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When the King came to Doaktown: Woman, 94, recalls surprise royal visit to small town

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stopped in for tea at the Gilks House in Doaktown in 1939. (Submitted by Norman Betts - image credit)
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stopped in for tea at the Gilks House in Doaktown in 1939. (Submitted by Norman Betts - image credit)

In eight weeks, the new monarch will be crowned at Westminster Abbey, making it official for King Charles III.

If Charles returns to New Brunswick with his new title, it will mark more than 80 years since a king visited the province.

There are few who can still remember when King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, made a surprise stop in 1939 in the small community of Doaktown.

Olive O'Donnell, 94, is one of them.

"We were just there to wave as they came through Doaktown," said O'Donnell. "We didn't know the King and Queen were going to stop."

The royal couple was coming from Miramichi on the way to Fredericton as part of a month-long tour across Canada. It was the first time a reigning monarch had come to the country.

Submitted by the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick - Item - 1939/06/13 P93\N\23
Submitted by the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick - Item - 1939/06/13 P93\N\23

When O'Donnell woke up that morning, she, along with the rest of the community, knew the royals would pass through, but she had no idea that she was going to meet them.

"Oh, no," said O'Donnell. "I'd hoped to see them drive by, like everyone else."

A handful of lilacs

She was 10 years old and a Girl Guide. Her troop leader suggested that on the off chance the royals stopped, someone should present them with a bouquet of wildflowers.

So O'Donnell picked a handful of purple lilacs.

WATCH | Olive O'Donnell fondly describes her childhood meeting with King George VI in Doaktown

It was really just a fantasy that the King and Queen might visit Doaktown that day. Dressed in her Girl Guide uniform, O'Donnell, along with the entire community, got ready to wave the couple through.

"Everyone was out with their flags and all dressed up," she said.

Everyone was in their finest clothes when the royal procession came through at 11 a.m.

It consisted of escort cars and motorcycles with RCMP, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, and of course, the King and Queen waving from their car. O'Donnell remembers being stunned at how beautiful the Queen was as she passed.

A flurry of excitement

She watched as the car went by her. She followed it up the road a bit. But then it stopped.

The royal couple stopped outside Gilks House, a small Doaktown hotel that O'Donnell said would be more like a bed and breakfast by today's standards. It happened to be very close to her home as well.

She said seeing the motorcade stop was shocking. She describes holding her flowers "nearly a mile away" when she saw they'd stopped.

"That bouquet of lilacs, I ran with that all the way to Gilks House," said O'Donnell.

Submitted by the New Brunswick Provincial Archives - Item P54\74 - Photo by H. Smith, Sackville.
Submitted by the New Brunswick Provincial Archives - Item P54\74 - Photo by H. Smith, Sackville.

There was a flurry of excitement when the town realized the King was stopping in Doaktown. A memoir penned by Mrs. James Gilks, the co-owner of Gilks House, describes amusing "little episodes" of residents' reacting to the stop.

"Such as that of the woman who was lame for years, but when she heard of their majesties' presence in the village became so excited that she forgot her infirmity and ran as she had not done since childhood, in her eagerness to be present at the stirring event," wrote Gilks.

"Another lady crawled under a wire fence in her excitement and being of portly build became wedged between the fence and the ground. This was not dignified, but who cared? Were not the King and Queen here?"

All that frenzy as the King and Queen were stopping for tea.

It turns out the stop for tea had been organized the night before with the hotel, but the owners and staff were sworn to secrecy. According to the Gilks memoir, they had 25 minutes to prepare tea for the royal party of 25 people.

And when they finished, O'Donnell said, they were speaking with the prime minister on the porch, and it was there she was able to present them with her bouquet of lilacs.

Shane Fowler/CBC
Shane Fowler/CBC

"When they finished, I just walked up the steps with my bouquet," said O'Donnell, who introduced herself with a curtsy. "I felt quite important."

"They were very nice and [Queen Elizabeth] asked me what patrol I was in," said O'Donnell. "And right away I told her 'the robin patrol,' and when I did, he chuckled, the King.

"I remember he laughed at that, but that didn't fizzle me."

She said she didn't realize how big a deal the encounter was at the time, but over the years, she has relished the memory.

That was the first and last time a King or Queen visited Doaktown, but even after 84 years, O'Donnell can still recall it as if it were yesterday.

"Strange about that, isn't it," she said. "How you can remember something that far away, that long ago, but I couldn't remember what I had for breakfast."