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Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience




Australian travellers to London after the Second World War were fascinated by the bombed ruins and other traces of the city’s wartime experiences. In their travel accounts, these visitors tended to extol the grit and resolve of Londoners during the Blitz and abstracted this to a broader conception of British virtue. The city became an emblem for all that they considered ‘great’ about Britain. This paper examines Australians’ tourist impressions of postwar London and their views of two key celebrations – the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

The restoration of international travel and communications services with the rest of the world was a priority for the British Government after the Second World War. This sprang in part from the palpable need to re-assert Britain’s traditional role as a centre of world trade. In particular, it was thought desirable that passenger services be resumed as quickly as possible to allow for the recovery of the foreign-currency-earning tourist industry. However, the speedy resumption of civilian services was also driven by a desire to recover the comforting forms and conventions of peacetime.

In the late 1940s, Australian tourists to Britain constructed a series of largely congratulatory narratives of a London unbowed by the war years. Their accounts focused on the survival of the city’s landmarks, such as St Paul’s, and the stoicism of its people. Yet there were tensions between these celebratory narratives and the visible evidence of hardships experienced by Londoners. The jagged, apocalyptic ruins of the East End did not lend themselves to easy or simplistic idealisations of the city and its people. Visitors from Australia, which had been largely insulated from the trials of total war, sometimes found the realities of postwar life in London different from the imagined victory. They were shocked by the destruction wrought by German bombs, by the interminable queues for basic foods and goods, and by the apparent dullness of Londoners’ lives in the postwar austerity years that gripped the capital. Some were unconvinced that victory had been worth the cost. Bomb-battered residential quarters and careworn inhabitants signified the city’s vulnerability and decline, as much as any ideal of British indefatigability and collective courage.


Arriving in February 1946, the United Netherlands Navigation Company’s Oranjefontein was the first all-civilian passenger ship to arrive at Southhampton from Australia after the war. Aboard were just 150 adventurous passengers.1 Despite the easing of travel restrictions, there were still significant shortages of berths for several years. The Melbourne Argus warned prospective tourists that competition for passages to Britain would remain high throughout the year and into 1947.2 Its predictions proved accurate, with 6,702 temporary journeys (regarded at that time as a journey of under a year’s duration) from Australia to any destination overseas in 1946. This contrasted starkly with the interwar traffic, which hit a high point of 24,459 temporary departures in 1929.3 The Travel Association of the United Kingdom, intent on re-priming the tourist trade, noted that the number of visitors to Britain from all Commonwealth countries in 1947 was still limited by the continuing lack of berths.4 Currency restrictions and difficulties with food supplies also militated against a more pronounced rise in tourist traffic.5 The high cost of fares dissuaded others.6

Notwithstanding a jump in costs, the frequency of services improved as the exigencies of the war years receded. Shipping companies sought to recommission vessels for civilian traffic as soon as they were returned by the military. Australia’s postwar immigration drive added more vessels to the route. The liner Orontes – a troop transport during the war – returned to the Australia-Britain run in 1948, while newer, larger and faster vessels, such as the Orcades, were now being commissioned.7 By mid-1949, more than 20 per cent of the total tonnage of passenger ships on the United Kingdom register had been committed to meeting the demand for berths to and from Australia, compared to about 13 per cent the previous year. While this increase was primarily driven by the need for Australian-bound migrant transports, it also ensured that there was a steadily increasing supply of berths for Australian travellers to Britain.8

By early 1950, all ships leaving Australia for British ports were heavily booked. Much of this travel boom was enabled by the rising levels of affluence, and was in keeping with the broader expansion in international travel and tourism. The postwar years were marked by the development of travel as a global leisure industry, within the broader thrust of a new consumerism that came to dominate life in affluent nations. Tourism became, as Gareth Shaw and Alan Williams argue, ‘part of the major shift which occurred in consumption and in expectations regarding consumption’.9

Accounts of Australians who travelled to Britain focused on London’s physical survival and the stoicism of its people. At the same time, at home and in the metropolitan centre of London there were Australian avowals of a secure sense of the British family of nations. London, the Imperial/Commonwealth capital, remained a key symbolic location in these narratives. Yet there were tensions between these celebratory narratives of the city and the hardships experienced by ordinary Londoners. Some texts included both these themes, but left the implicit conflicts unresolved. But there were others in which the contesting themes were reconciled by arguments for a broader conception of Britishness that drew from the periphery as much as the centre.

