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The day a tortoise turned turtle for the King of England

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Flags flapped along the seafront as King George VI stepped ashore on St Helena… a small island, somewhere off the coast of France.

Quite a long way off, actually – and the same goes for the rest of the text that accompanies newly released archive footage of the royal visit.

One is left wondering whether it is possible to libel a tortoise.

Undiplomatic blunder: film notes put St Helena in France
Undiplomatic blunder: film notes put St Helena in France

The five-minute British Pathé news film, now made public on the YouTube website, shows the King and Queen stepping ashore at the wharf on 29 April 1947.

They were accompanied by the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

The royal party are seen looking round Napoleon’s badly dilapidated home at Longwood, and then admiring Jonathan the tortoise on the governor’s lawn.

The King even crouches down to try to feed him a banana, which the old boy appears to treat with some disdain.

There is also brief footage of two unnamed young Saints showing the traditional technique for sliding down Jacob’s Ladder, at an impressive speed.

The film is silent – it would have been shown in cinemas with a scripted voice-over, and music – so viewers must rely on the accompanying text to learn what is going on in the pictures.

But the text isn’t too reliable. For one thing, it says the men are sliding down St Jacob’s Ladder.

And the location of the film is given as “St Helena, France”: a bit of a slip, given that the Queen was later to summon the French Ambassador to explain why his government had allowed Longwood House to fall into severe neglect.

But the greatest indignity is suffered by old Jonathan, who even in 1947 was considered impressively ancient.

The notes refer to “several shots of the royal family observing a giant turtle.”

Turtles are indeed found in the waters around St Helena, but they’re not often seen eating bananas on the governor’s lawn, a thousand feet or so above sea level.

Eventually the royal party make their way back to the landing steps, with several straw bonnets and pith helmets in evidence in the large crowd.

The royal party stopped at the island on their way back from South Africa, on their first overseas visit after the Second World War – as noted by future governor David Smallman in Quincentenary, his history of the island.

He says that the present Queen Elizabeth clearly remembered her first experience of arum lilies growing in the wild. She had celebrated her 21st birthday a week earlier.

As the royal party prepared to leave the island, His Majesty told the crowd: “This is the first occasion on a which a reigning Sovereign has ever set foot on St Helena.

“I wish to tell you how much the Queen and I, and our daughters, have enjoyed our brief visit.

“We wish you all prosperity in the future.”

Mr Smallman also notes that the Queen’s remonstrations led to the posting of a French official to care for the Napoleonic properties on St Helena.

The online notes record that the film ends with “more daytime shots of the royal party looking around from the deck” of HMS Vanguard.

Hmmm – nice beaches. That looks a bit like Ascension…

The text accompanying footage on YouTube
The text accompanying footage on YouTube

Click here to watch the British Pathé news film

Royalty on St Helena – in David Smallman’s book, Quincentenary
Reflections on a Journey to St Helena – pictures of the royal visit

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