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The following blog has been posted by Cassidy O'Sullivan, a CRU intern:

Despite all indications pointing to Queen Elizabeth II’s ongoing good health, media coverage over the last twelve months about her wellbeing has reached fever pitch. This is best exemplified by the scores of publications across the UK and Australia that have recently delved into so-called ‘secret plans’ for the days immediately following the Queen’s death. There is evident public fascination with how events will unfold after the Queen passes away. The Queen recently turned 91, and the last British monarch to die was King George VI (the Queen’s father) in February 1952 – over 65 years ago, and well beyond living memory of the vast majority of the public. Accordingly, there is some uncertainty about how Australia will collectively respond to the death of the Queen.

This blog post will attempt to fill some gaps by examining how Australia has publicly expressed its grief after the death of the last three British monarchs: King Edward VII in 1910, King George V in 1936, and King George VI in 1952. A survey of archived government gazettes and newspapers from across Australia reveals many common threads in how Australia conveyed its sorrow at the passing of each monarch, and provides a helpful framework for examining how these public rituals might manifest in the 21st century. More recent public bereavement after the deaths of Princess Diana in 1997 and the Queen Mother in 2002 provide further guidance.

The Public Response

Newspapers reveal that the death of the Sovereign produces unparalleled disruption across Australia. The British Foreign Office usually immediately cables the news to British embassies in all foreign capitals. After news of the death of each King began to filter through to the Australian people, public events and entertainment were spontaneously abandoned en masse.

When King Edward VII died on Friday, 6 May 1910, the news only reached Australia on Saturday morning. Thousands of Australians, who had been on their way to Saturday morning sports matches, matinees and other weekend activities, stopped in their tracks.

Upon King George V’s death in 1936, businesses and offices were suddenly shuttered across the nation; church bells tolled; and trams, trains and motor vehicles came to a standstill. A local NSW newspaper, the Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal, described the scene thus: “on the pavements people with bare heads and solemn faces stood in reverent remembrance of a King who had the love of a great Empire”.

Flags and British colours on warships in ports were lowered to half-mast, and courts adjourned as a mark of respect. In 1952, the Stock Exchange closed at noon on 7 February, the day after King George VI’s death. Patrons at cinemas in 1952 stood to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ upon hearing the news.

One common manifestation of public grief occurred through the draping of public buildings, hotels and churches with black material, or as the Prahran Telegraph described it in 1910, “the outward trappings of woe”. Purple or mauve, the official colour of Royal mourning, was another commonly used colour. Portraits of the late King would frequently be displayed in shop windows, surrounded by purple silk and black or mauve crepe paper. A portrait of the new King or Queen would often be displayed alongside their predecessor.

Churches, schools and local RSLs in cities and country towns alike held memorial services. In 1936, an evening memorial service in the Domain commemorating the life of King George V attracted 35,000 people. Dawn services at RSLs often featured the Last Post, followed by a period of solemn silence, and wreaths were typically laid upon Cenotaphs by local RSL members and Women’s Auxiliaries. Parliament House also held a large memorial service several weeks after King George VI’s death in 1952.

The Official Response

The public is officially notified of the death of the Sovereign by notices placed in the Commonwealth Government Gazette on the following day by the Prime Minister. The Gazette contains detailed directions to public officials setting out mourning rituals, and fixes the dates which will be observed as periods of ‘full mourning’ and ‘half mourning’, as well as a date for the discontinuation of public mourning.

Upon King George V’s death, the Governor-General directed through the Gazette that guns be fired at 3pm for 70 minutes, that flags and colours on ships in harbour be hoisted at half-mast until sunset on the day of the funeral (but hoisted to full mast on the day of proclamation of the new monarch), and church bells be tolled for one hour each day until the Royal funeral. Further, the Gazettes generally directed uniformed officers to wear black crepe armbands on their left arm, and asked that troops’ drums be covered by black, and black crepe be hung from tops of colour staffs of Infantry and from standard staffs and trumpets of Cavalry. It was also directed that the King desired that the public should wear suitable mourning attire.

The Gazettes additionally provided that a nationwide day of mourning would be held on the day of the monarch’s funeral. The exception to this was in 1936, where a telegram from London led to a new notice in the Gazette revoking the previous direction that 23 January, the day of King George V’s funeral, be observed as a public holiday, given that much of the world was still in the throes of the Great Depression. Instead, the public was asked to observe two minutes’ silence at midday.

Upon the death of the Sovereign, Parliament is usually convened briefly, and a motion is carried by both Houses expressing sympathy at the loss of the Sovereign, and reaffirming loyalty and allegiance to the new Sovereign. The message is then relayed to the new Sovereign by the Governor-General. In 1952, however, the King’s death was announced to the House of Representatives whilst it was in session by Prime Minister Robert Menzies. The Canberra Times reported that Menzies adjourned the House for 15 minutes to obtain official confirmation, and then addressed the room with a “breaking voice” before adjourning the House until the following day.

State Parliaments and local councils typically pass resolutions conveying their sympathies, and send telegrams to the Governor-General or their respective state Governors for transmission to the new King or Queen. The Australian Commonwealth, the States and major cities also send wreaths to be placed on the late Sovereign’s coffin. The Governor-General and the Prime Minister notify the public of their receipt of grateful responses from the Royal Family.

Gradual Transitions

Many other more prosaic transitions occur in Australia after the death of a monarch. New currency is minted (which took 16 months after King George VI’s accession, and 6 months after the Queen’s accession), and the Postmaster-General issues new postage stamps. Upon the Queen’s accession, government stationery was altered to bear the words ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’. Judges, magistrates and legal practitioners began to swear allegiance to Her Majesty, and King’s Counsel became known as Queen’s Counsel.

Public Grief in the 21st Century: Some Predictions

The world today is vastly different to the world in 1952, when the Queen ascended the throne. The British Empire has shrunk significantly, with many countries that were formerly under the Crown declaring independence during Her Majesty’s reign. The death of the Queen is more likely to become publicly known through twitter than government sources.

If history is any guide, Australia will cope with its sense of bereavement at the passing of the Queen by seeking comfort and guidance from traditional rituals of respect, deeply rooted in our past. Official ceremony and rituals will likely remain, in the form of Australian memorial services, public statements from Australian government officials, and the placing of condolence books in state Government Houses and in the Governor-General’s residence at Yarralumla for the public to sign, as occurred after the Queen Mother’s death in 2002.

We can undoubtedly expect social media, television and other instantaneous forms of communication to play a key role in expressions of public grief, alongside some of the more conventional displays of mourning. It is almost certain that billions of people will watch the Queen’s funeral on television. Viewership estimates reveal the extent of the public’s fascination with the Royal Family. It is estimated that over 2.5 billion people around the globe viewed Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, whilst 2 billion watched the televised 2011 wedding of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge. Electronic versions of condolence books were made available to the public even in 2002 for the Queen Mother’s death through the Governor-General’s website.

Given the rise of Republican movements in Australia over the last decades, culminating in the unsuccessful republic referendum of 1999, only time will tell whether the Queen’s death, and Prince Charles’ ascendancy to the throne, will strengthen or weaken the desire of the Australian public to remain a Realm within the Commonwealth of Nations. The death of the Queen, however, will be regarded as a historical watershed and the end of an era.

SUGGESTED CITATION: Cassidy O'Sullivan, 'Antipodean Expressions of Grief: How will Australia respond to the death of the Queen?', Constitutional Critique, 25 May 2017, (Constitutional Reform Unit Blog, University of Sydney, http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/cru/).