A Historian’s Collection, or Understanding my obsession with royal commemoratives

Gillian Leitch

China cups and saucers with royal portraits on them.

Figure 1: Some pieces of the collection. Photo by the author,

I have always collected things.  I think it is a part of what has made me a good researcher, the desire to see and have many examples of something that interests me and from which I can create a larger narrative. Certainly, as a historian I have collected documents, information and knowledge about my research interests of immigration, ethnic identity and social networks in the nineteenth century, as well as my work in popular culture on time travel television, and have crafted them into narratives for publication.  This also applies in my work as a public historian.

My largest collection, and one which I continue to add to, is my royalty memorabilia collection.  And by large, I mean it currently has 2849 individual items, from the 17 mugs, 14 plates, 8 teacups and saucers, to the 95 books—the collection is massive.

It all began in the summer of 1981, and I was a young teenager caught up in the romance of the royal wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer. It was an interest I shared with my English-born mother. While in hindsight we can look at this event as not so romantic, maybe even tragic, at the time it was wondrous.  There wasn’t a day that the newspapers or television were not reporting on something that Lady Di said, wore, or where she was.  The royal wedding was everywhere and all-consuming.

The commercial aspect was tied into it—the sale of souvenirs to commemorate the wedding was ever-present in local stores. Every type of store seemed to get into the game, department stores, drug stores, bookstores, and china stores. Souvenirs were a way to be a part of the excitement of the royal wedding. An ad for Woodwards called the wedding “the greatest spectacular of the century,”[1] while Canadiana called their souvenir spoon “a once in a lifetime heirloom.”[2] Souvenirs were varied and abundant.

A newspaper advertisement for "Royal Wedding Bone China."

Figure 2: Calgary Herald, 3 June 1981.

I was already the proud owner of a Silver Jubilee poster (1977) which I got on a trip to England for a family wedding, so royalty souvenirs were not a mystery to me. My first royal wedding souvenir was a silk scarf, a gift from my Uncle Eric, followed quickly by souvenir books, mugs and spoons. The commemoration of the subsequent births of Charles and Diana’s sons William and Henry, royal tours and other royal weddings were added to the collection.

Two shelves filled with cups, saucers, teapots, and miniature portraits.

Figure 3: The collection as it was in 1987 in what my brother lovingly called “the shrine.” Photo provided by the author.

To say that I was an enthusiastic collector through my high school years and early twenties is an understatement. I was avid, and despite my limited financial means I was able to acquire an impressive number of items.

Initially seen as very romantic, the relationship between the Prince and the Princess of Wales cannot be seen in the same light now. I collect still, but with a different perspective.  Nostalgia is, of course, one of the strongest impulses which keeps me looking for and purchasing commemorative items.  I have to admit though, the idea of buying new is not as strong as the desire to get it used at thrift stores, or on sale when the retailer realizes that the event has long passed its popularity. The thrill of the chase, the thought of getting a deal or something cheap is its own allure.  I choose items now based on the rarity of the item, the look of the piece, and the price. I do like quirky, like the Funko Pop figures of William, Charles and Harry, or the Spitting Image Charles and Diana keychains.

I still hold a fondness for the British royal family, but I am well aware of their place in society now, as well as their historical roles. I realize that they are human beings, with faults and foibles like the rest of us.  I do not delude myself that they are universally loved, and I know their place in our government and social system is under review. However, they are rarely boring.

One of the thoughts that cross my mind when I look at my collection is the changes in the way we commemorate the royal family.  The design and production of the souvenirs created for the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981 is much different from how we commemorated Charles’ wedding to Camilla Parker Bowles, or the marriages of Prince William and Prince Harry.  We use different kinds of language to name them, the graphics are different, and the kinds of items available have changed over time.  The souvenirs have become less formal. Figure 4 dates from the 1981 marriage of Charles and Diana, and uses a very common design utilizing formal portraits, the Prince of Wales’ feathers, and their formal titles.  The Lord Chancellor’s Office had issued a set of guidelines for souvenirs for the wedding[3], and many manufacturers followed this.  The event was seen as romantic, and there was still a general fondness for the British Royal Family, which translated into respecting the guidelines on tasteful (formal) styled souvenirs.  By the time of the wedding of Harry and Meghan the Royal Family has seen many scandals, and the weddings are not generating the kind of frenzy seen in the early 1980s.  No guidelines were set for subsequent weddings.[4] The mug in Figure 5 is not as formal, the couple are not identified by title, Prince Henry is referred to as Harry, and there are few symbols, save a rough crown above Harry’s name.

