Back in early October this column carried an account of Governor General Lord Stanley’s 1893 visit to Guelph.
Since then several readers have spoken to me of other visits to the county by other Governors General, and by monarchs and members of their immediate families.
It appears that royal tours have crossed the county on nine occasions. The first was the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) in 1860, and the most recent Princess Anne, in 1986. It appears that all those tours stopped only at Guelph.
I don’t know how many of our Governors General have visited Wellington since Confederation. There have been 27 of them, and most travelled extensively. As with monarchs, most of those visits have been to Guelph only.
One exception was Viscount Alexander, who held the office from 1946 until early 1952. On Oct. 29, 1951, he passed through Wellington County, from one end to the other. It was not an official trip. He had been acting as something of an escort to Princess Elizabeth (soon to be Queen Elizabeth II) and Prince Philip on a tour of Canada.
The royal couple got no closer to Wellington County than Hamilton on that trip. Viscount Alexander decided to reward himself for his efforts by taking a brief trip to indulge one of his passions, fishing, and arranged for a trip to Griffin Island, on Georgian Bay. His private railway car was attached to the morning train from Hamilton to Owen Sound, and he planned a low-key trip, with no public functions along the way.
Born Harold Alexander in 1891, the Governor General had been a career soldier. He achieved distinction during World War II as a superb military strategist in campaigns in Burma, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. By the end of the war he had been promoted to the rank of Field Marshall, and his admirers considered him to have the best military mind since the Duke of Wellington. His appointment to Canada in 1946 as Governor General was a very popular one, and undermined calls that the position should go to a Canadian.
Alexander proved to be an excellent choice. With his erect posture and carefully clipped moustache, he certainly looked like a military leader, and he took his duties in Canada very seriously. With his outgoing personality he made friends quickly, and enjoyed meeting people from all walks of life on his frequent tours of the country. Those who have studied his life estimate that he travelled about 185,000 miles in Canada.
Two deluxe railway cars built for the Royal Tour were afterward assigned for the use of the Governor General, and Viscount Alexander was aboard one of them on his trip through Wellington, while the other remained with the Royal Train for the use of the Princess Elizabeth. Hooked to the end of the regular morning northbound train, Viscount Alexander’s car left Guelph at 9:45am on Oct. 29. There were no announcements of the trip or arrangements for ceremonies anywhere, and the train passed through Elora, Fergus, and Alma close to schedule. The private car was certainly noticed, though, and by the time the train reached Drayton about 10:45 the secret was out.
Railway employees at either Guelph or Palmerston had notified the Drayton station agent that Viscount Alexander was on the train, and he quickly spread the word. A large crowd was assembling at the station when the students of the public and high schools arrived, marching in formation and carrying a few Union Jacks that had been quickly rounded up.
Principal Bob Thompson had organized the greeting on short notice, and had written out an address for the Governor General. The students and public cheered loudly as the train pulled into Drayton. Viscount Alexander saw and heard them before the train stopped. He stepped onto the rear platform and saluted them, a smile on his face.
Principal Thompson read the address he had quickly drafted: “Your Excellency, We, the staff and students of Drayton Rural Composite School, were overjoyed when we learned scarcely more than an hour ago that you were to pass through our district. As His Majesty’s, the King’s, representative in Canada, it is a double pleasure that we welcome you most sincerely to out Village of Drayton …” Thompson’s remarks went on to express regret that they would not see the Princess and Prince, and repeated words of welcome.
Brock Davis, of the Drayton Advocate then stepped forward and presented Viscount Alexander with recent copies of the paper. As the engineer prepared to leave the station, Peter Schmidt took several colour photographs. The crowd cheered as the train departed for Palmerston.
A few days later Principal Thompson was delighted and surprised to receive a hand-written note from the Governor General, written from Government House in Ottawa, on his return home.
The message began, “Dear Mr. Thompson, The train moved on too quickly the other day to allow me to thank you verbally for your kind address of welcome, but I do so now in writing. I warmly appreciate the welcome you gave me and I felt most touched that all those dear little children came to the train to see me …”
He went on to say that he wished he might have had more time to chat with the children. He also regretted that they did not have a chance to see Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip on their 1951 tour.
He concluded by granting a holiday to the school children, an old custom that governors general normally granted when they visited a community. He left the date to the discretion of Principal Thompson, who selected the following Monday, Nov. 12, for the day off.
Editor B.J. Garbutt, of the Drayton Advocate, believed that Viscount Alexander’s brief stop was the only visit of a governor general to Drayton. By the fall of 1951, Viscount Alexander had reached the end of his five-year appointment, which had already been extended twice. There were rumours that his successor would be a Canadian.
Garbutt believed that would be a mistake. He also viewed Viscount Alexander as the ideal for the job, and considered him the most popular man to have occupied that position.
Not everyone was so generous to Viscount Alexander. Among them was editor Hugh Templin of Fergus, perhaps a little annoyed that there was no welcome in his own town because Alexander did not want his trip publicized.
He recalled a meeting he had with Alexander a decade earlier, when Templin was a special correspondent with the Canadian Press on a wartime junket to England and Europe. “Lord Alexander impressed us considerably, if not too favourably. He was an aristocratic type, who didn’t like newspaper men.”
Viscount Alexander left Canada early in 1952, a few days after the death of King George VI. Winston Churchill had recently returned to power, and he had appointed Alexander his Minister of Defence. Alexander died in 1969, at the age of 77.
As had been anticipated, the new governor general was a Canadian, Vincent Massey. He recast the vice-regal role in Canada during the seven years of his term.
There are, no doubt, many readers who will recall Viscount Alexander’s visit to Drayton 57 years ago, and perhaps a few who have a photograph of that day.