Friday 5 May 2023

Wembley Celebrates the Coronation – in 1953

Guest post by local historian Philip Grant


Queen Elizabeth II in the Coronation Coach, 2 June 1953. (Image from the internet)


When King Charles III is crowned at Westminster Abbey on 6 May, it will be almost 70 years since his late mother, Queen Elizabeth II, had her Coronation. So much has changed during that time, in Wembley and elsewhere.


According to Brent Council, only eleven roads in the whole borough have applied to be closed for street parties on this occasion. Quintain have apparently not applied to close Olympic Way (which they are temporarily renaming King’s Way – a corruption of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition’s Kingsway) for the Coronation street party they are organising. (Do they think they own it, although it was adopted as a highway by Brent Council in the early 1980s?)


This article is not about the 2023 Coronation, but how it was celebrated in 1953. It felt like the dawn of a new age. The end was in sight for post-war rationing (sweets had come off rationing in February 1953, although sugar and some meats were still rationed). The country had a new, young Queen, and there was a feeling of optimism for the future.


Sitting down for a Coronation street party in Deanscroft Avenue, Kingsbury, in 1953.
(Courtesy of Susan Larter)


Kingsbury got its celebrations underway on Saturday 30 May 1953, with a Coronation Carnival. A quarter-mile long procession of decorated floats formed up in Valley Drive, before travelling along Kingsbury Road, up Honeypot Lane and along Princes Avenue, to a fête on the playing fields of the County grammar school (now Kingsbury High). The float carrying the Coronation “Carnival Queen” had a guard of honour from the local Sea Cadets, while all the other local youth organisations marched behind.


Kingsbury Swimming Pool, seen in the 1960s. (Brent Archives – Wembley History Society Colln.)


Kingsbury Swimming Pool, in Roe Green Park, also played a part in the celebrations, staging a Coronation swimming gala in which Kingsbury S.C. took on teams from Wembley, Willesden and other local swimming clubs in front of a large crowd. 


The weather over that weekend was perfect for several local street parties that were held, but Coronation Day itself, the following Tuesday, was cold and wet. The residents of Berkeley Road in Kingsbury had decided to hold their street party for seventy-five children on the big day itself, with food, singing and a fancy dress competition. It looked like being a washout, but the owners of Kingsbury Arcade, on the corner with Kingsbury Road, came to the rescue and let the party be held there free of charge.


The Deanscroft Avenue children in their home-made hats. (Courtesy of Susan Larter)


I don’t know whether the Deanscroft Avenue street party was held on the weekend before or after the Coronation, but the weather was fine for it. One feature of the party was that all of the children had to come in home-made hats or bonnets, and there was probably a prize for the best one.


A “Wembley News” report, with photograph of the Pilgrims Way Coronation tea party.
(Brent Archives – local newspaper microfilms)


An invitation to the Pilgrims Way Coronation tea party on 6 June 1953. (Courtesy of Paul Kennedy)


I do know which day the Pilgrims Way pre-fab estate had its Coronation celebrations, because I’ve got a copy of one of the invitations, sent to each of the 200 children living there. I heard about it from several of those who took part, during a Brent Archives “Pre-fabs Project” in 2011. Fancy dress was “optional” but many children, and adults, took up that option, especially as there was a competition with prizes for the best children in fancy dress.


One of the Pilgrims Way children, and two mums, in fancy dress, 6 June 1953.
(Photos courtesy of Paul Kennedy and Wally Robson)


Thanks to Sir Arthur Elvin (who I believe a member of the Tenants’ Association worked for at Wembley Stadium and Arena), there were special guests to judge the fancy dress competition. There were no photographs in the local newspapers then of the famous Harlem Globetrotters basketball players, who were in Wembley for their annual sporting entertainment show. But Sir Arthur had sent a photographer along, to capture their visit to Pilgrims Way, and this photograph appeared in the programme for the Globetrotters’ 1954 week at the “Empire Pool”.


