When Diana, Princess of Wales died in 1997, the mourners who left flowers outside Kensington Palace commented on her unique rapport with people of all backgrounds. She was perceived as “The People’s Princess” with the ability to transcend her privileged position to empathize with children, the underprivileged and the unwell. Diana’s public reputation for empathy and concern developed from both her charity work and her participation in royal walkabouts. The Princess of Wales’ approach to the royal walkabout, which had been part of royal tours since 1939 had a lasting effect on how members of the royal family interact with the public at official engagements.
The first modern royal walkabouts took place during the 1939 tour of Canada by King George VI and his consort, Queen Elizabeth, one of the most well received royal visits in Canadian history. On May 20, the King and Queen visited Ottawa where George VI dedicated the National War Memorial in front of a crowd of 10,000 war veterans. After the ceremony, the royal couple spontaneously jointed the crowd, personally greeting the assembled onlookers and spending 30 minutes speaking with the soldiers. Further walkabouts occured at various points during the tour including the couple’s departure from Victoria, British Columbia.
Queen Elizabeth II revived the royal walkabout during her 1970 tour of Australia and New Zealand. During the first decades of her reign, access to the monarch was carefully regulated by the Royal Household, ensuring that only “suitable” persons were permitted to meet their sovereign. The walkabout was reborn in New Zealand when the Queen departed from the official program to greet a group of schoolchildren eager to meet the monarch. She shook hands with the children and accepted flowers and other small presents from them. Photographs of this walkabout were published by the press worldwide and the Queen received widespread praise for her willingness to respond to personally engage with the enthusiastic crowds on the tour. The walkabout was once again a staple aspect of a royal visit.
When Lady Diana Spencer married Charles, Prince of Wales in 1981, participating in royal walkabouts was an essential elements of her new royal duties. The young bride had been dubbed “Shy Di” because of her unwillingness to speak to the press during her engagement and public interest in how she would interact with onlookers during royal walkabouts was intense. The new Princess of Wales quickly developed her own unique approach to structure of public engagements refined by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth II.
One of Diana’s biographers, Tina Brown, attended an early royal engagement undertaken by the Prince and Princess of Wales, a black tie dinner at the American embassy in London. Brown observed, “I was struck by how odd it must be to be always coming upon silent people who stand there waiting to be addressed. But even at this early stage, Diana had evolved a perfect way to deal with it. In a light, airy way, she broke through by offering a shared little experience of her own that immediately communicated she was human (Brown, The Diana Chronicles, p. 223). When Brown commented that she had traveled to Venice by train, Diana volunteered, “I can never sleep on trains, can you?”
Diana’s engaging approach to royal walkabouts charmed audiences worldwide. Prior to her marriage, she had worked as a kindergarten assistant and nanny and had an instant rapport with children, crouching to their level when speaking with them. The Princess learned greetings in the local languages of the places she visited, greeting onlookers in Welsh on her first trip to Wales in 1982. Diana also connected with ill and disabled onlookers at her walkabouts, holding their hands and expressing an interest in their health. In Canada in 1983, Diana was even seen picking up a camera for an onlooker who accidentally dropped in in her path, further breaking down the barriers between royalty and those who gathered to meet them during their walkabouts.
Diana’s approach to royal walkabouts has had a lasting effect on how royalty engages with the public. Twenty-first century royal tours are marked by longer conversations between royal visitors and members of the public than earlier royal walkabouts. During their 2011 tour of Canada, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge took the time to interact extensively with ordinary Canadians, extending their walkabouts to allow for lengthier conversations with members of the public. The most recent royal tours have also been filled with spontaneous moments that provide new opportunities for royalty to engage with the public. Earlier this year, Prince Charles joined a game of street hockey in New Brunswick, scoring a goal to the delight of onlookers. Prince Harry danced in the streets during his tour of the Caribbean. The informality and spontaneity that Diana, Princess of Wales brought to royal walkabouts has had a lasting impact on the relationship between the royal family and the public.
Next Week: Diana, Princess of Wales and Her Charities