» Issue 33: Winter 2003/04

A very special - and specialised - job

Fifty years on, Richard Whidborne (Civ 1949), recalls the Queen's commemoration tour visit to Fiji

After five years in the Royal Engineers, mostly in India and on the Burma front, I was 'demobbed' in May 1947. I applied for, and was given by a grateful government, a three-year university grant all expenses paid. I then went to Cambridge where, at that time, the three year engineering degree was crammed into two. Away from the learning process for six years, most of us ex-servicemen had to work long hours to pass which left far less time to experience all the other facets of Varsity life that Cambridge offered.

In 1949, unwilling to waste the last year of the grant, I was very pleased to be accepted on Professor A L Baker's postgraduate course in Concrete Technology at City and Guilds College. What I leant then served me well later in my career when I ran my own pre-cast concrete company in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Paramount Chief Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, Governor Sir Ronald Garvey and party arrive at Albert Park, Suva

A variety of tasks

Having left College, I answered an advertisement in The Times for an Engineering Assistant (Development) in the Fiji Public Works Department (PWD). On contract for three years, I had a totally enjoyable time both at play and at work. I was given a variety of tasks - I surveyed dam sites; built the first air-strip for the fledgling Fiji Airways; helped in repairs after a particularly severe hurricane; and set up a material laboratory. My penultimate job was to design and build a lighthouse on the jungle-clad island of Vatulele. The very day that we finished the structure it had a real-life load test, when subjected to a earthquake that just exceeded point 6 on the Richter scale. A week later, near the end of September 1953, I returned to the capital Suva, jobless.

Queen Elizabeth II was crowned on 2 June 1953 and soon after embarked on a world-spanning tour of Commonwealth countries. With the Duke of Edinburgh, she would spend 17 and 18 December in Fiji. As my contract was ending, I was the obvious candidate for 'Royal Visit Liaison Officer, Public Works' - a fine title for a dogsbody!

The visit was organised by a score of committees, which had the advantage that - should anything go awry - no one person could be blamed. It also meant that a lot of money was wasted, since committees are notorious for changing their collective minds. It was my job to carry out their wishes so far as public works were concerned. Most jobs had to be done two or three times over. Typical was the problem of embarking and disembarking the Royal party from the Gothic, which was being used as the Royal Yacht. On first arrival, the Queen would come ashore on a 'barge' and thereafter the Gothic would be tied up in the harbour. A special wooden staging was built with different levels to suit the state of the tide on each occasion it would be used. This was nearing completion when we were advised that we had been given the wrong information on the draught of the Gothic. Then, when she was about to arrive, we heard that the good people of New Zealand had lavished so many presents on Her Majesty that the Gothic was riding measurably lower in the water, so the staging was altered once again.

The other preparations included the design and erection of pavilions, daises, and stands. The Department did a successful job, as soon as term finished, of turning the girls' school hostel into accommodation and facilities for sixty of the world's top reporters and photographers. It became known as the' Journalists' Arms' where all drinks were on the Fiji Government; a rare case of money well spent as, in consequence, Fiji had a very good 'press'.

There were three occasions when I failed to use my 'nous', and thereby added to the general mayhem of the pre-visit days. The Chief of Police was the one person who knew exactly what he was about and what needed to be done. Together, we worked out a plan for crowd control, which involved pre-setting sockets in the streets at strategic points where barrier posts could be quickly inserted should the need arise. Some weeks before the great day, I unexpectedly found I had a gang with nothing to do, so I sent them to make the holes in the roads and set in the pipe sockets. Unfortunately, I complete]y forgot to warn the new]y appointed Town Engineer of what I was doing, and he was up in arms as soon as he found out that his roads were being dug up without his authority. I got a severe knuckle-rapping from my boss and the Town Engineer got my none too gracious apologies. I fe]t he was making an unnecessary fuss, but on reflection, I realised that he was fully justified.

The second occasion was when I met the Governor, Sir Ronald Garvey, and his staff on the site of the main welcoming ceremony to discuss the plans. Fifteen minutes after the meeting time, there was no sign of them, so I decided to slip away and attend to a small but urgent matter. I expected to be back in ten minutes but, inevitably, it was half an hour before I returned to find the Governor waiting. His Aide-de-Camp demanded an explanation - which I stammered out - whereupon the Governor said words to tl1e effect of "Whidborne, we were inexcusably late and I fully understand. Please accept my apology." I could feel my ego shrinking.