Harlem Globetrotters players at the Pilgrims Way Coronation party, 1953.
(Brent Archives – Wembley event programmes)


The “Wembley News” did report the results of the fancy dress competition:


‘Probably the biggest street party held in Kingsbury on Saturday was the one organised for 200 children of the Pilgrims-way pre-fab estate. Six members of the Harlem Globe-trotters team arrived at mid-day to open the party and give an exhibition of their basket ball wizardry. They also judged the fancy dress parade. Their choice was: Up to five years old, Patricia Craig (Elizabeth the 1st); 5-10 years, Pamela Bignell (Gypsy Girl); and 10-15 years, John Gibbons (Long John Silver).’


It wasn’t just Wembley that was celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation. There were street parties all across the country. I was 3½ in 1953, growing up on a post-war Council housing estate in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex. Our Coronation tea party, where nearly everyone came in fancy dress, is one of my earliest memories, and although it is not “Wembley” local history, I will finish off by sharing a couple of pictures from the event with you. 


The Blackman Avenue Coronation tea party, June 1953.


I was dressed up as a “Chinaman” (echos of Empire?) for the occasion. Judging from the look on my face, not wanting to be photographed, I was not too happy about it! But in the background, you can see the wide grassy open space which ran down the middle of our street, where the tea party was held, and which provided a great place for me and the many other (post-war baby boom) children who lived there to play throughout our childhood.


Philip Grant, in fancy dress, June 1953.


Will there be as much genuine excitement over the Coronation of King Charles III as there was for that of his mother? I doubt it, but perhaps, 70 years on, I’m getting old and cynical. Some other historian can write about it in future, if they are interested in doing so, as a piece of social history (“The dawn of another new age”, or “The last hurrah of the monarchy”?).


If you would like to watch a film produced for Wembley Borough Council to commemorate the way that the Coronation was celebrated in 1953, Brent Archives has a 28-minute silent film, mainly in colour, which is now available to view on the London Screen Archives website LINK.

It begins by showing Civic dignitaries attending services at St John’s Church and Wembley Town Hall, but goes on to cover a whole range of events, including the Kingsbury carnival procession and swimming gala, mentioned in the article. A selection of shops and houses decorated for the Coronation are also shown, and there are a number of sporting events (my favourite is the Tour de Wembley cycle race, from the Town Hall, with a “summit finish” on Fryent Way).


Philip Grant.


Editor's note for readers who may be puzzled by coverage of events in Kingsbury under a Wembley headline.

In 1953 the Municipal Borough of Wembley included the former Kingsbury Urban District. The Borough of Wembley was abolished in 1965 when it merged with the Borough of Willesden to become the London Borough of Brent.

1 comment:

Philip Grant said...

Where did the Chinese costume I was wearing for the 1953 Coronation tea party come from?

I don't know for sure (I should have asked when my parents were still alive, but it's too late now), but I have a pretty good idea.

My Mum's father was in the Royal Navy, having joined as a boy sailor during the First World War. When she was a baby, in 1926, he was posted to the crew of the newly-commissioned light cruiser, HMS Enterprise, which was assigned to be part of Britain's East Indies Station fleet.

This was still in the days when those in charge of our country believed in a British Empire, and HMS Enterprise's home base was at Trincomalee (then in what was known as Ceylon, now Sri Lanka). The ship did not stay there all the time, but had visits to ports around the Indian Ocean, to "show the flag".

HMS Enterprise did come back to the UK every couple of years, for refits and so that the crew could have some leave with their families. When he came home, Grandad would always bring little gifts from his travels. I remember a beautiful soapstone model of the Taj Mahal, one of my Gran's most treasured gifts, from when the ship had visited Bombay (Mumbai).

I suspect that the Chinese suit came from either Singapore or Hong Kong, when HMS Enterprise visited them in the early 1930s. It would have fitted my Mum then, aged 7 or 8 (it was really too big for me in 1953), and I know my Mum would never have thrown anything like that away!

I hope that explains the reason for my 'echoes of Empire?' reference in the article above.