It was almost inconceivable that Australian visitors to Britain would not spend at least part of their time in London. A survey in 1958 found that 93 per cent of all Australians stayed for some time in the capital, and that the average duration of their stay was 81 nights.10 For these visitors, like those before the war, London landmarks became basic elements in their tourist impressions of the country. At home they had been concerned, via press and radio reports, at the prospect of the destruction of the city’s buildings and streets, as familiar to them as to any provincial Briton. An example was Qantas chief Hudson Fysh’s broadcast to Australia from London via the BBC. Speaking in 1943, Fysh pointedly emphasised his expectation that listeners would have a ‘natural’ desire to see the city. He linked the capital’s traditional attraction to Australians and the courage of Londoners at war:


I am speaking to you from London, the London you knew and long to revisit, or the place you hope to see as a life’s ambition – London, capital of Great Britain, the home of our grandfathers and grandmothers. It’s bomb-scarred today, and as I wander through London’s streets and watch the people’s faces it is hard to imagine that these are the staunch front liners who took the shock of that great air blitz on Britain.11

Fysh’s broadcast invoked a familial regard for the city, drawing on its established meaning as a spiritual and material home for Australians. But there was the added gravitas of the perilous moment, the threat of destruction, to heighten the emotional content of his words.

As a result of this and other reports like it, war became a presence in Australian imaginings of the city, with some enduring effects. Many tourists disembarking at Tilbury or Heathrow were intent on plotting their own maps of the city’s wartime survival. In his early postwar account of Britain, Land of Hope and Glory, travel writer Frank Clune used the signs of war damage to confirm his arrival in London. From Heathrow, Clune drove into the West End, where he ‘glimpsed many a crater-lake fringed with rubble detritus. So yes, I really am in London, said I’.12 He rendered his view of war damage as accidental, implying that the destruction was on such a scale as to have been unavoidable – and so accenting the sense that bomb ruins were a key or defining element of the cityscape. Yet radio broadcaster Norman Banks, in London seven years after the war, did not leave his view of the destruction to chance; he actively sought out craters now overgrown with weeds and regarded them as a tourist sight. Banks was a self-confessed Anglophile, writing in The World in My Diary that he ‘loved England and everything about it’. He admitted to searching with a friend for the ‘badly bombed areas’ of the East End and the pair did indeed find a razed half-mile stretch of land in the docklands area where ‘not even a tall wall’ was left standing. A shocked Banks wrote that the destruction was ‘horrible to see’. But there was a clear implication that he was reassured at having seen it for himself. London’s bomb damage had become an exotic element that confirmed the alterity of the location, and it carried the air of authenticity craved by tourists.13

Such interest in witnessing the legacy of war in London was not unexpected, nor was it singular. Some of the framers of Britain’s postwar tourism policy correctly envisaged that tourists would be attracted – however morbid it might seem – by the prospect of seeing the damage first-hand. A 1944 report prepared for the Travel and Industrial Development Association of Great Britain and Ireland predicted a postwar tourism boom driven, in part at least, by this impulse.14 People were ‘hungry for travel after the isolation of the war years’ and the prospect of seeing the effects of war would attract them to London, a subsequent report suggested.15 With this in mind, tourist pamphlets and travel guides, which associated traditional images of London with valorisations of its people’s doughty efforts during the hostilities, were produced in the late 1940s. The popular guide Here’s England, published in 1951, described London as ‘triumphant and lovely’. Its American authors clearly admired the city that had ‘stood against the enemy, unbowed, unconquered and unafraid’.16

Would-be tourists were encouraged to gaze at the canyons cut through London by Axis bombs and connect these images with a broader celebration of the city’s indefatigability and ultimate victory. Aside from iconographic force, this celebratory discourse helped distract attention from the very real shortcomings in service that visitors were likely to experience and that British authorities were eager to conceal.17 The officially produced 80-page booklet London, Past and Present asked rhetorically:


What, one wonders, would Queen Elizabeth, who sought to hold this giant in bonds, what would she think of the London of to-day? Perhaps, through the roar of London’s teeming traffic and beneath the crumbled stones of London’s war-time ruins, she would hear the firm beating of Britain’s indomitable and unconquerable heart; perhaps in the London of to-day she would sense a spirit akin to her own, one that much experience has taught how to find the path to greatness through the troubled ways of adversity, how to face the future with confidence and calm.18

Facing this text was one of the most famous images of the war years – the cupola of St Paul’s Cathedral soaring above the haze of smoke during the Blitz. This photograph, reproduced in newspapers around the world, including Australia, had become a symbol of the resilience and heart displayed by the British people. The text explicitly associated the nation’s past glory, and one of its most iron-willed rulers, with the courage displayed by Londoners in the war years. It subverted the jarring effects on tourists of seeing destroyed buildings, by integrating these otherwise disturbing sights within a continuity of national greatness. And it urged visitors to see London as the heart of Britain and, by extension, of the empire.

