As we reach “peak Diana” in the lead-up to the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death on August 31, on Monday another royal milestone will be passed, but with little fanfare. It would have been the 87th birthday of the late Princess Margaret.
Indeed, no one would have understood Diana’s lot in life better than Margaret, who in her own time was the most controversial and gossiped-about royal of her generation.
Today, PS’ spotlight shines back on Princess Margaret’s 1975 tour of Australia, the last of only two official tours she ever took here, though there was an unscheduled emergency trip to Sydney in 1978 after the Princess had to be airlifted to the antipodes after taking ill during a tour of the tropical islands of the Pacific.
Her trip coincided with what has been described as the “lowest point” of her marriage to Lord Snowdon, a matter which had received plenty of attention in the press both back in England and throughout the colonies, including here in Australia.
The invitation from Canberra was tellingly addressed to the Princess.
Royal biographer, the late Tim Heald, wrote in his 2007 book Princess Margaret: A Life Unravelled, the invitation from Australia said: “If Lord Snowdon were to accompany you, it would give us added pleasure”.
“Unfortunately, his presence could no longer give any pleasure to his wife. When Snowdon said yes, he would like to go, Margaret said she would cancel the trip. After a tussle, he withdrew, and she went alone.”
Among the “high points” of the tour was the performance of The Two Pigeons by the Australian Ballet, while the chief protocol officer of the Moonee Valley Racing Club praised Margaret’s “dedication and co-operation” when she visited under what he described as “appalling conditions”.
Heald wrote: “There was also a ticklish occasion when the Princess mulishly told Anne Tennant, her lady-in-waiting, that she was not, as scheduled, going to step on to Bondi Beach, meet the lifeguards and see them demonstrate traditional and modern methods of life-saving.
“Lady Anne, who had been prepared for trouble, said that she really felt the Princess ought to, because to be seen to be snubbing the lifeguards could be construed as a dreadful insult to the Australian nation.
“The Princess insisted and explained that she was wearing the wrong sort of shoes, and the one thing she couldn’t stand was getting sand between her toes. With an air of triumph, Lady Anne said she just happened to have a pair of flat shoes in a bag with her. Princess Margaret conceded defeat and stepped on to the beach.”
Following her return to England, Heald writes there was an encounter in France with museum director Sir Roy Strong.
“Princess Margaret was just back from Australia, which she told him she ‘hated’. She complained that there had been no crowds and the traffic lights had been left on.”
Though that would have been news to those who she met during her trip in 1975, especially the ladies of the Victoria League for Commonwealth Friendship who gave the Princess a thorough tour of their Grosvenor Street headquarters. Indeed, perhaps the poor Princess was too puffed to complain, having had to climb the three floors of the building in high heels and remain composed for the barrage of photos demanded of her.
Princess Margaret’s marriage to Lord Snowdon ended in divorce in 1978.
By then she had caused another stir when, still married to Lord Snowdon, she holidayed on the Caribbean party island of Mustique with her young lover Roddy Llewellyn in the 1970s, a far cry from taking tea with the Victoria League ladies in Sydney.
Princess Margaret, the Queen’s only sibling, died in 2002 at the age of 71.