On Saturday 6 February 1954, on the third day of the Australian leg of their tour of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, visited Sydney’s Bondi Beach. The specially-staged Royal Surf Carnival they witnessed—comprising a spectacular parade, surf boat races, mock resuscitations and even unscheduled surf rescues—generated extensive media coverage. Attracting attention from historians (Warshaw 134; Ford 194–196), the carnival lingers in popular memory as not only a highlight of the Australian tour (Conway n.p.; Clark 8) and among the “most celebrated events in Australian surf lifesaving history” (Ford et al. 5) but also as “the most spectacular occasion [ever held] at Bondi Beach” (Lawrence and Sharpe 86). It is even, for some, a “highlight of the [Australian] post-war period” (Ford et al. 5). Despite this, the fuller history of the Queen’s visit to Bondi, including the detailed planning involved, remains unexplored.
A small round tin medal, discovered online, offered a fresh way to approach this event. 31mm in diameter, 2mm in depth, this dual-sided, smooth-edged medal hangs from a hoop on approximately 80mm of discoloured, doubled red, white, and blue striped ribbon, fastened near its end with a tarnished brass safety pin. The obverse features a relief portrait of the youthful Queen’s face and neck in profile, her hair loosely pulled back into a low chignon, enclosed within a striped symmetrical scrolled border of curves and peaks. This is encircled with another border inscribed in raised capitals: “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Royal Visit to Waverley N.S.W.” The reverse features a smooth central section encircled with the inscription (again in raised capitals), “Presented to the Children of Waverley N.S.W. 1954”, the centre inscribed, “By Waverley Municipal Council C.A. Jeppesen Mayor”.
Figs. 1 & 2: Medal, c.1954. Collection of the Author.
Medals are often awarded in recognition of achievement and, in many cases, are worn as prominent components of military and other uniforms. They can also be made and gifted in commemoration, which was the case with this medal, one of many thousands presented in association with the tour. Made for Waverley Council, it was presented to all schoolchildren under 15 in the municipality, which included Bondi Beach. Similar medals were presented to schoolchildren by other Australian councils and States in Australia (NAA A462). This gifting was not unprecedented, with medals presented to (at least some) Australian schoolchildren to commemorate Queen Victoria’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee (The Age 5; Sleight 187) and the 1937 coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (“Coronation Medals” 6).
Unable to discover any provenance for this medal aside from its (probable) presentation in 1954 and listing for sale in 2021, I pondered instead Waverley Council’s motivation in sourcing and giving these medals. As a researcher, this assisted me in surmounting the dominance of the surf carnival in the history of this event and led to an investigation of the planning around the Bondi visit.
Every level of government was involved in planning the event. Created within the Prime Minister’s Department, the Royal Visit Organisation 1954—staffed from early 1953, filling positions from within the Commonwealth Public Service, armed services and statutory authorities—had overall authority over arrangements (NAA 127, 134). National planning encompassed itineraries, travel arrangements, security, public relations, and protocol as well as fly and mosquito control, the royals’ laundry arrangements, and advice on correct dress (NAA: A1533; NAA: A6122; NAA: A9708, RV/DD Annex.15; NAA: A1838, 1516/11 Parts 1&2; NAA: A9708, RV/CD; NAA: A9708, RV/CQ; NAA: A9708, RV/T). Planning conferences were held with State officials who developed State visit programs and then devolved organisational responsibilities to Councils and other local organisations (NAA: A9708, RV/DD Annex.2; NAA: A9708, RV/DD Annex.3).
Once the Bondi Beach location was decided, the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia received a Royal Command to stage a surf carnival for the royals. This command was passed to the president of the Bondi club, who organised a small delegation to meet with government representatives. A thirteen-member Planning Committee, all men (“The Queen to See” 12), was appointed “with full power to act without reference to any other body” (Meagher 6). They began meeting in June 1953 and, soon after this, the carnival was announced in the Australian press. In recognition, the “memorable finale” of a Royal Command Performance before the Queen in London in November 1953 marked the royal couple’s impending tour by filling the stage with people from Commonwealth countries. This concluded with “an Australian tableau”. Alongside people dressed as cricketers, tennis players, servicemen, and Indigenous people, a girl carrying a huge bunch of bananas, and a couple in kangaroo suits were six lifesavers dressed in Bondi march-past costumes and caps, carrying the club flag (Royal Variety Charity n.p.). In deciding on a club for the finale, Bondi was “seen the epitome of the surf lifesaving movement—and Australia” (Brawley 82).