Porcelain jug with pictures of Prince Charles and Princess Diana on it.

Figure 4: Royal Wedding Jug, 1981. Photo provided by the author.

China mug with "Harry & Meghan" painted on it.

Figure 5: Royal Wedding Mug, 2018. Photo provided by the author.

The availability of the material is also different.  When I first became interested, I was able to purchase new a large selection of items commemorating the royal couple locally. All of the department stores had some items for sale, as did the various retail outlets specializing in dinnerware or china.  Many of the items were even produced in Canada.  This is no longer the case. The movement of manufacturing to China over the last few decades is evident in the selection of souvenirs now available. Rarely do I see new items of commemoration in physical stores, and their presence online is limited to British-based retailers, or retailers who specialize in British products.  They are not made in Canada.

When ActiveHistory asked for submissions from historians who collect, they asked about whether the collection informed, was informed by, or acted as a respite for the historian.  Collecting royalty commemoratives does all in varying ways. My knowledge of British and Canadian history informs what I collect now. The decision to buy is made based partially on the context of the item, particularly when I am buying the item from a thrift store or a flea market. This is especially true items made in honour of royal visits.  The Royal family often visit Canada in times of celebration (anniversaries, Olympics, etc.) I relate to the item into its historical as well as personal context.  The items do also represent the connection of Canadians of British descent to the monarchy, be it as a part of the Commonwealth, as the connection of the Crown to government or the cultural attachment to the royal family.

My field of study is the British (born and descent) in the nineteenth century, their identities and their social networks. The Crown plays in important part of their expression of identity. The royal family were used as a symbol, a connection to their British (Scottish, English, Irish, Welsh) roots.  This plays out in their use of the Crown in their celebrations, days dedicated their patron saints, dinners together, and parties. God Save the King/Queen was played, the monarch was toasted at their dinners, along with the other members of the royal family, and their formal rooms were often decorated with royal portraits.  It connects them to their national identity and was an important part of their celebrations and rituals.  The Crown is still used in modern celebrations, particularly state associated moments such as the opening of Parliament, or national anniversaries, but not as evident in cultural or local events.

Ultimately, the act of collecting, finding the amazing item, taking it home, displaying it, treasuring it, is a respite from the day to day.  It is fun.

Gillian I Leitch’s PhD thesis, “The Importance of Being English?: Identity and Social Organisation in British Montreal, 1800-1850” was completed in 2007 at the Université de Montréal. She works as a historical researcher (Senior Researcher & Analyst) at CDCI Research in Ottawa, and is the Historian/Archivist for the St Andrew’s Society of Montreal.  Her research interests focus on British and Canadian identities, immigration, familial & social networks, genealogy and popular culture. She has published a number of articles on Montreal’s British population in the 19th Century, as well as on genealogy, and has published three books on Doctor Who.


[1] Calgary Herald, 19 August 1981, page 16.

[2] Edmonton Journal, 17 July 1981, page 114.

[3] “Royal Wedding Biz Could Boom – Or Bust,” Regina Leader-Post, 15 July 1981, page 45. Not all souvenirs were as tasteful – “Souvenir Hawkers Rush in Hot Pursuit of Profit with Royal Wedding Gimmicks,” Ottawa Citizen, 30 July 1981, page 75.

[4] The Chancellor’s office did publish other information regarding the weddings’ services, route and programme, but nothing on the production of souvenirs. For William and Kate’s wedding in 2011 – https://www.princeofwales.gov.uk/sites/default/files/attachments/Media%20Pack%20-%20Wedding%202011%20-%20More%20information.doc_.pdf [Accessed 30 May 2022].


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