Her 70-year reign marked huge social change for the UK and the Commonwealth. By Etan Smallman
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At 7.30am on 6 February, 1952, a servant found King George VI had died in his sleep at Sandringham House. As the news filtered around the world – taking more than five hours to reach the 25-year-old new Queen at Treetops hotel in Kenya – the Second Elizabethan Age had begun.
It saw the United Kingdom transformed beyond recognition. Living standards, the environment, technology, transport, politics at home and abroad, social norms and attitudes, have all changed since 1952 in a way that rivals the effects of the Industrial Revolution under the four kings of Georgian and early Victorian Britain.
As Elizabeth II said in 1997: “I sometimes sense the world is changing almost too fast for its inhabitants.”
Her Coronation in 1953 was preceded by the conquering of Mount Everest. Two of her Commonwealth subjects, Nepal’s Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Edmund Hillary, had planted the Union flag on top of the world’s highest mountain four days earlier, but the news was released on the morning of the historic ceremony in Westminster Abbey.
While the dawn of this new epoch was a time of national pride, the humble realities of everyday life could not be ignored in towns and cities still pockmarked by bomb damage from the Second World War.
People had to wait for more than a year after the pageantry of the Queen being crowned before the rationing of bacon was ended. This was the original era of austerity, a word that would resonate in the nation’s consciousness once again decades later.
Technology has brought some of the biggest changes since then. Just 20 days in, the first of the Queen’s 14 prime ministers, Winston Churchill, announced that Britain had entered the atomic age, with the development of its own bomb.
No one had yet set eyes on DNA’s double helix. It would be another year before British scientist Francis Crick walked into the Eagle pub in Cambridge with his US colleague James Watson and announced that they had “found the secret of life”.
The breakthrough – also the work of English chemist Rosalind Franklin and New Zealand-born Raymond Gosling – would reverberate throughout the Queen’s reign, revolutionising not only how we treated illness but also how we understood our own humanity.
The world wide web, invented by another Briton, Tim Berners-Lee, would make a similar impact. Victoria’s great-great granddaughter, who was the first person to have her coronation televised, would become the first monarch to send an email, in 1976. She uploaded her first YouTube video in 2008, sent her first tweet in 2014 and her first Instagram post in 2019.
As for how our green and pleasant land looked when her reign began compared to now, we have swapped an island mired in smoke (the Great Smog of 1952 is thought to have killed up to 12,000 people) for one that needs to tackle invisible air pollution (with as many as 36,000 deaths a year now attributed to long-term exposure).
The Peak District was designated as the UK’s first National Park just a year before “Lilibet” became Elizabeth II; there are now 15 of them. The mass production of plastic was still in its infancy in the early fiftis; now we are showered in the stuff (a problem so potently warned of by Sir David Attenborough, born 17 days after the Queen).
One thing that hasn’t changed is how many of us live in towns and cities – the urban population has remained at 81 per cent for England and Wales, according to the censuses of 1951 and 2011.
The public was still getting used to the mass motoring age when the Queen was carried through London in the gold state coach on her way to be crowned. The first zebra crossings were only a year old, less than a third of journeys were made by car, van or taxi, and Britain would have to wait until the end of the decade for its first motorway.
In all senses, things were moving more quickly in the skies. The De Havilland Comet became the world’s first commercial jet airliner when it entered service two months after George VI’s death. He and his 20th-century predecessors had already grown used to crossing borders in ways that were never imaginable when Elizabeth I ruled between 1558 and 1603, but royal tours were about to become easier and speedier.
“Some people have expressed the hope that my reign may mark a new Elizabethan age,” said the Queen in her Christmas broadcast of 1953. “Frankly, I do not feel at all like my great Tudor forebear, who was blessed with neither husband or children, who ruled as a despot and was never able to leave her native shores.”
The age of air travel meant the mother-of-four became the most well-travelled monarch in history. Still the head of state for 15 realms – including to the UK – by the time her reign came to an end, Queen Elizabeth II was thought to have visited more than 120 nations in all.
And we too became more travelled, before the coronavirus pandemic at least: in 2018, British people made 126.2 million international flights, more than any other nationality.
The British Empire had already begun disintegrating by the time Elizabeth II became its figurehead – most notably with the “Jewel in the Crown”, India, partitioned and granted independence in 1947. Britain’s role in world affairs felt for ever diminished by the humiliating Suez Crisis of 1956, and, to many, indelibly tarnished in the bloody aftermath of 2003’s invasion of Iraq.
Despite this, the Queen’s beloved Commonwealth has grown from eight countries in 1952 to 53 now, and the UK’s continued relationship with its former colonies is a major reason why more than 300 languages are now spoken in UK schools.
