I camped overnight to glimpse the Queen at her coronation – years later I was an honorary surgeon to her
Tony Wober was just 13 when he slept overnight on The Mall to see Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation. Here, he tells Yahoo UK what the experience – 41 hours without sleep, no protective clothing and tin boxes as pillows – was really like and how, years later, he was able to meet Her Majesty on several occasions thanks to his role as an honorary surgeon to her.
When the Queen’s coronation rolled around in the summer of 1953, Tony Wober was in his first year of boarding school in rural Dorset.
It was the first coronation to be televised, but with no TV at school and his Uncle Sammy the only family member to have a 12-inch black and white one, Wober and his 17-year-old brother, Mallory, were determined to be there in person.
This was going to be the greatest show on Earth
"This was going to be the greatest show on Earth," Wober, now 83, recalls. "It was the greatest show on Earth."
And now 70 years on, while the numbers may not be as vast, people are beginning to camp out on the streets of Westminster for 2023's royal spectacular: King Charles's coronation.
Growing up in wartime
"Life in the 40s was all about rationing, everything from food to clothes. Everything in wartime was bombed or filthy, soot and pollution everywhere. Life was black and white," Wober, who recently left his home in Henley-on-Thames to live full-time in Australia, recalls.
"And while there were some American films that came out in colour, this was going to be real life 50s colour.
"Going from dark post-war austerity to a shining beacon ahead. This was something exciting and new."
What Wober remembers perhaps most distinctly (given he was only 13 at the time) was that in the year of the coronation, sweet rationing came to an end.
In those days, we had no such thing as leisure clothes. You did anything out of hours in your school uniform, which was shorts, and what I would have worn on the pavements of The Mall
He had come with his family to London (sailing from India to Liverpool) post-Second World War at six years old, after living in a Jewish community in Calcutta, also spending time in Darjeeling. But while it was his and his brother's first time in the UK, the British influence was always present in their early life.
"My mother was steeped in English literature, English history, British culture, art and all the rest of it. She was an avid reader and writer."
And now fast forward a few years, they were to attend one of the most historical days in the books.
Sleeping rough on The Mall
The pair had the Monday to get up to London from school, spending the night outdoors on The Mall from early evening, positioned towards Trafalgar Square and Horse Guards Parade, ready for the event on Tuesday 2 June.
Also in the group were cousins Nigel, 15, and Rachelle, 24, who was the designated 'adult' – though he laughs affectionately now that he wouldn't trust her in charge of anything.
"We didn't have any protective clothing, like people have now with waterproofs made from the latest materials," he says.
"And in those days, we had no such thing as leisure clothes. So you did anything out of hours in your school uniform, which was shorts, and what I would have worn on the pavements of The Mall."
Lost in the crowd
After getting separated from his older brother and pushing through the crowds, the rest of them set up base.
In a letter from Wober to his father – who was in India during the coronation – written once back at school after the coronation, he sets the scene.
He wrote at the time: "There was a man lying on the ground, I was half lying on him, Rachelle was half lying on me and Nigel half lying on her. My ribs were being host to a pair of shoes and my head could not find a comfortable position on a tin box [used as a pillow]. I never went to sleep and we were all cold."
You swallowed your tiredness. It was drizzling, but you couldn't care less
After a night of being kept up by food vendors, street cleaners and police, passing time with a solo venture to find and deliver his brother some sandwiches, and a walk with Nigel to the palace, Wober was given an unexpected but much-needed burst of energy.
"At some early hour in the morning, the newspapers arrived – Everest had been climbed. This was beyond magic, because of my family’s link with Darjeeling and the Himalayas.
"'EVEREST CONQUERED’ was the sort of headline, the timing was unbelievable."
Wober recalls the growing appetite for action, full of song, cockney humour and banter. Standing on tiptoes at around 9/10am, he first saw the royal procession travelling to Westminster Abbey for the ceremony. The Queen, accompanied by guards and soldiers, was in her carriage, along with other royals in their coaches. But while the crowd happily cheered and waved, this modest show was just a mere taster of the grandeur to come.
Singing contests on The Mall
The coronation service, lasting almost three hours, was broadcast over loudspeakers. "We waited all that time. Avid, excited, tired, expectant. You swallowed your tiredness. It was drizzling, but you couldn't care less," he says, recalling the hardy attitude of the time, evident also in his letter.
He wrote: "In the afternoon it began to rain so the other side of the road started to sing. We soon joined in and spirits were high. Soon the singing became a contest. They would sing a song and we would cheer very loudly and vice-versa. At last the rain stopped and the procession appeared."
