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The Queen and the Commonwealth

A young Queen visits New Zealand in 1954. Photo credit: Archives New Zealand.
A young Queen visits New Zealand in 1954. Photo credit: Archives New Zealand.

In the second of a series of articles on the life and reign of the Queen, Karen Bushby looks at her global role through the Commonwealth, as recalled in the archives of the Church of Ireland Gazette.

‘The Head of the Commonwealth, a title historically belonging to the British Crown, is largely ceremonial,’ states today’s online Encyclopedia Britannica. ‘Succession to the post is non–hereditary and is determined by the Heads of Government.’

Largely ceremonial it may be, but the many long and demanding trips Her Majesty the Queen made to far flung parts of the Commonwealth are indicative of the great love she had for those within this informal union of nations, and her desire to keep the Commonwealth alive. 

In the early days of her reign, matters relating to the Commonwealth were regularly reported in the Church of Ireland Gazette and they reveal the passion Her Majesty had for those peoples and countries that made up the Commonwealth, and also the love she engendered around the world.

In July 1953, as the young Princess Elizabeth was crowned Queen, the Gazette reported that the Rev Henry Nott, of the London Missionary Society, had presented to the young Queen Victoria a copy of the first Polynesian Bible ever to be printed. “It was the Tahiti Bible, and was published by the British and Foreign Bible Society,” the article states.

“Today the Society has prepared for the London Missionary Society a specially bound and inscribed copy of the Rarotongan Bible for presentation to Queen Elizabeth from the people of the Cook Islands. These islands are part of the immense archipelago of the South Pacific.”

It goes on to explain: “They were first discovered in 1606 by the Spanish navigator, Pedro Queiros, who supposed them to be the edge of that great southern continent which was the dream of Elizabethan geographers. The Spaniards made no settlement there, but the islands were explored by Captain Cook in the course of his voyage in the eighteenth century. They became a British Protectorate in 1888, and were annexed in 1901 and are now administered by New Zealand.” Something of an insight into how parts of the Commonwealth came together.

The Coronation in 1953. Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada.
The Coronation in 1953. Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada.


On November 27 1953, we read: “The heavy rain on the day of the Coronation was most disappointing, and last Monday when she [The Queen] set out on her world tour, though the visibility was said to be good, was the end of a far from perfect day. However, it is hoped that the sun will shine on her for many days of her world tour.”

That tour was considered one of the most ambitious royal tours to date. Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh flew to Bermuda and on to Jamaica, where they boarded SS Gothic which was her base for the remainder of the tour. After visits to Fiji and Tonga, Gothic reached New Zealand on December 23. February and March were spent in Australia and the return journey included Ceylon, Aden, Uganda, and Malta, where the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were reunited with their two children and before sailing via Gibraltar to London on the new Royal Yacht.

Tragedy occurred when she was in New Zealand. As the Gazette of January 1 1954 reports: “An express train on its way to Auckland, carrying many passengers to see Queen Elizabeth, fell from a tottering bridge into the River Wangaehu. It is feared that 166 people were killed.

“Investigations suggest that a volcanic eruption in a lake caused a flood in the river which destroyed the supports of the bridge just before the train was due to cross. The accident robbed Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas of expected joy and brought a note of sadness into her broadcast.”

The British and Foreign Bible Society celebrated its 150th birthday on March 7 1954, when Her Majesty was in Australia. The Gazette on April 9 carried a message from Queen Elizabeth which was read by the Governor of Victoria, Sir Dallas Brookes, at a meeting in Melbourne that day. ”On the occasion of its third jubilee I thank the British and Foreign Bible Society for their loyal message, and I congratulate them on the completion of 150 years of vigorous and constructive Christian work,” Her Majesty said.

“My family have always taken a deep interest in the work of the Society, and I pray that in Australia and throughout the world your labours in fostering a wider and deeper knowledge of the Scriptures may meet with continuing success.”

