Queen Victoria: 'Mrs Melbourne'
Created | Updated Sep 4, 2013
Golden Jubilee to 1901
Such stories of knowledge; such a wonderful memory; he knows about everybody and everything; who they were and what they did. He has such a kind and agreeable manner; he does me the world of good.
- Victoria's journal extract describing Melbourne.
Under a Whig's Wing
Queen Victoria's coronation was held on 28 June, 1838. The Whig Party was in power and the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, became political advisor to the inexperienced young Queen. Melbourne taught the Queen much about how to be a ruler in a 'constitutional monarchy', where the monarch had very few real powers, but could exert influence if he or she chose.
Melbourne had a private suite at Windsor Castle, and the pair grew to be close friends. This gave rise to Victoria's nickname 'Mrs Melbourne' in court circles; but Melbourne, who had recently lost a son, was very much a paternal figure, filling a gap in the Queen's life.
The government was not popular. The difficulties it encountered in governing British colonies, particularly in Canada and Jamaica, forced the resignations of those in political power in 1839.
The Ladies of the Bedchamber
The Ladies of the Bedchamber were the wives of these departing politicians, and the Queen had come to rely on them as friends. When Sir Robert Peel, the Tory leader, was invited to form a government, he attempted to replace the Ladies of the Bedchamber with Tory wives, but was met with stubborn refusal by the Queen. Unable to resolve the matter, Peel resigned his commission and the debacle went down in history as 'the Bedchamber Crisis'. Lord Melbourne was reinstated as Prime Minister. During his tenure in the top political job, Melbourne did much to improve some dire social conditions. His reforming legislation included the Poor Law and addressed local government issues. His administration also reduced the number of capital offences (which meant there were less hangings). Queen Victoria led a cosseted, sanitised life: for ordinary Victorians, the contrast could not have been greater, as we shall see below.
Public Health in the Victorian Era
In the Victorian era, the preferred method of death was to wake up one morning and discover you were dead, ideally with someone 20 years younger than yourself snoring contentedly by your side. Victorians had a horror of their deceased body being sold to a medical institution for dissection. Even though the 1832 Anatomy Act legalised the use of cadavers in the event of a body being unclaimed (mostly from workhouses and prisons) people worried their relatives would save themselves the cost of a funeral, or worse, that they'd be buried then have their eternal rest disturbed by grave robbers on a gruesome moonlit mission to earn a few extra pennies.
The alternative to dying was, of course, living forever. Many attempted this but no one succeeded, especially with there being no Government Health and Safety department to make sure everything was hygienic and, well, safe. The lucky ones who had a robust constitution were nonetheless confronted with open sewers and physical contact with diseased people. Even if they had no unprotected sex, there were scenarios which couldn't be avoided, like money changing hands in shops and taverns. People did not yet understand that germs caused disease, and hand-washing and personal cleanliness were not top priority. Anyway, they rarely had access to clean water.
If you needed medical attention, physicians were rare, expensive creatures who made a diagnosis and then referred you to a local barber/butcher if surgery was required; and leech supplier for less-serious ailments. This could be the same person running a lucrative side-line to a short-back-and-sides. They also acted as dentists if you couldn't find a blacksmith with a pair of pliers. There were no anaesthetics other than alcohol and/or a mallet; and in an accident in which someone broke their leg badly, the break itself might not have been life-threatening, but the infection that could set in and lack of antibiotics meant that the gangrene would have been untreatable, other than by limb-removal1.
There were no inoculations against disease, so tuberculosis2, the plague, dysentery and cholera were rife. If you fell ill, you were lucky if the physician didn't bleed you; no matter what your problem, it was the method of choice3, and luckier still if the doctor didn't fancy trying out trepanation4. If the patient died the doctor still expected to be paid, even if he'd hastened the death, so they were rarely called upon to make house-calls.
Working-class women could only hope to survive childbirth, attended by a sympathetic neighbour, local super-mum or relative acting as midwife. Mortality rates were high, for the baby and the mother. With no contraception other than a frying pan under her pillow5, a healthy married woman could expect to be pregnant up to 20 times, with maybe a dozen babies surviving their childhood. These women would become the midwife of choice due to their experience rather than professional qualifications. They might have even been offered the job of wet-nurse6 (breastfeeding another woman's child) to a more well-off family if the new mother couldn't breastfeed her baby herself, or had died soon after her confinement.
The babies and children had no care plans or clinics; no charities looked out for them and orphans were lucky to be taken in by the workhouse - these were the days before even Dr Barnardo was moved to pity by the ragged, starving children he met on the streets of London.
Lord Melbourne left politics in August 1841 but his friendship with the Queen continued through correspondence. He died on 24 November, 1848, aged 69 years. The city of Melbourne, Australia, is named after him.