A wedding present for Princess Elizabeth

‘Felicitations and good wishes’

The engagement of Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten was officially announced on 9th July 1947. The Palace issued the following circular:

"It is with the greatest pleasure that the King and Queen announce the betrothal of their dearly beloved daughter, Princess Elizabeth, to Lieut. Philip Mountbatten, R.N., son of the late Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Andrew (Princess Anne of Battenberg), to which the union the King has gladly given his consent."

Congratulations were quickly dispatched. On 10th July NSW Governor Lieutenant General Northcott, on the behalf of the NSW Government forwarded ‘felicitations and good wishes to the Princess Elizabeth on the occasion of her engagement to Lt. Philip Mountbatten’.[1]

Buckingham Palace announced on 31st July 1947 that a date for the wedding had been fixed: 

The King and Queen have approved that the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Lieut. Philip Mountbatten shall take place in Westminster Abbey at 11.30 am on Thursday, November 20, 1947.[2]

By the end of August, discussions were underway within the NSW Government as to a suitable wedding present for Princess Elizabeth. These records are located our collection.

‘An appropriate gift…’

In mid September 1947, Under Secretary Joshua William Ferguson sent the Premier’s Department a Minute titled ‘Wedding Gift for Princess Elizabeth’. In the document he outlines the ‘small committee’ he has arranged ‘to make discreet inquiries (without disclosing the purpose), regarding an appropriate gift which the Government of the State might desire to make to Princess Elizabeth’. The committee, consisting of Mr A.W. Hicks, Member of the Public Service Board, Mr A.R. Penfold, Curator of the Technological Museum, and Mr Hal Missingham, Director of the National Art Gallery made the following suggestions:

  1. a painting of a N.S.W subject by Streeton or Roberts;
  2. a necklace or pendant of opals

The committee, however, noted that ‘difficulty has been experienced in locating a suitable painting which would be for sale, but that the fabrication of a suitable necklace or pendant of opals, which are indigenous to N.S.W., is a more readily practicable proposal and suggests that such gems might be set in white gold’.

It appears that Premier of NSW The Honourable James McGirr discussed these options with the Office of the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom, Canberra. On the 25th September McGirr received correspondence from the Office which indicated jewellery would in fact be ‘a mistake’. 

Dear Premier
I have been giving thought to what you asked me with regard to a suitable present for Princess Elizabeth, and I have consulted Lady Addison about it as I know that she has had talks with the Princess herself.
Our view is that it would be a mistake to give anything in the way of jewellery or such like, but much better if you feel able to concentrate on something that is characteristically Australian. They are setting up housekeeping in a wing at Windsor Castle, and our priority one would be, say blankets or woollen goods, rugs etc., of your finest merino, which would be exceedingly acceptable at the present time we feel sure…

Allusion to ‘the present time’ may indeed be a reference to the situation in post-war Britain. A ‘quiet wedding’ was forecast by the newspapers on account of the nation’s engagement ‘today in a grim struggle for economic recovery’. Public opinion, as reported in London’s Daily Herald, ‘in our view… while sincerely wishing happiness to the young couple, would prefer that the wedding be conducted as simply as possible and with the minimum dislocation of the nation’s work’.[3] Princess Elizabeth was not to have a trousseau, ‘in accordance with her parents’ wishes and owing to the present conditions’.[4] With clothing and food rations still in place, Princess Elizabeth was to have an ‘austerity wedding’, with the elaborate wedding feast cancelled, as decided by the King, and a wedding dress bought with coupons.[5] 

Perhaps bearing this in mind, and taking heed of the advice offered by the Office of the High Commission, a decision contrary to the suggestions offered by Ferguson’s committee was made. A draft cable marked as ‘confidential’, outlined the proposed new gift for the Princess:

The New South Wales Government desires to mark the occasion of the marriage of Her Royal Highness the Princess Elizabeth by a presentation to Her Royal Highness of say three sets of rugs and blankets made from fine Australian merino wool and if acceptable to Princess Elizabeth to supplement the gift with 200 pairs of blankets which Her Royal Highness might consider appropriate for distribution to necessitous cases.

The idea was presented to Her Royal Highness for approval. A cable from the Agent General for NSW, London was received 15th October 1947 noting: 

…it would give Princess Elizabeth greatest pleasure to accept three sets of rugs and blankets. She [is] delighted by proposal to supplement [the] gift with 200 pairs of blankets for distribution…

A gift for the Princess had been selected.