The Planning Committee worked with representatives from the police, army, government, local council, and ambulance services as well as the media and other bodies (Meagher 6). Realising the “herculean task” (Meagher 9) ahead, the committee recruited some 170 members (again all men) and 20 women volunteers from the Bondi and North Bondi Surf Clubs to assist. This included sourcing and erecting the carnival enclosure which, at over 200 meters wide, was the largest ever at the beach. The Royal dais that would be built over the promenade needed a canvas cover to shield the royal couple from the heat or rain. Seating needed to be provided for some 10,500 paying spectators, and eventually involved 17 rows of tiered seating set across the promenade, 2,200 deckchairs on the sand in front, and, on each flank, the Bondi Surf Club’s tiered stands. Accommodations also had to be provided at selected vantage points for some 100 media representatives, with a much greater crowd of 50–60,000 expected to gather outside the enclosure. Four large tents, two at each end of the competition area, would serve as both change rooms and shady rest areas for some 2,000 competitors. Two additional large tents were needed, one at each end of the lawns behind the beach, fitted out with camp stretchers that had to be sourced for the St John Ambulance Brigade to deal with first-aid cases, most of whom were envisaged to come from the crowds due to heat stroke (Meagher 6–7).
The committee also had to solve numerous operational issues not usually associated with running a surf carnival, such as ensuring sufficient drinking water for so many people on what might be a very hot day (“The Queen to See” 12). With only one tap in the carnival area, the organisers had to lay a water line along the entire one-kilometre length of the promenade with double taps every two to three metres. Temporary toilets also had to be sourced, erected, and serviced. Self-financing and with costs adding up, sponsors needed to be secured to provide goods and services in return for advertising. An iced water unit was, for instance, provided on the dais, without cost, by the ElectrICE Commercial Refrigeration company. The long strip of red carpet laid from where the royals would alight from their car right through the dais was donated by the manufacturer of Feltex, a very popular Australian-made wool carpet. Prominent department store, Anthony Horden’s, loaned the intricately carved chairs to be used by the Royal couple and other officials, while The Bondi Diggers Club provided chrome plated chairs for other official guests, many of whom were the crew of royal yacht, the S.S. Gothic (Meagher 6).
Fig. 3: “Feltex [Advertisement].” The Australian Home Beautiful Nov. 1954: 40. http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-2985285882.
The Ladies Committees of the Bondi and North Bondi surf clubs were tasked with organising and delivering lunch and drinks to over 400 officials, all of whom were to stay in position from early morning until the carnival concluded at 5 pm (Meagher 6). Girl members of the Bondi social clubs were to act as usherettes.
Officials describe deciding who would meet, or even come in any close proximity to, the Queen as “most ticklish” and working with mayors and other officials a “headache” (“Socialites” 3). In Bondi, there were to be notably few officials sitting with the royal couple, but thousands of “ordinary” spectators seated around the carnival area. On her arrival, it was planned that the Queen would walk through a guard of honour of lifesavers from each Australian and New Zealand club competing in the carnival. After viewing the finals of the surf boat races, the Queen would meet the team captains and then, in a Land Rover, inspect the massed lifesavers and greet the spectators.
Although these activities were not contentious, debate raged about the competitors’ uniforms. At this time, full-length chest-covering costumes were normally worn in march-past and other formal events, with competitors stripping down to trunks for surf races and beach events. It was, however, decided that full-length costumes would be worn for the entirety of the Queen’s visit. This generated considerable press commentary that this was ridiculous, and charges that Australians were ashamed of their lifesavers’ manly chests (“Costume Rule” 3). The president of the Bondi Life Saving Club, however, argued that they did not want the carnival spoiled by lifesavers wearing “dirty … track suits, football guernseys … old football shorts … and just about everything except proper attire” (ctd. in Jenkings 1).
