No Feast for Fear of Contagion
The newspaper and radio reports about the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to eastern Australia, the first visit by a reigning monarch, were eagerly consumed by Western Australians. WA was the last State to be visited by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh and feverish anticipation built ahead of their arrival.
But there was also a different sort of fever - a very serious and dangerous one - that was affecting the populace – Poliomyelitis. Commonly called Polio, it is virtually unknown today, but was prevalent in the early 1950s until a vaccine was produced. Polio was feared because of its capacity to infect the nervous system, destroying motor neurons and causing life long paralysis, and in some cases causing death. It affected mainly children.
The Queen’s Australian visit occurred in February/March – the summer months known to be a time of maximum activity for the Polio virus. Soon, Perth newspaper reports of the progress of the Royal Tour were joined by stories about a Polio epidemic.
The State Records Office has a 1954 Premier’s Department file titled ‘Royal Visit. Poliomyolitis (sic) Epidemic – Requests for Cancellation of Royal Tour, which contains letters from concerned community groups and individuals. For example, a letter from Mr Frankish forwarding a 5 March 1954 resolution of the Wattle Grove Parents’ and Citizens’ Association, states “that the Royal visit of our gracious Queen and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh … should be entirely cancelled.” While measures had been taken to cancel organized children’s rallies it was felt they could still congregate together to see “the Royal Progress” and the risk of “children carrying the polio virus back to their own school would be great…furthermore, the Queen, as a young mother, is being exposed, however remotely to the polio virus, and what a tragedy MAY occur when she returns to her children. Heaven forbid, but nevertheless the risk is present.” 1 Many of the letters have a regretful tone - they really did want to see the Queen - but the fear of contagion overcame their heartfelt desire.
Nevertheless the 1954 Royal Tour of WA did occur, albeit in a modified form. A ban was imposed on indoor functions, but the Queen could be seen outdoors. The planned Parliamentary Dinner was cancelled and instead another function was held in the grounds of Parliament House on 27 March 1954. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh were to appear in the gardens for 20 minutes, before been transported by car to the royal yacht ‘Gothic’ which was berthed at Fremantle.
The State Dinner cancellation did cause a degree of “deflation” among some WA Parliamentarians as described by the Country Party leader Mr Arthur Watts MLA, in a letter to Premier Hawke. He expressed the thoughts of many MPs when he stated “that the alterations to the Queen’s visit programme, have reduced the State Parliament to a mere cypher” and that for the State Dinner the wives of MPs “had gone to great trouble, not to say expense, to make themselves, ‘presentable’”. 2
The outdoor event was regarded as a success and the President of the Legislative Council , Sir Harold Seddon MLC wrote to the Premier to express his thanks to the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh for meeting the Members and their wives “the ladies, especially, are grateful that Her Majesty appeared in her robes and jewels they had only seen previously in pictures of our gracious Queen”. 3
The file records that the menus for the cancelled Parliamentary Dinner were forwarded to each person on the invitation list, even though it never occurred.