Today, it is almost impossible to imagine the coronation fever that gripped Toronto in June of 1953. Many people remember the hysteria that swept the city when Paul Henderson scored the winning goal in the Summit Series in the Soviet Union in 1972. Canada exploded with emotion. It became one of the most memorable moments in their lives, even though there had been only sixty minutes of playing time, and the build-up to the event relatively brief. Many experienced this exhilaration again in February of 2010, when Sidney Crosby slammed in the overtime goal in the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
In fairness, today, it is difficult to compare the events. In 1972, when Henderson scored the winning goal, most Canadians owned TV sets. People huddled around them in their homes, and those at work watched the game in offices and factories. Children gathered in school auditoriums.
In 1953, few people owned a TV set. For weeks, the shops and major department stores of downtown Toronto had been frantically decorating their facades, doorways, and windows. Eaton’s and Simpson’s were festooned with flags, ribbons, and banners of red, white, and blue. The most popular designs were crowns, orbs, shields, and swords of state. The city’s inner core resembled a royal court. On Sunday, 31 May, normally a quiet day, thousands travelled downtown to gaze at the decorations. A reporter wrote that Yonge Street was “hell on wheels”, as over 10,000 pedestrians and endless lines of automobiles jammed Yonge Street from Richmond to College streets. On the day prior to the big events, the business district remained crowded with gawkers. The TTC reported that the Monday evening rush hour traffic was worse than during a major snowstorm. Pandemonium ruled rather than Britannia.
On 2 June, coronation day, as first light broke across Toronto, many had been awake since the early morning hours, having risen at five o’clock to hear the live broadcast of the ceremony on the BBC from London. As the sun crept ever higher in the sky, not a cloud marred the endless expanse of blue.
Because the first films of the coronation would not arrive until late afternoon, many people travelled downtown to attend public functions. As the morning progressed, below the heights of the city hall tower, a steady stream of people passed by, most having arrived downtown on the Yonge streetcars. The crowds surged toward University Avenue to reserve a position to watch the one-hour-long garrison parade, which would begin at eleven o’clock.
Not everyone gathered at University Avenue. By the hour of eleven, people lined the streets of the downtown, within a half-mile radius of Yonge and Queen streets. Floating above the crowds were red, white, and blue balloons, their strings held tightly in the hands of young children. In the jostling, a few balloons escaped, the cries of disappointed youngsters unheard amid the din of the excited throngs. Many adults wore paper replicas of St. Edward’s Crown, while others settled for less patriotic but more practical sun hats. It was rare to find an adult or child not clutching a flag. No painter could ever have created such a scene, or any camera capture a more animated spectacle.
By noon, the temperature had reached seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit, the sky spotlessly blue. Crowds were immense at the ferry docks, waiting to journey to the Toronto Islands. Private sailboats in the harbour were decorated with flags, pennants, and signals, from bow to stern and hull to mast. All the YCYC yachts had been encouraged by the club to participate in the display. Even the Toronto ferries were trimmed in red, white, and blue. The harbour was a sea of patriotic colours.
My friends and I journeyed to Coronation Park to participate in the Township of York’s main celebration. A new park had been built, especially for the event. It was located on Eglinton Avenue, to the west of the township offices near Trethewey Avenue. Instead of bicycling over, we journeyed on the TTC, as all buses and streetcars were free for the entire day. When we arrived, several thousand people had already gathered. Officials had advertised that a whole ox was to be roasted. We wandered over to the large fire pit that they had dug, and gazed at the meat rotating on a sixteen-foot iron spit. Actually, it was not an ox, but a number of huge roasts of beef, but we did not care. Our mouths watered as we watched it sizzle in the heat of the flames and we inhaled the aroma of the cooking meat. The officials told us that servings would begin at one o’clock.
I considered the celebration as good as a day at the CNE. They gave away free ice cream bars, and at another set of kiosks, distributed free flags. As I enjoyed my vanilla bar under the hot sun, a bi-plane flew overhead and scattered a cloud of red, white, and blue cards. Cards with a royal insignia on them could be redeemed for a 1953 silver dollar.
The sun’s burning rays reflected from the back of my neck as I listened to the song “Three Cheers for the Red, White, and Blue.” The crowds stood to their feet as the band played the unofficial Canadian national anthem—“The Maple Leaf Forever.”
Shortly after three o’clock, my friends and I departed from Coronation Park and journeyed to our house to watch the coronation ceremony on our family’s new TV set.
As the evening hours of coronation day progressed, crowds flocked to the theatres of the city—Shea’s Hippodrome, the University, the Eglinton, and the Tivoli, to view the highlights of the event. As theatre patrons entered the lobbies of the film houses, newsboys were still hawking the late edition of the Toronto Star. On the front page, the huge letters of the headline proclaimed, “HAIL ER II.” The crowds at the University Theatre were thrilled as they watched the majestic scenes within the great abbey. It resembled a living moving canvas, painted by the masters of old Europe, rich in detail and brilliant with colour.
As darkness deepened across the far-flung avenues of Toronto, families with young children commenced the preparations that time eternal dictated be performed at day’s end. Curtains were closed against the night, as porch lights glowed in the enfolding darkness. Children, tired after an exhausting day’s revelling, were sad that the long-awaited day had ended, but their parents were glad of the opportunity to don their slippers and put out the feline pets. For them, the curtain on the spectacle of spectacles was slowly drawing to a close
Not all was still throughout the great metropolis. Beacon fires that had been lit at dusk in six Toronto public parks, glowed ever brighter, their flames rising in the blackened sky as people added fuel to the crackling flames. The odour of smoke infused the night air. At one of the community celebrations, well after the hour of ten, fifteen thousand people still milled around the celebratory bonfires. Some were sipping on secretly held bottles of firewater, but no reports of unruliness were reported.
At the Sunnyside Beach beside the lake, the largest fireworks displays of the decade illuminated the firmament, their reflected light sparkling on the inky surface of the water. People across the lake in Lewistown, New York, saw the flashes of the exploding rockets above the city.
It had been the fourth coronation of the century, following those of King Edward VII, George V, and King George VI, but the only one that had been witnessed by the people of the world through the magic of television and film.
The above passage is from the murder/mystery “The Reluctant Virgin.” The novel also contains detailed descriptions of the coronation broadcast on CBLT, the Canadian TV station.
I have spent much of my adult life researching and photographing Toronto. I love the city and enjoy exploring it through my writing. One of the books, “The Villages Within”, was short-listed for the Toronto Heritage Awards. If interested in novels with a Toronto setting, descriptions of the books are available by following the link: https://tayloronhistory.wordpress.com/2012/03/22/toronto-author-publishes-seventh-novel/
They can be purchased in soft cover or electronic editions. All books are available at Chapters/Indigo and on Amazon.com. The electronic editions are less that $4 on Kobo and Kindle. Follow the links:
There Never Was a Better Time: http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000056586/THERE-NEVER-WAS-A-BETTER-TIME.aspx
Arse Over Teakettle: http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000132634/Arse-Over-Teakettle.aspx
The Reluctant Virgin; http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000188306/The-Reluctant-Virgin.aspx
The Villages Within: http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000175211/The-Villages-Within.aspx
Author’s Home Page: https://tayloronhistory.wordpress.com/
Authors can be contacted at: [email protected]