Waverley Council similarly attempted to control the appearance of the route through which the royals would travel to the beach on the day of the carnival. This included “a sequence of signs along the route” expressing “the suburb’s sentiments and loyalty” (“Queen in the Suburbs” 4; see also, “The Royal Tour” 9). Maintaining that “the greatest form of welcome will be by the participation of the residents themselves”, the Mayor sought public donations to pay for decorations (with donors’ names and amounts to be published in the local press, and these eventually met a third of the cost (“The Royal Tour” 9; Waverley Council n.p.). In January 1954, he personally appealed to those on the route to decorate their premises and, in encouragement, Council provided substantial prizes for the most suitably decorated private and commercial premises. The local Chamber of Commerce was responsible for decorating the transport and shopping hub of Bondi Junction, with many businesses arranging to import Coronation decorations from England (“Queen in the Suburbs” 4; “The Royal Tour” 9).
With “colorful activity” providing the basis of Council’s plan (“Queen in the Suburbs” 4), careful choreography ensured that thousands of people would line the royal route through the municipality. In another direct appeal, the Mayor requested that residents mass along the roadsides, wearing appropriate rosettes or emblems and waving flags (“Queen in the Suburbs” 4; “The Royal Tour” 9). Uniformed nurses would also be released from duty to gather outside the War Memorial Hospital as the royals passed by (“Royal Visit” n.p.). At the largest greenspace on the route, Waverley Park, some 10,000 children from the municipality’s 18 schools would assemble, all in uniform and wearing the medal to be presented to them to commemorate the visit. Children would also be provided with large red, white, or blue rosettes to wave as the royals drove by. A special seating area near the park was to be set aside for the elderly and ex-servicemen (“Queen in the Suburbs” 4).
As the date of the visit approached, preparation and anticipation intensified. A week before, a detailed visit schedule was published in local newspaper Bondi Daily. At this time, the Royal Tour Decorations Committee (comprised of Aldermen and prominent local citizens) were “erecting decorations at various focal points” throughout the municipality (“The Royal Tour” 9). On 4 February, the Planning Committee held their final meeting at the Bondi Beach clubhouse (Meagher 6). The next day, the entire beach was cleaned and graded (Wilson 40). The afternoon before the visit, the Council’s decoration competition was judged, with the winners a house alongside Waverley Park and the beachside Hotel Astra (“Royal Visit” n.p.), one of 14 Sydney hotels, and the only one in Bondi, granted permission to sell liquor with meals until the extended hour of 11.00 pm during the Royal visit (“State House” 5).
On the day of the surf carnival, The Sydney Morning Herald featured a large photograph of the finishing touches being put to the official dais and seating the day before (“Stage Set” 15). In reality, there was still a flurry of activity from daybreak on the day itself (Meagher 7), with the final “tidying up and decorating still proceeding” (Meagher 7) as the first carnival event, the Senior boat race heats, began at 10.00 am (“N.Z. Surf” 15). Despite some resident anger regarding the area’s general dilapidation and how the money being spent on the visit could have been used for longstanding repairs to the Pavilion and other infrastructure (Brawley 203), most found the decorations of the beach area appealing (“Royal Visit” n.p.). Tickets to the carnival had sold out well in advance and the stands were filled hours before the Queen arrived, with many spectators wearing sundresses or shorts and others stripping down to swimsuits in the sunshine (“Royal Visit” n.p.). With Police Inspector Michael O’Neill’s collapse and death at a royal event the day before thought to be the result of heat exposure, and the thermometer reaching the high 80s°F (low 30s°C), a large parasol was sourced to be held over the Queen on the dais (Meagher 8).
