The spectacle of a royal visit to an industrial site can often feel rather awkward, with an expensively dressed monarch cutting an incongruous figure amid the “dark Satanic mills”. However, royal visits play an important role in validating the importance of a particular industry to the nation’s economy. The Coronation of King Charles III presents a perfect opportunity to look back at the many royal visits that feature in our Guest, Keen & Nettlefold archive; below, curator Henrietta explores just a few.
The stately figure of Queen Mary takes centre stage under this elaborate arch, which was specially made when she and her husband George V toured the Dowlais ironworks in 1912. The programme for the day included a seven-course meal and a concert, and the visit celebrated the might of the British iron and steel industry at a time of great optimism. Feathered hats were the fashion, of course, but the Queen’s must surely have got a little grimy in this dusty environment.
There is a more austere and sombre atmosphere in this photograph of King George visiting one of the GKN sites during the First World War, when so much production was geared towards the war effort.
Edward VIII may have occupied the throne for a very short time, but he did make a point of visiting the industrial heartland of South Wales. In 1936 he entered the Dowlais works through the same arch that had been built for his parents in 1912. Tragically the site was now derelict, a casualty of the post-war depression. Rather than being celebratory, this visit brought the King face to face with poverty, and his desire to meet ordinary people, especially the unemployed, made a powerful impression.
When Britain was plunged back into war, the Royal Family again graced GKN industries with their presence. George VI and Queen Elizabeth signed the visitors’ book when they visited the Darlaston factory in 1942. Two years later, in March 1944, they were in South Wales accompanied by a young Princess Elizabeth who, according to the newspapers, was “presented” to Wales on this visit.
The Queen carries an elegant mink stole, a hint of luxury at a time of austerity and utility clothing. This was the fourth year of the war, and the royal family provided a focus for patriotism and stoicism at a time when no one knew how or when the war would end. The beautiful Princess Elizabeth must have represented hope for the future.
Other members of the royal family, including the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Margaret, have played ceremonial roles for GKN, opening new factories and celebrating major international contracts. In 1973, we find Princess Margaret, sporting a spectacular hat, visiting a GKN stand at a trade fair. She is working hard to appear enthralled by a “twin screw extruder producing a structural ‘tee’ section”.