9 September 2022

As the Riverina mourns, many remember the Queen's 145 minutes in Wagga

| Shri Gayathirie Rajen
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Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Wagga on 13 February 1954, where she spent 145 minutes as part of the Royal Tour to Australia. Photo: Museum of Riverina Archives.

The Riverina’s oldest resident, 106-year-old Berta Johnstone, is one of millions around the world mourning the passing of Queen Elizabeth II today.

At 96, the United Kingdom’s longest-serving monarch died peacefully at Balmoral Castle after reigning for 70 years.

The Queen spent just 145 minutes in Wagga on 13 February 1954 as part of the Royal Tour to Australia with her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, but it’s etched into the memories of many.

It’s estimated between 80,000 and 100,000 people flocked to the streets of Wagga to catch a glimpse of the royal couple.

READ ALSO Griffith’s oldest resident Berta Johnstone celebrates her 106th birthday

Among them was Mrs Johnstone, who camped at Wagga showground the night before with her sons Barry and Graeme to make sure they wouldn’t miss the visit.

“Mum didn’t travel much, but she loved the Queen and was determined to get to Wagga to see her,” Graeme Johnstone said.

“We all camped overnight just to get a glimpse of her for a few seconds driving by the next day.”

Museum of Riverina manager Luke Grealy said the day the Queen visited Wagga was “very hot”.

“She made a speech in front of the council chambers and at Robertson Oval at Bolton Park,” Mr Grealy said.

“There were 16,000 school children from 240 schools and dozens of children fainted from the heat and had to be carried away.

“Students from Wagga High School choir sang a song called Elizabeth of England.”

At the time, Mr Grealy said the national media described the moment as one of the most moving events of the Queen’s entire tour of Australia.

He said there were up to 20 minor car accidents in Wagga due to the traffic, as people travelled from all over the Riverina for the historic event.

Charles Sturt University Regional Archives and University Art Collection manager Wayne Doubleday said the Queen’s visit in 1954 was a momentous occasion for not only the people of Wagga and the Riverina, but for a large part of southern NSW.

“It has long been regarded as one of, if not the, most important day in Wagga’s history,” Mr Doubleday said.

He said the population of Wagga in 1954 was only about 18,500 people but a crowd of up 100,000 people from all over southern NSW travelled to Wagga to see the reigning monarch.

Planning for such an event was crucial, and serious organisation began in mid-1953 including an extra 300 police officers to look after the enormous expected crowds.

Following news of the Queen’s death, Wagga Wagga City Mayor Dallas Tout shared his condolences on Facebook from Germany.

“To give so much of your life for seven decades is just unparalleled,” Cr Tout said.

“The epitome of service to the community. But what a community she had. Generations of people in the time she was Queen. What she survived, stood up to and held at bay over that time cannot be fully known or appreciated.

Street procession along Griffith’s Banna Avenue in honour of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Photo: Griffith City Library.

“May she rest in peace with the love of her life.”

Member for Riverina Michael McCormack said the Queen would always be remembered as a wonderful and gracious person.

“A true icon of our times,” Mr McCormack said.

“Her Majesty has been a mainstay in a period of a great change of human history, and her loss will be felt for a long time.

“Rest in Peace, our Queen.”

Independent Member for Wagga Doctor Joe McGirr shared his condolences on Facebook.

He said he had reflected with his wife Kerin on Her Majesty’s “tremendous life” and “the presence she had” in everyone’s life.

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“She has been a constant symbol throughout most of our lives, and I still remember the excitement of her visit to Australia in 1970,” Dr McGirr said.

“Kerin recalls presenting the Canadian flag to her at a ceremony in Fort George, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, when she was 12 years old and a Girl Guide. The Queen was very proper and professional but gave the kids her little eye twinkle, a moment never forgotten that made them all feel very special.

“Queen Elizabeth also paid an exceptionally special visit to Wagga Wagga in 1954, a memory many residents hold dearly.

“Her service and devotion have been an inspiration. My own respect for her has grown as I have come to realise the important role she has played in the Commonwealth and the commitment with which she has seen that through.

“Condolences to her family at this very sad time.”


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