‘Articles worthy of the occasion’

With the wedding fast approaching, there was little time to spare. Under Secretary Ferguson had met with H.M. Macken, Managing Director of Mark Foys (one of Australia’s foremost department stores) and by 21st October Ferguson advised Macken that he had ‘visited your factory and advised Mr McGrath to proceed without delay with the manufacture’ of both the blankets for the Princess and the 200 pairs for distribution. Given the Agent-General for NSW was returning to England by air around 8thNovember, and the Premier wished that the Princess’s gift travel with him, Ferguson asked Macken if ‘you will be good enough to endeavour to expedite manufacture to enable this to be achieved.’

Three pairs of double blankets and three pairs of single blankets were to be produced by Mark Foys ‘Target Woollen Mills’ for the Princess. The blankets were white and bound with cream satin. They were woven from Australian Romney and Comeback (an Australian crossbreed of British Long-wool and Merino) lambs wool, ‘especially secured’ from the Goulburn and Yass Districts of NSW.

The government also intended to send three rugs to the Princess. John Vickers & Co, Woollen & Worsted Manufacturers of Marrickville, had been engaged for this task. They too were subject to the same tight deadline of just over two weeks manufacture time. On 23rd October R. J. Vickers, Director, wrote to Under Secretary Ferguson noting his reservations regarding the timeline.

These have to be made, commencing with the spinning of the yarn, then dyeing it to the different shades involved, and it is doubtful whether it will be physically possible to get the rugs through, at the same time making a really good job of them, by the date that Mr Tulley is leaving. We will do all we can and keep you advised. In any case they will be ready to go by air at the earliest moment that can possibly be managed.

Despite Vickers’ reservations, the rugs were manufactured on time. Both Vickers and Macken received thanks from Premier McGirr:

The Undersecretary of my Department, Mr Ferguson, has advised me of the despatch by air to London at the weekend of the rugs intended as a gift from the people of this State to Her Royal Highness the Princess Elizabeth on the occasion of her marriage, and of the excellence of the articles produced by you at short notice.I would like to convey to you my deep appreciation of your ready co-operation in the production of articles worthy of the occasion and of your personal efforts in this regard and helpfulness in having them available for delivery in London before 20th November.

The rugs were despatched to London alongside Mark Foys special blankets via Qantas Airways, addressed to the Honourable J. M. Tully, Agent General, with a request from the Under Secretary that Qantas management ‘ensure careful handling in transit’. Despite these instructions, a worrying cable from London arrived on the 17th November which threatened to destroy the carefully made plans.

‘Air port(s) unable (to) trace parcel (s)’

“Referring to your telegram of 10th London
Air port(s) unable (to) trace parcel(s) containing Princess Elizabeth’s present.
Please confirm date of despatch.”

The Under Secretary was quick to act upon the shocking news that Princess Elizabeth’s present appeared to be missing. Following the arrival of the alarming cable, the Under Secretary contacted the Qantas Empire Airways Freight Department to determine what had gone awry. He was informed that ‘the three parcels of blankets addressed to the Agent-General, London, left Sydney by the Lancaster plane at 9.30pm on Saturday, 8th November’. He was further informed ‘that it would be most unusual procedure if parcels were taken off a Lancaster’ en route. Confirmation of despatch was cabled to the Agent General. The urgency of the matter was clear as cables and telephone calls went back and forth between the Under Secretary, the Agent General and Mr Parker of Qantas:

Mr. Parker said that a cable had been received by his office on Tuesday afternoon stating that “inquiries were being instituted” but nothing further had been received to the present time. Mr. Parker added he would arrange for another cable to be sent to London tonight. He will advise this Department immediately by telephone should any advice come to hand.

Airmail dated 5th December 1947 and received 17th of that month brought some good news for the Premier and his team. The Agent General wrote that on receipt of the telegram confirming despatch, ‘immediate enquiries were made of the Air Line authorities and after some trouble two of the packages containing the Government’s wedding presents to Princess Elizabeth were located and delivered at this Office’.

He went on to say that ‘the 3rd package had been off-loaded en route and has not yet reached this Country’ and assured the Office he would provide updates ‘regarding the 3rd parcel as soon as it is traced’. Importantly ‘the first two packages of special blankets and rugs were handed by me personally to H.R.H. representatives at St. James’ Palace on the 19th November.

The Agent General wrote again in early 1948, but did not have good news for the Premier. The third package ‘had not yet arrived’.

The Qantas Empire Airways representatives here were, some time ago, requested to make urgent enquiries regarding the arrival of the third package and now state that after exhaustive search, they have not been able to trace it although their enquiries are still proceeding.It would appear that there is a possibility that the 3rd parcel has been lost but, in view of the seriousness of the situation, it is suggested that enquiries be made at your end.

