History Detective

$5 Note Queen Elizabeth II's 1954 Visit to Australia Case 17

Episode Summary

In 1954, Queen Elizabeth the II was the first reigning monarch to visit Australia. This episode looks at just what a country has to do when the Queen comes to town.

Episode Notes

If you are not from Australia and have not seen our pretty plastic money, I highly recommend having a look online.  The star of the $5 note is Queen Elizabeth II. Instead of giving you a general overview of the queen, today I am going to tell the story of her first official visit to Australia as the Queen. 

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Episode Transcription

Hi, this is Kelly Chase and you are listening to History Detective, a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history and this is Season 3, a series called All Cashed Up. As we move toward a cashless society and physical money is being slowly phased out of everyday use, I wanted to pause and take a look at who are the faces and places that have had the honour of making it onto our money. Today I am starting at our smallest note the $5 note and the woman whose head is also embossed on all of our coins. This is Case 17: A Visit from the Queen.

If you are not from Australia and have not seen our pretty plastic money, I highly recommend having a look online. The $5 note itself is a lovely lavender colour and features the floral emblem of Australia the wattle. The wattle kind of looks like a delicate yellow toilet brush and the specific flower featured bears the name “Prickly Moses”. I know Australia has a reputation for scary snakes and spiders, but even our flowers sound kind of dangerous. But, of course, the star of the $5 note is Queen Elizabeth II. Instead of giving you a general overview of the queen, today I am going to tell the story of her first official visit to Australia as the Queen.

In 1954, Queen Elizabeth the II was the first reigning monarch to visit Australia, that means that in the 166 years prior since the British had stuck their Union Jack in the soil and without a treaty and claimed ownership of Australia, this was the first time that a king or queen had bothered to pop down under for a visit. So of course, it was a big deal and you can imagine in a time before TV, this visit would have been HUGE and every state was going to pull out all stops to impress the young 27-year-old newly crowned queen. In fact, both my mum and my father-in -law have vivid memories of participating in the celebrations.

My mum was 8-years-old when she visited and was one of 17 000 children who performed for the queen at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. There was a gymnastic display, a maypole dance and my mum was dressed as a fairy in a junior pageant section called the Toy Shop. The newspaper described it like this, “Thousands of golliwogs, fairies, clowns, and toy soldiers played out the antics of the little people who live in the land of Dreams Come Ture.” I do want to point out that there is no way that it would be acceptable for children to dress as golliwogs now. If you do not know what this is, it was a problematic type of doll that was popular in the early 1900s that was a modelled after a person in blackface. They are not acceptable as toys now, but clearly in the 1950s it seemed appropriate for a local primary school to dress up a bunch of children in blackface for the queen. 

Seeing how we are talking about currency, let’s talk money. One thing a county has to think about when their royal family decide to pay a visit is, how much is this visit going to cost. A Queensland newspaper published the breakdown of the figures for just this state. It was more than£61 000. The costs included decorations and lights, parliament house functions and luncheons, accommodation, printing, transport and sound systems. I used an online calculator and currency converter to try and find out how much that would be today’s money and I came up with the figure of about $3 million Australian dollars. Please don’t hold me to these calculations as historical currency conversion is not my strong suit.

These royal tours are jam packed! The queen and the duke are go-go-go from morning till night travelling all over the country. Their Queensland itinerary went something like this: Wednesday Brisbane, Thursday- Both Bundaberg and Toowoomba, (These towns are more than 400km apart) Friday – Townsville (a further 1500km away) and then to Cairns on Saturday and at every place there were presentations, ceremonies, luncheons  and of course hordes of children showing off their rhythmic exercises and physical drills. I am tired just thinking about this schedule. Imagine the amount of crowd waving she had to endure.

The QLD Police museum has some interesting photos of the police escorts through Brisbane- down Queen Street no less. What is most interesting is that the mounted police are wearing helmets, but the motorbike police were not. It was a different time I suppose.

Because the first TV broadcast did not happen till 6 months after the Queen had visited, if you happened to miss out on being part of the crowd, a 70 minute motion picture was made about the visit and you could go to the cinema to watch it. Although critics of the film said that there was not enough attention paid to agriculture. The National Film and Sound archive has published the film on YouTube, and I have to disagree with the critics, there was quite a bit of footage of sheep and cows. And that Toy Shop Dance at the MCG is at about 58 minutes in. 

During the royal tour the Queen visited 57 towns and cities in 58 days, but it wasn’t just Australia she visited. On her way here she popped into Bermuda, Jamaica, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand. And on her way home she swung by, the Coco Islands, Ceylon, Aden, Uganda, Malta and Gibralta. The whole tour took about 6 months and although the queen and duke met tens of thousands of children, their own children who were 5 and 3 years old did not come on the trip.

Next time on History Detective, I am going to flip it and reverse it explore the other side of the $5 note, New Parliament House and our democratic right to hold a protest there. 

This Kelly Chase, on the Case.

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