Some visitors, like feminist and social activist Bessie Rischbieth, were impressed by the hopeful mood of postwar reconstruction in London, notwithstanding the material difficulties. Rischbieth had been in London during the Blitz and had broadcast on the BBC World Service extolling the British resolve. After the war, she returned as an observer to the first UN General Assembly in 1946. On this journey she applauded the policy changes that were remoulding Britain, and was buoyed by a faith in the city’s future. In a notebook she used for speeches to Australian audiences after the trip, she reflected:


I remained in London all through the blitz and in that time saw the Old Country pass through the greatest war in her history, and since hostillities [sic] ceased, a fundamental social revolution has taken place. But because of its evolutionary character, as a leading statesmen put it, the people are hardly aware of its deep seated nature.19

Rischbieth understood that the current conditions were less than comfortable for Londoners. Yet she failed to realise that many people were busy dealing with these daily imperatives and had little time to consider reconstruction plans or the breadth of the social change. To her, the accent on social planning and reform was inspirational. London promised so much, and not just for Britain. Rischbieth believed that what was taking place there would re-shape life beyond the seas as well. Much as it had always done, the city would provide the model for material and social change in the dominions, such as Australia and New Zealand. In this sense, the social activist Rischbieth was conventionally imperial:


I feel strongly that there is a much closer bond between the Old Country and the Dominions as a result of the war. In fact I have seen this grow and if we want to preserve the British way of life this bond must be strengthened.20

Rischbieth linked her admiration for postwar change in London to the value of the Imperial/Commonwealth links between Australia and Britain. In her reading, this mood of reconstruction was a force that could lead to renewal of the broader imperial order. This was a vision of the city that was fundamentally restorative, particularly in terms of its meaning for Australians. For Rischbieth, the signs of postwar reconstruction in part substantiated her claim for a renovation of imperial loyalties.

The educationist Harold Wyndham, who became Director General of Education in New South Wales, was also struck by the possibilities of the postwar years. But his view was more qualified than Rischbieth’s, and less optimistic. Wyndham had been dispatched to London to act as head of the Australian delegation to the new UNESCO in 1945. On his return to Australia, he recounted his travel experiences for a student journal at the Sydney Teachers’ College. Wyndham made the customary, perhaps almost obligatory, associations between postwar London and Britain’s inherent spirit and popular strength. Big Ben still ‘welcomed visitors’, and was ‘the first of many reminders that there is much in England which is unchanged’. But then he noted, to a far greater degree than did Rischbieth, the character of the personal hardships felt by Londoners in the austerity years. Most men and women in the city looked, he wrote, ‘threadbare and down at heel’. Even more disturbing was that ‘[p]ersonal life has assumed a dourness the effects of which are to be seen, in moments of exasperation, in outbursts of ill-temper and in a readiness to complain’.21

According to Wyndham, the city had undergone irrevocable change, and this meant that the old ‘institutions and customs’ would never be the same. But he guardedly welcomed the move to social planning and the new accent on education. London may have lost its former stature, yet Wyndham was hopeful that this destabilisation could have social benefits in the long term. His touristic view of the city was restrained and avoided the temptations of imperial triumphalism. Looking beyond the rhetoric of empire and victory in war, he reflected more deeply upon the city’s fabric and circumstances. In Wyndham’s account, London was portrayed as being in a liminal, changing state and its status as a symbol of imperial ascendancy was heavily proscribed.

