King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) in the car during the Royal Visit to Calgary in May 1939. (Red Deer Archives photo)

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) in the car during the Royal Visit to Calgary in May 1939. (Red Deer Archives photo)

Michael Dawe: Death of King George VI in 1952

On Wednesday, February 6, 1952, George VI, the King of the United Kingdom, as well as Canada and the rest of the British Commonwealth, passed away in his sleep at the royal residence at Sandringham House, England. It is the most recent time (70 years ago) that a reigning monarch has passed away.

His death was not unexpected. The King had been in poor health for some time. He was a heavy smoker. In September 1951, he had a cancerous lung removed. The immediate cause of death was given as coronary thrombosis, a common occurrence with lung and heart disease.

At the time of his passing, his daughter Elizabeth, and her husband Philip, were on a Royal Tour in Kenya. Hence, Elizabeth had left Britain as a princess, but immediately returned home as the new queen.

George, (Albert, or “Bertie” as he was known to his family and close friends), was the second son of the Duke and Duchess of York, George and Mary. At the time of his birth in 1895, he was the fourth in line for the throne after his great grandmother, Queen Victoria, his grandfather (later King Edward VII), father, George, and older brother Edward.

As such, almost everyone concluded that the likelihood of George ascending to the throne was remote. That rapidly changed in January 1936 when King George V passed away. Edward became the successor, but within months, and before his formal coronation, Edward abdicated to marry Wallis Warfield Simpson, a twice divorced American.

Hence, George became monarch. He did not want the position. He was shy and had a pronounced stammer. Nevertheless, he had a strong sense of duty. Moreover, his wife, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, was a very strong partner with both his official duties and family affairs. In a symbolic gesture, he assumed the regal name George after his father, to show continuity and stability following the tumult and uncertainly of his brother’s abdication.

In May 1939, King George and Queen Elizabeth made a hugely successful Royal Tour of Canada and the United States, as part of an effort to build goodwill and diplomatic ties before the inevitable outbreak of the Second World War (September 1939). It is estimated that more than half the population of Red Deer travelled to Edmonton or Calgary to see the Royals.

The couple’s popularity soared during the war. They showed a steely determination to stay in London with their two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, during the heavy bombing of the city. After Buckingham Palace was hit, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) famously stated that she now felt she could look the hard-hit East Enders in the eye.

Their popularity continued in the post-war period as the King showed dignity and leadership as the old British Empire transformed into the new British Commonwealth of Nations.

When word of the King’s passing reached Red Deer, there was a widespread feeling of sadness. A popular figure of the Depression and war years was now gone.

The first formal acknowledgment took place at the city council meeting where a moment of quiet tribute was observed. That was followed by the adoption of a formal resolution of allegiance to the new Queen Elizabeth.

A declaration was then made that a Day of Mourning would be held on the morning of Friday, February 15. All businesses, schools and offices were closed for the day.

The ceremonies started with the laying of wreathes at the Cenotaph, appropriate as the late King was both a veteran of the First World War and a leader in the Second World War. Meanwhile, the bell at City Hall was rung every minute, 56 times, to mark the 56 years of the King’s life.

The main ceremonies took place in the new Memorial Centre, on the grounds of the former A-20 military training camp north of 55 Street. An overflow crowd of more than 1,000 turned out with part of the crowd gathering in the adjacent gymnasium. For those unable to make it to the ceremonies, radio station C.K.R.D conducted a live broadcast.

The Red Deer Advocate wrote that the citizens of Red Deer had “united in an expression of personal loss and deep feeling” and that the service had “brought people together in a solemn and satisfying way.”

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.