Members of the royal family have visited New Zealand many times. They have been welcomed by local dignitaries to towns and cities dotted with familiar names and adorned with statues of family members. They laid foundation stones, cut ribbons and attended military reviews, civic receptions, balls, garden parties and formal lunches. They saw agricultural shows rather than grand cultural events: New Zealand was presented as a rich and fertile land, Britain’s farm.
First in, 1869
The first royal tourist, Prince Alfred, second son of Victoria and Albert, came in 1869. He saw the main cities and Nelson, and went pig hunting and picnicking. The naval captain had a good time, briefly returning the following year, and again the year after that.
Visits by royalty were tightly managed by officials of the royal household and by the New Zealand government, which paid for royal tours, including travel, accommodation and living costs.
Reasons for tours
Tours were arranged to acknowledge New Zealand's contribution to the South African War and both world wars, for example the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York – later George V and Queen Mary – in 1901. Visits occurred when the Commonwealth Games were held in New Zealand. Anniversaries of important events – such as James Cook’s first arrival in New Zealand, the battle at Gallipoli in the First World War and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi – also prompted visits.
Shaken and bruised
Royal visitors shook thousands of hands. During his 1920 tour, Edward, Prince of Wales, shook more than 3,000 hands at a single civic reception in Auckland. By the time he left New Zealand, the prince was estimated to have shaken over 20,000 hands. Sixty-three years later, Diana, Princess of Wales, had a similar experience. At the end of the day, her hands were red and sore after many enthusiastic greetings during walkabouts.
Prince of Wales, 1920
When Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), toured the dominions in 1920, both Britain and New Zealand were interested in what was called a ‘carefully arranged propaganda exercise’.1 George V, Edward’s father, sought to maintain and increase support for the empire after the First World War. New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey saw the prince’s visit as an opportunity to boost his own Reform Party, arranging an itinerary that included 50 towns between Auckland and Invercargill.
The prince attracted very large crowds. On arrival in Wellington, the press of people was so solid that his car was slowed to walking pace. By the end of his tour, the prince was exhausted and disgruntled; after the tour (which included Australia) he suffered a minor nervous breakdown.
Duke and Duchess of York, 1927
During this tour, the New Zealand public were charmed by the Duchess of York, whose warmth complemented her shy husband’s dignity. The royal couple became King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1936. Queen Elizabeth, known after her husband’s death as Her Majesty the Queen Mother, remained very popular in New Zealand.
Royal tour stops inquiry
A commission of inquiry into improper conduct on the part of the police commissioner, Eric Compton, ground to a halt when Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh toured in 1953–54. Compton oversaw security for the royal couple. Although the inquiry’s report prompted his voluntary retirement, Compton’s work during the tour resulted in his being made a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (an honour entirely within the sovereign’s gift).
Queen Elizabeth II and Duke of Edinburgh, 1953–54
The visit of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, in 1953–54 was the first by a reigning monarch. It took place after a world war in which New Zealand had supported Britain.
The crowds that greeted the royal couple were very large and wildly enthusiastic. The young queen’s first appearance – in Auckland – met with ‘wave after wave of cheering’ and ‘roars of approval’.2 People thronged to see her across the country, gathering to wave at her train as it went past tiny country settlements, and waiting for hours in main centres to secure a good viewing position.
Queen Elizabeth II made many later visits to New Zealand, including one in 1963 at which the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council was set up as the nation’s gift to her.
Charles and Diana, 1983
The visit of Charles and Diana, Prince and Princess of Wales, with their infant son, William, attracted considerable attention. The princess was the focus of much of it, with Charles detecting disappointment among the crowd on his side of the street during walkabouts. The visit, like others in the later 20th century, recognised New Zealand’s continuing relationship with the royal family.
Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge, visited New Zealand in March 2011 to mark the November 2010 Pike River mine disaster, in which 29 men died, and the Christchurch earthquake of 22 February 2011, in which 185 people died. William returned in 2014 with his wife Kate and their infant son George.
In 2018, William's younger brother Harry, Duke of Sussex, and his wife Meghan visited New Zealand five months after their wedding.
Other royal tourists prompted a quieter response. Although greeted by politicians at official welcomes, and watched by some of the citizenry, the crowds were smaller and less vocal, the decorations less elaborate. By the end of the 20th century it was possible for members of the royal family, including the queen, to visit almost unnoticed.