As the Queen marks her 70th anniversary and celebrates her Platinum Jubilee, many people are recalling royal visits to Canada – and Niagara – over the decades.
It’s interesting how much a person who is not Canadian, nor has never lived here, is revered by Canadians. Whether it’s a need for continuity or a hunger for leaders who are more than just bureaucrats or legislators, or the need for a symbol to look up to, royal visits draw big crowds.
Canadians love royalty. In fact, ours is the only country in the world that continues to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday with a national holiday.
Canada’s royal connections go back to the 17th century when King James I’s grandson, Prince Rupert, became the governor of “The Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay” in 1670.
The land mass encompassed all of the Hudson’s Bay watershed and was known as Rupert’s Land. Although Rupert travelled widely, he didn’t make it to North America to see the area he was nominally responsible for.
A later royal who was known to have done so was Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn.
The Duke of Kent, a son of King George III, was Queen Victoria’s father. As the fourth son, he wasn’t expected to gain the throne. In fact, he lived in Quebec for about 10 years.
In 1792, he toured the colony as colonel of the 7th Regiment of Foot, and under the auspices of Lord Dorchester, the governor. On Aug. 21 of that year, he stopped in what was then called Newark.
While he was in Quebec, the Duke lived with his mistress, Julie St. Laurent, Comtesse de Mongenet. They had two sons during their 27-year relationship. When it became clear that his older brothers had no surviving children, the Duke quickly left Julie, and Canada, to do his duty to the throne. According to Julie’s biographer McKenzie Porter, Victoria refused to allow Julie’s name ever to be mentioned.
Records show that five of Queen Victoria’s children spent time in Canada.
Her eldest son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales visited in 1860 when he was 19. His travels included Niagara-on-the-Lake. After dedicating the new Brock’s Monument on Queenston Heights, he made his way to the village of Queenston where he gave 85-year-old Laura Secord £100 in honour of her service during the War of 1812.
Others who visited were Prince Alfred and Prince Leopold. Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, lived in Canada from 1878 to 1883. Her husband, the Marquess of Lorne was governor-general at the time.
Another of Victoria’s sons, Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught, was governor-general from 1911 to 1916. Their daughter, Princess Patricia became the patron of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
In 1901, Prince George, Duke of York and Cornwall, accompanied by his wife Mary, (later King George V and Queen Mary) crossed Canada as a part of their six month tour of the empire. Their visit was subdued because the country was in mourning for Queen Victoria. The royal couple’s visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake and Queenston was short, but noted by the citizens.
There is a letter at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum addressed to local historian Janet Carnochan from R.G. Burns. The letter, dated 1927, remembers the royal visit. The Duke and Duchess visited a peach farm owned by James Osmond.
Burns says, “As the story was reported at the time, Osmond, in reply to the remark made by the Prince, that providence had been very good to him, said, ‘Yes, but I have done most of the work myself.’ ”
The Duke and Duchess arrived by steamer at the Queenston dock, then boarded the train for Niagara Falls. Later, they made their way back to Niagara-on-the-Lake. A picture shows them boarding yet another train for their next stop.
The first reigning monarch to visit was King George VI in 1939. Accompanied by his wife Queen Elizabeth, they, too, embarked on a cross-country tour. On June 7 of that year, the couple visited Niagara Falls. They made a brief stop in Queenston on their way to the Falls. At some point during the visit, a new highway, the Queen Elizabeth Way was opened.
The 1950s saw the beginning of many royal visits. Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip came in 1951 and Princess Margaret in 1958.
In 1959, after her parents’ cross-country tour 20 years earlier, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip did the same. On all of these occasions people flocked to see them.
Royal trains were inevitably late as people waited at small-town stations to wave and be waved at in return. The Queen and U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower officially opened the St. Lawrence Seaway during this visit.
In 1973, the Shaw Festival Theatre building officially opened in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Queen did the honours on June 28. A performance of “You Never Can Tell” by George Bernard Shaw was mounted for the occasion. Whether the Duke of Edinburgh fell asleep during the performance is not officially recorded.
The royal couple stayed at the Pillar and Post during the visit. The records note that they travelled with a staff of 11, including dressers, a valet, ladies in waiting, travelling yeomen, a footman and a page.
The Pillar and Post spent over $8,000 on a set of Wedgwood china in the Argyll pattern. The hotel bought enough dishes to feed 144 people at the formal dinner.
Another visitor was Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. She came on July 5, 1981. Many people have commented on catching a glimpse of her during her stay.
As the 20th century moved to its close, the next generation of royals have continued to visit Canada. Most visits are fairly strategic, with only a few stops and transportation is mostly by air now. The exception to this was the tour made by the Prince and Princess of Wales shortly after their marriage.
For many of these visits, commemorative pieces were produced at a price that was affordable. The 1901 visit of George and Mary is remembered with a plate, as is the opening of the seaway in 1959. The Queen Mother’s 1981 visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake produced a commemorative mug. All of these can be found in local antique and second-hand shops.
Why do we continue to be excited by royal visits? They are expensive and interrupt regular life. The Queen’s visit in 1973 led to the need for parking to up to 10,000 cars. Fifteen acres of land had to be found to accommodate buses.
The royals are, of course, the original celebrities. People cared about what they wore, who they married and how they lived their lives.
Will we see more visits? Prince Charles is a patron of the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts in Queenston. Perhaps we will see him in the future.