Queen for half a day: Seattle’s royal visit of 1983
On the blustery and rainy evening of March 7, 1983, a series of big and cheery bonfires were lit in public parks along the eastern shores of Puget Sound north of Seattle. The occasion wasn’t a holiday, and it wasn’t some bizarre late winter progressive picnic.
The bonfires were Seattle’s unique way of saying farewell to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, as Great Britain’s monarch and her consort left the United States, and cruised north in the 412-foot Royal Yacht Britannia on their way to Victoria, British Columbia.
Andrew Whittaker is the British Consul General, and is based in San Francisco. Whittaker was just a child in England when Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited Seattle, but he’s also a diplomat who knows his history and who does his homework.
“When she came out it was at the invitation of President Ronald Reagan,” Whittaker said by phone from San Francisco last week. “It was her first visit to the West Coast of the United States.”
Whittaker points to billions of dollars of trade between the Evergreen State and the UK, and the nearly 19,000 jobs with UK-based companies here as proof that the long relationship between the Pacific Northwest and Great Britain remains strong.
“It was absolutely brilliant that Her Majesty was able to visit in 1983,” Whittaker said. “And we’re delighted that we’re able to strengthen and continue to build those relationships today.”
Queen’s eventful stop in California
Before making their visit to Washington back in 1983, the Queen and Prince first disembarked from Britannia 10 days earlier in San Diego. It was there that Mayor Bill Cleator caused a stir when he violated royal protocols and placed his hand on the Queen’s back to guide the monarch through the room during a reception.
Cleator was a city councilmember who had only just become acting mayor in January 1983 when the previous mayor Pete Wilson left office early to become a U.S. Senator. His brush with royalty is all that most people in San Diego remember about Cleator, who only served as mayor for a total of an otherwise uneventful five months.
With guidance only from her advance team, the Queen next traveled north to Los Angeles. At city hall, she addressed the city council and Mayor Tom Bradley and worked in a joke about her own voyage and Great Britain’s early claims to the land that eventually became part of the United States.
“This same northward journey along the coast of California was made some 400 years ago by Sir Francis Drake, who claimed this territory as Nova Albion for the first Queen Elizabeth and for the Queen’s successors forever,” the Queen told the elected officials. “I’m happy, though, to give you an immediate assurance, Mr. Mayor, that I have not come here today to press that claim.”
While in California, the royal couple visited with President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan at their ranch outside of Santa Barbara, and spent time in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Sacramento. The Queen and Prince also spent a rare two days of rest, with no reporters allowed, at Yosemite National Park.
Another rarity – a tornado – along with unusually rainy and windy weather for the Golden State, wreaked havoc with the royal couple’s original travel plans in California. One casualty of the high winds was a planned cruise in Britannia up the coast from Santa Barbara to San Francisco with Nancy Reagan aboard. It had to be called off.
At a dinner with the Reagans at the de Young Museum in San Francisco near the end of their California visit, the Queen joked, “I knew before we came that we had exported many of our traditions to the United States, but I had not realized that weather was one of them.”
Queen boards a Boeing jet bound for Seattle
Yosemite was the last stop in California. The royal couple flew from nearby Castle Air Force Base to Boeing Field aboard a Boeing 707 that had often served as Air Force One, arriving around 2 p.m. on March 7, 1983.
As sometimes happens, the weather in Seattle when the royals arrived here was nicer – if not necessarily warmer – than it had been in California. The temperature was in the low 50s. It was overcast, but the rain was holding off.
Under those cloudy skies, the Queen’s motorcade headed for the first stop in Seattle: a visit to Children’s Hospital. Then, it was back into the cars for the short drive to Hec Ed Pavilion at the UW for a formal “convocation,” with Governor John Spellman, along with UW faculty, administrators, and a select number of students.
While the Queen had mentioned Francis Drake in her Los Angeles speech, a transcript of her prepared remarks in Seattle shows that she gave shout-outs to Captain Cook for recognizing the economic potential of the Pacific Northwest; to early British fur traders for initiating trade with Asia; and to the diplomats and soldiers who contributed to the peaceful settlement of the Pig War. Know-it-all historians will be disappointed to learn that there was no mention of the decades of conflict between American settlers and the Hudson’s Bay Company, or the 40 years of joint British-American occupation of the Old Oregon Country that ended with the Treaty of 1846.
