03/01/2016 12:38 EST | Updated 03/02/2017 05:12 EST

The Day My Father Met The Royal Family Changed His Life


Matt Halton with British Royality

It was one of the more surprising discoveries of my research for Dispatches from the Front. Sifting through piles of letters and memorabilia, I came across a crumpled photo of my father with the Royal Family on the grounds of Windsor Castle.

There was my dad apparently enjoying an amiable chat with King George VI and the Queen as the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, stood politely in the background.

My first reaction was how did he get there? And what was he doing with the Royals? The answers proved to be as interesting as the picture itself.

The photo was taken in April 1939 on the eve of a royal tour of Canada that marked the first visit here of a reigning monarch -- a huge event for English Canadians.

My father, Matthew ("Matt") Halton, was then the London correspondent of the Toronto Daily Star. For weeks he had pestered Buckingham Palace for a photo opportunity with the royal couple, getting a condescending "such-things-aren't-done-here, old boy" kind of response.

But later, to his great surprise, a sealed letter embossed with the royal coat of arms was delivered to the Star's London office. It invited Matt and two photographers to come to the palace, and then attend a second "sitting" at Windsor Castle later in the week.

The session at the palace went well, apart from the royal corgi jumping into the picture at inappropriate times. Matt suggested that he pick up the dog and remove him to an adjoining room. "I am afraid he would bite you," the Queen replied. Fortunately at this moment Dookie realized he wasn't welcome and wandered away.

The second photo shoot at Windsor Castle allowed Matt more time to chat with the King and Queen. He would laughingly recall that they were standing in a semicircle putting him in the awkward position of having his back to one of the royals for long moments.

They discussed the almost daily speculation that the visit to Canada might have to be postponed because of the looming war with Nazi Germany. "Three-to-one you go," Matt predicted, and the Queen nodded and said, "I think so, too."

They also discussed the royal itinerary in Canada, a chance for Matt to venture how much they would enjoy the Rockies and "the flawless jewel of Lake Louise." Thirteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth said she would like to canoe on Canadian rivers one day, and the King talked about his passion for photography.

Matt had not expected to write about his conversations, respecting the strictly observed protocol that the monarch never gives interviews to the press. But shortly after the photo sessions, the King's assistant press secretary told him the royal family was pleased with the "sittings" and gave him permission to write about them.

The concession was unprecedented, giving Matt and the Star an enormous scoop.

My dad was to become the most prominent Canadian journalist of his era despite coming from an impoverished immigrant family.

His father was known at one point as "Shithouse Halton" because he was given the job of cleaning out the privies in the small Alberta town of Pincher Creek. Looking at that photo, I couldn't help thinking that Shithouse Halton's son had come a long way.

David Halton was interviewed for the Huffington Post. In this video he talks about his book Dispatches from the Front: Matthew Halton, Canada's Voice at War, which has been nominated for the RBC Taylor Prize. See that six-minute video HERE.

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