The day the Queen came to town

WELCOME TO NEW ZEALAND: The young Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip on their first visit to Wellington.
WELCOME TO NEW ZEALAND: The young Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip on their first visit to Wellington.

Sixty years ago, on the sunny afternoon of Tuesday, January 12, 1954, Queen Elizabeth II opened a special session of Parliament wearing her exquisitely embroidered coronation gown.

The reverential tone of the reporting reflected an age when most New Zealanders were besotted with the young queen.

Some royal tour correspondents called it the peak of her first visit to New Zealand. Others wrote about the event as "the experience of a lifetime".

English tourists said Wellingtonians saw the intricate detail in the Queen's gown to better advantage than did Londonders on her coronation day, June 2, 1953.

Much of the gown was hidden then beneath an ermine-trimmed robe as she rode to and from Westminster Abbey in the golden coach.

The Queen's intention to wear her coronation gown in Wellington was kept secret. The only previous mention of the gown on the tour was in connection with state ceremonies in Canberra.

The stiff white, full-skirted satin gown had tiny sleeves and a deep-cut V-neckline, which one correspondent said showed off the Queen's slight suntan.

Its all-over design of emblems from Commonwealth countries was embroidered in diamonds, golden crystals and pearls.

One of the main motifs was the New Zealand fernleaf of soft green silk, veined with silver and crystals.

The Queen's jewellery was the pendant-style diamond necklace and earrings she had worn at her coronation, and a tiara of massed square-cut diamonds that belonged to her grandmother, Queen Mary.

The deep blue ribbon from the Order of the Garter sash drew further attention to the reported suntan, which those who saw the procession through the city appeared not to notice.

Excited crowds cheered loudly and waved flags as the cherished sight of regal beauty passed slowly through Cambridge Tce, Courtenay Place, Manners St and Lambton Quay to arrive at Parliament by 2.25pm.

Many ran after the royal Daimler car to see more of their queen, who had brought some of her coronation magic to them in person, seven months later.

It was an incredible, indelible memory for those present.

Wellington's bush telegraph quickly spread the message that the Queen had worn her coronation gown to open Parliament.

Hundreds flocked to the city, hoping for a glimpse on her return from Parliament to Government House.

But the Queen had a surprise for them.

She changed at Parliament into a musk-rose pure silk taffeta frock to meet MPs and their wives at the reception that followed the State opening of Parliament.

If Wellingtonians were disappointed, they certainly did not show it.

They graciously said the Queen had changed into "something cooler" for the hot afternoon drive back to Government House. Christopher Moor was at primary school when he saw the Queen wearing her Coronation gown. He returned to school in February knowing what he would be writing about in the inevitable "What I did in the school holidays" essay.

The Wellingtonian