King's College London
Online Exhibitions
Representing the unfamiliar: Photography in the British Empire 1866-1938

Royal ceremony in the Empire

Cover of a programme of a football match held in Accra in 1937, to mark the coronation of George VICover of a programme of a football match held in Accra in 1937, to mark the coronation of George VIPhotograph of coronation celebrations in Hong Kong, showing the procession, with a float decorated with a dragonPhotograph of coronation celebrations in Hong Kong, showing the procession, with a float decorated with a dragonAs David Cannadine has argued, the British monarchy’s place as a ‘unifying symbol of permanence,’ was misleading.

In his exposition of royal ceremonial tradition, Cannadine has highlighted how after the death of William IV there was a sustained effort to improve the standard and tone of royal ritual. Under Victoria, royalty took on a new ‘splendid and public,’ role, revitalising popular support for the monarchy.

What’s more, towards the latter half of the 19th century, the British monarchy became explicitly imperial. In 1876, Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli bestowed upon Victoria the title of Empress of India, thus merging Britain’s colonial expansion with the royal titles and ceremony.

Within this imperial context and with the help of new radio technology, which enabled the new King’s coronation address to be broadcast throughout the Empire, the coronation of George VI acted as an empire-wide event.

The population of the British metropole and colonies could mark the crowning of a new sovereign, and the investiture of his new imperial titles.

George VI was hereby crowned King, solving the constitutional crisis gripping the country and acting as a stabilising influence for the monarchy, after Edward VIII had abdicated to become Duke of Windsor.

The significance and novelty of the event did not pass without comment. ‘Never before has a newly crowned King been able to talk to all his people in their own homes on the day of his coronation,’ George VI said in his address and ‘never before has the day itself had so wide a significance.’

The three reproductions exhibited here are taken from despatches sent to the Colonial Office by various colonial governments, acknowledging and demonstrating the celebrations that took place throughout the empire to mark this coronation.

Photograph of a Garden Party at the Commissioner's House in Larnaca, Cyprus to mark the coronation of George VI. Tables laid out on the lawn with crowds of people presentPhotograph of a Garden Party at the Commissioner's House in Larnaca, Cyprus to mark the coronation of George VIFrom recognisably ‘royal’ events such as a Cypriot garden-party, to street parades in Hong Kong, these documents contain a wealth of information and a diverse set of reactions to the Coronation. In many ways, they amount to a demonstration of the sheer size and complexity of the Empire at this point.

Far from being universally celebratory, the despatches from Cyprus reflect tensions amongst the Greek and Turkish Cypriot populations on the island before the events to mark the Coronation. In general, however the outpouring of sentiment struck a remarkably positive and popular tone.

Link to King's College London catalogue record:

Great Britain. Colonial Office. Enclosures accompanying despatches received from Colonies, etc. reporting on the local celebrations of the coronation of His Majesty King George VI. 1937

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