ACT News


Will capital again feel royal flush?

Will any members of the royal family, perhaps even the personable Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, shimmer though Canberra during next year's centenary celebrations? It has been confirmed for Gang-gang that an invitation has been issued to the regal family. Nothing has been decided yet.

But royalty came for our 50th birthday in 1963. Canberra's Jubilee was the reason that the Queen and her tall, lean consort of Greek extraction beetled across the world to Australia.

To follow The Canberra Times coverage of the regal couple's 1963 visit (I have the actual newspapers, yellowing with age and looking as ancient as the Dead Sea Scrolls here beside me) is to enjoy a sweet little snapshot of the way we were.

That Canberra into which the royals flew on March 11, 1963, had a population of 65,692 souls (today there are five times as many). A four-bedroom home in upper Deakin cost £13,800, but if one was prepared to be a pioneer in a raw outer suburb, £6000 would buy a three-bedroom home in Watson.

There were two television channels and on one of them, Channel 7, an average evening of Rin Tin Tin and I Love Lucy would finish at 10.30pm with an epilogue. Viewers may have watched this smorgasbord on a Pye Pedigree set rented for £5 11s a month.

Women wore nylons and Kayser's Shapemakers (''The famous seamless bubble mesh nylons that s-t-r-e-t-c-h to walk with you''), which cost 14/11.


Canberra Times journalists covering the tour wrote their stories in a hutch-sized, smoke-filled newsroom in Mort Street (most workplaces were still smoky then) and on the same aluminium, manual Olivetti contraptions widely used by gels in the public service's typing pools.

Australia was a more royalist country then and a vastly higher proportion of total Canberrans, perhaps half of them, ventured out to see some royalty in 1963 than will bother next year.

After an earlier cameo appearance, the Queen and the duke returned to Canberra in earnest on March 11, arriving by air at midday. The Canberra Times estimated that just on that first day 25,000 Canberrans (including a 7000-strong batch of urchins transported from schools in 32 buses) turned out to dote on the visitors. The couple drove to Government House along a winding route and in an open Rolls-Royce so that as many as possible could get a life-changing glimpse of them.

It was a sunny and warm day and her majesty wore, for the morning and then the afternoon functions, an ensemble of electric blue. She must have looked radiant (the word always used to describe the Queen in those days, and deep into the 1970s, too, when this columnist covered royal tours) but to its great credit The Canberra Times doesn't seem to have once stooped to that cliche during this royal visit.

On the afternoon of that first day, the royal couple feigned interest in the bed of what was going to be Lake Burley Griffin (not to be fully filled until April 1964). The Times said that her majesty, who hadn't been to Canberra since 1954, was interested in how the city had come along. The prime minister, at that stage a mere Mister Menzies, lurked nearby, wherever the royals went. The next day - jubilee day March 12 - the Queen made that bushy-eyebrowed statesman a Member of the Most Noble Order of the Thistle (and thus a Sir), a silly-sounding award (what with the thistle being an introduced weed in these colonies) that today would be a godsend for scoffing bloggers. But no one scoffed in 1963.

For the rest of the day, Canberra not having then the inspirational services of a Robyn Archer to produce something novel, there was first a ''demonstration of military precision'' at Manuka Oval (10,000 attended) and then the official jubilee occasion on the lawns in front of Parliament House (another, or perhaps the same, 10,000). At the latter her majesty, still going through a lurid phase, wore an ensemble of cherry-pink.

There was one poignant Canberra occasion Archer would love to be able to stage at next year's centenary, but won't be able to: a garden party of senior citizens who had been there on the day 50 years earlier when Lady Denman spoke the mystical word - the name of our city. Time, like an ever-rolling stream, has long since borne them all away.

In Civic that night there was something called ''impromptu dancing'' starting at 8pm sharp and a fireworks display launched from Capital Hill. The Times reported that the ''impromptu dancing'' wasn't a great success (Canberrans were much more tightly corseted then) with many more watching than dancing.

The royal couple left Canberra for Alice Springs on March 14 and were seen off at the airport by governor-general Lord de L'Isle, so spectacularly dressed (a blindingly white dress uniform, kilometres of gold braid and a tall white helmet festooned with ostrich plumes) that he drew attention away from her majesty, who was relatively drably dressed in what the Times described as ''a dress and coat of pale sea green shantung and a white Breton hat''.

While the Queen and Duke were here and on the eve of the jubilee day, there was an editorial headed ''Canberra The Great'' in The Canberra Times - so fulsome and so hairy-chestedly pro-Canberra that this newspaper could do worse than run it again without changes on March 11 next year.

''Pygmies dwell,'' it thundered ''in the darkest forests where the trees stretch out into the skies. Canberra stands in its form and status today in spite of the pygmies that have attempted to thwart or mar its purposes. The Australian people have come to regard Canberra as its capital, to which it looks for leadership and inspiration in public and private life … The greatest privilege today is that an Australian may be a citizen of this city.''