The most striking problem for Londoners was the shortage of food. Rationing of foodstuffs continued to be severe long after the war’s end and was only finally abolished in 1954. Such was the publicity surrounding Britain’s plight that most Australian visitors were well prepared to ‘discover’ the shortage well before they left home. In 1948, two Country Women’s Association members from Victoria travelled to London with the express intention of learning what it was like to live on these rations – no doubt to the disbelief of many of the city’s permanent inhabitants.22 Six years after the war’s end, Kathleen Roberts, of Adelaide, could only describe the food as ‘dreadful’ when questioned by a magazine reporter.23 Added to this were reports of Britain’s embattled economic position, particularly during the currency crisis of 1949, which saw the pound devalue, and difficulties with supplies of energy, especially coal and petroleum.

Images of relative want in a dowdy, down-at-heel London provoked alternate readings that had little in common with celebratory narratives of the victorious city. They challenged the ‘authorised’ themes of imperial greatness and national ascendancy that surrounded key tourist sights. Tourists approached life on the streets, and those iconic memorials and grand buildings connoted with imperialism, in very different ways. Alex Horne bluntly argued that the scarcity of food and clothing was a sign of decline:


Although England won the war, her people have never been worse off for the bare necessities of life. They are being deprived of food to feed their late enemies, the Germans. The ration scale is about a third less than it was throughout the whole period of the war. In all the countries of the world I have visited since I left Australia, three months ago, England’s food position is far and away the worst.24

Instead of attesting to the quality of British courage and valour, Horne found that Londoners were feeling that they had ‘paid a staggering price for “winning the war”’.25 Other visitors went further and questioned who had really won. John Barter, director of Wonderheat, from Melbourne, wrote, ‘I am beginning to wonder if the patient forbearance of the English is a virtue or not. In Italy, a former enemy country, food is more plentiful and there is a greater variety of it even than in Australia’.26 No wonder, as Harry Hopkins has pointed out, that the Dominions’ immigration offices had little trouble finding potential migrants. In 1949, a Gallup poll showed that 42 per cent of London’s population would emigrate if they could.27

Passages of Clune’s Land of Hope and Glory reveal a similar cynicism amid the guide-book hyperbole. To be sure, Clune infused the book with the requisite elements of admiration for Londoners’ phlegmatic wartime endurance. But there are also pointed statements striking at the myth of London as the triumphant centre, inspired by his own idiosyncratic view and the radical nationalism of his collaborator, P.R. Stephensen. London may have been the home of ‘fairy-tales’, but it was also in the hands of the ‘money-changers’ – the entire country suffering from a ‘postwar anaemia’. He added that ‘London seemed lousy with racketeering – (all quite legalized, no doubt) – and with “black-marketeering”, the natural result of too many controls’.28 Wyndham too might have hoped for better, but he also realised that despite the new ‘social awareness’, the ‘blackmarket flourishes in the West End’.29 Even the Australian Women’s Weekly weighed in, telling its readers that a ‘vast black market’ was operated by Petticoat Lane traders.30 The notion that London, the symbol of imperial rectitude and ascendancy, was actually riven by opportunistic racketeering made it difficult to idealise the city. After all, black-market trade hardly conformed to middle-class views of moral propriety and heroic nationalism.


Despite the well of symbolism for London’s resilience, spirit and courage, there was something sadly plaintive about the ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition in 1946. It was a well-patronised affair, with crowds of people crowded four to eight deep outside the Victoria and Albert Museum, and a queue stretching hundreds of yards along the road.31 Intended as a demonstration of Britain’s manufacturing capacity in peacetime, it also argued the nation’s ability to survive and recover from the nadir of war. Yet this broader statement of national survival carried the implicit doubt that the country might not ‘make it’, despite the best intentions. The longed-for victory had delivered scant rewards. Food was still rationed, as were clothes and many other goods; currency problems weakened the once proud pound; and London was again plunged into darkness, though this time it was an energy crisis, not the German bombers responsible for the blackout.32

Towards the end of the 1940s, the quest for national renewal became bound to a more expansive exhibition program, one deliberately conceived as a postwar ‘pick-me-up’. The Festival of Britain on the Thames’s marshy South Bank was to be a physical demonstration of the nation’s postwar recovery, while marking the centenary anniversary of the 1851 Great Exhibition. But whereas the Great Exhibition had been marked by high Victorian faith in Britain’s imperial purview, the Festival of Britain was conceived as a popular celebration with an altogether more domestic ambition.33 An official guide pronounced it an ‘[o]ccasion for a national spring-cleaning, for repointing and repainting the Town Hall, gilding the church clock, for planting window boxes, flower baskets and temporary gardens, for painting the street lamps, decorating the streets and floodlit buildings’.34 The festival’s Director General, Gerald Barry, described it as a ‘tonic for the nation’ filled with ‘fun, fantasy and colour’. In temper, the festival consciously eschewed national boastfulness and hyperbole, in keeping with Britain’s postwar retreat from empire. This was to be a people’s festival, for the People’s Peace.35

