University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Royal Adventures

The latest prince to visit campus got the last laugh, but the very first prince most certainly got the last dance. A look at royal visits to U of T

John Fraser, master of Massey College, received the good news last June: Prince Philip would drop by on Oct. 10 to help Massey College celebrate its 40th anniversary. Three days later, some 47 protocol, security and government officials descended on the college to plan the 45-minute event. They hailed from Buckingham Palace, the Department of Canadian Heritage and the province’s protocol office.

It was determined that there should be a plaque to commemorate the visit, and that Massey would make Philip the first honorary senior fellow. Fraser nominated two of U of T’s most distinguished scholars – Nobel Prize winner John Polanyi and Professor Emeritus Ursula Franklin – to pull the gown over the duke’s shoulders. In keeping with the changing times and the prince’s easygoing style, this visit was to be a relaxed and laid-back affair. The guest list was contained to 400.

Meanwhile, U of T journalism fellows (enjoying a year’s sabbatical from deadlines, thanks to a unique U of T study program based at the college) started an underground pool, proposing verbal gaffes Prince Philip might commit during his visit. (As is well documented, the Queen’s husband can toss off a few.) “Do you design tractors here, then?” may well have been a leading contender in the duke speak-stakes as well as a dart at founder Vincent Massey – an anglophile who used his family’s Canadian-made tractor-building fortune to create Massey College and Hart House.

All bets were on when the royal entourage arrived for the 10:45 a.m. ceremony. The sun shone – “at the duke’s bidding,” says Polanyi. Those who could not pack into the quadrangle peered from windows above. Amid the pomp of protocol and circumstance of security, the duke proceeded to delight everyone. He made it seem, as all great royals do, that this occasion, of all on the jubilee junket, was most special to him. Says Polanyi, “He focused on each person and charmed them. People may be skeptical of royalty, but [they] came out for the duke’s visit. It put our young college into the stream of history.”

Indeed, the duke seemed determined not to disappoint anyone – even the pundits. On meeting them, he commented to Fraser that their study year sounded like a holiday, then added, “I guess their victims get a holiday, too.” They were skewered and they loved it.

Then the prince was off. “It was a glorious day,” says Franklin. “Informal, brisk and pleasant for everyone.” Afterward, Fraser ruminated on the point of it all: “It’s a chance to bring people together, to focus on what your institution is about and what it is doing. If a royal visit goes well, it makes people feel better about the institution.”

This Prince Had a Ball
Alas, U of T had to work considerably harder to make its first-ever royal visitor feel good about the university. In 1860, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, embarked on his first royal tour of Canada. He arrived in Toronto on Sept. 7 to streets adorned with flags and decorations and 5,000 singing schoolchildren.

Keen to impress the 19-year-old son of the stuffy Queen Victoria (he would be crowned King Edward VII 41 years later), Trinity University and Knox College treated him to a solemn address of loyalty followed by a divine service at St. James’ Cathedral. The service was delivered by the founder of both King’s and Trinity, Bishop John Strachan, still strong-winded at 82. On a second visit, the university made the young prince endure yet another solemn address, topping it off with what was no doubt a scintillating tour of the Education Department of the province.

That night, however, university officials discovered that Victoria’s boy was eager for a new and considerably lighter era. Having already cultivated a reputation as a playboy and rake back home, the prince took the pulse of the grand ball (held to conclude his U of T visit) – and danced until four in the morning.

This Prince Got Squashed
The next royal visit to U of T suited the style of the guest perfectly: it was a surprise, even to the university. The caller was the young Prince of Wales, who would become Edward VIII, the king who shocked the world by abdicating the throne in 1936 to marry divorcée Wallis Simpson. But this call came well before all of that, when the prince was on a tour of Toronto in 1924 and found himself fancying a game of squash.

After meeting Hart House warden J.B. Bickersteth at a dinner party, David (the name that his family called him) asked if he could pop by the house for a game. The downtown papers were desperate to find out the prince’s morning agenda, but Bickersteth reserved the scoop for The Varsity student newspaper. In Ian Montagnes’ 1969 book, An Uncommon Fellowship: The Story of Hart House, Bickersteth recalls, “I said yes, but the undergraduates would have to be told because the House did not belong to me, but to them. I let our [Varsity] fellows know on the condition that they not distribute their papers until [the prince] was in the House.”

