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Lining Coronation Street

by R.H. Shelford

From top: Thousands of spectators and hundreds of street liners watch as the State Coach makes its way to Westminster Abbey for the coronation ceremony in 1953; the author (centre) waits for the parade on London’s Cockspur Street.

Fifty years ago we knew that one member of each reserve army unit in Canada would have the best view of the Coronation parade in London. He would stand in Cockspur Street in front of Canada House as the parade passed by twice! It was the only area where the parade doubled back on itself.

The 425 members of the Canadian street-liner contingent were chosen by province, corps, rank and unit. It was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt of Vancouver who was awarded the Victoria Cross for action at Dieppe with his unit, the South Saskatchewan Regiment. As the title suggests, the role of the street liners would be to line the parade route, positioning themselves between the procession participants and the thousands of people expected to fill downtown London.

Merritt’s selection looked after British Columbia and the infantry. Next came the selection of majors from Ontario and the armoured corps, Quebec and the artillery corps and the Prairies. The Prairie corps was “picked out of a hat” and the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps was the winner. I got the nod because I was the senior major in the reserve RCOC on the Prairies. On the whole, the contingent had representation from the army, navy and air force.

Officials in Ottawa delayed announcing the list of street liners until Tip Top Tailors, supplier of the dress uniforms, set a deadline for getting measurements–or else its tailors couldn’t do their job. The news came not through military channels but via the Canadian Press wire service.

I learned that I would join the street-liner contingent through an old friend, Allan Vickery, who worked in the Canadian Press bureau in Winnipeg. It was housed on the 4th floor of the Winnipeg Free Press building where I worked. I asked my friend to hold on to the list while I rushed into the office of my boss at the Free Press, Brigadier Dick Malone. I asked if I could have time off, if selected. He said “of course.” So I told Vickery to release the list to our newsroom. That afternoon at coffee, Malone said: “What do you mean ‘if selected?”

We assembled at Valcartier Camp near Quebec City. At the first parade, in dress uniform, Merritt stopped in front of one soldier whose uniform just hung on him and said: “M’gawd, they sent the wrong man?” What Merritt didn’t realize at the time was that the poor private had had a serious operation after being measured and had lost a lot of weight.

Weight was an issue as soon as we boarded the Cunard liner Franconia bound for Liverpool. Fearing we could get too fat, Merritt instituted a twice-daily exercise routine. He also offered a cash prize to the man who lost the most weight. Our commander had a good chance to win because he was a big man with the most weight to lose. In fact, he gained four pounds. The winner was a man who missed all the exercises due to seasickness.

Our train from Liverpool arrived in London on a Sunday. There to meet us was ‘the man from Vauxhall’ who offered Merritt the keys of a car he had ordered for use in England. Merritt cajoled the Vauxhall employee to drive the car to Chiswick, on London’s outskirts, then pointed at me and said: “You come too.”

We left Chiswick on a bright Sunday afternoon in the new convertible, with the top down and Merritt’s big knees straddling the steering wheel. We tore through towns and countryside, blissfully unaware of the Belisha Beacons that signified pedestrian crossings along the route to Pirbright Camp in Surrey, near the wartime Canadian base at Aldershot.

Next morning we found the camp washrooms overtaken by Pakistani officers and their servants who were involved in a lengthy religious ceremony. And so we went into our first camp breakfast as the great unwashed. An officer in line at the buffet hesitated a moment, then put a kipper on his plate. “Have you forgotten what they taste like?” I asked him. He replied: “The other choice is sausages, and I know what’s in a kipper!”

Training for the other ranks was provided by the Household Guards. The officer training was placed under Lt.-Col. Paul Triquet who earned the VC in December 1943 while fighting in Italy with the Royal 22nd Regt. For the army men, marching with our sister services was not as great a problem as marching in step ourselves. We came from reserve units that marched at paces ranging from 110 paces per minute–the piper’s pace–to 140 per minute–the rifleman’s pace. The navy marched at 120 and the air force 130. Merritt set the pace at 110 because he had brought a piper along.

