Memories of the 1939 Royal Visit

By any measure, the year 1939 was one of the most momentous of the past century. For all time, it will be associated with the outbreak of the Second World War; however, there were other happier events during that memorable year. Heres a question for readers old enough to remember: Where were you on June 13 and 14, 1939? If a sampling of local public opinion is accurate; there is a good chance you were either at the Sackville railway station on the evening of the 13th, or at Cape Tormentine the next day, catching a glimpse of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

More than a half century later, trans-Atlantic and trans-continental travel is commonplace. Not so in 1939. Yet even today, statistics of the royal visit are impressive. The King and Queen travelled over 10,000 miles; by train 7,706 miles in Canada, and 1,099 in the United States. Motorcades within and between towns and cities accounted for another 1,200 miles. There was also 300 miles of travel across Canadian waterways. Beyond these statistics there were the two trans-Atlantic crossings by ocean liner. Overall, it was estimated that some 12 million people in Canada and the United States came out to see the royal couple.

Locally, they travelled by rail from Moncton through Dorchester, where the sleek royal train of 12 blue and silver trimmed rail cars slowed, but did not stop. This did not prevent people from gathering at the Dorchester station where a huge bonfire greeted their Majesties. Later on, as the train left Sackville, another welcoming bonfire could be seen, off in the distance, on Beausjour Ridge.

Understandably, security for the royal visit was tight. Lee Lowerisons father, Roy, a CNR employee, was part of the security detail. Lee explained: As a trackman, it was his job to set switches and spike them. Once this was done, he had to stand guard until the royal train passed by. While at his post, the train approached slowly, and Roy was rewarded with a regal wave from Queen Elizabeth, seated in the parlour car, just a few feet from where he was standing.

On arrival in Sackville, at approximately 11 PM; it was estimated that 5,000 people were on hand. As the King and Queen stood on the observation deck at the end of the train, they were greeted by the thunderous cheers of the crowd. To add to the occasion, the Sackville Citizens Band was in attendance. As always, the press reported on the royal attire: The King was dressed in a dark business suit; while the Queen wore a blue outfit trimmed with white. Then, all too soon, the train was on its way to Cape Tormentine.

As it turned out, those who greeted their Majesties in Sackville were lucky. Overnight, the weather turned foul and the forecast for the next day predicted rain. Since the Cape Tormentine stop was to be fairly long, detailed arrangements had been worked out over the previous months. Priority was to be given to Westmorland and Cumberland County school children.

Of the 15,000 people who gathered at Cape Tormentine June 14, 1939, about were young people. Already it was a long day. Crowds started lining up at 4 oclock in the morning and school groups were expected to be in their places by 6;30. Several people described their early morning trek to the Cape. No yellow school buses then… we travelled by truck and were seated in the open on plank benches! By the time they reached their destination rain had started. Since few vehicles had tarpaulins, almost all were quite drenched.

Memories grow dim after the passage of sixty years; however, on one point, all whom I interviewed were united. They did not mind the rain or the long wait! One rcalled: There was so much going on that we were always entertained… the RCMP were everywhere; dignitaries went by in cars, airplanes were flying overhead… there was always something happening. Still another remembered Prime Minister Mackenzie King passing by.

There was also a certain amount of comic relief… one waiting group was entertained by several adults from a nameless community on the Tantramar. Most spectators, young and old alike, were prepared for rainy weather; but not these ladies. This was a royal occasion, and after some serious shopping from Eatons catalog, they were determined to show off new outfits; complete with matching pill box hats and gloves. As the minutes and hours ticked by; their carefully selected apparel became wetter… and wetter. Eventually the pill box hats resembled sodden tams or berets.

Most spectators at Cape Tormentine were rewarded with a clear view of the King and Queen. At 9:30 the royal train slowly backed up the full length of the viewing area. This time the press reported: His Majesty was in naval uniform and the Queen was wearing a blue ensemble trimmed with fur. Suddenly, out from safekeeping came thousands of flags and the cheering did not stop until the royal couple went on board HMCS Skeena. Their Majesties then began the next lap of their tour; crossing the Northumberland Strait to Charlottetown. Enroute they were escorted by three RCAF aircraft. The latter thrilled the Cape Tormentine crowd with a flypast just before heading east across the Strait. One informant recalled: I remember the event as if it were yesterday.

The most remarkable footnote to this Flashback is that Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, continues to fulfill the occasional royal engagement. Born in 1900, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyons pace is slower now. Aided by a walker or motorized chair, she still undertakes those famous walkabouts. Back in 1939, her popularity earned the media nickname: the Queen of Hearts. In 1999, the Queen Mother remains the most popular member of the House of Windsor. It all began on a Canadian tour, sixty years ago.

Many people helped write this Flashback. Following the visit of Princess Anne to New Brunswick in 1998, I began receiving reminiscences of other royal tours and particukarly that of 1939. Thanks to all who provided me with firsthand information. Keep the calls, letters and e-mails coming!