Breaking Royal Precedent?: The Escuminac Disaster and the Royal Tour of 1959

By Barry MacKenzie

The most recent season of Netflix’s The Crown includes a moving episode about the horrific disaster which befell the community of Aberfan, Wales, when in October 1966 an unsafe and poorly monitored coal tip avalanched and buried a portion of the village, killing 144 people (116 of them children). The episode focuses in part on the controversial decision by the Queen to avoid visiting the village until more than a week had passed, a decision which some have suggested is the greatest regret of her long reign. As someone who studies royal tours of Canada, my mind was immediately drawn to the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit with widows and orphans of a Canadian disaster which took place just seven years before Aberfan.

DG 14 jul 1959 p1 donation to fundIn the summer of 1959, the Escuminac Disaster weighed heavily on the minds of many New Brunswickers after it claimed the lives of 35 men and boys from the province, 31 from the Escuminac area.  On the night of 20/21 June, a violent storm unexpectedly struck the Northumberland Strait, and dozens of fishing boats were stranded on the open water as they were tossed about. Tales of bravery and sacrifice abounded, and whole families were devastated by the loss of fathers and sons. On 22 June, Lord Beaverbrook, a son of the Miramichi, pledged $5,000 to kick-off a relief fund established by the Fredericton Daily Gleaner, the Atlantic Advocate, and the Red Cross.  Donations poured in from around the world, and on 14 July, news broke that the Queen and Prince Philip, who had begun a 45-day tour of Canada just days before the disaster, had made a donation of an undisclosed amount to the fund, in what was called “a departure from royal precedent.”[1]  According to the Daily Gleaner, “It is the first time the Queen has made such a donation in Canada, and possibly the first time for any cause outside the United Kingdom.”[2] The parish priest in Baie Ste. Anne, one of the fishing communities most devastated by the storm, told reporters that “‘just knowing the Queen has given something will be a great help.’”[3]

An editorial in the Saint John Evening Times-Globe perhaps manifested the reaction of many New Brunswickers when it suggested that the donation “has tightened the already close bonds between Canadians and the Royal Family. For it is in times of distress that the family nature of those ties is demonstrated as in no other way.”[4]  The editor of the Gleaner was equally full of praise, noting that “When Queen Elizabeth heard of New Brunswick’s Miramichi Bay fishing tragedy, her sympathy went out to the bereaved. She asked to be kept informed of developments as she continued her tour of Canada. Now Her Majesty has translated words into action that will warm every heart throughout Canada and the Commonwealth.”[5]

The donation served two purposes: “as a useful financial gift and as a reminder to Canadians that the Fund is still open and that the need is still great.”[6] The editor of the Moncton Daily Times agreed that “Through that totally unexpected and eminently gracious demonstration of sympathy and understanding, Queen Elizabeth greatly uplifted the spirits of those so cruelly handled by fate, and by so doing also gave Royal endorsement to the need and worthiness of the fund…”[7]

MT Jul 31 1959 p5 photo with widowsIn an even more unexpected development, in mid-July it was announced that the royal itinerary would include a meeting between the Sovereign and the grieving families. Curiously, a decision was reached in the corridors of power that allowed only the widows and children of victims whose bodies had been recovered to be present; nineteen victims were still missing by late July.  The Gleaner’s editor suggested that the meeting could well become one of the highlights of the tour and applauded the announcement:

The Queen asked to see these unfortunates out of her own compassion. The effect of bringing these women and children to Point du Chêne …puts them in the international spotlight. This the Queen knows. Countless cameras and television lenses will be focused on them. The columns of countless newspapers will be opened to their plight and stories will be written by some of journalism’s leading craftsmen. […] National attention will be drawn…to the meeting of the Queen of the storm’s victims.[8]

The editor of the Daily Times was equally confident about what the visit would mean:

