Friday, January 25, 2013

Victoria's Diamond Jubilee

June of 2012 saw the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In her sixtieth year on the throne she became the second longest serving monarch in British history after George III who came within nine months of reigning for six decades. 

It is only Queen Victoria's long reign that exceeds that of the present monarch. Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee was celebrated with a royal procession on the Thames, a concert in front of Buckingham Palace, innumerable street parties and, of course, a service of thanksgiving at St Paul's.

When Victoria came to the throne, she was eighteen years old and was, therefore, 78 when the nation celebrated her Diamond Jubilee.  Elizabeth was seven years older than Victoria when she became Queen and is now 85 years of age.  While the present Queen is older, she appears to be in much better health than her predecessor who was, according to Stanley Weintraub in his magisterial biography of Victoria, "immobile and half blind." Suffering from cataracts and at the urgings of her physician, she consulted with a number of eminent ophthalmologists from Great Britain and Germany.  But her fear of losing what little sight remained led to her refusal to undergo surgery, choosing instead to rely on belladonna to dilate the pupils, and a magnifying glass to read. In addition, painful arthritis seriously impeded her mobility.  So much so, that at her thanksgiving service at St Paul's on 22 June 1897, her inability to climb the steps meant that instead of her going to the service to celebrate her Jubilee, the service was brought to her where she sat, a small elderly woman, in an elegant carriage, at the foot of the West Entrance to the Cathedral.

Ten years earlier, in 1887, the queen had celebrated 50 years on the throne with a Golden Jubilee.  This had been a great success and those who planned and executed the Diamond Jubilee would have been encouraged by that achievement.  Indeed, there was no such thing as a 60th Diamond anniversary, this was traditionally reserved for a 75th anniversary, but with the Queen increasingly showing her age, suddenly the 60th anniversary of her reign became a "diamond" Jubilee.

As June proceeded, the excitement increased.  On the 4th, the Prime Minister of the Australian colony of Victoria arrived and, on the same day, troops from the colonies of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia arrived to take part in the festivities. The Indian cavalry officers who were to form the guard of honour for the Old Queen disembarked at Albert Dock only hours after the Australian contingent.

Troops from New South Wales, Australia
The family of the young illustrator, E. H. Shepard, joined with friends to rent a room over a butcher shop from where they would get a view of the procession on 22 June.  Up at five on the morning, they made their way to the third floor room from where they could hear "a continuous muffled roar ... with occasional bursts of cheering".  The crowd was in a holiday mood even cheering the municipal sand cart which spread its load on the roads from a wagon drawn by a horse "decorated with rosettes on his harness and ribbons on his tail." The room the Shepards shared was just opposite the Canterbury Music Hall and the windows of that establishment were filled with the stars of the music hall itself.  From here the crowd was serenaded with "the latest songs, the crowds joining in the choruses."
The Illustrated London News Building
And then the Queen's carriage passed beneath the window. "drawn by eight cream-coloured horses with purple trappings, and moving at a steady walk." Although the carriage was pulled along at a slow and steady pace, It seemed to rock slightly. 
The little old lady, a bonnet with a white osprey feather on her head and a black-and-white parasol in her hand, kept bowing to left and right.  She looked pale.  We learned afterwards that she was overcome more by the warmth of her reception south of the river than by the heat of the day.  Indeed she nearly broke down, the tears streaming down her face.  There could be no doubt what she meant to her people.
Arriving at St Paul's
On the 22nd, at home and in the colonies, the day was celebrated with parades and the firing of a feu de joie.  At the usual saluting stations, sixty gun salutes were fired. Not surprisingly, the Jubilee offered opportunities of a less salubrious sort.  Overcharging appears to have been rife and even the omnibuses charged passengers well over the usual fares and carried loads far in excess of those set by regulation. A confidence trickster representing himself as an American who had come to England for the Jubilee celebrations, by using stolen paper and false names, managed to bilk a number of individuals and organisations.

While the greatest public celebrations took place on the 22nd of June, At Windsor, two days earlier, the anniversary of her accession to the throne, she attended a Thanksgiving Service with her family at St George's Chapel, Windsor.  At the same time, services of every denomination were celebrated around the United Kingdom and in the far-flung dominions to celebrate the day.In places of worship throughout the land a special hymn,  composed for the Jubilee with music by Sir Arthur Sullivan and words by the Bishop of Wakefield, was sung.  

In the ten years following her 50th or Golden Jubilee, much had changed.  The Queen herself was in much poorer health and the theme of the celebrations - a celebration of the Empire, was decidedly less enthusiastic. Nonetheless, the Queen was thrilled.  It was, she wrote in her Journal on the 22nd of June, that it was "a never to be forgotten day." She was, she went on, "much moved and gratified."
One of her most loyal subjects, the astonishingly bad poet, William McGonagall, penned an ode which, in part, displayed his swelling heart if not any poetic skill:
Her Majesty looked well considering her years,
And from the vast crowd burst forth joyous cheers;
And Her Majesty bowed to the shouts of acclamation,
And smiled upon the crowd with a loving look of admiration.
On the 22nd, as the procession approached St Paul’s the vast throngs gave voice to the anthem, “God Save The Queen”.

The Queen at St Paul's
One could hardly have an event of such magnitude without it calling forth poems and songs of praise. But amidst the festivities, there was a sombre note.  The great days of Empire were beginning to wane, a tone captured by Rudyard Kipling in "Recessional." With its refrain, "lest we forget - lest we forget," the poem warns of the decline of the might of Empire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Even so, for most it remained a day to be celebrated for even without the Jubilee, it had been a most remarkable year. In May, Marconi had sent the first wireless message, "Are you ready," over open sea for a distance of six kilometres.  In the same month Oscar Wilde was released from prison and the Blackwall tunnel under the Thames, at the time the longest underwater tunnel in the world, was opened by the Prince of Wales.  But perhaps the most important event came in August when Ronald Ross found in the gastrointestinal tract of the Anopheles Mosquito the parasite which caused Malaria.  A poet as well as a medical man, Ross recognised the significance of his work, writing home from India to his wife:
I know this little thing
A myriad men will save,
O Death, where is thy sting?
Thy victory, O Grave
But it could be left to Lytton Strachey to sum up the meaning of the Jubilee.
The little old lady, with her white hair and her plain mourning clothes, in her wheeled chair or her donkey-carriage -- one saw her so  . . . That was the familiar vision, and it was admirable;but at chosen moments it was right that the widow of Windsor should step forth apparent Queen.  The last and most glorious of such occasions was the Jubilee of 1897.

Jubilee Medal

For the complete version of "The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Celebrations" by William McGonagall, considered by many to be the world's worst poet, click here.

To see the Queen's entry on the day of her Jubilee, click here.

To see rare footage taken of the Jubilee Celebrations click here.