A Community Coronation

5th May 2023

David sporting his red, white and blue Coronation tie at a Croydon street party in 1953

David sporting his red, white and blue Coronation tie at a Croydon street party in 1953

Chelsea Pensioners remember past celebrations and prepare for future festivities

Like communities across the country, the Royal Hospital is preparing to celebrate King Charles III’s coronation. Not only will the Chelsea Pensioners be representing veterans publicly, but they also will be marking this momentous event here in their historic home. 

As well as services in our Chapel and a parade led by the Governor with music by the Guards Association Band, they will be enjoying all kinds of fun – from a ‘street party’ on the North Front to Coronation karaoke in the Chelsea Pensioners Club. The celebrations are sparking memories of how The Queen’s Coronation was marked in towns and villages across the country 70 years ago.

June’s memento of the Coronation party her mum and grandmother organised

June’s memento of the Coronation party her mum and grandmother organised

Celebrating 1953 style

Nobody does a street party like the British! Back in 1953 communities joined together to celebrate the Coronation, just as they are today.

Some of the Pensioners have treasured mementoes of those parties, such as David, who proudly sports a Coronation tie in his photograph from a street party in Croydon and June who has a cutting commemorating the happy event she attended.

Mike with his Coronation mug

Mike with his Coronation mug

A parade and a party

In 1953, Chelsea Pensioner Mike was 11 years old and living in Redditch, Worcestershire. His parents played a key role in the celebrations:

“Dad was chosen to represent the Worcestershire TA on the parade. He was issued with Blues and a white belt and everything. I remember him sitting for what seemed like hours spit and polishing his boots for the parade. He was very smart and I was proud of him. He was given a Coronation medal and I keep it with his war medals and his long service and good conduct medals. 

Mike’s father’s medals include The Queen’s Coronation medal

Mike’s father’s medals include The Queen’s Coronation medal

My mum organised the party. Because Dad was a permanent staff instructor for the local TA regiment, we had access to the drill hall if the weather was wet – and we needed it! We put up red, white and blue bunting and everyone contributed something – there were about 100 children there so there were jellies and cakes and we all got a little goodie bag. We were still on ration for sweets, so it was a massive treat.

My mum organised games and a fancy dress parade. I was a greengrocer with a white cap and a tray with tins on it and my sister was a hula hula girl. It was very noisy, a hundred kids all yelling and shouting and shouting for buns! She also organised a gift for the children and everyone got a Coronation mug too. 

Very few people had TVs in those days, so we saw the Coronation at the cinema about a week later. I was just blown away. She was a brilliant monarch.”

Games, treats – and skittling for pigs!

Roy’s memories of the big day in the town of Thrapston in Northamptonshire are vivid. 

“The party was really big. The whole town was there and there was no school that day. There was bunting and all the flags flying and we had all sorts of games – tug of war, cycling races, running races. The tables were decorated with little paper flags and we had jelly, ice cream, big cakes, little cakes and sandwiches. Rationing hadn’t ended, so us kids had just about everything we’d never seen before. It was the first time I saw or ate a banana!”

While the children were enjoying themselves the adults were also having a good time:

“They were drinking, bowling and skittling for pigs. Whenever there was a party we’d have skittling for pigs! The skittles they played were table skittles and if you won you got a live piglet – straight after the war nearly everyone kept a pig at the bottom of the garden or the allotment.  When it was big enough, the pig would go to market to be sold, or it would be slaughtered and you’d have the ‘flitch’ hanging in the kitchen. At breakfast, you’d go to the kitchen and cut a couple of slices of bacon from it to fry and eat with malt vinegar. My father was always winning!

I’m hoping this Coronation will be a nice community event again. I think Charles will make a great King and you can tell him so!”

A memory to treasure

Little Janet with her sister Jane, in the orchard near her home

Little Janet with her sister Jane, in the orchard near her home

There were also big celebrations in Janet’s village of Whitbourne in Worcestershire. Although she was only two, she remembers how momentous it was when her father came home with an exciting new purchase:

My mother could not believe her eyes when my father came home from a trip to our local town where he’d purchased a television.  It was a tall cabinet affair with a very small screen showing black and white images.  Father was very careful with his money and a purchase of this ilk was totally out of character. 

Our new television was placed in our dining room and the table and chairs were put against the walls.  The room then filled with more and more people trying to get access to this television. I was in my pushchair and it ended up that I could not see a thing other than the backs of a large amount of people crowded around to watch!”

Janet’s treasured Coronation teaspoon

Janet’s treasured Coronation teaspoon

Afterwards, Janet and her siblings went to join the village party:

“Mother dressed us all in our patriotic fancy dress costumes and then we walked to the village hall for the party. My siblings were given a commemorative teaspoon from the school too.”

Janet’s mother taught at the village school, where the headmistress made an impression with a special Coronation apron:

“Miss Pitt made a Union Jack apron with tiny invisible pockets all over it. Each one had a gift inside, such as coins from that year, for the children.”

The latest technology

The excitement of that new technology – the television – features in many of the Chelsea Pensioners’ memories. It was still a rarity, so many people – like Harry, who was stationed in Jamaica – would need to wait to see the film:

“We watched it on the waterfront at Belize, the film was in colour, which made it all the more wonderful to us.”

When there was a television, whole communities crowded round to watch the fuzzy black and white images, as John remembers:

“My mother talked the local radio and TV installer into trying out a TV. We had a 20-foot tower put up in the back garden. Eleven adults and children crammed into the living room to watch in black-and-white on a 12-inch screen in a large cabinet. What an event!  At school I boasted about seeing the Coronation on TV. The television went back after Mum failed to pay the instalment costs, but we watched a huge event anyway. “

Tony also remembers the impression television made on him, aged four:

“On the big day, myself, my little brother and I were scrubbed, starched and pressed while my parents and grandparents and my great-grandmother got themselves into their best. Then we all crossed the road to the house of our only neighbour with an actual television., we crowded into their front room, with a lot of other neighbours. Some of the parents were having to stand, while we children were sitting on the floor at the front. I remember that as her Majesty climbed the steps to the Abbey, the women stood to join the men. We children all stood silently, staring entranced at the tiny screen. All the adults remained standing until the congregation in the abbey sat down. It's all a bit of a blur after that, but I do remember the adults standing again when the anthem started playing.”

David, who was just 20 at the time of the Coronation, was so keen to watch the Coronation that he built his own television, using a second-hand radar screen which made the picture a bit green!

A Queenly quirk of history

A final footnote comes from Bruce, who comes from Guernsey – where televisions had not yet arrived in time for the Coronation, but the children enjoyed a day off school. He is looking forward to watching the King’s Coronation - on TV this time – and remembers The Queen fondly. However, strictly speaking, neither is Monarch of the Channel Islands, as he explains:

The last outpost of English rule in France was Calais and that was lost during Henry VIII’s reign. Since then, we’ve been independent. The Queen was a direct descendant of William Duke of Normandy (William the Conqueror) and has never been crowned in Normandy, so strictly speaking she was the Duchess of Normandy and Charles is the Duke of Normandy. That’s why the Queen is wearing a tiara, not a crown on the Channel Islands stamp. However, for me she was the Queen and that was it.”

The stamp on this letter to Bruce shows The Queen wearing a tiara, while the crown is shown to her left

As King Charles’s Coronation brings precious memories to the minds of the Chelsea Pensioners, they look forward to celebrating once again in the community that owes its existence to a former King Charles. Times may have moved on but parades, parties and the wonders of television will still play a part in the proceedings.

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