constitution managed to ‘excite … the reverence of the population’, it did so in New Zealand over the ‘royal summer’ of 1953-54 when the young Queen Elizabeth II toured the country with her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. ‘They were greeted with a frenzy which is hard to imagine today’, former Prime Minister David Lange recalled in 2005. ‘The enthusiasm of the public was near-universal and certainly demonstrative.’
About three out of every four New Zealanders saw the Queen as she visited 46 centres and attended 110 functions. Ten thousand flooded into Tirau (normal population: 600) to see her. Crowds gathered hours beforehand, bringing their butter boxes to stand on or periscopes to get a better view from a choice ‘possie’ [position]. One diehard royalist claimed to have seen the Queen 30 times. Most dressed in their best clothes and waved their Union Flags (rather than New Zealand ones).
In 1953-54 New Zealanders went to extraordinary lengths to present a best face to royalty – and to the world. ‘Sheep were dyed in the patriotic colours of red, white and blue; in New Plymouth both bowling club members and the local pony club formed into an E on the ground’, Jock Phillips wrote. ‘Screens were erected to hide unsightly buildings, and citizens were instructed when and how to plant blue lobelias, red salvias and white begonias.’
David Lange, who sang for the Queen as a schoolboy 1953, recalled that ‘roads were sealed so she could drive along them, or in the case of the road from Kaikohe to Whangarei, the half she drove on was sealed and the other half finished many years afterwards.’
Over time, subsequent royal tours became less formal. Indeed, ‘informality was the keynote’ became a journalistic cliché.
The Queen’s Silver Jubilee tour of 1977 came closest to recapturing the spark of the 1953-54 tour. But attitudes were changing and that year some New Zealanders might have smiled to read of the Wellington City Council giving the Wellington Harbour Board ‘a gentle reminder that the Queen might not like to see a wharf full of containers when she visits the Capital.’
Royal travel became less ostentatious after the decommissioning of the royal yacht Britannia in 1997. For decades New Zealanders had become accustomed to seeing the big ship escorted around the country by a Royal New Zealand Navy frigate. When the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh last visited in 2002, they travelled by commercial aircraft.
Other members of the royal family have paid many visits to New Zealand to support charities, recognise significant milestones and to represent the Queen. In 1983, photographers caught a famous image of the Prince and Princess of Wales relaxing on the lawn of Government House, Auckland, while young Prince William played with a buzzy-bee toy. Prince William returned to New Zealand in 2010 to open the new Supreme Court building in Wellington. While there, the casually dressed prince joined Prime Minister John Key at a barbecue at Premier House.
In 2012 members of the royal family will celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee by visiting all the Commonwealth countries of which she is head of state, while the Queen concentrates her efforts in the United Kingdom. New Zealand will be visited by Prince Charles, accompanied by Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.
Later tours by the Queen
6-18 Feb, 1963: The Queen attended celebrations at Waitangi and the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council was established as a gift to her.
12-30 March, 1970: The Queen participated in the James Cook bicentenary celebrations and introduced Prince Charles and Princess Anne to New Zealand. This tour initiated the royal ‘walk-about.’
30 Jan – 8 Feb, 1974: Accompanied by the Duke, Princess Anne, Captain Mark Phillips and the Prince of Wales, the Queen attended the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch and New Zealand Day events at Waitangi.
22 Feb – 7 March, 1977: Part of a Commonwealth tour to mark the Queen's Silver (25th) Jubilee. The itinerary closely followed that of 1953-54 and the couple visited 11 centres; the Queen opened the Beehive.
12-20 Oct, 1981: A short visit following a Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in Melbourne.
22 Feb – 2 March, 1986: An extension of visits to Nepal and Australia; visited six centres.
1-16 Feb, 1990: The Queen closed the Commonwealth Games in Auckland and took part in the events marking the sesquicentennial of the Treaty of Waitangi.
1-10 Nov, 1995: The Queen attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Auckland.
22-27 Feb 2002: The Queen visited New Zealand as part of the commemoration of her Golden (50th) Jubilee.