King Charles' coming coronation stirs memories of queen 70 years ago
Pamela Tawse was 18 and still in her nurse’s uniform and cap when she made her way to central London after her night shift, eager to catch a glimpse of the new Queen Elizabeth on the day of her coronation.
It was the huge crescendo of noise she remembers today, aged 88, twinkling in delight as she thinks back to a time when Britain, still enduring rationing eight years after the end of World War Two, turned out in force to see the opulence and glamour of the start of a historic reign.
“We climbed over the barricades and the crowds were really deep,” Tawse recounted.
“Then suddenly, we heard an enormous roar, and we knew that probably the queen was coming by,” she said, her eyes vividly lighting up at the memory through a pair of gold rimmed glasses.
Tawse had decorated the hospital bedpans in red, white and blue tape, a small symbol of the excitement greeting 27-year old Elizabeth as the new head of the royal family on the brink of a technicolour age.
For Brenda Piper, who slept on the pavement to secure a spot along the procession route, there was a sense of amazement at the sheer “spectacle” of the queen sweeping past in a gold state coach.
“This Elizabethan age, it really did begin that way,” she said, clutching a black and white photograph of herself with friends on the day. “Next thing it was coffee bars, and then spaghetti bolognese, and then mini skirts. So it really was a beginning.”
Tawse and Piper were two of 12 people who spoke to Reuters about their memories of the queen’s coronation on June 2, 1953 ahead of the crowning on May 6 of her son King Charles with much of the same pomp and pageantry but a scaled-down procession and a shorter ceremony.
They were either part of the estimated 3 million people who lined the processional route in London, among those who attended street parties, watching on television for the first time, or following from thousands of miles away in British colonies.
Elizabeth, who died last September aged 96 after 70 years on the throne, had become queen in 1952 on the death of her father: by tradition there is a gap of some time between the succession and the coronation.
Not everyone was wowed by that day in 1953.
Olive Goldsmith, who is now a retired Refugee Council employee, said her experience was shaped by two friends who provided an outsider’s view, with one having spent a childhood in India under British rule, and another from Prague which had been occupied by Nazi Germany.
“They were both very intrigued to see how the native English behave,” she said, adding that she didn't recall much “royalism” as they lived in an area known for its “socialist principles.”
Milton Job, a clerk at the time in what was the British-ruled Nigeria, attended a local celebration where school children joined local chiefs, bosses and expatriate officers. “I will never forget it,” he said.
He later moved to Britain, expecting to be there only for three years but still living in London in 2023 after he built ties in the country.
“I expected the best, and to me, I wasn’t distracted by anything that is negative, although you cannot just do away with some people who have not seen a Black man before.”
“We were here to study, we were here for a purpose.”
Eve Harewood, who was 13 when she followed the coronation from Singapore, said that she remembered thinking she would love to move to England one day. “It was something I really wanted to experience,” she said. She moved to Britain in her 30s.
Many of those who spoke to Reuters recalled the excitement of the time, seeing the young queen as the symbol of a new beginning for Britain.
They contrasted that with the sentiment of today, with Britons facing the biggest squeeze in living standards since records began in the 1950s.
Alex Falk, who worked with the coronation photographers, said Britain had fallen down the international pecking order since the 1950s, while others expressed regret that the country and its social fabric had changed so much.
“I feel sorry for the younger generation of today,” Phillip Williams said. “I think things were probably much harder now than they were in my days.”
Like others, he plans to watch Charles’ coronation, and like others, he wished the king well.
But he cautioned: “This time, I should take it easy, especially at my age.”
The Wider Image
Photography: Hannah Mckay
Reporting and video: Natalie Thomas
Writing: Muvija M
Photo editing: Kezia Levitas
Text editing: Kate Holton and Frances Kerry
Design: Marta Montana Gomez and Kezia Levitas