The next morning, the prince held court on the squash courts, playing several games against students – and losing almost every one. No one could guess, however, that the regal ego had taken a dusting. When told that he was about to be mobbed by U of T students on leaving Hart House, the prince, Bickersteth noted, “was delighted, came sauntering down the stairs, and was immediately engulfed by hordes of undergraduates outside the library, down the main stairs, in the hall below, down to his car.”

The warden observed that in the students’ hearts, at least, the prince was a clear winner. “He was at his very best ragging around them. They patted him on the back, and he laughed back at them and behaved simply charmingly.”

But 12 years later, Hart House members and Bickersteth gathered around a radio set to listen sadly as King Edward, who came up a loser in the court of royal opinion regarding his engagement, tossed in the towel.

This King Was Not Sloshed
In May 1939, Hart House would test the mettle of another royal, Edward VIII’s younger brother, the shy and stammering King George VI. He and Queen Elizabeth (parents of the current Queen) arrived for a luncheon in the Great Hall, met by a throng of 12,000 who crowded onto the front campus.

Enduring such a crush would surely warrant a drink, especially for the King, who regularly soothed his nerves by chain-smoking and drinking whisky and soda water, or Moselle, his wine of choice. Though willing to slip a shot or two to the royal tipplers, the university did not serve alcohol at that time, and was reluctant to test rural reaction by doing so. When a Government House official discovered that no one else would be imbibing, he declared, “Then the King can’t either.”

Nevertheless, the duteous royal couple were able to enjoy themselves. Wrote the future Queen Mum via cablegram from the royal train afterward: “The King and I wish to tell you what pleasure it gave us to visit Hart House. We do so appreciate the wonderful work that is being done there and were deeply moved by [the] marvellous reception.” Though no doubt their hearts grew fonder after chugging a tipple or two on the tracks, there’s no proof that the Queen’s missing article was actually a hic.

This Princess Was Hardly Here at All
Twelve years later, Hart House revelled in another 15 minutes of royal fame – literally. On Oct. 13, 1951, George VI’s eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth (who would become Queen two years later) and her husband, Prince Philip, popped by the House for a visit, following this itinerary set by zealous university registrar J.C. Evans:
12:00 p.m. Enter underpass
12:04 p.m. Proceed around campus and arrive at west door of Hart House
12:06 p.m. Proceed into Hart House
12:08 p.m. Arrive at dais of Great Hall
12:14 p.m. Leave dais
12:15 p.m. Leave steps in front of east door of Hart House

Former U of T chancellor and Governor General Vincent Massey wrote in his memoirs: “I met the royal visitors at the door of Hart House, and conducted them past the junior members of the faculty in the quadrangle into the Great Hall, where senior dons provided a dazzling array of academic colour. A brief speech of welcome, a charming reply from the Princess, God Save the King – and the visit was over.”

No time for a dance, squash, lunch, a tipple or a witty retort. Clearly, Warhol was a bloody fool. Come back, Liz, we say, come back. We hardly know you.

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  1. 3 Responses to “ Royal Adventures ”

  2. Staff says:

    I thought the coverage of the royals quite clever. For me, as a teenager (born in 1924), the visit of the King and Queen in 1939 was a momentous occasion, and much of what went on and what was said made a lasting impression on me. You call George VI “shy and stammering,” but one thing that was remarked on was that the King spoke without a stammer. Apparently, he was quite forceful when greeting people. My parents were involved in some of the civic and military functions, and the visit was discussed for days by everyone.

    I realize you wanted to keep the tone of your article light, but the cartoonist missed the point with the King’s consort, Queen Elizabeth; she came across as a beautiful, extremely well-dressed lady who charmed everyone.

    James H. MacKendrick
    North Saanich, B.C.

  3. Staff says:

    The authors of this article included Princess Elizabeth’s very brief visit on Oct. 13, 1951, noting that she “would become Queen two years later.” Elizabeth became Queen less than four months later on the death of her father, George VI, on Feb. 6, 1952. Although she was already Queen, her coronation took place on June 2, 1953. Prince Philip’s visit to Massey College on Oct. 10, 2002, was part of the Golden Jubilee tour of Canada celebrating Elizabeth’s 50 years as Queen since her accession to the throne in 1952.

    Graeme A. Barry
    MA 1992
    Saint John, N.B.

  4. mary wilson says:

    I believe the Queen Mother visited Hart House in either 1980 or 1981, I was a summer student on the grounds crew that prepared the front entrance for her visit. The article is a nice reminder of how the university was built.