When the royals visited Mid Canterbury for four days, 70 years ago

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Ashburton mayor Ernest Bathurst happy to be helped by Queen Elizabeth as he spoke to crowds gathered at the Ashburton Domain on January 22, 1954. COURTESY OF THE ASHBURTON MUSEUM & HISTORICAL SOCIETY
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New Zealand’s first ever tour by a reigning monarch, in January 1954, included three days in Mid Canterbury. Malcolm Hopwood takes a look back.

When the mayor of Ashburton lost his place in his speech, Queen Elizabeth II leaned over and pointed out his next words. “You’re a pal,” he said to Her Majesty. A photo capturing the light moment is now in the archives at Ashburton Museum. Mayor Ernest Bathurst’s welcome was delivered to the young queen and her dashing husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, 70 years ago on January 22, in front of a cheering crowd of 10,000 at the Ashburton Domain.

He presented the couple with two woollen rugs made locally, one blue and one pink, bearing the names of their children Charles and Anne.

The queen’s visit to Mid Canterbury, part of a six-week nationwide tour, went down in history as one of the most exciting events ever to happen in this district. Occurring not long after her coronation in June 1953, it was the first tour of New Zealand by a reigning monarch. Even before the mayoral welcome, the royal couple had a touch of Mid Canterbury hospitality. Rakaia was not an official stop but, when five-yearold Heather Ashford waved a bouquet of pink and white gladioli at the royal car, the driver paused momentarily for the queen to receive it. The official tour book said Heather “was the envy of several hundred other children assembled there from many miles around’’.

After the Ashburton Domain welcome, they left for three nights at the expansive Longbeach Estate. This was to be their final rest and relaxation stop before completion of the tour in Bluff about one week later. Their route to the farm was lined with thousands of people. The county council had found some extra funding to tarseal the road one week earlier. Upon arrival, the royal couple were introduced to the owners, John and Gonda Grigg, by none other than the Prime Minister himself, Syd Holland.

Reporters and photographers were excluded, and no media statements were issued. Some information filtered out about the royal couple’s stay. On Sunday they worshipped in the Grigg family church, at a corner of the Longbeach grounds. The historic structure was said at the time to be the smallest church the queen ever worshipped at. On January 25, 70 years ago today, the royal couple left for Timaru, waving to a crowd of about 1000 at the corner of Longbeach Rd and Main South Rd. Their four-day stay in Mid Canterbury was over, most of it having been shrouded in secrecy.

Now all these years later, the daughter of John and Gonda, Virginia Thomas, has spoken of her memories to The Ashburton Courier.

The 88-year-old remembers well the time her family at Longbeach Estate was graced with the presence of the royal couple.

She said she and her parents were struck by just how normal the royals were, despite the trappings of their regal lives. With their entourage of helpers, including the queen’s personal dresser, the queen and duke moved into the farm homestead, as the Grigg family moved out and stayed in the estate’s manager’s cottage, for three nights. ‘‘It’s not a normal life, and that’s why we were amazed how normal they were.’’

Virginia said the queen in particular wanted to see how the farm worked and ‘‘become part of everything’’. Her memories included the queen helping her father draft sheep at weaning. The queen was wearing an ordinary cotton dress as she helped out with the physical task, involving heavy double gates having to be pulled to make sure the lambs went into separate pens from the ewes. The queen was good at the task, being fit and strong.

‘‘You have to be quite strong if the ewe is coming up against the gate, it’s not a feeble thing to do,’’ Virginia said. ‘‘She was very upset because she made one mistake, she wanted to go in and get it (the sheep), my dad said ‘No Your Majesty, we have shepherds who will do that.’’’

Another memory was the queen remarking about the weather forecast for her next destination of Timaru. ‘‘She said to my mother ‘I hope it doesn’t rain, my raincoat leaks like a sieve’,’’ Virginia said.

Virginia Thomas.

‘‘When she was being herself, she didn’t have grand clothes at all, they were all clothes she had for years. The only grand clothes she had was what she was appearing in in public.

‘‘I thought she was a magnificent person.’’

She also remembered the queen would phone home every day and talk to her children.

Virginia said she and her family had the pleasure of riding horses with the royal couple on the estate. They also conversed with them about all manner of things, but these were conversations that would forever be kept to themselves. ‘‘We had their opinion on a lot of things, and we would never discuss it.’’

Today Longbeach Estate remains in the Grigg family, farmed by her son Bill Thomas and his family.

HONOURED: Virginia Thomas (nee Grigg) stands to the far left as her parents welcome the royal couple to Longbeach Estate.