Throughout her long and at time arduous tour of Canada…Queen Elizabeth has personally met countless numbers of government officials, municipal dignitaries and representatives of many levels and areas of Canadian life. But it can truly be said that, of all her personal contacts with loyal subjects within this Dominion, none will hold greater meaning for Her Majesty, or evoke more heartfelt feelings – as a wife and mother – that her meeting…with 16 bereaved widows and their families, whose hardy fishermen husbands were tragically taken from them…[9]

The editor went on to applaud the “warm and sincere gesture” and suggested that it would “further strengthen the hearts of the widows and fatherless children…”[10]

Although the stop was relatively brief, the Canadian Press painted a poignant picture of the meeting between the Queen and the widows:

A tiny grey-haired woman in black, surrounded by 12 of her 18 surviving children, sat on a Northumberland Strait wharf here Wednesday night and blinked back the tears as she received a sympathetic smile and kind word from Queen Elizabeth. / It was a moment of solemnity that contrasted with the usually gray atmosphere of the Royal Tour.[11]

The Gleaner noted that many women, including the Queen, were seen to weep as she “conversed with the widows in French and English and listened to the heart-rending stories of the wives who lost their loved ones on that fateful night and morning.”[12]

A clergyman from nearby Chatham commented, “Some think it will be an ordeal, but I don’t think so. The Queen isn’t that kind of a woman. I think they’ll enjoy it – it will break the tedium of life. And these people need something like that now.”[13]  Whether or not the widows and orphans of the disaster found the event an ordeal or not was overshadowed by a general sense of appreciation. Many of the widows were touched by the gesture, including one woman who had lost her eldest son: “It was so nice of the Queen to spend the time with us. I told her how much we appreciated it and also how much we appreciated her gift to the Fishermen’s Disaster fund. She spoke to us with such understanding and sympathy and was so kind and thoughtful.”[14]

The whole event put a very human face on the 1959 visit, reminding those who were present at Pointe-du-Chêne that the Queen was a young wife and mother, like many who had lost loved ones. As many predicted, the meeting between the widows, mothers and orphans of victims of the disaster (as well as eight survivors) was a moment sure to be etched for all time in the memories of those who were present. Whether or not these grieving people were therefore “better able to face an uncertain future,” it is certain that this special event on the royal itinerary did a great deal to draw attention to their plight.


Barry MacKenzie teaches Maritime and Canadian history at St. FX University. His recently completed PhD research focused on royal tours of New Brunswick and the Anglophone press. His broader research and teaching interests include the Canadian monarchy, commemoration, and immigration.


Notes:

[1] Evening Times-Globe, 14 July 1959, 1.

[2] Daily Gleaner, 14 July 1959, 1.

[3] Ibid, 14 Jul 1959, p1

[4] Evening Times-Globe, 14 July 1959, 1.

[5] Daily Gleaner, 14 July 1959, 4.

[6] Ibid, 16 July 1959, 4.

[7] Daily Times, 29 July 1959, 4.

[8] Daily Gleaner, 28 July 1959, 4.

[9] Daily Times, 29 July 1959, 4.

[10] Ibid, 29 July 1959, 4.

[11] Evening Times-Globe, 30 July 1959, 1.

[12] Daily Gleaner, 30 July 1959, 4.

[13] Evening Times-Globe, 14 July 1959, 1.

[14] Daily Gleaner, 30 July 1959, 1.

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The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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1 Response to Breaking Royal Precedent?: The Escuminac Disaster and the Royal Tour of 1959

  1. David Frank says:

    Thank you for this, Barry. Pope John XXIII also responded. People may be interested in the Escuminac feature on the New Brunswick Labour History website
    https://archives.gnb.ca/lhtnb/Categories/Labour_Landmarks/Escuminac_1959_en-CA.aspx And also the Lesson Plan on the subject: https://archives.gnb.ca/lhtnb/Categories/Labour_Landmarks/Escuminac_1959_en-CA.aspx

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