The Queen's messages to Australians turning 100 have reached a milestone of their own

Centenarian Roy Murphy with his 100th birthday message from the Queen. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Centenarian Roy Murphy with his 100th birthday message from the Queen. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Roy Murphy still looks at the cards he received on his 100th birthday last August.

Not least of them is a message from the Queen. The card includes her photo, and her signature is printed at the bottom.

Her message reads: "I am pleased to hear that you are celebrating your one hundredth birthday. My sincere congratulations and best wishes on this very special day."

Mr Murphy thinks fondly of his birthday celebration with family and friends at his home in Palmerston.

The centenarian and World War II veteran said looking at the Queen's card made him stop and think.

It was mail he never imagined receiving.

"It was very pleasant, I can assure you. It made me feel a bit important, as a matter of fact," he said.

"To get that sort of recognition, it really means something."

Mr Murphy is part of a fast-growing group.

The number of Australians receiving 100th birthday messages from the Queen has more than tripled in the past 20 years, according to figures from the Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General.

In 2000, more than 700 Australian centenarians received a message. That number reached 2300 last year.

The messages, printed on a specially-designed card and approved by the Queen, have long been part of Australian life and symbolise the rare achievement of turning 100.

But the feat, while still remarkable, is more common as Australians live longer.

In 2020, the cards reached a milestone of their own. It was the first year more than 2000 people turning 100 in Australia received a birthday message from the Queen.

A changing nation

The trend reflects a change happening nationally: more Australians are turning 100.

Centenarians are the fastest-growing age group, according to Australian National University demographer Emerita Professor Heather Booth.

The percentage of Australia's population aged more than 100 has doubled since the year 2000, although it remains small at only 0.018 per cent, or two in 10,000 people.

It's partly a result of past population growth - there are more Australians now and they're reaching old age. The numbers also reflect greater chances of survival.

"As the current centenarians aged over last century, they lived through a period when mortality declined significantly," Professor Booth said.

The group turned 50 and older as cardiovascular mortality - deaths from heart-related diseases - fell significantly in the 1970s and later.

"So they benefited immediately from advances in medicine and health education. More survived," she said.

"For those aged 100 in 2000, they were 70 in 1970 and had already endured the cardiovascular diseases rates; so fewer survived."

Other chronic diseases tell the same story, Professor Booth said.

The growing number of 100th birthday messages to Australians could also show other characteristics of the nation, including a growing popularity for the royal tradition.

Another explanation might be that it reflects where older Australians live, according to researcher on monarchies and senior lecturer of history at the University of Sydney, Cindy McCreery.

"It may reflect the fact that, I imagine, many of the cards are organised through care homes and nursing homes, because it doesn't have to be the recipient themselves who applies for it," she said.

Messages to the realm

The Queen sends birthday messages to centenarians as a way of connecting with people in the Commonwealth, Dr McCreery said.

Cards are mailed to citizens of Commonwealth realms and United Kingdom overseas territories.

In Australia, the offices of local federal MPs and senators receive applications for the messages. The Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General then prepares them and arranges delivery.

The Queen's grandfather, King George V, was the first British monarch to send a 100th birthday message in 1917 during World War I.

It coincided with a royal family push to connect with the wider population, including tours of Britain when the king met working class people, and the beginning of the Order of the British Empire to award merit and service.

"It's the same time when you see a real effort on the part of the British royal family to try and make themselves appeal and to understand more ordinary people's lives," Dr McCreery said.

She said the popularity of the 100th birthday messages reflected the relationship many Australians of that age had with Queen Elizabeth II, who turned 95 this year.

"For recipients now receiving a message from the Queen, they're actually receiving a message from someone who is almost the same age as them, and so they will have a sense of shared history that's particularly special," Dr McCreery said.

That history included a brief encounter with the royals for Emeritus Professor Malcolm Whyte. The World War II veteran and groundbreaking scientist, who lives in Weston, turned 100 with a Zoom party of family and friends in October.

Professor Malcolm Whyte, who turned 100 last year. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Professor Malcolm Whyte, who turned 100 last year. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

As a postgraduate scholar in England, he met Queen Elizabeth II's mother as she greeted guests at an event he attended. Seventy years later, Professor Whyte received a birthday card from her daughter, after someone arranged it as a surprise.

The message was read out loud at the party, although Professor Whyte, who believes Australia should be a republic, said it was the presence of family and friends that made the occasion for him.

He is one of 29,500 Australian centenarians to have received the Queen's birthday messages in the last two decades.

Despite the growing number of recipients, the Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General says it is not aware of any plan to lift the age at which people receive birthday messages.

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This story Queen's messages to Australians turning 100 reach their own milestone first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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