Despite conservative denouncements of its waste and irrelevance, the festival proved a popular success. More than eight million visitors went to the South Bank between May and September – and more again visited the segments that toured major British centres and seaports.36 The British Travel and Holidays Association set up a register of 5,500 householders willing to offer 12,000 beds at bed-and-breakfast rates to the throng.37 In June, the Australia and New Zealand Weekly reported that about 25,000 Australians were in England and that all shipping berths were booked out until September. By year’s end, Australian departures to Britain had reached 24,074, up 15 per cent on the previous year.38

Australian tourists were delighted by the city’s bright face: ‘London is looking really lovely and festive’, wrote one correspondent: ‘Flags and bunting, flowers and decorations are everywhere’.39 The city was throwing off the shackles of the dour austerity years, they thought. There were those, like Edward Trainor of Melbourne, who claimed to be in London expressly for the festival. ‘Australians were very Empire minded’, said Trainor, conjoining the festival to empire attachment.40 The writer Charmian Clift was bewitched by the sheer exuberance of Australian talent in the capital for the festival year, as she remembered that 1951 also marked the 50th birthday of the Australian Commonwealth. Clift recalled the Australian designer Gordon Andrews working on Hugh Casson’s architectural and design team for the festival – describing it airily as the ‘futuristic complex over on the South Bank’.41

Casson’s team had used the festival as an opportunity to introduce modernism to the British public. In design and planning, the Festival’s impact would be felt in Britain for many years, though most of the buildings – save for the Royal Festival Hall – were demolished soon after.42 The Sydney Morning Herald’s London reporter expressed misgivings, feeling that it was ‘too highbrow’, with too much ‘arty-craftiness’.43The design of the hall surprised Australian visitors accustomed to received images of London’s imperial monuments and tradition. Under the headline ‘An Aussie Looks at the Festival’, a correspondent to the Australia and New Zealand Weekly wrote, ‘I found myself feeling surprised at the modernity of it all! I suppose one gets used to thinking of England’s “show places” as bearing the marks of antiquity, and to suddenly enter, as it were, a new world, rather took my breath away’. But when the royal party arrived, the symbolism of the moment fell into place: ‘Then suddenly the empty boxes were filled with a sparkling, glittering array of Royalty. It seemed that the whole side of the auditorium had been transformed into a storybook scene’.44

For these Australian visitors, the festival represented an equivocal success. It looked to a new future – marked by the hovering aluminium ‘exclamation mark’ of the Skylon, a vertical structure supported above ground by cables – rather than to the glorious past with which many tourists sought to connect themselves. While acknowledging the festival’s achievements, there was little opportunity for Australians to relate emotionally to an event that so determinedly located British experience within the British Isles. The Festival of Britain’s vision of British identity was restrained and modest compared to that of the Great Exhibition a century before.

It was easier for Australian travellers to locate London’s postwar renewal in the coronation celebrations held two years later. Here was the city performing its past as empire capital, while the nation celebrated the accession of its young queen and a new ‘Elizabethan age’. The celebrations symbolically restored London’s imperial salience, with an exotic pageant drawing talent from the ‘old Empire’, now becoming the new ‘Commonwealth’. It was heavy with appeal to tradition, which Australians recognised from the well-established lexicon of the city’s traditional meaning and significance. Hamish Mathams’s book Crowns over England opened with this description of the 1937 coronation of George VI:


From the frozen wastes of Hudson Bay, from the blistering plains of Africa; from the wildest outposts of the Rocky Mountains, from the tangled swamps of Indian jungle, from the farthest corners of the earth, without regard to creed or caste or colour, the children of the British Empire are coming to see their king.45

Australians, though absent from this catalogue of British dependencies, heard its call. On George’s death in 1952, interest in Elizabeth’s coronation immediately grew.46 Australians had been promised a royal tour by their king in 1949, but illness prevented it. Now, an opportunity to see the crowning of the new queen stirred the interest of would-be visitors. Alive to the moment, the Menzies Government undertook intricate negotiations with Britain over Australia’s representation at the celebrations, securing its place in the official proceedings and a seat allocation for its citizens.47 Duly, the aircraft carrier Sydney was dispatched to the Coronation Spithead Review of 220 ships.48 A week before Coronation Day, Australian soldiers mounted guard at Buckingham Palace, the first in a series of duties undertaken by troops from Commonwealth countries.49 A delegation of key figures in the Australian Government and Opposition was among the official guests.

