Today, the 53 countries of the British Commonwealth mark a historic milestone as Queen Elizabeth II becomes the longest-serving monarch in British history.
She surpasses Queen Victoria, who reigned for 63 years, seven months and two days.
Sixty-four years ago, Quentin Wadman was a Boy Scout in Kenya, then a British colony.
Elizabeth, then still a princess, was visiting, and there weren’t enough police, so the Boy Scouts were called in to line the route.
“We had to wait quite a long time for the princess to come,” Wadman recalls.
Sitting in an East London retirement home all these decades later, Wadman remembers that one of the Boy Scouts fainted from standing at attention too long. Finally, they heard a shout: “The princess is coming!”
“Quickly, men came and set up a portable throne, a small portable throne. And she sat on the throne for a few minutes,” Wadman says.
Neither he nor the rest of the world had any idea that day — Feb. 5, 1952 — would go down in history.
“It was the last day she was a princess,” Wadman says. “That night, her father died, and she became queen.”
The formal coronation ceremony for Queen Elizabeth II took place in London the following year.
In archival footage from the BBC, a presenter describes that day: “And here you see more than 30,000 schoolchildren cheering their heads off, having the time of their lives on this coronation day as they see all the queen’s horses and men going by.”
Roger Bardett, now 76, vividly remembers that June day in 1953.
“It was a dreadful day,” he says. “Rain, rain, rain, all the time. And this coach left Westminster Abbey, and it was still raining. Then there was this sudden interval between the showers, and as she drove towards Buckingham Palace, sun was out. And it would seem quite miraculous that the sun was shining on the new queen.”
Ninety-four-year-old Leonard Driver has slightly foggier memories of that day.
“We all watched it. I was probably half-drunk at the time, because the beer was free!” he says with a laugh.
In the 20th century, monarchies crumbled all over the world. The British royal family is a dramatic exception.
“I think we’re a bit surprised that the monarchy is still here,” says Robert Lacey, a historian and author who wrote a biography of Elizabeth II. “You think back to the swinging ’60s, satire, the Beatles — you wouldn’t have given much time for the monarchy then [or] in the depths of the scandals of the 1990s, Windsor Castle burning down so significantly.”
Yet it endured.
And here’s what makes this queen so different from other world leaders: Her clout does not come from great oration. She’s not famous for the memorable words that she has spoken or actions she has taken.
In fact, says Lacey, it’s exactly the opposite.
“This absolute refusal to say anything important, this politeness, in an age of celebrity when everybody splashes their emotions and their feelings all over their personal phones, and politicians do the same — actually, someone who respects rules of civility and politeness matters.”
Today’s events capture that quality of hers perfectly. The 89-year-old queen is not celebrating this milestone with fireworks or a palace ball. Instead, she’s in Scotland, attending the opening of a new railway line.