The 1954 royal tour

Emily Catt
Tuesday, 24 May 2022

A royal visitor

On 3 February 1954, the steamship Gothic arrived in Sydney Harbour, carrying the first reigning monarch to visit Australia – Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip. In just under 2 months, the royal couple would travel around Australia by train, car, and plane. They would visit almost every capital city except Darwin, and 40 country towns. Among the revellers, children turned up en masse to view the royal couple, and some even participated in official events. 

A tremendous task

In Sydney, an estimated 120,000 children and their teachers gathered in Centennial Park, the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) and the Sydney Showgrounds. The Herald reported transporting the students took 80 trains, 209 trams and 214 busses. At the SCG, students were organised into concentric circles so that the royal couple’s Land Rover could pass within 24 feet (7.3 metres) of most of the children. The children were issued coloured streamers attached to short sticks called ‘wavers,’ which came to life at 11:40 am when the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh entered the cricket grounds. An enthusiastic roar accompanied the rush of excitement. 

Similar gatherings took place in other large cities. For example, a children’s pageant was held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The pageant included children from 6 to 18 years of age, marching, performing callisthenics, and maypole dancing while wearing colourful costumes. As the grand finale, the children formed the word ‘WELCOME’, and the Queen and Duke boarded a Land Rover so that they could drive among the performers. At this point, some exuberant children broke free of their ranks, swamping the royal car and briefly stalling its progress. Finally, the amused Duke ordered them to clear the way.


The formation of words by children in tableaux performances occurred across Australia. In Brisbane and outside of Parliament House, they formed the phrase ‘OUR QUEEN.’ At the Wayville Showgrounds in Adelaide, they formed the word ‘LOYALTY’ and at Manuka Oval in Canberra, ‘WELCOME.’  Throngs of people, keen to catch a glimpse of the nation’s sovereign, greeted the royal couple everywhere they travelled. Their journey and activities were meticulously recorded and compiled by film director Colin Dean and his team. The footage formed the first colour full-length feature film made in Australia. Included is a section devoted to the children’s contribution to the celebrations, capturing the young audience's enthusiasm. 

The Queen in Australia (feature film)

The aftermath

While the effort to put on these displays was enormous, time spent with the children was extremely short. Although the royal couple were only in Canberra for 4 full days, the Queen's schedule was unrelenting. It included opening Parliament, unveiling the Australian-American Memorial, opening Union House at the Australian National University, and laying a wreath and planting a tree at the Australian War Memorial. They also attended Manuka Oval for the children’s welcome, only to depart 30 minutes later. 

Records held by the National Archives include detailed communications, maps, and diagrams used in the organisation of royal events. The day was likely exhausting for the young participants, with many students arriving at the events hours before they were due to commence. A photo from our collection shows exhausted muddy revellers, slightly dishevelled yet still clutching and waving their commemorative flags.