In 1998, teacher and local historian Roger Bastable looked back 40 years to June 9 1958 when he was eight years old and bouncing with excitement at the thought of the Queen opening Gatwick Airport and visiting the thriving New Town. This is his article.
Scan the court and social pages of the upmarket national daily papers and you will see royal visits are regular occurrences which rarely hit the headlines beyond the local press and radio stations.
Yet, while it might seem difficult to believe now, Crawley stood in the national media spotlight throughout the 1950s and in the early days of the new town as part of an exciting social experiment in social planning.
Not long after Crawley’s designation as a new town, parish council chairman Percy Wales had been interviewed on television, and radio presenter Franklin Engelman had dropped in to record the then popular Down Your Way. In 1955 the Daily Mail printed a full-length feature on life in a new town.
Crawley’s royal double whammy came on June 9 1958 with the visit to the town by the Queen and Prince Philip. For not only did she come to formally open Gatwick as London’s second airport, she also spent the best part of the day touring around Crawley New Town, which she had last seen as a muddy building site eight years previously.
Although I remember it with all the excitement as the eight-year-old school boy I then was, I wonder whether in these more cynical, critical times, such an occasion would make the mark it did then. I doubt it.
As with all royal visits, the occasion was planned with keen precision - everywhere from Buckingham Palace to St Margaret’s School, in Ifield, where I was a pupil in Mrs Jenkins’ infant class.
Days, even weeks before the great day, Woolworths in Queens Square were selling cotton Union Jacks for a few pence and a glossy programme for a shilling, 3d of which, we were assured, was being donated to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards Scheme for Youth in Crawley.
A glance through the programme with its red, blue and gold cover told you that the Queen’s and Duke’s day was not only planned with almost military precision (I wonder if the royal party ever did arrive at Langley Green Community Hall at 2.37pm sharp - probably!) but that they were to meet a fairly comprehensive cross-section of local life.
There were a whole spate of local openings and visits that day, the then Crawley Technical College to St Mary’s Church, Southgate, and of course enough presentations and hand shakings to make the royal mind boggle.
Yet, while it might had been all in an average day’s work for the Queen and Duke, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those who met them or who just lined the streets of Crawley to watch the royal motorcade sweep by.
Great care was taken, long before the days of royal walkabouts or the ‘Diana factor’, that the Queen met as many people as possible, over and above the usual civic dignitaries.
In Queens Square, aptly named for the occasion, she met workers from local shops and then, after lunch at the George, she visited the home of Development Corporation tenants at Ifield - “At 2.28pm in Ifield, Her Majesty and His Royal Highness will alight and call upon a resident in a Corporation subsidised house, where the chairman of the Development Corporation will present the Corporation’s housing manager, Miss M Wragg.”
As the Queen’s car was to pass St Margaret’s en route from West Green to Ifield, our headmaster, Mr Weston, had told us weeks before that the whole school would be lined up on the pavement to cheer and wave our cotton Woolies flags stapled to wooden sticks.
I don’t know how we contained our excitement in the days leading up to the great day itself, but I think our teacher got some of it out of our system by focussing our lessons on a royal theme – it certainly made history come alive for a week or two!
Keen that his school put up a good appearance, Mr Weston made us rehearse marching out in crocodiles on to the pavement, where we frantically cheered passing cars and bikes, just for practice.
Monday June 9 1958 turned out to be a glorious, sunny day and so, dressed in our best T-shirts, shorts and sandals – as though the Queen would have noticed, but that wasn’t the point – and carefully drilled, we marched out a good half hour before she was due to pass by.
There was a lot of jostling, pushing and excited chatter until we could hear the distant sound of cheering which told us that the Queen was on her way.
Amazingly, we all fell quiet and still, flags poised at the ready, as the cheering and clapping got closer.
Looking along Ifield Road, you could see as the royal car approached with the flourishing of tiny Union Jacks and you felt yourself caught up in all the excitement. Then suddenly, there she was. It could only have been a second or two but I can still clearly see her blue coat, feathered hat and the flash of a white-gloved hand.
In those days, the Queen had something of a Princess Diana glamour and the memory of that day stayed with us all for a very long time after.
It was not just a special occasion for us and all the other school children who lined Crawley’s streets that day, cheering themselves hoarse.
While the local papers naturally made a big splash, the visit was also covered by the nationals, with headlines such as ‘Queen Visits New Town.’
For while the opening of Britain’s second airport was newsworthy, so equally was Crawley itself.