As the Royal couple were returning home, we learn that parishioners of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, were able to enjoy ‘a film illustrative of the tour of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in Australia and New Zealand’ which was shown on May 13 in connection with the Cathedral Grammar School (Gazette, May 7 1954).

And on May 21 1954, it was reported that the bells of St Columb’s Cathedral, Londonderry, rang out to welcome the royal couple home from their Commonwealth tour, with the Dean conducting a Service of Thanksgiving.

In December 1954, the Gazette carried in full a sermon preached in Westminster Abbey before Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh at the thanksgiving service for the third jubilee of the British and Foreign Bible Society by the Rev Prof James S Stewart DD.


At the start of the following year, it was reported that in 1954, Her Majesty accorded generous patronage to Empire Youth Sunday. The report indicates that Empire Youth Sunday had ‘continued to spread in a spectacular fashion throughout the Commonwealth overseas.’  In some places, such as Barbados and British Guiana, observances reached a new peak in numbers and enthusiasm. The Queen’s message was the central point of the observance, and was read by many governors and a variety of distinguished public figures including for example, the Paramount Chief of Gangwaketse who read the message in Stewsane.

The report cover features a ‘charming photograph’ of Princess Margaret arriving at Westminster Abbey for the service.

Her Majesty was in Nigeria in February 1956, and we read: “The 13,000 officers and boys of the Boys’ Brigade in Nigeria are taking part in the events which are being held during the visit of Queen Elizabeth, Patron of the organisation… A party was in attendance at the welcome at Ikeja Airport. Since the war, the Boys’ Brigade has made rapid progress in Nigeria.”

A later Gazette report reveals: “As Queen Elizabeth left Ibadan on her way to Lagos, the Nigerian crowds cried ‘Kobo’ and ‘Odigba’ – hail and farewell – with an enthusiasm and excitement which must have given her pleasure and encouragement.

“One of the events at Ibadan which is stirring to the imagination is her meeting with the Deji of Akure, a chief reputed to be 120–years–old.  His lifespan covers almost the whole history of the opening up of Nigeria.”


Her Majesty made many visits to Canada over the years. The first official visit was in October 1957, and her worshipping practices prompted some debate, which was carried in the January 31 1958 issue of the Gazette.

Under the headline ‘The Queen and the Anglican Church’, it was reported that an editorial in The British Weekly complained that the Queen and Prince Philip worshipped only in Anglican churches during their visit to North America.

This annoyed commentators in The Canadian Churchman, who pointed out that while the royal couple worshipped in Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa, when in Canada, in Washington they had worshipped not only in Washington Cathedral, but also in the Protestant church which President Eisenhower attended. ‘That was the courteous thing to do inasmuch as they were guests of the President,’ The Canadian Churchman stated.

The Toronto–based British Weekly apparently went on to complain: “It might have been supposed that instead of attending an Anglican church while in Canada, the Queen and Prince Philip would have worshipped in the United Church of Canada.’

The Canadian Churchman hit back: ”Why should they pick out one of the non–Anglican churches to attend? They are members of the Church of England which is the mother of all the Churches of the Anglican Communion. The royal couple were only attending their own Church and worshipping exactly as they would have done at home in England.”

The Gazette article goes on to say: “One Church at least in Canada appreciated the Queen’s conduct in attending Sunday worship. The editors of the Canadian Baptist paid their tribute in these words – ‘They (Canadians) are pleased and thankful that in the midst of festivity, pomp and pressure of official duty, Her Majesty the Queen went humbly, on the Sunday of her Canadian visit, to a church for prayer and worship. While there, she worshipped with the same reverence and devotion as any other Christian. In this exemplary act she was attended by her royal consort, Prince Philip, who read the Scripture Lesson in the Service of worship.’ 

“‘Canadians are proud and happy, and they gratefully thank God for such a noble Queen.’”

Gazette coverage of the Queen in Canada.
Gazette coverage of the Queen in Canada.


The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh began a State Visit to India on January 24 1961. They visited India and Pakistan, with State Visits to Nepal and Iran. The tour ended in March that year, and was the first visit by a reigning British Monarch since the Delhi Durbar of 1911 and also the first since Indian Independence in 1947.

