Celebrating the Queen

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee is in full swing by now. As I write this, flags have gone up on the lampposts here in Abingdon, souvenir mugs are on sale, and even the postbox in the Market Place is adorned with a crown. We are looking forward to the Jubilee Bun Throwing in June. So perhaps this is a good moment to look back on the accession to the throne and the coronation of the Queen, and the memories that Abingdon people have of that time.

We are celebrating 70 years since the accession of Elizabeth II to the throne. In 1952 King George VI died, and as his eldest child Elizabeth became Queen. Famously she was in Kenya with her husband when she received the news of George VI’s death. She returned home straight away and was proclaimed Queen.

One lady now living at Old Station House in Abingdon remembers being told at school of the King’s death. She would have been about 10 at the time.

While we are now celebrating the Jubilee with parties etc., at the time the big event was the coronation, which took place in June 1953. The town put on a series of events, starting on 31st May 1953 with a church service at St Helen’s Church and finishing on 11th June with the Old People’s Tea Party. In between there was dancing at the Corn Exchange (“modern”) and St Helen’s (“Old Tyme”), and thanks to modern technology the music was blasted out into the Market Place for street dancing. Excitingly this went on until 1 in the morning.

The Old People’s Tea Party in the Corn Exchange, 11th June 1953. The Mayor, Mr Percy Holmes, helps with serving the cakes.

Then there were a bonfire and fireworks, Morris Dancing, a Bun Throwing (more of that in the next post!), sporting events, a pageant, plays performed by two drama societies, a children’s fancy dress parade, and a procession of illuminated boats on the river. It was a full programme with something going on every day, and that is just what the Town Council had organised for the citizens. Many people I talked to mention the street parties which took place in their neighbourhoods. The North Berkshire Herald reported that the weather was a bit unsettled, and that some tea parties had to be cut short because of rain. One party was in the Convent Meadow, another in Caldecott Gardens at the end of Marcham Road. There was even a party in the canteen of the Cowley Concrete Company. Different neighbourhoods had their parties on different days, so some were probably more lucky with the weather than others.

The Programme of Events in the official Coronation Programme in Abingdon

Museum volunteer Bob Frampton, who lived in Aldershot at the time, remembers that the big street party the children were all expecting had to be moved into the local “Palais de Danse” because it turned out to be a wet day. Well, at least it wasn’t cancelled altogether. He also remembers that the children were given mugs with the Queen’s picture. People who went to school in Abingdon at the time also mentioned being given mugs, and little books about the Queen. Schoolchildren decorated everything with homemade bunting and suitable pictures (crowns, coaches etc.) On the day of the coronation itself, they had a day off school. It was a Tuesday, and apparently Churchill would have preferred to delay the coronation until the weekend because he felt that the country couldn’t afford to take a day off.

One subject that comes up again and again in memories of the coronation is television. The coronation was broadcast on TV to the nation, and it was a big deal. The BBC had cameras along the procession route in London and also cameras inside Westminster Abbey. The Picture Post published helpful diagrams of the camera positions and a “TV Plan for the Great Day”, telling readers to “keep this page open as you watch”.

Of course most people at the time did not even have a television set. It is estimated that around a quarter of  households had one. It is well known that many people bought a TV set at that time so they could watch the coronation broadcast. The same lady who remembers being told of the death of King George VI also remembers that her parents did have a television, and that on the day of the coronation all the friends and neighbours came round to watch. Television screens were fairly small in those days, so with such a crowd in the living room, it must have been hard for some to catch a glimpse. Others were not so lucky. Bob Frampton remembers that they couldn’t watch their neighbours’ television because they were away.

Where to buy your TV in Abingdon – advertisement from the 1953 Abingdon Directory

There was yet another solution in Abingdon. A television was provided for the public in the Corn Exchange, so people who didn’t have access otherwise could go there to watch. Entry was free for pensioners but cost a few pence for everyone else.

To conclude I would like to give special mention to two big events taking place in the Market Place.

One was an ox roast, which was started on 9 o’clock on the evening of the 3rd June with “The Ceremony of Roasting an Ox”. The structure for the roast was situated fairly close to the Queen’s hotel, causing some concerns over the safety of the building. I was interested to learn from the official programme that the ox was not eaten until the next day. According to newspaper reports the ox was guarded overnight by the police.  The next day at 5 pm the Mayor performed “The Ceremony of carving the roasted Ox”, and slices of meat were given out to the people. Not everyone was happy, though. For some, the memories of wartime shortages were still too fresh, and the post-war austerity and rationing were not quite over in 1953, and so the ox roast was regarded by some as a dreadful waste of food and money. It has to be said though that nothing of the ox was wasted: when the meat had been cut off, the carcass was chopped up and used to make soup, which was also distributed to the public. Whatever you might think about it, you can see the bones from the tail of that very ox on display at the museum.

The other big event was of course the Bun Throwing. This took place early in the sequence of festivities, on 2nd June 1953. The Mayor and Councillors walked in a procession from the Guildhall to the Market Place, where speeches were given and the National Anthem sung. Then they threw the buns from the roof of the County Hall – 2,500 buns had been procured for the occasion.

One of the throwers was the father of Allan Ledger, who told me the following story. His father was a Councillor at the time and had been on the Executive Committee for the coronation celebrations. Allan’s mother was in the crowd and managed to catch a bun. The Coronation Bun was on display in the Ledgers’ home for many years until it eventually turned green. At this point they fed it to the family dog, who, I am told, wasn’t any the worse for it. But where was Allan himself? He was right where it all happened. As a choral scholar at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, he was part of the choir for the coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey.

Elin Bornemann, Collections Officer

Thanks to Bob Frampton, who not only shared his memories but also researched the local papers.

Featured image: the crown on top of the postbox in the Market Place, created by the Secret Crocheter of Abingdon.

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