Prince Philip’s Atlantic Canadian Legacy

By Barry MacKenzie

Much has been made in recent weeks about the life and legacy of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. It seems that every organization, community and individual has been scrambling to emphasize their own connections to this oldest-living consort in Commonwealth history. Countries and provinces seemed to compete for which occupied the most special of all the special places in the Duke’s heart. Atlantic Canada was no exception. Archives, museums, local media outlets and individuals alike took to social media in particular to highlight the many visits which the Duke of Edinburgh undertook to communities in the region, and the many connections he developed and nurtured here through his military and charitable work.

Interestingly, the Duke of Edinburgh’s connection to the region long predated his first visit (a brief shore leave in Halifax during the Second World War, when he was a midshipman aboard HMS Valiant). His great-great-great grandfather, Prince Edward (later Duke of Kent) spent several years at the end of the 18th century in the Nova Scotia capital, where he was responsible for the construction of much of the city’s defenses. He later returned to England, married, and fathered the princess who in 1837 became Queen Victoria.

Prince Philip’s grandfather, Prince Louis of Battenberg, was also stationed in Halifax for some time with the Royal Navy in the early 1870s. Louis later married Princess Alice of Hesse and by Rhine (a granddaughter of Queen Victoria) in 1884. He continued to rise through the ranks of the Royal Navy, eventually being appointed First Sea Lord in 1912. With the outbreak of war in 1914, Louis’s German origins were the subject of much chin-wagging in Britain, and he resigned his post in October of that year. Persistent anti-German sentiment famously inspired King George V to ditch the name of the royal house (Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) and adopt the quintessentially English “Windsor.” At the same time, the King’s relatives were forced to give up their German titles and honours, and Louis of Battenberg anglicized his surname to Mountbatten and become the Marquess of Milford Haven. Among his children were Princess Alice (Prince Philip’s mother) and the indomitable Louis, Earl Mountbatten of Burma.

Aside from his brief shore leave in Halifax in 1941, Prince Philip’s first in-depth introduction to the country, and to the Atlantic Provinces, came in 1951. That fall, he and Princess Elizabeth, just weeks ahead of their 4th wedding anniversary, arrived in Canada for a weeks-long tour. During that time, they were hailed by communities both great and small through Atlantic Canada. There were stops in Fredericton (where the Duke asked security guards to return a curious student’s camera after he got too close to the royal couple on the campus of UNB), Halifax, Sydney (where the Duke asked earnest questions and appeared fascinated during a tour of Sydney Steel), Charlottetown and St. John’s (where the Duke visited, and was made a member of, the Crow’s Nest Officers’ Club), among other stops. Wherever they went, they demonstrated the star power which royalty possessed in the postwar period. At Fredericton, a small boy who received a gentle pat on the head from Prince Philip exclaimed: “Gee whiz. The Duke touched my hat – see!”[1] At Halifax, Philip met with two old friends who had entertained him during his stop in Halifax in 1941. “But he said it didn’t seem natural to come to Halifax by train,” the couple said, “not to such a seaport as this.”[2]

Prince Philip stands next to fellow coin collector Walter Prowse during the royal visit to Prince Edward Island in 1959. Courtesy Dal Archives.

A similarly exhaustive continental tour (the last of its kind) was undertaken in 1959. When the Queen fell “ill” in the Yukon (she had confided only to Prime Minister Diefenbaker that she was actually pregnant), there were calls from readers of the Daily Gleaner in Fredericton for the provincial government to scratch the official program and invite the Queen and the Duke to simply come to New Brunswick to relax (naturally, that didn’t happen). Instead, they visited all four Atlantic Provinces in due course, attending a variety of dinners and receptions, with a bit of “down east” charm thrown in. At Fredericton, the royal couple was treated to an evening of harness racing. At Brackley, PEI, the Duke chatted with 12-year-old Ernest Prowse about their mutual hobby, coin collecting, and the Duke told the youngster, “You have a fine collection there.”[3] Memorably, at Point-du-Chêne, NB, the Queen and the Duke met with widows, orphans, and survivors of the Escuminac Disaster, which had cost the lives of 35 men and boys just weeks earlier.