At the time of the 2011 census, 86 per cent of the population of England and Wales identified themselves as white, and 80 per cent as white British. The debate over immigration divided the country in 2016, as the UK voted for Brexit. But in that same year the UK capital elected Sadiq Khan as its first Muslim mayor – an unthinkable event all those years ago. Britain’s diversity grows every year.
The change in social attitudes has been dizzying, symbolised by the history of the Royal Family itself. It was the abdication of the Queen’s uncle, Edward VIII, in 1936, that thrust her father, the new George VI, into Buckingham Palace, and Princess Elizabeth up to first in the line of succession.
So scandalous was Edward’s wish to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee, that he was forced to quit the throne. In 1949, Elizabeth told the Mother’s Union: “We can have no doubt that divorce and separation are responsible for some of the darkest evils in society today.”
Divorce rates rocketed during the first half of her reign, however. There were fewer than 34,000 in 1952, and a peak of 165,000 in 1993 – the year after Her Majesty’s “annus horribilis”, in which three of her four children announced separations.
In 2005, the former Prince Charles married Camilla, who had been his mistress. Both parties were divorced but they were blessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In 2018, the Queen’s grandson, the Duke of Sussex married Meghan Markle an American divorcee without a hint of outrage among the Queen’s subjects. Meghan is also mixed race and this was seen as further evidence of how much the nation had moved in race relations, exactly 50 years after Enoch Powell warned that a multiracial Britain would end like Rome, “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.
However, in March 2021, the Duchess of Sussex made allegations of racism within the royal household – though these were strongly denied by the household.
After the Euro 2020 final loss, England’s black footballers suffered horrible abuse on social media – a sign that there was still much work to be done on diversity in 21st-century Britain.
Britain’s gay citizens would have to wait 15 years into Elizabeth II’s reign before homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967. The first royal same-sex wedding came in 2018, when her cousin Lord Ivar Mountbatten married his partner, James Coyle. A year later, Prince William said that one of his children coming out as gay would be “absolutely fine by me”.
As the Queen lies in state, a nation will fondly recall a reign in which it was stewarded by the reassuring calm and dignity of “our late Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second of Blessed and Glorious memory” (as she will be formally referred to in Charles’s proclamation as King at St James’s Palace).
As one (anonymous) historian said in 2017: “We were all told that the funeral of Churchill was the requiem for Britain as a great power. But actually it will really be over when she goes.”
Britain in 1952 The state of the UK when her reign began
Population 50.2 million
Life expectancy 71.8 years for women and 66.7 years for men
Prime Minister Winston Churchill
Economy The world’s second biggest, behind only the US, with a GDP of £247bn
Employment Men earned an average £9 a week, and women £5 – only a third of the workforce was female
Average house price £1,891
Entertainment Three BBC radio stations and one black-and-white television channel
Family There were 16 births per 1,000 population; 3.5 per cent of babies were born outside marriage; the most popular baby names were Susan (the name of the Queen’s first corgi) and David (David Cameron would become the Queen’s first prime minister born after her Coronation)
Shopping The “basket’” of goods used to measure inflation in the UK included canned fruit, ice cream, brown bread, Tupperware, camera film, televisions, cars, motorcycle insurance, NHS prescription charges, and dance-hall and youth-club admission charges
Transport 2.5 million cars; 1.5 million outward and inbound trips by air
Health The NHS was less than four years old; in 1952 charges were introduced for prescriptions (one shilling), dental treatment (£1), and spectacles
Britain in 2022 The state of the UK when her reign ended
Population 68.6 million
Life expectancy 83.6 years for women and 79.9 years for men
Prime Minister Liz Truss
Economy World’s sixth-biggest economy, behind the US, China, Japan, German and India. GDP is £2.2trn.
Employment Average weekly earnings are £611. The gender pay gap is around 7 per cent and falling. 72.2 women are in employment, compared with 78.9 per cent of men.
Average house price £286,000
Entertainment Digital terrestrial television offers up to 70 channels, with many more available via streaming subscriptions.
Family Current birth rate is 11.322 births per 1,000 population. The majority of births in England and Wales, 51.3 per cent, are outside marriage. The most popular baby names are Olivia for girls and Oliver for boys.
Shopping Additions in 2022 to the basket of goods used to measure inflation include meat-free sausages, canned pulses, sports bras, pet collars and antibacterial surface wipes. Removals this year included men’s suits, doughnuts and coal.
Transport 32.9 million cars (around 456,000 estimated to be electric vehicles). 63 million outward and inbound trips by air.
Health The NHS costs £192bn per year. Prescription charges for those not exempt are £9.35 per item. NHS dental charges start at £23.20 for an examination. Children and over-60s and those on low incomes receive free eye tests and subsidised glasses or contact lenses.