Rhodes Centenary Exhibition 1953


On 30 June 1953 the Royal Party set out from London on a trip to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to participate and officiate at the Rhodes Centenary Celebrations. Both the Queen Mother Elizabeth and her daughter Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret were part of the entourage. They flew in a Comet jet airliner which was part of the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) fleet.

The Comet touched down at about noon on the 1st of July at the newly established airport about 11 miles outside of Salisbury, the capital city. The Royal Party was welcomed by Sir John Kennedy, the Governor of Southern Rhodesia. Their trip was prompted by the birthday centenary of Cecil John Rhodes who was born on 5 July 1853 at Bishop’s Stortford in Hertfordshire. The Royal Party boarded the Royal Train of 15 freshly painted, ivory white coaches.

The Royal Party travelled in three air-conditioned coaches that had been used for the 1947 Royal tour of South Africa. The British monarch then was King George VI who had since passed on and was succeeded by Queen Elizabeth II whose coronation was on the 2nd of June 1953. The coaches were fully equipped with bedrooms, dining coach and a lounge section, a bathroom with English bath crystals and soap tablets and a kitchen fully equipped with delicacies imported from England.

On 3 July the Royal Party arrived in Bulawayo, a city that they had visited for three days in 1947. In Southern Rhodesia’s second city (got city status in 1943 on the occasion of its 50th birthday) they were met by Mayor Colonel C M Newman. The Queen Mother inspected a Guard of Honour drawn from the various units of the Southern Rhodesian Territorial Forces.

The Royal Party was then driven through the city on an 11-mile journey to the Government House. They were driven through the streets, ‘‘gay with flags and cheering crowds’’. In the afternoon the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret motored to the Queen’s Ground where the Queen Mother officially opened the Rhodes Centenary Exhibition by pressing a button to open the gates to the Queen’s Ground.

At the Queen’s Ground the Queen Mother and the Princess were led by European girls. Her car drove slowly and at that moment the six-year-old Margaret Plathen proffered some gifts to the Queen Mother and said, “From Convent High School, please.”

“Thank you very much,” responded the Queen Mother. The boxes that contained the gifts bore the photographs of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Both the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret were presented with diamond and aluminum brooches fashioned like the flame lily. The brooches were in actual fact replicas of that given to the Queen by Southern Rhodesian school children on the occasion of her 21st birthday. The presents were presented by Colonel Sir Ellis Robins, the chairman of the Exhibition Board.

On 4 July the Royal Party undertook a second tour of the Exhibition. The Royal Party visited all the 18 countries’ pavilions. All African countries south of the Sudan were present and the other countries included the United Kingdom, Madagascar, Reunion and Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania).

At each pavilion they were showered with gifts. At the Ugandan pavilion the Queen Mother was presented with exquisitely made African drums. Within the Exhibition grounds a model African Village had been constructed. The Village turned out to be the most interesting feature of the Exhibition. Here the Queen Mother was presented with a magnificently crafted piece of ivory.

Also displaying their craftsmanship were the blacksmiths, basket weavers, wood and horn carvers. The Royal visitors were presented with numerous crafts. African artists showcased their fine dancing skills, especially the Swazi dancers who performed in front of their huge beehive hut. Mbira instruments with large gourds were played much to the pleasure and amusement of the Queen Mother.

Since the occasion was to mark the Rhodes Centenary, the tour would have been incomplete without the Queen Mother showering accolades on Cecil Rhodes who she described as a ‘‘dreamer who, while his eyes might be on a star, his feet were firmly planted on the ground’’. She went on to describe Rhodes in superlative terms.

A mayoral garden party had been laid out for ‘‘all’’ the citizens of Bulawayo. Of course ‘‘all’’ did not include the black residents. The party was held in the Bulawayo (Central) Park. There the Queen Mother met the widows of the Rhodesian pioneers. The occasion attracted no less than 10 000 people.

In the morning of the next day the Royal Party attended a divine service at St John’s Church where they were welcomed by the Bishop of Matabeleland and the Archdeacon, the Venerable E Addington Hunt. The service was followed by a visit to Barham Green Village, a recently developed housing estate for coloured people.

In the evening it was time to attend an orchestral performance by the Halle Orchestra. The gala performance, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, took place in the 3 000-seater Royal Theatre in the exhibition grounds. The Royal Theatre had been specially built for the Rhodes Centenary Exhibition.

The 5th of July had been pencilled as a day of rest. However, a considerable number of whites felt the Royal Tour would not be complete without a pilgrimage to Rhodes’ grave on Malindidzimu (Malindandzimu) Hill within the Matobo Hills. At the site, a Centenary Service was held. The 5 000 strong pilgrims clapped hands when the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret took their seats next to Rhodes’ grave. In 1947, the Royal Party had also visited Rhodes’ grave.

Later the Royal Party made a courtesy call at Queen Mary House and St Gabriel’s Home. The next leg of the visit took the Royal Party to Luveve African Village. The government settlement was established in 1936 to accommodate 500 African families. The settlement was named after a Chief Native Commissioner named Lt Colonel C L Carbutt.

While working among the Zulu in South Africa, Carbutt had been nicknamed Nomveve, a word for a butterfly. When he arrived in Matabeleland his name was changed slightly to Luveve. The Ndebele also corrupted his name Carbutt to Khabothi and a farm in the Inyathi area goes by the two names of Luveve and Khabothi.

Upon arrival at Luveve the Queen Mother was welcomed by a brass band and singing and ululating African women with some of them having come from as far as the Belgian Congo. Luveve was at the time equipped with two government primary schools, a clinic and a post office. However, at the time it had not been found necessary to build a police station. The Queen Mother and her entourage visited a bungalow home of one African family.

The visit to Bulawayo ended on 6 July 1953 with a pageant in the Exhibition Park depicting scenes from Rhodes’ life. In the evening the Royal Party left Bulawayo aboard the Royal Train to Gwelo where a tour of the Midlands towns began in earnest.