In its issue of February 3 1961, the Church of Ireland Gazette reflected on the Royal reception in India, and how it highlighted some shortfalls on the part of British industry.

“Few of its most optimistic sponsors can have anticipated the success that has attended the visit of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh to India. It was to have been expected that they would be received with open arms by the one–time ruling classes… but the greatest demonstrations of welcome appear to have come from the mass of the people and can be taken as proof of India’s appreciation of the devoted work of generations of British administrators.

“It was, to say the least, tactless that such a welcome should have been jeopardised by the giving of so much time and publicity to such an archaic, feudal and, to most people, senseless performance as a tiger shoot.

“But what is bound to have even greater repercussions at home concerns the royal party only indirectly. At a time when Britain is striving desperately to maintain her position in the export market generally, and particularly as it effects the motor industry, the motorcars in which the Queen has travelled have been an American Cadillac and a German Mercedes–Benz.

“It has been stated that the obvious British firm was unable to supply a suitable vehicle in the time available but that Stuttgart had no difficulty in producing one in about half that time. One can only imagine the delight with which the German manufacturers seized upon their opportunity to show what they could do.

“British industry appears to have adopted as its motto ‘non possumus,’ in spite of prime ministerial slogans to the contrary.”

On February 18 1966, we learn that Her Majesty has travelled to British Guiana, which the Gazette states is ‘much in our thoughts this week’ as it had been the focus for the GFS project for the last three years.


On April 29 that same year, we learn that a stamp showing the portrait of Queen Elizabeth and the coat–of–arms of a colonial territory was declared illegal by the British Government!

A regular stamp column explains more: “It all began when Ian Smith’s white Rhodesian Government made it unilateral declaration of independence in November 1965. Such unconstitutional action was promptly condemned by Britain.

“This was followed within a few weeks by the appearance in Rhodesia of a special 2s 6d stamp to commemorate independence…

“When the new issue was announced, the British Government stated that the stamp was illegal and would not be accepted by the British Post Office.”

The stamp in question.
The stamp in question.

The article goes on to state that in practice ‘many of Britain’s postal workers either forgot about this instruction or found it difficult to distinguish from all the others in the overseas mail.’

The Commonwealth provided opportunities for people to serve around the world, and in the Gazette of July 14 1972, we read that The Queen was present at Thanksgiving Service in Singapore on the occasion of the 90th birthday of Miss AM Hind, of the Far Eastern Mission.

Miss Hind went to China in 1905, and was particularly associated with the Bible Women’s Training College, Foochow. ”On a special Sunday earlier this year, in three of the churches in Singapore – St Andrew’s Cathedral, Holy Trinity Church and the Church of Our Redeemer – special thanksgivings were offered ‘to Almighty God, our Heavenly Father for the devotional and long service for Christ in Fukien’ of Miss A M Hind,” the article states.

“On that particular Sunday, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were present in the Cathedral and with a congregation of over 2,000 people, joined in these thanksgivings. A fitting tribute to one who has done so much for Christian Mission overseas!”

We learn that Miss Hind, whose brother was Bishop John Hind, had moved to Belfast to live with her sister, but still took a keen interest in everything, especially China and the CMS of which she was a Vice–President. 


Jumping forward to 1977, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee was celebrated across the Commonwealth. In February 1977 we read: “Two of Holywood’s younger parishioners, Colin and Jocelyn Wright, are helping to organise the Northern Ireland contingent of Comex 8, the 1977 Commonwealth Expedition, which will travel overland to India as part of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations.”

In August, we learn that: “The British community in Peru are giving the money they have raised for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Trust Fund to the National SU movement, Union Biblica. This means that SU in Peru will be able to build a main hall at their new Kawai camp on the coast, 40 miles south of Lima, as a cost of around £22,000.

