20th Century Royal Visitors to Shrewsbury

Daniel Harris is a volunteer at Shropshire Archives and has been researching royal and celebrity visitors to Shrewsbury in the 20th century:

Visit of Princess Margaret to open the new Shrewsbury Library building, 19th may 1984

Visit of Princess Margaret to open the new Shrewsbury Library building, 19th May 1984

In 1914 The Shrewsbury Chronicle reported that ‘there are but few towns in the provinces which can boast they have been favoured with more royal visits than those that have been paid to Shrewsbury’. The 20th century did indeed see a succession of royal visits to Shropshire’s county town, and not all of them British. Our story begins in 1914, when King George V visited that year’s Shropshire Royal Agricultural Show on the 3rd July. The thousands of people who thronged the streets on that occasion were greeted with the words:
“It gives me great pleasure to visit your ancient and picturesque town on this historic occasion. You have related the history of Shrewsbury, once the scene of many famous battles memorable in the annals of this country and in these happier, present and quieter days, a flourishing centre of peaceful pursuits.”

The use of the phrase ‘peaceful pursuits’ is an interesting one in light of the assassination, just five days earlier of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife. On the 4th August, just a month after the King’s visit to Shrewsbury, the United Kingdom was to declare war on Germany to protect Belgium. The war was predicted to be over for Christmas but nobody meant Christmas of 1918. There seems little sense of the impending disaster in The Shrewsbury Chronicle’s report of the King’s visit. The report, typical of its time, records a great deal of excitement from the thousands who lined the route to the show but little of substance. In July 1914 Herbert Asquith was still Prime Minister.

Fast forward to 8 July 1925 and the visit of Princess Helena Victoria to Shrewsbury. Helena Victoria was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Born on 3rd May 1870, Helena Victoria was Patron of Women’s Auxiliary Services and of the YMCA. It was in this latter capacity that she visited Shrewsbury. In the old Shire Hall the Princess received ‘purses’ towards the work of the YMCA. A string quartet was on hand to play the music, among others, of Edward German. Other events in that year included the dismissal of Leon Trotsky as Chief Executive Officer of the Russian Revolutionary Military Council. On January 29th David Lloyd George became leader of the Liberal Party and on 18th June Adolf Hitler published Mein Kampf. In a further ominous development that year Benito Mussolini disbanded the Italian socialist parties.

Next up in 1927, by which time Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer and Britain endured the gold standard fiasco, came the visit of Queen Mary, largely, it seems, to go shopping. Mary arrived at Yorton station: The Shrewsbury Chronicle includes a photograph, originally published in The Daily Mail, of her crossing the railway line accompanied by the Duke of Cambridge. A shopping spree, detailed in the newspaper, then follows. The Queen visits Mr Reynolds’ shop in Dogpole, where she bought a fine Sheraton writing table. Next stop was My Pye’s Antique shop in Butcher Row where nothing was purchased but the Queen was, apparently, highly amused by one of the shopkeeper’s anecdotes about a yard of ale glass. Next up was Milk Street and Mr Carter’s establishment there, from where a mahogany table was purchased. Jewellery and an antique clock were also bought. No explanation is given as to why Shrewsbury should have been the chosen venue for this orgy of antique shopping.

In 1929 came the Wall Street crash, the opening of hostilities between Russia and China, and Stalin’s expulsion of Leon Trotsky from the Soviet Union. The British General Election on 31st May returned a hung parliament, with the Liberals holding the balance of power. On 7th June the Tories conceded power rather than work with the Liberals and Ramsay MacDonald formed the country’s second Labour government. Slightly less significantly, perhaps, the Sultan of Zanzibar visited Shrewsbury. Indeed, as The Shrewsbury Chronicle reported, Shrewsbury appeared to be specialising in the entertainment of Sultans. Just a few months previously the Sultan of Muscat had visited. The Sultan of Zanzibar visited the town on June 13th, whilst en route from Stratford upon Avon to Manchester. For it’s time the Sultan and his entourage must have presented an exotic spectacle. The Sultan, whose full title was His Highness Seyyid Khalifa Murub, was accompanied by his son, Seyyid Abdulla and by his aide-de-camp Sheikh Seif bin Suleiman. The royal party were met at the county boundary by two officers of the Shropshire Constabulary mounted on motorcycles, who acted as their escort. At the borough boundary the Chief Constable, one Frank Davies, took charge and conducted the Sultan and his retinue to the Raven Hotel. A ‘good sized crowd’ watched his arrival, apparently. After lunch the party visited the castle. The newspaper reports the three visitors wore their native costume of turbans and dark robes, edged with red and gold over long vestments and white linen. His Highness also wore, we are advised, brown suede shoes! A big crowd lined the street to watch the party’s visit to the castle. The Sultan smiled cheerfully at the crowd and readily posed for his photograph to be taken. Once at the castle itself the Sultan was met by the Mayor, Alderman JH Perks and Councillor F Withers. The members of the party were presented with souvenirs and were shown round the castle, the strategic position of which, surrounded almost entirely by the river as it is, they remarked upon. The Sultan particularly admired the decorations of the Mayor’s retiring room and the Laura Tower. The Mayor’s chain interested him, and its significance was explained. The party then proceeded to Manchester. Quite what the purpose of this tour of Britain was is not explained. A clue may be in a subsequent newspaper report on 21st June recording that ‘the popularity of the Raleigh bicycle throughout East Africa is such that the Sultan of Zanzibar has expressed a wish to see where the all steel bicycle is made’. Consequently, arrangements were made for His Majesty to visit the Raleigh factory at Nottingham.