Australian visitors faced stiff competition for seats on the processional route from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey. The government was given a quota of 200 guests for the coronation ceremony in the abbey, and 7,000 seats on the route, later increased by another 1,200. The seats were secured by ballot, and then sold at official rates of between £3 10s and £5 10s.50 By October 1952 the Melbourne Herald reported that 27,000 applications for seats had already been received at Australia House. Americans, the Herald further claimed, were willing to pay up to £100 for a spot.51 Unsurprisingly, there was a flourishing trade in blackmarket tickets.

Among those lucky enough to snare tickets was 22-year-old Anne King. Not even the rain that fell sporadically through the day could diminish her excitement. King swelled with pride at the Australian presence on a shared British stage. In a letter home, she wrote:


It really was the most magnificent procession you could possibly imagine ... I’ve never felt the wonderful feeling – don’t know what it was sort of excited, patriotic in excess awe and oh everything! When the Diggers marched by we nearly wept and Bob Menzies – Gee how we cheered and clapped him and he was nearly falling out of his coach with excitement when he saw all the Aussies screaming ‘coo-ee-e’ to him.

King’s response exemplified an ability to move seamlessly between pride in Australianness and enduring loyalty to Britain, inspired in this case by royal pageant. As the procession moved past, she caught sight first of Churchill and then of the new queen:


Winston was wonderful – imagine seeing him the old darling. Then right down the road we saw the great Golden Coach – very high almost seemed to be touching the trees and just swaying a bit – it looked like fairyland. I’ve never known anything like it and don’t ever expect to again ... Look I just can’t tell you how I felt but I do know I’ll be saying ‘God Save the Queen’ and realizing now just how very much I mean it.52

For Alice Nettleton, too, the long wait made the occasion all the more dreamlike, especially after waking at 3.30 a.m. to be there in time. She was entranced by the exotica of the Commonwealth dignitaries, who included the Queen of Tonga in an open buggy. But when the gold coach came into view, ‘we could see the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh so well. Drawn by marvellous grey horses, all exactly matching, it was indeed as though a fair-tale had come true’.53

If the Festival of Britain was a moment of national renewal, largely transacted at a domestic level for the people of the British Isles, the coronation reaffirmed London’s capacity to represent a broader British ideal. In this sense, Australian tourists regarded the coronation as a moment when the capital shrugged off the war years, in a way quite unlike that of the festival two years earlier. Australia’s first female member of federal parliament, Dame Enid Lyons, likened Coronation England to ‘the Phoenix rising from the ashes of destruction’.54 Mrs F.O. Jackman, of Adelaide, said that she felt ‘Londoners wanted something like the Coronation to raise their spirits; it has had a remarkable effect’.55

These rhetorical flourishes made a conscious connection between London and the monarchical pageant and performance at the heart of empire. By describing the city’s postwar recovery at this moment, visitors such as Lyons and Jackman revealed its enduring meaning as an imperial home and wellspring of a shared British identity. The new queen was the ‘glue’ that would bind the Commonwealth, in this Menzian vision, inspiring allegiance among its varied members.56 Sitting in the transept of the abbey during the coronation, writer Gwen Meredith felt a wave of emotion for this Commonwealth ideal:


Here we were all joined together, welded, as it were, by the strength of our mutual feelings, and I felt quite certain that those feelings were not limited to those in the Abbey ... I thought that all over the Commonwealth, the Queen’s people were held together in a moment of silence and strong emotional unity.57

Elizabeth’s coronation encouraged a recommittal to the idea of a shared heritage and common tradition for Meredith, without displacing her sense of Australianness. These dual loyalties underpinned the popular reaction to the royal tour of Australia the following year. The couple’s travels across Australia, Peter Spearritt has argued, excited a ‘strange mixture of obeisance to the throne and nationalistic fervour’.58