After leaving the UW, the royal couple next headed to Seattle Center, where they met up with Seattle Mayor Charley Royer for a public event at the old Flag Plaza just east of what was then called the Seattle Center Coliseum.
“It was a big deal when the Queen came, and everybody wanted to be involved in it,” Royer said recently, recalling that he got more phone calls from people who wanted invitations to events with the Queen than he got from people who wanted college basketball tickets when Seattle hosted the NCAA Final Four.
“This was an even more powerful draw than that great event,” Royer said. “People wanted to see the Queen, and Britannia being here and all that stuff was just great.”
Royer, who served three terms as mayor from 1978 to 1990, also shared photos of the Queen’s visit from his personal archives. The old photos, the former mayor said, tell an important part of the backstory.
“You can tell in both pictures I’ve got my hands locked behind my back, so I can’t possibly touch the Queen,” Royer said, with a chuckle, as recalled the backlash directed at his counterpart in San Diego.
From the Flag Plaza, the Queen, Prince, and mayor walked through the building that’s now called the Armory and across the pedestrian bridge to the Monorail platform. There, they boarded the World’s Fair artifact for the short, somewhat futuristic ride to downtown.
Seattle Mayor Charley Royer hosts the Queen
After disembarking from the old Monorail station at the old Westlake Mall, the royal couple walked north on 5th Avenue with their mayoral escort, and, Charley Royer says, with adoring crowds lining the route. It was just a few blocks from the Monorail station to the Westin Hotel, for a reception sponsored by Governor John Spellman and attended by elected officials, business leaders, and other VIPs from around the region.
When the reception ended in the early evening, the entourage rode by motorcade to Pier 48 where Britannia was waiting. It had cruised up the coast from San Francisco in into Puget Sound and Elliott Bay while the royal couple relaxed at Yosemite.
As the Queen and Prince prepared to depart, Royer and other dignitaries were invited aboard Britannia for a brief farewell. It was then that Royer had a few moments alone with the royal couple and a short conversation with the Queen.
“We went down in their stateroom,” Royer said. “And she gave me a pair of cufflinks and told me I looked like her son” – Prince Charles – Royer said.
As the mayor and the other local dignitaries were saying their goodbyes, a cluster of five local yachts were being prepared to give Britannia and the royal couple an official and very warm sendoff from the choppy waters of Elliott Bay.
Local antique appraiser James Kemp-Slaughter and his late younger brother Michael helped organize the festive armada for Britannia’s farewell.
James, now 70, has been a member for decades of the local chapter of an organization called the English Speaking Union. It’s a social group of mostly anglophiles who get together for cocktail parties and lectures about all things England, and who raise money for scholarships and support Shakespeare education in local schools. They also were pretty darn excited 35 years ago.
The Kemp-Slaughter brothers attended the reception at the Westin, and along with other family members, were officially “presented” to the Queen by Governor Spellman.
“That was quite exciting,” Kemp-Slaughter said.
But then maritime duties called, and the brothers had to hustle down to the waterfront.
Touring the Britannia on Elliott Bay
James and Michael, and about 200 other revelers climbed aboard those five yachts in Elliott Bay and headed out into Puget Sound as Britannia left the dock and pointed its bow north.
“We had cocktail parties on each yacht,” Kemp-Slaughter said. “And we sailed out and escorted the Britannia, which from the smaller yachts down below looked so huge looking up at it.”
And it was Kemp-Slaughter’s late brother who had the idea to have those cheery bonfires burning along the shore, and who, James says, convinced the parks department to actually make it happen.
Meanwhile, the good luck with the weather didn’t last.
“It was one of those very wet nights, it just poured rain,” Kemp-Slaughter said.
“[But it was] a special night.”
The next day, Charley Royer went back to his regular mayoral duties. A few weeks later, an envelope arrived from an old friend who was living in London. Inside were two newspaper clippings from coverage of the royal visit to the West Coast.
On one of those clippings, Royer said, “here was the mayor of San Diego on the front page of the London Times, having pulled off this great gaff of touching the Queen.”
And on the other?
“Here was me on the front page of the London Times with the Queen standing with the driver of the Monorail,” Royer said. “And the caption was, ‘The Queen is riding on a futuristic transportation system in Seattle with an unidentified person.”
“That was my high point,” Royer said, laughing.