A little after 3:15 pm, the surf club’s P.A. system advised those assembled at the beach that the royal party had left Randwick Racecourse on time and were proceeding towards them (“Queen’s Visit to Races” 17), driving through cheering crowds all the way (“Sydney” 18). At Waverley Park, Council had ensured that the waiting crowds had been entertained by the Randwick-Coogee pipe band (“Royal Visit” n.p.) and spirits were high. Schoolchildren, wearing their medals, lined the footpaths, and 102-year-old Ernest Dunn, who was driven to the park in the morning by police, was provided with a seat on the roadway as well as tea and sandwiches during his long wait (“Royal Tour Highlights” 2; “Royal Visit” n.p.). The royal couple, driving by extremely slowly and waving, were given a rousing welcome.
Their attire was carefully selected for the very warm day. The Queen wore a sunny lemon Dior-styled cap-sleeved dress, small hat and white accessories, the Duke a light-coloured suit and tie. It was observed that she wore heavier makeup as a protection against the sun and, as the carnival progressed, opened her handbag to locate her fashionable sunglasses (“Thrills” 1). The Duke also wore sunglasses and used race binoculars (Meagher 8).
Despite the exhaustive planning, there were some mishaps, mostly when the excitement of the “near-hysterical crowds” (Hardman n.p.) could not be contained. In Double Bay, for instance, as the royals made their way to Bondi, a (neither new nor clean) hat thrown into the car’s rear seat struck the Duke. It was reported that “a look of annoyance” clouded his face as he threw it back out onto the road. At other points, flags, nosegays, and flutter ribbons (long sticks tied with lengths of coloured paper) were thrown at, and into, the Royal car. In other places, hundreds raced out into the roadway to try to touch the Queen or the Duke. They “withstood the ordeal unflinchingly”, but the Duke was reportedly concerned about “this mass rudeness” (“Rude Mobs” 2). The most severe crowding of the day occurred as the car passed through the centre of Bondi Junction’s shopping district, where uniformed police had to jump on the Royal car’s running boards to hold off the crowds. Police also had to forcibly restrain a group of men who rushed the car as it passed the Astra Hotel. This was said to be “an ugly incident … resentment of the police action threatened to breed a riot” (“Rude Mobs” 2).
Almost everything else met, and even exceeded, expectations. The Queen and Duke’s slow progress from Bondi Road and then, after passing under a large “Welcome to Bondi” sign, their arrival at the entrance to the dais only three minutes late and presence at the carnival went entirely to plan and are well documented in minute-by-minute detail. This includes in detailed press reports, newsreels, and a colour film, The Queen in Australia (1954). Their genuine enjoyment of the races was widely commented upon, evidenced in how they pointed out details to each other (Meagher 8), the number of times the Duke used his binoculars and, especially, in their reluctance to leave, eventually staying more than double the scheduled time (“Queen Delighted” 7). Sales of tickets and programs more than met the costs of mounting the event (Meagher 8–9) and the charity concert held at the beach on the night of the carnival to make the most of the crowds also raised significant funds (“Queen in the Suburbs” 4). Bondi Beach looked spectacularly beautiful and gained considerable national and international exposure (Landman 183). The Surf Life Saving Association of Australia’s president noted that the “two factors that organisation could not hope to control—weather and cooperation of spectators—fulfilled the most optimistic hopes” (Curlewis 9; Maxwell 9).
Although it has been stated that the 58-day tour was “the single biggest event ever planned in Australia” (Clark 8), focussing in on a single event reveals the detailed decentralised organisation which went into both each individual activity as well as the travel between them. It also reveals how significantly responsible bodies drew upon volunteer labour and financial contributions from residents. While many studies have discussed the warm welcome given to the monarch by Australians in 1954 (Connors 371–2, 378), a significant finding from this object-inspired research is how purposefully Waverley Council primed this public reception. The little medal discussed at the opening of this discussion was just one of many deliberate attempts to prompt a mass expression of homage and loyalty to the sovereign. It also reveals how, despite the meticulous planning and minute-by-minute scheduling, there were unprompted and impulsive behaviours, both by spectators and the royals.
Methodologically, this investigation also suggests that seemingly unprepossessing material remnants of the past can function as portals into larger stories. In this case, while an object biography could not be written of the commemorative medal I stumbled upon, a thoughtful consideration of this object inspired an investigation of aspects of the Queen’s visit to Bondi Beach that had otherwise remained unexplored.