Canoe arches in Harris Street, Suva, along the Queen's route from the harbour

The Headmistress's facilities

Thirdly, the Queen was due to visit the Fijian Girls High School on the first afternoon for an informal cup of tea while watching the girls perform Fijian dances. Quite early on, the Director of Public Works and I went to the school to discuss the arrangements with the relevant committee. It was anticipated that Her Majesty may wish to 'powder her nose' whilst there, so the whole committee had to inspect the Headmistress's facilities to ensure that they were suitable. The plumbing was found to be in good working order and it was agreed that the vale lai-lai, as the small room was called locally, should be re-decorated.

The main discussion centred on the 100 seat, which was of prewar wooden vintage, stained a standard PWD brown. It was generally agreed that a replacement was essential for the Royal visit, although the suggestion that this should be emblazoned with the royal 'by appointment' coat of arms did not meet with approbation from the Establishment! In the end, I was ordered to obtain one of the latest mode1s in white plastic that were just becoming available.

I consulted with the Government Stores and was assured that a suitable seat, as specified, could be obtained from Australia in good time. I handed in the order, and forgot about it. The seat arrived in plenty of time but it was not until a few days before the visit that I got around to collecting it and, with the Fijian plumber, taking it to the school for installation. It was then that I found, to my horror, that the model of seat provided was perfectly round in shape, whereas the pedestal opening was the tradition al oval shape. Fitted it looked decidedly odd. It was far too late to fly in another and there would certainly be none to be had in the Islands. I consulted the Headmistress and decided to settle for the new plastic set and hope that Her Majesty found it at least comfortable or - better still found no occasion to use it. Unwilling to trigger off yet another crisis, we agreed not to tell anyone else about the misfit.

In the few days before the visit there were too many other things of concern for me to worry about the regal 100. I was much relieved when 'V-day' dawned sunny and cloudless, since Suva's weather includes about 120 inches of rain a year. A downpour would have drenched everybody's enthusiasm.

In the morning, the Royal party travelled from the harbour to Albert Park, where the Queen was greeted by the Council of Chiefs. A large crowd was then entertained for about an hour and a half, with a programme including ritual dances and the yanggona ceremony, which involves the traditional drinking of kava. After dining at Government House on the first evening, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh were driven through the streets of Suva to the Grand Pacific Hotel for the Royal Ball. There was to be an escort of running Fijian torch-bearers and the route was lined by many more torch-bearers. The design of the torches had involved many trials to ensure that they would stay alight in all weather, give a good light without smoking, and yet be safe. In the end they worked well. Both the drive and the Queen's subsequent appearance on the Hotel's balcony were, for me, the most magical moments of her visit. She appeared dressed in a pale blue evening dress, surmounted by the blue sash of the Garter, and the sparkle of her tiara could be seen from afar.

I had received an invitation to the Ball, where my duties continued. After the Queen left at midnight I asked the hotel staff roll up the colony's only red carpet - the budget wouldn't stretch to two and instructed them to have it cleaned by 8.00am. I left the Ball at two o'clock, to return six hours later when, with the help of a friend, I managed to get the carpet into my small car and to the Legislature, which the Queen was due to open at nine. On rolling out the carpet, we found it still dirty. Luckily 1 had taken the precaution of going armed with both brush and vacuum cleaner. The Queen then completed her stay with a visit to the west end of the island.

The meke (ritual dance) taking place in Albert Park

Commemorative medallion

The two days passed off without major hitches. One of the surprises was the lack of crowds, so the crowd control system was never tested. It seems that the Paramount Fijian Chief, fearing excessive crowds, requested the outlying villagers to stay away. The Queen and everyone else seemed to enjoy themselves and I heard nothing more about the offending loo seat.

On Christmas Day I was heartened to receive a letter from Sir Ronald Garvey thanking me for my hard work and enclosing a special medallion from the Queen, one of two dozen left by Her Majesty to commemorate her Fiji visit.

I wrote to my parents recounting all these happenings. In due time my mother replied saying how pleased she was that I had been 'decorated' by Her Majesty for my services as a 'privy' counsellor!

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