And then in 1932 Shrewsbury was visited by the Prince of Wales, the future uncrowned Edward VIII who would eventually abdicate in 1936. He came to Shrewsbury to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the movement of Shrewsbury School to larger premises. The Prince arrived by air, landing on a field in Harlescott. The newspaper again records the presence of thousands of people lining the route south to the castle. There was much cheering as the royal party entered the castle to take lunch with the Mayor. On their way in the party received a ‘warm reception’ from a party of schoolchildren assembled in the courtyard. After lunch the Prince of Wales attended a commemorative service in St Mary’s and then went on to Shrewsbury School where he laid the foundation of a new building. At this point the Prince of Wales gave an address which made reference to the medieval Prince of Wales who was hung, drawn and quartered in Shrewsbury and praised the school for the way it upheld the traditions of the past. He also made reference to the now entirely forgotten attempted ‘speech day bombing’ of St Bees’ school on the west coast of what was then Cumberland. In this bizarre incident an ‘odd sound’ was heard during the proceedings but ‘no heed’ was paid to it. Then in the evening two boys were in the vicinity where the Bishop in attendance had sat and discovered a box containing ‘two metal cylinders’ which they took to the headmaster. The cylinders were attached to a clock set at 3.30pm, the precise time when Lord Lloyd, also in attendance, had been giving out prizes. The police were summoned and the device declared not merely to be a bomb, but the work of an expert. Two men from, for some unknown reason, Macclesfield, were eventually charged under the Explosives Act. In 1932 Ramsay MacDonald was heading up a national government. Also by 1932 Adolf Hitler was leader of the Nazi Party and the following year would become Chancellor.

In 1949 the Prime Minister was Clement Attlee. In April of that year Ireland left the Commonwealth and became the Republic of Ireland. 1949 also saw the division of Germany into two nations: the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic. 12th May of this year saw the lifting of the blockade by the Soviet Union. 1949 also saw the foundation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The year also saw Newfoundland became the 10th province of Canada. And in 1949 the young Princess Elizabeth and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh visited Shrewsbury. The young couple were received by the Mayors of Shrewsbury. A massive crowd gathered at Abbey Foregate as the procession passed Henry VII House. The Duke of Edinburgh is described as looking debonair. Church bells rang out. Shrewsbury Museum faced disappointment however. The royal couple had been due to visit but on the day it was felt that time did not allow and the visit didn’t happen. This visit can be compared and contrasted to the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1932. Both visits were from heirs to the throne, though with very different futures ahead of them. The newspaper shows Princess Elizabeth inspecting the showground. The Duke asked about pottery. The royals’ day ended at the station where a large crowd was present to bid them goodbye. One wonders if this day brought a moment of much needed colour to the town. This was still a time of austerity: rationing was still in place. In fact this wasn’t popular but actually ensured a relatively healthy diet.

Winston Churchill had become Prime Minister in October 1951. George VI dies in February 1952 and is succeeded by the former Princess Elizabeth, though her coronation won’t happen until 1953. In February Greece and Turkey join NATO. Churchill scraps the UK National Identity Card scheme. Also in February Churchill announced the UK has the atomic bomb. The Olympics were held in Helsinki, Finland. On the 4th November Eisenhower won the Presidency. On 24th October 1952 the now Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh return to Shrewsbury to open a new terrace at Shrewsbury School. There the royals were greeted by the headmaster and amused by a science experiment.

The royal couple returned to Shrewsbury yet again on 24 October 1967, this time to officially open the new Shirehall, to be the new accommodation for Shropshire County Council. The Prime Minister of the day was Labour’s Harold Wilson. Gas was discovered in the North Sea and on 6th July that year the Biafran war broke out in the former British colony of Nigeria. Fighting was ongoing in Vietnam and Lyndon B Johnson remained as President of the USA, whilst in the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev was president.

The next royal visitor to Shrewsbury wasn’t until 1984. By this time Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and Princess Margaret came to open the new Shrewsbury Library, in buildings formerly occupied by Shrewsbury School. Princess Margaret, also Countess of Snowdon. Hundreds of people had gathered outside the near 500 year old sandstone building on Castle Gates. At noon exactly the royal black and maroon Rolls Royce pulled up outside the library building. A brass ensemble played as the princess met local civic leaders. Margaret described the restoration work as ‘absolutely magnificent’. During her four hour visit she also went to Shrewsbury School and the Brownlow Community Centre in Whitchurch.

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