Above: King Charles and Queen Camilla wave from Buckingham Palace on Coronation Day, May 6, 2023. Wikipedia photo by Isaac Mayne / DCMS
(Missed a Coronation of a British Monarch)
Not being alive at the time was the cause of my missing all but the two most recent coronations, though George VI’s on May 12, 1937 was kind of close. I turned up about fifteen months later. Even back in those days, some of the pageantry was televised and seen by a few thousand people in and around London. If you weren’t on the parade route or among the elite in Westminster Abbey you could listen on the radio. Otherwise, you had to wait to see it on British Pathé or Movietone News in the local movie theatre. That’s how millions of Americans watched it.
Quite a contrast between that and the most recent coronation, which occurred almost exactly eighty-six years later this past May 6. In this case millions of Americans watched live as a new British monarch was proclaimed to be Charles the Third, by the Grace of God, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Grenada and His other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth. (And probably a few other things.) Because of the five-hour difference between London and the Eastern Time zone, many people missed the preliminary pomp and circumstance, which was broadcast here starting at 5:00 am. For some reason I had it in my mind that the actual crowning wasn’t going to happen until 3:00 pm London time, so when I finally turned on the TV it was long gone.
It was a totally different situation for Elizabeth II’s coronation on June 2, 1953, which was broadcast at a more convenient hour. It was, however, a very different experience. To begin with, the technology didn’t exist to broadcast it live in the U.S. or in high definition or even in color. Video tape hadn’t been invented, so U.S. networks had to resort to kinescope recordings, which mainly meant aiming a movie camera at a television set in London and filming the BBC broadcast. Then the film had to be processed and flown to the U.S. (at least they had jet planes) where it was rebroadcast as would have been done with any movie. As a result those of us who watched the coronation in East Greenwich saw it hours after it actually occurred.
I missed it because I was being characteristically perverse. Instead of watching, I chose instead to take a walk, which eventually led me down London Street and north on Water. There wasn’t another soul in sight. I suppose everyone was watching the broadcast, which was a landmark television event. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing that would have kept a shell fisherman at home, but there was absolutely nobody else around.
After a few minutes I arrived at the Kent County jail. In those days there was a fenced-in exercise area on the south side. Standing within it was a morose-looking Little Dan. His face lit up when he saw me. “Hey, Ricey! Let me have a cigarette.” I was pleased to do so and handed him a Lucky Strike through the ten-foot-high chain-link fence. He put it in his mouth and then stuck it back through so I could hold a match to it.
So what was a fourteen-year-old kid doing with a pack of cigarettes? First of all, peer pressure. Most boys on my side of Main Street smoked, or at least pretended to, by which I mean we didn’t inhale. Second, cigarettes were cheap: twenty cents a pack, the price of four cokes at Earnshaw’s or a hotdog at Jigger’s Diner. And third, cigarette companies back then practically made it sound like smoking was good for you.
But getting back to the coronation . . . I probably wouldn’t have remembered anything about that day if I’d stayed home and watched it. What made it memorable was the unlikely pairing of Queen Elizabeth and Little Dan. I bet they would have found one another amusing.
Donald Tunnicliff Rice is a freelance writer based in Columbus, Ohio. His latest book is Who Made George Washington’s Uniform?