Reflecting on London and its recent history allowed postwar visitors to connect the city to established discourses of empire. As a result, and despite the irony that Britain was then moving to dismantle much of its architecture of empire, London was re-centred in an imperial frame defined by its strategic capability in war and the ultimate Allied victory. The associated symbols of fortitude, resilience and victory that recurred in these travel accounts also reiterated an idealised vision of the British national character. These two readings – of London as the heart of empire and as the pre-eminent symbol of Britishness – were both essentially triumphal. The tropes had a shared semiology and their narration was often entwined. As Australians reflected upon London’s wartime valour they often accented the notion of a shared British nationality, rather than a subordinate position in an imperial world order. Australian travellers looked on the doughty inhabitants of the metropolis scarred by bombs and claimed, as Noel McLachlan has noted, that they were ‘jolly proud’ to be British.59 This was, after all, an era in which the assertion of Britishness was broadly expressed in Australia. A 1947 Gallup opinion poll found that 65 per cent of Australians wanted to retain British citizenship, compared to 28 per cent who wished to affirm a separate and wholly distinct Australian nationality.60

Australian visitors saw both the festival and the coronation as emblematic moments of London’s renewal. But their responses to these events revealed contrasting impressions of the city’s recovery. The Festival of Britain, a child of Britain’s technocrats, envisaged the city as a modern capital and expressed this sense through modernist architecture and design. The festival also represented a more inward-looking, circumscribed national frame, in keeping with a refiguring of Britain’s political stature and declining influence beyond its borders. Australian travellers to Britain in the nineteenth century had often remarked on London’s character as a modern metropolis; but they were as often critical of its perceived ‘new fangledness’, as Andrew Hassam has noted.61 In a sense, the modernist promise of the festival was more fully realised in the next decade, and impressed upon the minds of a new generation of Australians who flocked to the Swinging London of Carnaby Street, drug happenings and the Beatles.

The coronation exerted a broader claim, invoking a store of feeling for the Royal family across the Empire/Commonwealth. In itself, this kind of royal pageant was an essentially modern creation that had been forged by imperial necessity in the nineteenth century. But the cunning of such ‘invented tradition’ is that it dissembles as organic custom, as Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger have shown.62 Elizabeth’s coronation reprised a glorious past, invoking a sense of the capital as an enduring imperial centre that drew provincial supplicants, among them Australians, to itself. The celebration was a performance of pan-British identity to which many Australians could respond and in which they could see themselves. It was in some senses a more palatable image of London’s renewal of prestige and purpose after the constraints of war and the austerity years.


1     British Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Weekly, 16 February 1946, 9.

2     Argus, Weekend Magazine, 23 March 1946, 12.

3     These figures are for ‘temporary’ departures (i.e. for trips of less than one year’s duration) by Australian residents for all overseas destinations. ‘Table No.23-Migration: Classification of Persons who Arrived or Departed, Australia’, Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, npd., Demography 1946, Bulletin No.64, 27; ‘Table No.14m.-Migration-Age of Persons who Arrived in or Departed from Australia-Year 1929’, Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Australian Demography, Bulletin No.47: Survey of Australian Population and Vital Statistics 1933 and Previous Years, npd., 21.

4     Travel Association of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Tourist Division of the British Tourist and Holidays Board, Twentieth Annual Report, 1948, 2.

5     ‘Australian tourists are waiting to travel’, British Australasian, 8 February 1947, 5.

6     ‘Australian tourists are waiting to travel’, British Australasian, 8 February 1947, 5. Before the war, a return trip from Australia to Britain cost about A£100. Yet in 1946, shipping companies offered limited berths at more than A£130 one way.

7     In January 1949 the Orcades berthed at Fremantle after a voyage of 22 days, 1 hour and 50 minutes, and at Melbourne after 26 days, both records. ‘Impressive new Orcades’, Australia and New Zealand Weekly, 17 December 1948, ii.

8     In 1946, Australia accounted for 14 per cent of British passenger ship tonnage, in 1947 12 per cent, in 1948 13 per cent and in 1950 20.5 per cent. Australia and New Zealand Weekly, 22 July 1949, 8.

9     Shaw and Williams, 1994, 8. See also Olszewska and Roberts, 1989.

10    Australian and New Zealand Visitors to Britain, British Travel and Holidays Association, London, 1959, 15, table 12.