Moreover, the army had issued a new training manual, but only the English version was available. One evening, Triquet asked me: “It say here ‘benddenee’. What is that?” I told him it was the new drill, copying the British whose last movement of the Halt was not merely placing one foot alongside the other. It required a bend of the knee and stamping the foot down to cause as much noise and dust as possible.

Triquet was very good on sword drill, which was foreign to most of the officers. We officers hid as often as possible behind buildings while going through the simple instructions, much to the amusement of some of the Guards staff who peeked at us from around the corner.

As Coronation Day neared, we were told we were doing it all wrong. Our march to our location along the parade route was to be in reverse order of seniority. Instead of the navy leading, the air force was to march in front. We now had to follow the Royal Canadian Air Force drill.

Two days before the big event, we went to Kensington Gardens Camp in London where I found my tent alongside the Round Pond, a familiar spot for visitors. Of course it was raining.

And it drizzled, then rained on Coronation Day, June 2, 1953. We left our tented camp at 9 a.m., marched about two miles in our raincoats to Cockspur Street and stood in front of the crowd. At 11:30 a.m. we got a haversack lunch and took off our raincoats, placing them behind us on the pavement. At 12:30 p.m., the head of the parade appeared.

We sprung to attention and remained at attention for more than 4 1/2 hours while the massive parade, which included more than 400 Canadian soldiers, sailors, airmen and RCMP, passed twice. As the tail left our area, the head came in again on the return from Hyde Park.

I was charged with ordering a royal salute for each of the three royal parties–the royal princes and princesses, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret and then the Queen. On the parade’s first pass, I saw Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent’s coach with its RCMP escort, and then Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s. The British prime minister’s appearance was the signal that the first of the royal parties was approaching.

On the parade’s return from Westminster Abbey, I saw the Canadian prime minister and was taken by surprise as the party of the royal princes and princesses appeared. Churchill had pulled out of the parade right in front of us and didn’t finish the circuitous route to Buckingham Palace. I was chagrined on being late calling the royal salute, but nobody noticed in the rain.

The next day we assembled on the lawn in the gardens of Buckingham Palace, along with all the other contingents to receive the Coronation Medal. The Queen symbolically presented a few herself. The paymaster handed out ours.

A few days later I saw the Coronation ceremony–held at Westminster Abbey–in a movie theatre in London. As Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, knelt before the Queen to pay homage I heard a voice from a seat behind: “E’s arsking if ‘e can sleep with ‘er tonight. Daft, ain’t it?”

We spent the next week as guests of the British armed forces and took part in the Queen’s review of the fleet at Spithead, off Portsmouth. As guests aboard HMCS Magnificent, Canada’s aircraft carrier, we appreciated a meal cooked the Canadian way! When the Queen’s ship, HMS Surprise, passed down the lines we stood on deck and with the ship’s company doffed caps and gave three cheers.

The next day we embarked, first class, from Southampton for home. We were grateful that Canada treated us so well. The Australian and New Zealand contingent was transported on the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney. Although they had looked forward to their world cruise, they did not cherish the idea of a trip through the Panama Canal and across the equator at the height of summer in the bowels of a carrier. The Pakistani units had come in a frigate. One officer told me how he had to tie his cot to a pillar to keep it in place during the voyage.

But the outstanding and indelible memory for me was overhearing the remarks, and the cheers of the parade watchers behind us. They recognized Commonwealth troops from every country, except Canada. While there were cheers for the RCMP, our troops passed unnoticed–the navy and air force in uniforms identical to the British except for an inch high Canada badge, and our army clad in the dress uniforms of the British unit or corps affiliate.

One thing that did distinguish us was the Victoria Cross recipients in the contingents. There were three privates and a sergeant from Australia, a sergeant from New Zealand, a company sergeant-major from the Gurkha Brigade and two lieutenant-colonels from Canada.

Fifty years later, I considered myself fortunate to have seen the United Kingdom at the height of its enthusiasm with a new monarch and new hopes for the future.


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