Commonwealth: The British royal family travelled across SA by train during their visit in 1947. Picture: SUPPLIED
Commonwealth: The British royal family travelled across SA by train during their visit in 1947. Picture: SUPPLIED

 THE LAST HURRAH: South Africa and the Royal Tour

Graham Viney
Jonathan Ball Publishers

Reminiscent of Jan Morris’ Pax Britannica, Graham Viney’s The Last Hurrah is a tour de force of sparkling brilliance, anecdote and detail about the British Empire, down to the music it played: SABC favourite By the Sleepy Lagoon was a banquet staple.

The British royal family travelled for two months across SA in 1947, making 410 stops in its white train with 14 carriages, ivory and gold livery.  The palace on wheels carried footmen, dressers, valets, cypher clerks, secretaries, speech writers, hairdressers and more staff.

In those days, SA Railways employed 178,00 people, many of them poor Afrikaners. Its network is one of the engineering achievements of the British Empire. With a hiss of steam the train clanked into life to the sounds of Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye.

Viney’s acute eye describes a host of charming vignettes, including tea with Ouma Smuts; and a raft of characters such as Jan Hofmeyr’s battleaxe mum Deborah, and Marie van Zyl, wife of the governor and very much in charge.

His book is more than the story of the royal tour; it tells the tale of postwar SA, a commonwealth country that had a lot in common with England. Princess Elizabeth remarked often after the tour of SA that it was “just like being in England”.

Prime minister Jan Smuts, then  leader of the United Party, used the tour as a showcase for the advantages of being part of a constitutional monarchy, in the hope of seducing wavering voters from DF Malan’s call for SA to become a republic.

The train,  a glorious showboat, blazed through the hardscrabble landscape of the veld. All the members of  the royal family were dressed like fairytale characters — the queen in her famous crinolines.

The details Viney records in his meticulous description of their outfits is intoxicating, he goes right down to the soap the princess’s preferred: Yardley’s Lavender. “The queen wore a graceful frock of palest cyclamen, and a hat of ‘balibuntal’ straw with a sweeping Gainsborough brim,” he writes.

Their outfits were only outmatched by Zulu people in Eshowe, who turned up to meet the royal family in a great show of feathers, leopard skins, kilts and intricate beadwork.

In the English atmosphere of the then Natal, the royal image was most alluring — ladies wore tailored linen with drawn threadwork, canvas sunshades and straw hats or knotted peasant scarves.

The atmosphere on tour was so matey that one subject at Glenconner blurted out: “You and your hubby are welcome to visit the farm any time.” Often the royal party would ask to see the people who had waited patiently for hours to catch a glimpse of them. One night late they left their beds and tramped through darkness to greet a group that had waited all day.

In Durban they met the bereaved relatives of men killed in World War 2.  “We feel deeply for you,” the queen told them.

The leitmotiv of the tour was the flowers produced in abundance for balls and banquets. At the Pretoria banquet, one mile of damask was surrounded by specially grown chrysanthemums, gladioli, red begonias, salvias and yellow marigolds.

Huge efforts were employed to get the imported bulbs to bloom on the night of the banquet. The tulips were planted in the back of lorries moved into the sunlight and shade as required.

Chefs produced hundreds of several-course meals on white and gold crested china. There were special attempts to include local specialities. Bobotie was a mainstay. “What is it?” the king asked his dinner neighbour. “Leftovers, sir,” came the reply. The menus on the train were so extravagant that the queen marched into the kitchen and scotched some of the more exotic sounding courses.

There were compartments on the train for the family’s extensive wardrobes. They were the domain of royal dressers Miss Wilcox and Miss King. 

My family was not much interested in royalty, but drove our coloured maid, carrying a Union Jack, to places where she might glimpse the queen. In Beaufort West people on the streets sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. The king so loved it, he asked for a record.

However, many die-hard Afrikaner nationalists regarded the tour as an affront. The royal family was conscious of SA’s divisions, particularly between English and Afrikaans speakers. One evening, looking at the country’s motto on a tablecloth on the white train — “Ex Unitate Vires” (from unity, strength) — the king hit his fist on the table and said crossly, “not much unitate about this place!”

Apart from a group of National Party members led by Dr DF Malan who had, as Smuts put it, a sour face, it was estimated that one-third of Afrikaners were nationalists. Some of them refused to even look at the train, covering their windows with blankets. Some Afrikaner women refused to curtsy to the royal family and some Afrikaans newspapers had no coverage of the visit.

Jan Smuts thought that the royal tour would act as a cohesive element to defang the rising republican atmosphere in SA, but exactly the opposite happened. A year later, in 1948, Malan proposed laws of segregation that would cut SA off from the world.

Viney’s book is a breathtaking read. It is scholarly (with an impressive index), light-hearted and powered by such passion for the subject that the words seem artificially lit. Although there is little doubt that his heart is upholstered in red, white and blue, The Last Hurrah is a well-balanced account of events in SA few people alive will recognise.