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Island Stories: Tea for the Queen

Island Stories: Tea for the Queen

It’s amazing the people and the places we carry with us. 

If there’s anything Islanders love it’s a good storyteller.  What an incredible art it is to captivate an audience with words and a wink of the eye.

In hopes of helping preserve these Island stories we thought it would be fun to include excerpts from RED Magazine in our newsletters from time to time.  For those of you not familiar with RED it is an Island Storybook that launched in 2010 created by the Weale family.  It’s filled with a variety of historical tidbits, nostalgic photos, and simple memories worth sharing.  Hope you enjoy the story below...

Tea for the Queen

written by Doug Boylan
RED Volume Two 2011

It was 1964 and the Queen was coming to Charlottetown. I was, at the time, the Librarian at Confederation Centre, which fell under the wing of the Department of the Provincial Secretary (of fond memory), which in turn was responsible for planning the upcoming visit.  I was unfamiliar with such matters but was, to my great surprise, seconded to the Royal Visit Committee.  "But I know nothing of Royal protocols," I said to the Deputy Minister, Wendell MacKay.

"Well, that makes two of us," said Wendell, "and what we don't know, we'll make up." Advice, by the way, which stood me in good stead for my working career, and was definitely helpful the day I assisted the Queen.  What transpired that day seems now humorous, but was anything but that at the time. 


(Queen Elizabeth II, back stage Confederation Centre 1964)

The Island visit began with arrival of HMY Britannia with her glossy, royal blue hull, and flag hoists indicating that Her Majesty was aboard. It was then the custom of Her Majesty - and suspect still is - that the first and last people received in a jurisdiction were members of the local Royal Visit Committee were marshaled on the jetty a the foot of Britannia's gang-way.  Precise to the set moment, we were ushered aboard, taken down a marvelous wooden stairway and lined-up, single file for presentation, in order of our seniority on the Committee. 

It had not been the best of mornings for me.  I arrived home late the previous evening following a last minute briefing session.  It was rainy and my black shoes would be in need of a good buffing before the shipboard reception the following morning. 

I left the shoes on a mat outside our apartment door, close at hand for a good cleaning first thing in the morning.  After a restless sleep - just how do you speak to a queen? - I pressed my white shirt, put knife-edge creases in the trousers of my blue suit, and headed for the hallway for the black shoes.  To my horror, I found that, overnight the resident puppy had chewed my black shoes beyond recognition!  Too early for LePages or Wrights, there was nothing I could do but wear a pair of brown shoes aboard the Britannia. 

How I wish I had a picture of the Britannia's Chief Steward as he lined us up, his icy gaze resting on my brown shoes!  But the Royals seemed to not care, not a whit!

A firm directive concerning a Royal Visit was that Her Majesty was not to be scheduled for events lasting more than two hours. If Her programme called for a longer period, a thirty minute rest break was required.  Such was the case for the events surrounding the official opening of Confederation Centre.  A break was scheduled for the then-Board Room between the welcome and unvailings in Memorial Hall, and subsequent visits to the Art Gallery and Library.

What was required for a rest break, we asked?  Refreshments was the answer.  Did we ask what sort?  No!  We decidedly, rather foolishly that, despite the 11:00am hour, that refreshments meant alcoholic beverages of any type, with gin tonics at the top of the list.  With the enthusiast co-operation of the PEI Liquor Control Commission, we assembled enough drink and mix to fill all of the car trunks at a Government House Summer Ball!

At the conclusion of the unveiling in the Memorial Hall, and with the smell of drying concrete in my nostrils, I "escorted" the Royal Party to the Board Room, stepping aside as they entered.  I was taken aback when the Queen's Canadian Equerry insisted that I join them.  By the time I entered the Board Room, Her Majesty had settled comfortably into an arm chair and, as most ladies would after two hours "on their feet", had slipped off her shoes!

Then the fun began.  The Naval Steward from Admiralty House in Halifax, polished like a newly minted dollar, approached Her Majesty and, with the suggestion of a bow, asked if he could provide some refreshments? 

"Yes", she responded, "I would like a cup of tea."

Consternation!  The Steward replied, "Yes, Ma'am", then sidled up to me asking if we had any tea? We didn't.

My office was adjacent to the Board Room and, during the previous summer months, I had bought a large bottle of Nestle's instant tea and a bottle of lemon juice to make iced tea on hot days.  "Look busy," I said to the Steward, and slipped into my office for the instant tea (which had long congealed in the jar), the lemon juice from my wee fridge, an electric kettle and an institutional cup and saucer bearing the "entwined snakes" logo of Confederation Centre!

The Steward disappeared into a small pantry, boiled the kettle, smashed the hardened tea with the back of a spoon, added a measure to the cup, poured in the boiling lemon juice, put the cup and saucer on his silver salver - complete with a crisp linen serviette - and, with aplomb and nary an expression on his face, served the Queen her cup of tea...

As we had but one cup and saucer, we breathed a sigh of relief when Prince Philip showed no interest in a cup of tea - or in any other drink, for that matter, as he had become fascinated with the workings of a break-top table which decorated a corner of the room. But that's another story. 

To this day, soon to be fifty years later, I marvel at the graciousness of Her Majesty who, on leaving the Board Room to resume the Centre tour, said to the Steward, "A lovely cup of tea, Steward."

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