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What were MPs debating ahead of the Queen's coronation in 1953?

(Alamy)

7 min read

What were MPs debating in the run up to the last coronation, 70 years ago? Issues very much of their time; and others that wouldn’t be out of place today. Patrick Kidd takes a stroll through the archives

Winston Churchill was in a forgiving mood as the last coronation approached. Among the measures introduced to celebrate the new reign, the prime minister announced in February 1953 an amnesty for those who had refused to fight for king and country during the Second World War.

Some 10,000 deserters, the vast majority of whom were now overseas, were told that as a coronation gift they would be spared a court martial if they turned themselves in, while those serving sentences for desertion during the war would be released.

It was an act of kindness that ended what lieutenant colonel Marcus Lipton, MP for Brixton, called an “eight-year manhunt” and would allow them to return to family and community life. Though, the generosity backfired slightly when 400 men who had deserted outside of the dates of the war also came forward and faced arrest, before Churchill decided to give them too a one-time-and-no-more offer of clemency.

Emrys Hughes asked whether, since the signal wouldn’t stretch into remote Scotland, the postmaster general could arrange for the coronation procession to pass through Aberdeen

The treatment of deserters was just one of the special coronation subjects debated by Parliament in the run-up to events at the Abbey 70 years ago. A sift through Hansard for the first six months of 1953 reveals concerns being raised about rationing, profiteering, littering, broadcasting and the coronation’s impact on the sex industry.

The last particularly bothered Lipton, who 20 years later, concerned by the hysteria at Bay City Rollers concerts, would demand the destruction of pop music before it destroyed society. In 1953, however, he was more flustered by what he claimed was a proliferation of “dubiously worded advertisements by which women, advertising their name, address or telephone number, invite the public to communicate with them”, which he had seen all over the West End, and were clearly hoping to cash in on the coronation tourist trade.

Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the then-home secretary, told Lipton that there was no power to prevent the display of such adverts, so long as they were not obscene, but that the police were keeping watch on them to make sure that they did not lead to dodgy goings-on. “I emphasise that they are not numerous,” Maxwell Fyfe added. “Do not let us unnecessarily cry stinking fish about our own people.” Lieutenant colonel Montgomery Hyde (Ulster Unionist, Belfast North) then asked the honourable and gallant Lipton if he had ever replied to one of these adverts. Alas, his response was not recorded.

Lipton was also upset about television rental firms charging hospitals £11 10s per set that they rented for coronation day. “A heartless example of coronation profiteering,” he said. “A crude exploitation of sick people.” They were not the only ones cashing in. Elaine Burton, former Labour MP for Coventry South, asked the Board of Trade about price hikes for London hotel rooms, with some doubling what they normally charged. 

Sir Henry Mackeson, the then-junior minister, said he would “strongly deprecate” any attempt by hotels to fleece coronation tourists, but added that plenty of cheaper accommodation could be found within an hour and a half of London. Ipswich, it was suggested by the town’s MP, was the best place to get a coronation hotel deal.

Others were concerned that their constituents would be unable to watch the coronation on TV since they were too far away to receive a signal.

“People in West Cornwall feel great disappointment that they will not be able to have the television facilities which other parts of the country have,” Greville Howard, then-Conservative MP for St Ives, said. Emrys Hughes, then-Labour MP for South Ayrshire, asked whether, since the signal wouldn’t stretch into remote Scotland, the postmaster general could arrange for the coronation procession to pass through Aberdeen.

Several requests were just as optimistic. Thomas Brown, then-Labour MP for Ince, asked if pensioners could each get 10 shillings as a coronation bonus.

Robin Turton, the then-pensions minister, replied that since there were 4,750,000 of them that would come at quite a cost. Emrys Hughes’s suggestion that the War Office could save plenty of money by asking the Salvation Army to blow their trumpets on coronation day rather than using the 47 military bands that had been arranged was similarly brushed aside.
Jean Mann, then-Labour MP for Coatbridge, was concerned about whether allowing the coronation tradition of roasting an ox for the occasion was fair given that the country was still under rationing. Major Gwilym Lloyd George, the then-minister for food, said local authorities could do this so long as the cooked meat was given away free. “But where do they get an ox?” Mann asked, “Some have not even got a mutton chop.”

Norman Dodds, then-Labour MP for Dartford, drawing on comments by angry members of the Housewives’ League about the “inadequate” temporary increase in the ration of sugar and margarine, suggested that some people would rather roast the minister. “As I would have to issue the licence, it is very unlikely that that would happen,” Lloyd George said. Dodds was also cross that villages could apply to roast an ox but not a sheep.

“Another classical example of privilege,” he said. Bob Boothby, then-Conservative MP for East Aberdeenshire, wondered whether they could roast herrings instead.

They were not the only animals needing support. William Williams, then-Labour MP for Heston and Isleworth, was disgusted that the Ministry of Agriculture was encouraging people to cull grey squirrels, inviting them to send in their tails for which they would receive a shilling. “Is it not despicable, especially in coronation year, to deprive these poor things of their tails?” he asked.  Sir Thomas Dugdale, the agriculture minister, replied that they were “tree rats”.

Tax was also causing concern. Barnett Janner, then-Labour MP for Leicester North West, wanted a removal of the 33⅓ per cent purchase tax on window boxes; Anthony Hurd, then-Conservative MP for Newbury, said that 66⅔ per cent was chargeable on souvenir badges for children. Irene Ward, then-Conservative MP for Tynemouth, was worried that souvenirs were being sold that had not been produced in the Commonwealth. She said the importation of pencils, coloured red, white and blue and marked “Made in Germany”, had caused “great annoyance to a number of people”. Is this what they fought the war for?

There were also questions about allowing children from the provinces to line the route in the capital. “Why should London school children have all the opportunities and children in the provinces have none?” asked Percy Shurmer, then-Labour MP for Birmingham Sparkbrook. He would not have been happy with the announcement that “in accordance with long-established tradition” 400 standing places in Parliament Square were reserved for boys of Westminster School. “Can we not break with tradition and have 400 children from Bermondsey instead?” asked Bob Mellish, a then-south London Labour MP.

In the Lords they were more concerned about their own places at the coronation. The then-lord chancellor Lord Simonds faced disgruntled peers who had been subject to a ballot for tickets, explaining that attending the Abbey was not a constitutional right and that they could pay homage to their Queen on other occasions. He reminded them that not even the Archbishop of Canterbury had a right to be at the coronation, recalling that when Mary I was crowned, she had sent the Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to the Tower before the ceremony.
The then-Marquess of Salisbury went on to explain that the number of dignitaries who had to attend, including from the Commonwealth, had vastly increased since the previous coronation – and then there were all their wives to be considered. “I only wish that Westminster Abbey had grown at the same pace,” he sighed. Seventy years on, the Abbey is no bigger – but the parliamentary contingent at this coronation will be far smaller. 

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