Updates from Qantas in March 1948 indicated that despite ‘extensive enquiries’ they have ‘been unsuccessful in attempting to trace its whereabouts’. The third package was lost. Enquiries made to the Agent General determined that the rugs produced by John Vicars & Co were the missing items. Qantas was called upon to adjust their invoice given the loss and while this duly occurred, they noted that ‘as we have not located the missing rug and as it was definitely dispatched from Sydney we must assume the rug was pillaged at some point on the United Kingdom route’.

‘A present to you from our Princess’

No such mishap affected the 200 blankets which sailed via S. S. “Esperance Bay” and arrived without incident. These blankets, intended for distribution to ‘necessitous cases’, were manufactured by the Target Woollen Mills, Waterloo. The blankets were coloured in six different pastel shades, and woven from Merino wool sourced from the Goulburn and Yass Districts. The manager of the mill wrote to the Premier’s Department, noting that ‘each of the 80 girls on our staff was permitted to weave a section thereof, and the final product was, in our opinion, equal to the best ever produced in Australia’.

In May 1948, Princess Elizabeth’s Private Secretary, writing from Buckingham Palace, sent a special package back to the NSW Government.

Princess Elizabeth thought that the People of New South Wales who so kindly sent Her Royal Highness some blankets as a Wedding Present, for the Princess to give to people in this Country, might be interested to see the enclosed samples of the many letters of thanks which Her Royal Highness has received. There can be no doubt that these blankets have given immense pleasure to those who were lucky enough to receive them.

Enclosed in the correspondence was letter after letter of thanks. These poignant notes – some written on custom stationary, but most sketched out on cheap post-war paper in a rainbow of coloured ink – depict stories of loss and hardship alongside expressions of thanks and best wishes for the Princess’s future happiness.

The blankets were distributed by members of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS), which was founded in 1938 to recruit women into the Air Raid Precautions service, and continued to have an important community role following the conclusion of the war. Mrs Hayward, in her letter of thanks, wrote:

Dear Princess
My heart is full of gratitude and admiration of so kindly a gesture. Mrs Chisholm of the W.V.S. knocked at my door and presented me with a pair of beautiful pink blankets. “A present to you from our Princess” she said. I was speechless for a moment. I have been saving up to buy a new blanket but I wouldn’t have been able to buy such a lovely one as these two. I shall treasure them all my life – even when they are worn.

Mrs Hayward was a war widow with three children, who was unable to work as she was caring for her elderly mother.

Mrs Goodey of Essex was another recipient of a pair of blankets, and wrote ‘to convey in these few lines my heartfelt thanks’.

I must say how very acceptable they were as I have four young kiddies, the twins were born 1 month after their beloved Daddy was killed in an accident at work, eighteen months ago.

Margaret W. Maloney was one of many writers wishing the Princess and Duke every happiness and success:

To Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth, My deepest thanks for the lovely blankets which I have received and which I will treasure always. I am deeply honoured and I will never forget your unselfish generosity. I hope you and your husband will have many long years of happiness together.

More letters of thanks and appreciation are in the full Premier's correspondence file below. See pages 21 to 43 for all letters.

‘Our warm thanks’

Amongst the Premier’s correspondence is a letter from Princess Elizabeth thanking the ‘Government and People of New South Wales’ for the wedding gift. Elizabeth and the Duke were ‘delighted that they [NSW] should have shewn their friendly feelings in this practical way, and I hope you will tell all concerned how useful their lovely blankets will be to us and how glad we are to have them’. The letter further notes the Princess’s pleasure at the additional consignment of blankets intended for distribution. ‘I shall distribute them to some of the many people in this country who are in need of them and thus many others will benefit from my own happiness’.

Premier's correspondence file

NRS-12060 [9/3452] 47/3607 AF00101281

[1] ROYAL ENGAGEMENT WIDELY PUBLICISED (1947, July 11). Barrier Daily Truth (Broken Hill, NSW : 1908; 1941 - 1954), p. 1. Retrieved January 13, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article141118555

[2] November 20 - Princess' Wedding Day (1947, August 2). Border Morning Mail (Albury, NSW : 1934 - 1935; 1938 - 1951), p. 1. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article263535961

[3] QUIET WEDDING FORECAST, FOR PRINCESS ELIZABETH (1947, August 6). Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909 - 1954), p. 1. Retrieved January 13, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42568305

[4] Princess's Wedding Dress (1947, August 19). Kalgoorlie Miner (WA : 1895 - 1954), p. 4. Retrieved January 13, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article95616940

[5] No Feast At Royal Wedding (1947, October 1). The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 - 1954), p. 8 (LATE FINAL EXTRA). Retrieved January 13, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article228966506

The 1954 Royal Tour

On 3 February 1954, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh arrived at Farm Cove in Sydney to commence their Royal Tour of Australia

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