AS a fresh-faced 21-year-old back in June 1953, recently qualified TB nurse and midwife Martha Gordon set off on a packed midnight train bound for London to join the excited crowds in the capital – and with one goal in mind – being able to catch a glimpse of the country’s new monarch. If the millions who descended on the city that day to join in the celebrations did not know it, they would, in their own way and in time, be a part of history.
Elizabeth II, who died last year aged 96, would go on to become the longest reigning British monarch and the longest reigning of any female head of state in history. Seventy years on from that momentous day in London, and Mrs Hanna has recalled the thrill and awe of being able to say she saw the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II pass by in a grand cavalcade before she took to the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Now a resident of Brooklands Nursing Home in Kilkeel, the Annalong native will be watching this weekend’s coronation of King Charles III with great interest.
Mrs Hanna, who celebrated her 90th birthday last autumn, was among the throng who descended on the streets of London to witness the procession pass by, including the majestic Gold State Coach, pulled by a team of eight horses and which was built in 1762, carrying the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II, her consort Prince Philip, and family members including heir to the throne, Charles, and his sister Princess Anne. Of all the major political, economic and social events of the 1950s the one that was remembered most was the coronation on 2 June 1953.
Since the death of King George VI in November 1952, at the early age of 56 from lung cancer, the coronation had been eagerly awaited – not only because of what it represented but mainly because of the street parties and the fact that it marked the first occasion when many watched television. Mrs Hanna – who at the time worked in Southampton General Hospital – has shared some of her memories of the coronation, when Princess Elizabeth, at the age of just 27, became a historymaking monarch. “On the 1st June 1953 my two friends and I set off from Southampton Central Station at 12 midnight on a very overcrowded train.
We arrived in London some two-and-a-half hours later and made our way to Whitehall. “The streets were decorated with flags and flowers from every lamp post and radio messages were relayed onto the streets.” She explained that in the early hours of 2 June word came through that Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing had climbed Everest, and the Union flag was now flying on the highest mountain in the world. This news, she recalled, was greeted by the crowd “with great delight” – however the actual date of this feat was 29 May, but it took three days for the good news to reach England. “Much later we heard the procession had moved off from Buckingham Palace and we then had a long wait till the service was over in Westminster Abbey. “The procession began with rows of soldiers, sailors and numerous people in uniform, each with a small pennant saying where they were from – places from all over the Commonwealth. “In the golden State coach came the new Queen and her consort, looking very young and very beautiful, with all the members of the royal family following, including Prince Charles and Princess Anne.” In an open carriage, and despite the rain showers, she saw Queen Salote of Tonga, who she recalls as “a lady with a radiant smile.”
At the time, it was reported that Queen Salote Tupou III refused to close the top of her carriage as a sign of respect for the new monarch; and that the action drew cheers from the revellers lining the streets. Mrs Hanna said that once the procession had passed she and her friends made their way up The Mall and got to the front railings outside Buckingham Palace, “where we were in danger of being crushed to await the arrival of the Queen and her party on the balcony.” Describing this special and memorable day as “a very enjoyable experience,” Mrs Hanna added that she and her friends had to cut short their celebrations in London and head back to Southampton as work beckoned. “Unfortunately, we could not stay for the fireworks in the evening and left to make our way back to Southampton just as they were beginning.” Mrs Hanna’s family say her tale of travelling to be a part of the late Queen’s coronation is something their mum has spoken about with pride.
Daughter, Grace Martin, explained that her mum usually needed prompting to talk about it, but once she began to recall the tale, she loved telling people about how she witnessed and celebrated this special moment in time. Mrs Hanna returned to the Kingdom of Mourne in 1957 where she worked in Kilkeel’s Mourne Hospital until she married Ballyveagh man Gerald Hanna in 1963. The couple set up home briefly in Ballymartin before moving to Annalong and went on to have three daughters, Margaret, Jean and Grace. She resumed nursing in 1981, returning to the local hospital, where she was employed until her retirement in 1992.