Brawley, Sean. “Lifesavers of a Nation.” 3 Feb. 2007: 82. [extract from The Bondi Lifesaver: A History of an Australian Icon. Sydney: ABC Books, 2007.]
Clark, Andrew. “The Queen’s Royal Tours of Australia Remembered: Reflection.” The Australian Financial Review 10 Sep. 2022: 8.
Connors, Jane. “The 1954 Royal Tour of Australia.” Australian Historical Studies 25 (1993): 371–82.
Conway, Doug. “Queen’s Perennial Pride in Australia.” AAP General News Wire 26 Nov. 2021: n.p.
“Coronation Medals Presented to School Children: 6000 Distributed in Rockhampton District.” Morning Bulletin 12 May 1937: 6.
“Costume Rule for Queen’s Bondi Visit.” Barrier Miner 18 Dec. 1953: 3.
Curlewis, Adrian. “Letter.” Bondi Surfer: Official Organ of the Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club 2.7 (1954): 9.
Ford, Caroline. Sydney Beaches: A History. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2014.
Ford, Caroline, Chris Giles, Danya Hodgetts, and Sean O’Connell. “Surf Lifesaving: An Australian Icon in Transition.” Australian Bureau of Statistics Year Book, Australia 2007. Ed. Dennis Trewin. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007. 1–12.
Hardman, Robert. Our Queen. London: Hutchinson, 2011. <https://www.google.com.au/books/edition/OurQueen/DySbU9r0ABgC>.
Jenkings, Frank. “Editorial.” Bondi Surfer: Official Organ of the Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club 2.6 (1954): 1.
Landman, Jane. “Renewing Imperial Ties: The Queen in Australia.” The British Monarchy on Screen. Ed. Mandy Merck. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2016. 181–204.
Lawrence, Joan, and Alan Sharpe. Pictorial History: Eastern Suburbs. Alexandria: Kingsclear Books, 1999.
Maxwell, C. Bede. “Letter.” Bondi Surfer: Official Organ of the Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club 2.7 (1954): 9.
Meagher, T.W. “The Royal Tour Surf Carnival Bondi Beach, February 6, 1954.” Bondi Surfer: Official Organ of the Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club 2.7 (1954): 6–9.
National Archives of Australia (NAA): A462, 825/4/6, Royal tour 1954—Medals for School children—General representations, 1954.
National Archives of Australia (NAA): A1533, 1957/758B, Royal Visit, 1953–1954.
National Archives of Australia (NAA): A1838, 1516/11 Part 1, Protocol—Royal Visit, 1948–1954.
National Archives of Australia (NAA): A1838, 1516/11 Part 2, Protocol—Royal Visit, 1954–1966.
National Archives of Australia (NAA): A6122, 1861, Government Heads of State—Royal Visit 1954—ASIO file, 1953–1958. Canberra: Australian Security Intelligence Organization.
National Archives of Australia (NAA): A9708, RV/CD, Fly and Mosquito Control.
National Archives of Australia (NAA): A9708, RV/CQ, Laundry and Dry Cleaning and Pressing Arrangements.
National Archives of Australia (NAA): A9708, RV/DD Annexure 2, Minutes of Conferences with State Directors, 22 January 1953–14 January 1954.
National Archives of Australia (NAA): A9708, RV/DD Annexure 3, State Publications.
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“N.Z. Surf Team in Dispute.” The Sydney Morning Herald 6 Feb. 1954: 15.
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“Queen’s Visit to Races: Drive in Suburbs.” The Daily Telegraph 6 Feb. 1954: 17.
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Royal Variety Charity. “Coronation Year Royal Variety Performance.” London: London Coliseum, 2 Nov. 1953. <https://www.royalvarietycharity.org/royal-variety-performance/archive/detail/1953-london-coliseum>.
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“Rude Mobs Spoil Happy Reception.” The Argus 8 Feb. 1954: 2.
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“Socialites in for Rude Shock on Royal Tour Invitations.” Daily Telegraph 3 Jan. 1954: 3.
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The Age 24 Jun. 1897: 5.
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