Loving every minute
Wober thinks back to the 30,000 troops, three million civilians lining the streets (which he remembers to be a 'London affair' pre-mass Tourism) and excessive pageantry.
Mallory had joined him just in time to watch the big moment together, Rachelle in a nearby spot, and Nigel stuck watching from the other side.
"It took you out of yourself and into the moment. You didn't know who you were, you were just taken by something that nobody had seen since the 1930s. This was the first total technicolour show," he says.
"All the leaders of the dominions and the Commonwealth and the Empire were there. Large divisions of Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Indians, showing off their troops to the best.
"Before we got to the actual Household Cavalry, there were all sorts of bands marching. You could hear the music coming up The Mall towards you, hear the horses' hooves, see Canadian Mounted Police [the ‘Mounties’]. You were just fixated on non-stop entertainment for at least 45 minutes."
And then for the main event. He remembers seeing the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, King Charles and Princess Anne as children, and of course the Queen and Prince Philip.
"The Queen was in the Gold State Coach," he says, which was built in 1762, and what we can expect for the King's coronation.
"It's the most magnificent coach. Very fancy, ornate, over the top, and quite frankly, vulgar to a good taste. But for the procession and for a bit of showbiz and Hollywood, it was just the ticket. And with the beautiful horses pulling it."
Wober recalls spotting the monarch somewhere in the middle of all the endless British military Life Guards and Blues and Royals. "Your neck and legs grew somehow to look between the police and soldiers and all the rest. I had a good view of the Queen in her coach waving."
The Queen of Tonga stole the show. She was 6ft 3 in an open coach in the drizzle, smiling and waving to the crowd
Another stand-out moment was the Queen of Tonga. “She stole the show. She was 6ft 3in, in an open coach in the drizzle, waving and smiling to the crowd. We loved her."
After the procession, Wober made his way to Waterloo station, where they were just in time to see the flypast, made up of 144 Meteors and 24 Sabres. But the adventures didn't end there.
Joining their mother, who lived in north London, he and Mallory had just 15 minutes at home before going out again – this time to watch Guys and Dolls.
"I was very sleepy but after the play Mallory and I went to see the fireworks," he wrote in the letter. "They were very good then we went home and I went to bed at about 1:15am on Wednesday morning. We had had no sleep for 41 hours. We woke up at 12:30pm just in time to have 'break-lunch' before going back to boarding school."
We had no sleep for 41 hours and finally got to bed at 1.15am
While this year there's a pop concert on the Sunday after the King's coronation, other than the fireworks, the general atmosphere was enough of a celebration in 1953. "The whole thing, in a way, was a street party," says Wober.
On returning to school for "boring old Latin" and other things he hated, all the boys swapped stories from the day, including two senior students who were footmen on the back of a horse-drawn carriage for the 6th Marquess of Bath. "I couldn't match that. But it didn't matter. We had done something very special. We'd been present at the greatest show on Earth."
Decades later, I was blessed to meet the Queen several times
But little did Wober know that he would be able to match that one day. "I was blessed decades later to meet the Queen personally on many occasions," he says. "Even though she was probably in her 70s when I was with her, she never lost her blue eyes and beautiful smile."
During this time, Wober, now an RAF doctor, was honorary surgeon to the Queen. He was in charge of a medical team in support of investitures (ceremonies), garden parties, banquets and so on.
While they waited 'backstage' somewhere in the palace, he was the one present at all the events, ready to call them for help if needed.
What would he say if he knew all this when he was on The Mall back in 1953, stood on tiptoes in the crowd, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Queen? "Don't be silly."
Mourning the Queen
After reigning for more than 70 years, sadly the Queen died on 8 September 2022.
"I slightly surprised myself, though I wasn't alone,” Wober recalls. “I was very emotional. I asked my three children why I was so upset, and we agreed her constancy and stability had been gold dust throughout troubled times," he says.
"It was a deep loss from a sort of mother of our nation."
Now looking forward, the 83-year-old has lived longer than our current King.
Having left Henley at the end of last year for Australia with his Aussie wife, Wober will be watching the coronation on television this time. A good enough excuse for an 83-year-old living on the other side of the world not to set up camp on the streets of The Mall this time around.
Plus, his vivid memories of the 1953 event 70 years later are good enough for him. “It was a positive experience beyond measure.”
Watch: Late Queen's coronation was joyous celebration in aftermath of Second World War