Royal present, royal presence

For my last birthday, a friend gave me a medal from the 1953-54 royal tour of New Zealand. I’ve decided to repay this very generous gift by writing about the medal.

I’ve been a republican since childhood and find it baffling that any country should still, in the twenty-first century, have a head of state selected by an accident of birth. Yet, for a republican, I own a surprising number of books about royal tours. One of the first historical articles I published was about the 1954 royal tour of Australia. Royal tours are fascinating because they were opportunities for an idealised vision of society to be portrayed and celebrated. As the Bulletin put it during the 1954 Australian royal tour: ‘we put up flags and arches for ourselves, and cheer ourselves like mad.’ (I titled my article about the royal tour ‘Cheering Ourselves Like Mad’, but the editor of the Journal of Australian Studies retitled it ‘Forty Years On’ without asking me, a decision that still rankles 25 years on.)

When Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh toured New Zealand and Australia 65 years ago, it was the first time a reigning monarch had visited either country. Most people in both countries identified much more strongly with Britain and the monarchy than they do today. As a result, there was tremendous excitement about the tour, with very large crowds turning out wherever the Queen went (you can see her extensive New Zealand itinerary here).

The medal my friend gave me had belonged to her grandmother, an ardent royalist, and my friend speculated that her grandfather might have bought the medal as a present for his wife. These medals were not for sale at the time of the tour, however. They were given to schoolchildren: 380,000 medals were produced, at a cost of £19,000, and presented in classroom ceremonies. You can see a boy wearing one, and holding a Union Jack, in this photo from the Hocken Library collection (use the tools to the left of the photo to enlarge it). The Queen herself was presented with a gold replica of the medals by Prime Minister Sidney Holland, who remarked that the government thought she might like to ‘share with the children the pleasure of possessing one of these medals’, having seen so many children wearing them ‘when they have made their loyalty and devotion to you so evident’ during the tour.

When the draft programme for the royal tour was initially released in April 1953, it was heavily criticised for failing to include specific gatherings for children. This was quickly rectified, and the medal was only one example of the strong focus on children during the tour. In Wellington, for example, there was a large event for children at Athletic Park, where some 15,000 children and 20,000 parents and other adults gathered.

Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh standing in the back of a jeep as it drives past a crowd of children at Athletic Park, Wellington, 12 January 1954. 1/4-106771-F, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

‘The greatest and most tumultuous welcome of all is from [Wellington’s] children’, the voiceover of an official film of the royal tour proclaimed over scenes of the crowds of children at Athletic Park. The emphasis was on unity: ‘15,000 individual wills, they build but a single pattern. These are the future men and women of one far corner of a Commonwealth of many governments, but of one allegiance.’ (The film is available here – the scene at Athletic Park starts at around 9:35 in Part 1.)

The message was one of individuals and countries with their own distinctive identities, but united by loyalty to the monarch. The medal itself helped to convey this message. For a start, the very process of handing out the medal promoted a sense of New Zealand identity at the same time as it reinforced allegiance to the Queen: the act of receiving the medal, shared by pupils throughout New Zealand but nowhere else, promoted a sense of belonging to a common New Zealand community. The design of the medal, likewise, showed the Queen on one side, but had New Zealand symbols – the New Zealand coat of arms and a koru design – on the other.


The focus on children during the royal tour reflected the belief that the Queen, as a mother herself, would be both interested in, and an inspiration to, the nation’s young. In Australia, the President of the National Council of Women hoped that the Queen’s visit would have a positive effect on ‘the most critical section our our community’, the teenager. This was a time of increasing anxiety about the behaviour of young people, particularly the relatively new category of ‘the teenager’.

During the royal tour, the Queen and Duke went on a ‘picturesque drive’ around Lower Hutt, passing along streets very close to where I now live. Yet only a few months later, the New Zealand public were presented with a very different picture of the Hutt: a place where young people were led into sexual promiscuity in milk bars and other dens of iniquity. A moral panic partly prompted by the Hutt’s ‘milk bar cowboys’ led to the publication in September 1954 of an official report on moral delinquency by a committee chaired by Oswald Mazengarb.


The report was almost as widely distributed as the royal tour medal: 300,000 copies were provided free to New Zealand families by the government. A few years later, Auckland psychologist A.E. Manning’s The Bodgie: A Study in Abnormal Psychology (1958) would examine the lives of delinquent youth, with arresting illustrations by Dennis Turner.

20190122_211912-e1548145601883.jpgAlthough the delinquency panic still lay in the future at the time of the royal tour, the Queen’s visit was an opportunity for the nation to reassure itself that the next generation of New Zealanders remained loyal and well-behaved.

Objects like the medal help to bring history alive, not only by providing a tangible connection to the past but also by prompting memories. For the friend who gave the medal to me, it sparked vivid recollections of her grandparents: her grandmother’s spectacular hats, her work as a nurse and midwife (nursing shell-shocked soldiers after the First World War and then delivering babies for Greek and Italian women in Island Bay), and her fervent royalism; her grandfather’s life on the farm and service with the Light Horse in the Middle East during the First World War. Now that I am its guardian, the medal links me, too, to the stories of its previous owners, and to all those children who lined the streets, proudly wearing their medals, and cheered like mad.


Jock Phillips, Royal Summer: The Visit of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to New Zealand 1953-54 (Wellington: Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1993)

The Royal Visit to Wellington Jan. 9-16, 1954 (Wellington: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1954)

Ministry for Culture and Heritage, ‘The Royal Visit, 1953-54’,, updated 6 Jan 2016

Ewan Morris, ‘Forty Years On: Australia and the Queen, 1954’, Journal of Australian Studies, no. 40, 1994, pp. 1-13