Glorious time when future queen visited East London

Royal family arrived by train in 1947 and enjoyed packed schedule in the city

Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch and a towering presence on the world stage for seven decades, died peacefully at her home in Scotland on Thursday aged 96.

For many of us in South Africa who have been on planet Earth a long time, her death will have brought back poignant memories of a 20-year-old Princess Elizabeth and her family’s tour of South Africa in 1947  — 75 years ago now.

The family, their majesties King George VI, his wife, Queen Elizabeth and their daughters, their Royal Highnesses the Princess Elizabeth and the Princess Margaret arrived by sea in Cape Town on Monday February 17 1947 and departed by sea on April 24.

During that time they visited many towns and cities in this country as well as the Rhodesia, including the then Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown,  Umtata and Aliwal North as well as East London, where they stayed longer than in most other places.

East London excelled itself for this rare royal occasion. Preparations for their visit here, as elsewhere  in the country, were made long before the royal family set foot on South African soil.

For months, workmen were kept busy sprucing up the East London City Hall and other prominent buildings, designing and erecting illuminations and other decorations in preparation for the royal visit.

Many business houses, including the Daily Dispatch, proudly flew the Union Jack and those old enough will remember that at the conclusion of every cinema performance,  everyone stood up as “God Save the King,” was played.  

For weeks, advertisements in the Daily Dispatch displayed illustrations of hats, gloves and handbags and Garlicks, the big departmental store even declared a “Corset Week.”

Their majesties and the princesses arrived in East London amid great fanfare at 3pm on Saturday afternoon March 1 1947 from King William’s Town on the White Train.

The driver was an East Londoner, Ken Shaw, who parked it not in the main station, but in a specially constructed area on the crest of a rise to the east of Cambridge.

This spot gave members of the Royal Family complete privacy and an excellent view of the Nahoon Valley.

Luxuriously furnished to help them cope with their long and gruelling tour of SA, they lived on board for the duration of their SA sojourn.

For the benefit of today’s East Londoners who may have had relatives in the welcoming party and want a piece of nostalgia, here are their names:

The mayor and mayoress,  Mr and Mrs C L Logan, senator and Mrs WT Welsh, Mr A Latimer, MP, and Mrs Latimer, Mr DJ Gale, MP, Mr WG Howard Shaw, MPC, Mr G Randall, Mr JHJ Scheepers, the chief magistrate of East London, and Mrs Scheepers, Mr P Moorshead, chairman of the East London Divisional Council, and Mrs Moorshead and Mr DP McDonald, system manager of Railways at East London and Mrs McDonald, all of whom were presented to their majesties and the princesses.

The welcoming ceremony over, the Royal Party then drove about five kilometres through the streets of the city lined with thousands of schoolchildren all waving their little Union Jack flags.

Many of them are still alive today and may still have the little medallion given to each child, and will be reading this piece with fond memories of the occasion.

At their destination at the Recreation Ground, packed with people of all races (which was presumably what was later known as the Jan Smuts Ground), the official address of welcome was given by the mayor to the royal family, who shortly afterwards returned to the train.

For the next three days, East London’s citizens were thoroughly enraptured by the presence of the British royal family in their midst.  

On the Sunday, the royal family attended a church service at St Mark’s Anglican church in Cambridge and the two princesses took the opportunity to go horse-riding on CH O’Reilly’s farm “Hluhluwe” just off the Bonza Bay road.

Wing Commander Peter Townsend, DSO, DFC, equerry to the King, rode with them accompanied by the O’Reilly couple.

They rode to a spot on the Quinera River and then along the Bonza Bay beach.

In later years, the Queen may have remembered this occasion fondly if, as relayed by Daily Maverick reporter Rebecca Davis, who recalled meeting the Queen in 2010, the conversation referred to this particular ride.

Davis writes when asked if she had ever visited SA, the Queen’s response was: “Oh yes,” she said. “I visited for the first time in 1947.” ... “I remember horse-riding with my sister on the beach,” she said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt so free.”

After their morning ride, the Royal family visited Hickman’s River in the afternoon, a popular bathing and picnic spot on the West Bank. 

Monday was another beautiful, warm East London day and the most active of the royals’ stay in the city.

In the morning, the 20-year-old Princess Elizabeth, accompanied only by a lady-in-waiting, performed the opening ceremony of, and gave her name to, East London’s then-new dry dock which until this day is still called the Princess Elizabeth Dock.

She received a tumultuous welcome from 10,000 people seated round the huge dock and gave her address in a firm, clear voice.

Later she graciously accepted a gift of diamonds from the SA Railways and Harbours administration.

In the afternoon, the royals attended a garden party given by the mayor and mayoress in Marina Glen where more than 2,500 people were present and several presentations were made.

In the evening,  the royal family attended a glittering ball in the City Hall where they received a great ovation from the 1,500 guests present.

Princess Elizabeth graced the dance floor with a Mr NT Crawford, a visitor from Johannesburg who was dressed in his wartime uniform of lieutenant in the SA Air Force, while Princess Margaret was partnered by Mr MB Pollock of 33 St George’s Road, East London.

Both men were selected by the mayor. The king and queen, meanwhile, sat on the balcony overlooking the ballroom with the mayor and mayoress.

Later the whole party moved into the supper room, where they spent another hour or so chatting amiably with guests.

The British royal family’s four-day visit ended the next day, Tuesday, when they reviewed the biggest parade of ex-servicemen ever held in East London.

In spite of the blistering late summer sun, the King and Queen accompanied by the princesses moved about along the lines of be-medalled men.

And shortly before 3pm,  the royal family left East London by car for King William’s Town and later rejoined their train at Kei Road.

“Long live the Queen,” will be the sentiment of those who were then young and who had the privilege of having this remarkable lady in their midst all those many years ago.

  • It is worth mentioning that Princess Elizabeth, on the occasion of her 21st birthday on April 21 1947, dedicated her life to the Commonwealth in a speech broadcast from Cape Town. On that day she also received a beautiful birthday gift from the citizens of East London, which was a leather-bound album in Royal Blue containing 10 pictures of the historic opening of the East London graving dock on March 3 1947, complete with an embossed replica of the city’s coat of arms. — with thanks to Glenn Hartwig of the East London Central Library


Would you like to comment on this article?
Register (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.