By Hugo Vickers
As predicted, Prince George is a “wow” in New Zealand.
Prince William issues charming information about his son, tempering his appreciation that babies are demanding of their long-suffering parents, with his obvious delight in Prince George’s every action. Thus we hear that young George is “at his most vocal” at 3am, is, apparently, preparing for his position as “a prop forward” and, said the Prince: “I swear I heard him doing the haka this morning.” To an extent unprecedented, this royal baby has been exposed to the public gaze.
He has been seen arriving in New Zealand, carried down the steps of the plane in his mother’s arms, and most unusually, was even popped into a local playgroup to mix with infant New Zealanders.
He is already spoken of as undertaking his first official royal engagement. This sort of thing never happened in previous generations.
The maxim that children should be seen, but not heard was applied in full measure to earlier royal babies.
Traditionally, the arrival of royal progeny met with political involvement from the start, with the Home Secretary required to be at the birth.
This was on account of the “bed pan” incident in the reign of James II. The king’s wife, Mary of Modina, had lost eight babies to miscarriages or infant mortality. Despite 40 courtiers being present, it was thought that a male child may have arrived in the chamber concealed in a bedpan.
In 1840, before Queen Victoria gave birth to her first child, the cabinet, archbishop of Canterbury, bishop of London and Lord Steward gathered outside the royal bedchamber. The door was open and the Lord Steward could see and hear all that went on. Moments after her birth, the infant Princess Victoria (later Empress Frederick) was carried naked into the outer room and laid on a prepared table to be inspected by the councillors.
When the Queen and Princess Margaret were born, Home Secretaries were on the premises but George VI, wisely, terminated this practice before the birth of Prince Charles. Today, royal babies are born in hospitals, so their first public showing comes a day after the birth, when they are carried out into the glare of the media, in their mother’s arms – witness Prince William in 1982, and Prince George in 2013.
The present Queen was born at her grandparents’ house in Bruton Street. She was christened at Buckingham Palace. When her parents, then the Duke and Duchess of York, left for a trip to New Zealand and Australia from January to June 1927, she was left in the care of her grandparents, George V and Queen Mary.
Known to be a stern father, feared by his own children, George V was a more relaxed grandfather. There are accounts of him on all fours, playing with the infant princess and allowing her to tug his beard. During his long illness of 1928, she was sent down to Bognor occasionally to cheer him up.
A month after Prince Charles was born in 1948, Cecil Beaton recorded the first act of his career: “He interrupted a long, contented sleep to do my bidding and open his blue eyes to stare long and wonderingly into the camera lens, the beginning of a lifetime in the glare of public duty.”
After that, Prince Charles’s public appearances were confined to the occasional photo call with his parents, and “paparazzi” style shots of him in his pram, pushed by his nanny around St James’s Park. When Princess Elizabeth joined Prince Philip in Malta, the baby was left in the care of nannies at home. And later, during her Commonwealth tour of 1953 to 1954, the royal children (admittedly a bit older by then) stayed at Buckingham Palace, joining the Queen Mother at Royal Lodge for weekends.
Things changed with the arrival of Diana, Princess of Wales. In 1983, she and Prince Charles took nine-month old Prince William on their tour of Australia and New Zealand, a visit that in many ways echoes what is happening now.
Prince Charles, Princess Diana and Prince William of Wales Visit to Australia and New Zealand 1983 (Anwar Hussein/ Getty)
Before the trip, Tim Graham took photographs of Prince William with his parents at Kensington Palace. Helpful articles advised the royal parents how to cope on a long flight: “A supply of cheap, small toys can do wonders … A biscuit or sandwich will keep your child going.” They travelled with 90 suitcases and trunks, a pram, baby bouncer, bath, pots of talc and jars of baby ointment.
Their first stop at Alice Springs required a last-minute change of hotel due to flooding. Prince William made a brief appearance in his mother’s arms at the airport, where a fly landed on his head, inspiring the media to report that Prince Charles quipped: “He’s got his first fly on him already. He’s going to be brought up the hard way.”
Prince William was then flown on to the Woomargama homestead, near Albury, the home of businessman Gordon Darling, where the family were to be based. He travelled in the care of his nanny, Barbara Barnes.
The Prince and Princess of Wales with Prince William at Kensington Palace (Tim Graham)
As today with Prince George, the media remained hungry for stories about the infant prince. The Princess of Wales told some children that he liked plastic whales that spat balls out of the top, a favourite toy in his bath. During his Woomargama stay he was reported to have taken his first steps, kept his mother up at night with his teething, taken a dip in the Darlings’ swimming pool – “the Prince of Waves” said the Australian media – and upset a table in a quest for biscuits.
From Melbourne, the royal party flew to New Zealand, where Prince William made a celebrated appearance in front of 60 reporters and photographers, playing with a wooden insect on the lawn.
Though the media has become more cynical and less respectful, they are enjoying Prince George’s tour with just as much zest as they did Prince William’s, 31 years ago.