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Jack Knox: Island's first glimpse of Queen was most poignant

She made the first of her seven visits to Vancouver Island in 1951, the only time she came here as ­princess, not queen.

Perhaps you have read this story before.

If so, please excuse both the repetition and the slight ­sentimentality of the tale.

It’s just that having lost Queen Elizabeth II, the only monarch that most of us have ever known, a little ­sentimentality isn’t out of place.

It’s a vignette that goes back to 1951, on the first of her seven visits to Vancouver Island, the only time she came here as ­princess, not queen.

That autumn’s five-week Canadian tour came with a lot of pressure, being what the Victoria Daily Times called the 25-year-old’s “first major ­assignment as heiress apparent.”

Hundreds of Victorians stood at 10 Mile Point for hours, eager for the approach of her ship, HMCS Crusader. Thousands waited for her to land at the Inner Harbour. Thousands more jostled outside City Hall.

Dozens of Brownies threw marigolds and michaelmas ­daisies in the princess’s path at the entrance to Government House. There were Indigenous dancers at Thunderbird Park, bowing/curtsying politicians at the legislature, a tour of the naval base, and 16,000 schoolchildren lining the roads after a luncheon at the Empress.

“A slight figure in beige rain cape, with an aide holding an umbrella, emerged down the hotel steps in a pelting, driving rain to begin a four-hour drive through the city with calls ­beginning at the Veterans’ Hospital and ending at Royal Roads,” the Times reported.

No wonder the newspaper described Princess Elizabeth as “sometimes smiling, sometimes strained — at times bewildered” during her two-day Victoria visit. No wonder she was happy to follow it up by heading north for a three-day vacation at Eaglecrest, near Qualicum.

A mention of that up-Island journey in a 2012 column prompted several readers to fill out the story. Oak Bay’s Brian Young, whose granddad was the senior Mountie on the trip, wrote: “As they were heading up the Malahat, Philip asked my grandfather if he could drive. It was totally against protocol, but how do you say no to a prince?

“So Philip took the wheel and my grandfather hung on for dear life. Philip was a both a terrible driver and a very fast driver. Supposedly they made the trip in record time. All the while Liz is in the back seat loving it.”

Duncan’s Flora Mackenzie, who had taken her children to see the royal couple, had a slightly different take on the princess’s reaction: “We waited on the highway just north of the silver bridge to see the procession. I had camera and binoculars ready when suddenly — whoosh — an Oldsmobile sped by with a tiny girl in the back seat looking terrified. That was our future queen.”

Don Duke, a retired RCMP officer from Saanich, remembers Prince Philip’s love of speed almost leading to disaster: “He drove at such a pace that our four motorcycle escorts had difficulty keeping ahead of him, to the extent that two of them momentarily locked together.”

Great snapshot, isn’t it? ­Princess Elizabeth and her dashing young naval officer husband, just another young couple happily rattling over the Malahat for an up-Island vacation — and four months later she’s leading the greatest empire on Earth.

That’s what makes the story poignant. We forget how young she was. And we forget that this woman who ruled for more than 70 years was one of the few monarchs who wasn’t born to the role. Same goes for her father: George VI only became king when his brother, Edward VIII, abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

That was 1936, when ­Elizabeth was 10.

The course of her life changed after that — though she had no way of knowing when she visited Victoria in 1951 that her ascension to the throne would come so soon, and that her time there would last so long.

That wasn’t Vancouver Island’s only glimpse of the Queen, of course. She visited on six other occasions.

• In 1959, the Island leg of a six-week Canadian tour began in Nanaimo, where a name translating to “Respected by all, mother of all people” was bestowed upon the Queen by Indigenous people representing First Nations from Victoria to Alert Bay. About 6,000 people watched her open car pass through Chemainus on a drive to Victoria that left the Queen with a slightly sunburned neck. Tens of thousands showed up for Victoria events, including one at the legislature where she quietly slipped the shoes off her aching feet as members of the military marched by.

• Victoria’s enthusiasm went a little overboard after Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia pulled into Victoria Harbour in 1971, B.C.’s centennial year. Press officers, the RCMP and Canadian Forces members had to help local police restrain a massive crowd that almost mobbed the Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Anne after a Centennial Square ceremony. There were also big crowds in Comox, ­Duncan and Nanaimo, which might have been the only place the globe-trotting royals ever got to watch a bathtub race.

• In 1983, the Britannia again brought the Queen and Prince Philip to Victoria. When the yacht left for Vancouver after a 10-hour visit, it was with Pierre Trudeau and family — including 11-year-old Justin — joining the royals aboard.

• In 1987, a quick stop at the ­Victoria airport preceded a three-day stay at the Qualicum Beach waterfront home of the aristocratic Veronica Milner (whose mother was Winston Churchill’s cousin).

• In 1994, the Queen opened the Commonwealth Games at Centennial Stadium. (She also watched swimming at Saanich Commonwealth Place, ­badminton at UVic, gymnastics at Memorial Arena and lawn bowling at the Juan de Fuca ­Recreation Centre.)

A favourite anecdote: While at the Saanich pool, the Queen asked for a map of the province. Police were sent to fetch one but found their cars hemmed in on Elk Lake Drive, so drafted passing cyclist Vic Lindal to do the job. He pedalled furiously to the BCAA office at Broadmead Village, where he burst in and declared: “I need a map for the Queen.” Her Majesty got her map.

Also on this trip: she met Coast Salish children at the ­legislature, travelled to Comox for the 50th anniversary of the military base, then returned to Victoria, where volunteer ­gardeners were among the guests when she dedicated the refurbished gardens at ­Government House.

The royal couple spent a couple of days taking it easy at the north end of the Strait of Georgia, where Philip’s nephew Maximilian, Margrave of Baden, Duke of Zähringen (or, if you prefer, Maximilian Andreas Friedrich Gustav Ernst August Bernhard), owned a private island.

• The Queen and Prince Philip were last in Victoria (a city named for her great-great-grandmother) in 2002, ­attending morning prayer at Christ Church Cathedral and unveiling a stained glass window at the legislature.

And now she’s gone, leaving us only memories of the young woman who crossed the Malahat in 1951, not knowing that it was just the beginning of a journey that would last more than 70 years.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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