11    Fysh, 1943. ‘Topical Talk’.

12    Clune, 1949, Land of Hope and Glory: An Australian Traveller’s Impressions of Post-War Britain and Eire, 1.

13    Banks, 1953, The World in My Diary: From Melbourne to Helsinki for the Olympic Games.35, 129. See MacCannell, 1976,101–107; Urry, 2002, pp. 8–11.

14    Pinney, 1944, Britain – Destination of Tourists?, 37.

15    British Tourist and Holidays Board, 1949, Come to Britain, 6.

16    McKenney; Bransten, 1951, Here’s England: A Highly Informal Guide.

17    See Travel Association of Great Britain and Ireland, Eighteenth Annual Report, 1946, 5.

18    London, Past and Present, 1948, 10.

19    B. Rischbieth, ‘1946 – Experiences Abroad’, Rischbieth Papers, National Library of Australia, MS2004/2/3, 1.

20    B. Rischbieth, ‘1946 – Experiences Abroad’, Rischbieth Papers, National Library of Australia, MS2004/2/3, 1.

21    H. Wyndham, ‘Article for Drylight, 1946: Magazine of the Students of the Sydney Teachers’ College’, Papers, Mitchell Library, MS5089/12, 11.

22    British Australasian, 9 July 1948, 2.

23    Australia and New Zealand Weekly, 25 August 1951, 8.

24    Horne, 1947, I See the World, 40.

25    Horne, 1947, I See the World, 34.

26    Australia and New Zealand Weekly, 12 August 1949, 12.

27    Hopkins, 1963, 91.

28    Clune, 1949, Land of Hope and Glory, 3, 40, 38.

29    Wyndham, ‘Article for Drylight’, 11.

30    Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 February 1947, 15.

31    Mills, 1946-1947, ‘Letter Home’, 594–595.

32    See, Morgan, 1990, 68–77.

33    Conekin, 2003, 26–33.

34    Quoted in Gardiner, 1999, 45.

35    Morgan, 1990.

36    Nicholson, 1999.

37    British Travel and Holidays Association, 1951, Bulletin of Information, 10.

38    This total includes figures for Australian residents departing Australia for Britain temporarily and permanently. ‘Table No.30-Overseas Migration: Country of Embarkation of Persons who Arrived, and Country of Disembarkation of Persons who Departed, Australia, 1951’, Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Demography 1951: Bulletin No. 69, npd, p.30.

39    Australia and New Zealand Weekly, 12 May, 1953, 2.

40    Australia and New Zealand Weekly, 24 October 1953, l5.

41    Clift, 1989 (1970), ‘News of Earls Court – 15 Years Ago’, 54.

42    Museum of London, 2008, <>, accessed 28 October 2008.

43    Sydney Morning Herald, 18 September 1951, 2.

44    Australia and New Zealand Weekly, 12 May 1951, 2.

45    Mathams, 1937, Crowns over England, 5.

46    Letter from Thomas White to R.G. Menzies, 13 February 1952, National Archives of Australia, M2576/1,111.

47    See correspondence in National Archives of Australia, M2576/1,111.

48    Australia and New Zealand Weekly, 20 June 1953, 1.

49    Australia and New Zealand Weekly, 23 May 1953, 3.

50    Australian High Commission, London, cablegram to PM’s Department, 1 August 1952, National Archives of Australia, A462/8, 821/1/46. External Affairs Cablegram from PM’s Department to Australian High Commission, London, 30 April 1953, and official form issued by the Australian High Commission, London, NAA A462/4, 821/1/23.

51    Herald, 5 October 1952.

52    Letter, ‘Coronation Day’, 2 June 1953, Anne King Letters, Saloway Family Papers, 1856–1974, National Library of Australia, MS6442/2.

53    Nettleton, 1956, Two Eyes and a Passport , 72–74.

54    Australia and New Zealand Weekly, 20 June 1953, 16.

55    Australia and New Zealand Weekly, 8 August 1953, 15.

56    Brett, 1992, 145–150.

57    Meredith; Harrison, 1955, Inns and Outs,127.

58    Spearritt, 1988, 76.

59    McLachlan, 1989, 272.

60    Australian Gallup Polls, nos. 470–7, November–December 1947.

61    Hassam, 2000, 130–133.

62    Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983.


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Cite this chapter as: Trinca, Mathew. 2009. ‘Part of the pageant: Australian tourists in postwar London’. Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience, edited by Bridge, Carl; Crawford, Robert; Dunstan, David. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 12.1 to 12.15.


Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience

   by Carl Bridge