The Gazette report continues: “A great variety of children and young people come to Camp Kawai each year. Children from Lima’s slums, from the middle–class homes in the suburbs, and from the foreign community for the English–speaking camps. Over the years a considerable number have committed their lives to Christ and become camp leaders themselves.”


Queen Elizabeth first visited South Africa as a young princess in 1947. She returned in her capacity as Head of the Commonwealth in 1995 and again in 1999, accompanied both times by the Duke of Edinburgh.

This first visit by the monarch – and the changing political scene in South Africa – was subject to comment in the March 31 1995 issue of the Gazette.

“Sir Francis Drake once described the Cape of Good Hope as ’the fairest cape in the entire circumference of the globe.’ The description might never have been so true as it was last week as the people of Cape Town celebrated symbolically South Africa’s rehabilitation in the international community. 

“The occasion was provided by Queen Elizabeth’s six–day visit. She last went to South Africa in 1947, when her father, George VI, was the last British monarch to visit the country. Within a year, the National Party had come to power; it introduced institutionalised racism in the form of apartheid, and eventually took South Africa out of the Commonwealth and into international isolation. 

“For most of the decades that have elapsed since the last royal visit, Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island. The struggle for justice and democracy was long, but it has left surprisingly little bitterness. South Africa today is a democracy that can pride itself on its thorough–going efforts at reconciliation and bridge–building, often engineered by church leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town. 

“After 32 years of international isolation, South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth last June. That isolation and the sanctions imposed by many Commonwealth members helped create the climate that brought about a transformation from an oppressed country ruled by a racist regime to the southern hemisphere’s shining model of democracy and reconciliation. 

“The royal visit may have evoked nostalgia and a certain type of pride for South Africa’s white, English–speaking minority. But they amount to only five per cent of the population. The visit was not for a dwindling minority who cling to British passports and British identity. Instead, the value of last week’s visit was in its symbolism for all South Africans – a generous royal gesture to show that South Africa had earned a place of pride in the international community.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Photo credit: Johan Wessels.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Photo credit: Johan Wessels.

“‘The Commonwealth has welcomed us once more back into the fold, we, this recalcitrant, troublesome, strange sheep,’” Archbishop Tutu told a special service in St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town.

“’I have come back to see for myself what is little short of a miracle,” the Queen said. Praising the spirit of compromise with which Mr Mandela has guided his country to peace and freedom, she said the spirit of reconciliation in South Africa was ’a shining example to the world.’”

The commentary continues: “President Mandela decorated Queen Elizabeth with the Order of Good Hope, and she decorated the President with the Order of Merit. The Order of Merit brings no title with it; however, the real symbolism of the decoration may lie in the fact that the only other living non–British member of the Order of Merit is Mother Teresa of Calcutta. 

“But honours aside, the Queen also paid respect to those whose lives should not be forgotten in the new South Africa when she attended a special service in Cape Town’s Anglican cathedral for the 69 people killed in the Sharpeville massacre, And she showed empathy for the long sufferings of South Africa’s black majority when she visited the townships of Khayelitsha and Langa. 

The report carries on: “If royalty has a symbolic value, then Queen Elizabeth’s visit has been a real symbolic gesture, an international acknowledgement of the positive nature of the recent, but far–reaching, changes in South Africa.”


Scroll through the list of visits to the Commonwealth by Queen Elizabeth II on Wikipedia, and you cannot fail but be astounded by the sheer number of tours she has made outside the British Isles over almost seven decades as Monarch. The only two member countries she never got to visit are Cameroon, which joined the Commonwealth in 1995, and Rwanda, the most recent country to join in 2009.

Her last Commonwealth trip was to Malta in 2015, when Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh spent three days revisiting the island where they had lived as newlyweds before her accession to the throne.

While opinion may vary on the legacy of the British Empire, our late Queen proved, year after year, that as long as she was Head of the Commonwealth, she would give herself freely and unstintingly to the people of that Commonwealth, as she did to all her citizens in the United Kingdom.

With thanks to the editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette for copyright reproductions.

Readers may also be interested in yesterday’s article on the Queen’s visits to Ireland.


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