The Duke of Edinburgh greeting wellwishers during the 1984 Bicentennial celebrations in NB. Courtesy Fredericton Region Museum Eugene Campbell Collection.

The royal couple returned to the region in 1964 (when they visited PEI’s capital to mark the centennial of the Charlottetown Conference); 1973 (to mark the centennial of PEI’s somewhat reluctant entry into Confederation, in what would be the last visit to PEI for both the Queen and the Duke); 1976 (including engagements in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick); 1978 (for a visit to Newfoundland where, among other things, the Queen turned the sod for the Queen Elizabeth II Library at Memorial University); 1984 (when they added a special dose of pizazz to New Brunswick’s Bicentennial celebrations); 1994 (when the Queen, in addition to other engagements, opened the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax; the Duke visited St George’s Round Church – designed in part by his ancestor, the Duke of Kent, in 1800); 1997 (to mark the 500th anniversary of the arrival of John Cabot); 2002 (when they visited various parts of New Brunswick during their Golden Jubilee tour); and 2010 (when they took part in an International Fleet Review to mark the centennial of the Royal Canadian Navy at Halifax).

Prince Philip after signing an autograph for Levi, a survivor of the 1958 Springhill mining disaster. From NS Archives.

The Duke also visited the region on many occasions on solo tours and private, working visits. On one such occasion in October 1958, during a brief visit to Canada to attend the conference of the English Speaking Union, he travelled to Springhill, NS, which had recently been rocked by an underground explosion which had cost the lives of 74 miners. Visiting survivors, the Duke broke royal protocol when he signed the cast of injured miner George Hayden and said “I hope you’ll be around soon.”[4] At the mine site, another survivor broke through the crowd of hundreds to greet the prince and thank him for coming. “Just seeing you has done me a world of good,” he said. “I’m glad to see you here.” Philip spent only moments talking to officials at the local hospital, and instead rushed off to the wards to chat with and encourage survivors.[5]

Prince Philip had other opportunities for solo visits and engagements, many of which – though not all – revolved around his work with the Duke of Edinburgh Award program and visits to regiments of which he was Colonel in Chief. In 1974, he was the guest speaker at a black tie dinner in Gander marking the 25th anniversary of Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation. In July 1984, he made one such brief visit to Fredericton in order to present new colours to the 2nd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment at CFB Gagetown (he had last presented them with colours in Germany in 1955).[6] During the Duke’s solo stay at Government House, he enjoyed a rare opportunity to chat informally with Lieutenant Governor George Stanley, and his wife Ruth, over breakfast. The Stanleys remarked afterwards that Prince Philip was a brilliant conversationalist, and they were absolutely charmed by him. Some stopovers allowed for even more informal exchanges, including the many times when the Duke of Edinburgh stopped at Gander, Newfoundland, while his plane was refueling.

So, whether or not Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, preferred the east coast to the west coast, or the naval atmosphere of St. John’s and Halifax to the industrial heartland of Cape Breton Island, it is undeniable that a long-lasting and memorable connection existed between these four old provinces by the sea and the sailor Prince, whose lifetime of service to the Commonwealth has reached its end.


Barry Mackenzie teaches in the History Department at St. Francis Xavier University.


Notes:

[1] Evening Times-Globe, 7 November 1951, p. 13.

[2] Daily Times, 12 November 1951, p10.

[3] Daily Times, 31 July 1951, p. 2.

[4] Daily Times, 1 November 1958, p. 3.

[5] Daily Times, 1 November 1958, p. 1.

[6] Evening Times-Globe, 17 July 1984.

About The Acadiensis Blog

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 Prince Philip’s Atlantic Canadian Legacy

  1. Mary Ellen Scribner says:

    Enjoyed reading about Prince Philip’s journey through the Atlantic provinces! He was an incredible man who is an inspiration to many!

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