Australian stories such as The Adventures of Fatty Finn, Blinky Bill, The Muddle-headed Wombat and The Magic Pudding might well have been bedtime favourites for the young Prince William, who received a gift of such treasures from the people of Australia when he was born in 1982. With a new royal baby born in July, our reference staff trawled through the archives for news of Prince William’s arrival and came across a file containing details of the national gift. Elizabeth Masters uncovers the story behind the Prince’s present.
The excitement surrounding the royal baby’s birth in 1982 prompted Australia to send a gift, regardless of protocol which had previously dictated national gifts only on the birth of babies of reigning monarchs. This meant the nation had sent gifts to Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, but not on the births of Prince Charles or Princess Anne.
However, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser agreed that it was appropriate to mark the birth of the new prince with a gift from the Australian people.
Greg Cope, now Director of the National Archives’ Brisbane office, had a key role in suggesting and organising the gift. At the time he was working in the Ceremonial and Hospitality Section of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which had responsibility for official national and prime ministerial gifts.
‘We had a register of precedence for gifts, so that we could see at a glance what we had purchased for members of the Royal family in the past’, he said. ‘This would sometimes provide us with ideas.’
The file documenting the gift selection process, now in the Archives collection, reveals that early suggestions for the royal baby’s gift included a set of blankets ‘made of the finest quality Australian wool’ decorated with woven Australian motifs, a tapestry of Australian materials for the nursery (although it was noted ‘some consultation with London might be needed’), and a cot of Australian timbers, but with the note ‘parental plans to use an heirloom could not be discounted’.
Other suggestions included a large lambswool rug, a toy fur koala and kangaroo, a quality layette, a christening mug in gold and silver with a moulding of Australian flora and fauna, Australian animals crafted in silver, and a rocking horse of Australian timber saddled with a replica of the Australian flag.
‘In the end, after a brainstorming session, we came up with the idea of a selection of children’s books by Australian authors and illustrators’, said Greg. ‘We were quite pleased with that brainwave. The National Library advised that the Canberra Public Library Service would be able to provide a list of suitable titles.’
The final selection of 96 titles included books by Colin Thiele, May Gibbs, Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson, Ruth Park, Norman Lindsay, CJ Dennis, Ethel Turner, Michael Boddy, Pixie O’Harris, and many others. The total cost was $738.65 and the most expensive book, The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill, came in at $14.36.
‘Generally money wasn’t the issue’, explained Greg. ‘It was more about selecting something appropriate that represented Australia.’
Each book contained a book plate, printed on goatskin parchment, which read: ‘Presented to HRH Prince William of Wales, by the Government and People of Australia’. The cost of the book plates was $250.
‘We then had the dilemma of working out how to pack and present the books’, Greg recalled. ‘We had the idea of putting them in a specially-created chest.’
With contacts at Parliament House, Greg and his boss were soon put in touch with craftsman Bruno Ferluga, who worked there as a carpenter. He used Australian blackwood to create a chest for the books, carving the Australian Coat of Arms as an adornment.
‘He was very talented’, said Greg. ‘Prime Minister Fraser was so impressed with the quality of his work that he requested Mr Ferluga be presented to the Prince and Princess of Wales on their visit to Australia in April 1983.’
The chest of books was transported to England on the RAAF VIP plane B707, arriving at Heathrow at 4pm on Tuesday 28 September. The Australian High Commissioner in London arranged delivery to Buckingham Palace on 30 September – to mark the christening of William of Wales on 4 August.
The Prime Minister had sent a message to Prince Charles on 22 June 1982, the day after the baby was born:
The news of the birth of your son has been received with much rejoicing throughout Australia. On behalf of the Commonwealth and the people of Australia, may I offer to you and the Princess of Wales our congratulations on this joyful occasion.
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