Golden Jubilee to 1901
The 50th year of Queen Victoria's reign, 1887, was marked with a Golden Jubilee of public celebration. She very much enjoyed the devotion shown towards her by her people; it helped the Queen embrace public life again. She toured extensively, meeting and greeting her adoring subjects, then paid France an official visit - the first British monarch to do so since the Coronation of Henry VI in 1431.
Not everyone loved what she stood for though; a final assassination attempt was made in Golden Jubilee year - rather obviously known as 'The Jubilee Plot'. Irish nationalists planned to detonate a bomb inside Westminster Abbey during a special Jubilee thanksgiving service attended by the Queen and most of the government. The plot was ruined thanks in part to delayed public transport (the would-be assassins arrived too late to plant their dynamite), police alertness (there had been several 'dynamite outrages' in the 1880s) and a nosy landlady (who reported her suspicions about the Irishmen).
On 20 June, a banquet was held in the Queen's honour, attended by over 50 foreign royal guests and Heads of State. The King of Denmark escorted the Queen into the gold-bedecked dining room and seated her at a candle-covered horseshoe-shaped table. The meal was served on a golden dinner service1. The next day the Queen, in her gilded carriage, was escorted through London in a procession, described by Samuel Langhorne Clemens (aka Mark Twain) as 'stretched to the limit of sight in both directions'. Later the Queen appeared on the Buckingham Palace balcony and waved to the cheering masses below, before presenting Jubilee brooches to family members. Then she changed into a specially-commissioned ballgown decorated with silver shamrock, rose and thistle embroidery, and attended another banquet. Polishing off the evening was a huge firework display, which the Queen watched from her chair in the palace garden.
Life was abysmal for the British working classes in the Victorian era. There was no welfare state and some women used to sell sex to help pay their rent, or even for the cost of a shot of gin. The East End of London was notorious for its prostitute population and many men frequented the streets in search of their services. London fog, which descended regularly, assisted any undesirables visiting the district in becoming almost invisible, and anonymity was assured. There were only gas street lamps which were lit manually, sometimes well after darkness had fallen.
Jack the Ripper
On 31 August, 1888, the mutilated body of Polly Nichols, a 43-year-old prostitute, was discovered. She was the first of five women to meet a terrible fate at the hands of a monster. One of those suspected of being the culprit was Queen Victoria's grandson HRH Prince Edward Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, who was second-in-line of succession. He had supposedly learned disemboweling techniques during hunting expeditions on royal estates. Allegedly, he liked to visit brothels in the East End and was rumoured to be suffering from syphilis, presumably caught from a prostitute. His cause of death aged 28 years on 14 January, 1892, at Sandringham House, Norfolk, was officially recorded as pneumonia. The fact that 'Jack the Ripper' was never apprehended (nor even identified) maintains his mystique in the eyes of the public and those who are titillated by a gruesome story. Suspects are still being identified centuries later.
On 16 April, 1889, Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr, better known as Charlie, was born in Walworth, London. One of the most influential and charismatic personalities of the early film industry, his funny portrayal of the silly clown endeared him to millions. His trademark bowler hat and walking stick have become iconic symbols. In 1975 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and he died of natural causes in Switzerland (where he had lived since the 1950s) in 1977, aged 88 years.
Gilbert and Sullivan
Queen Victoria was very fond of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas. She once asked Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842 - 1900) in casual conversation when he was going to write a proper opera. He took this as a royal command and struggled for years, eventually producing a Grand Opera called Ivanhoe. While Sullivan was working on the opera, Gilbert argued with the manager Sullivan had engaged to stage Ivanhoe over another matter. Sullivan entered the row but sided against Gilbert, causing bad feeling between the partners for years2. Ivanhoe premièred at the Royal English Opera House on 31 January, 1891, for a consecutive run of 155 performances, which was then, and is still, a record for a Grand Opera.
A Former Slave Says Thanks
On 16 July, 1892, Queen Victoria received a very special guest at Windsor Castle. Former slave Martha Ann Ricks had saved what she could afford for over 50 years to pay for her passage from Liberia to England. It was her lifetime's ambition to meet and thank the Queen for dispatching the Royal Navy to patrol the West African coastline in the hopes of deterring slave traders. The gift that Martha brought with her to present to the Queen, a coffee tree quilt, was put on public display in 1893. Unfortunately it disappeared and it has not been located since.
George and Mary
Jack the Ripper 'suspect', Prince Albert, was engaged to London-born Princess Mary of Teck3 at the time of his death. Queen Victoria, who was Mary's godmother, advised her grandson George (the future George V) to propose to Mary and they were married4 on 6 July, 1893, at the Chapel Royal, St James Palace, London. They had six children: David, Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), Prince Albert (later George VI), Mary, the Princess Royal, Henry, Duke of Gloucester, George, Duke of Kent, and Prince John (an epileptic sufferer who also had autistic spectrum5 learning difficulties; he died aged 13½ years).
In 1897 a Diamond Jubilee was celebrated. A service of thanksgiving, attended by 11 colonial Prime Ministers, was held on 22 June outside St Paul's Cathedral because the Queen couldn't manage the steps. Afterwards the Queen toured London streets in her carriage, crossed London Bridge, passed through South London, returning over Westminster Bridge, and back to Buckingham Palace.
No one ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me, passing through those six miles of streets. The cheering was quite deafening and every face seemed to be filled with real joy. I was much moved and gratified.
- extract from Queen Victoria's journal.
The Queen had ruled through 60 years of huge domestic, cultural and industrial changes, such as the acquisition of Hong Kong, the early photographic attempts and Britain's first telegraph line being laid. Too many changes to go into more detail, but also worthy of note are the penny-farthing bicycle being registered, the abolition of slave-trading and the banning of transportation of criminals to Australia.
The Boer War
In 1899, British troops were fighting in South Africa's second Boer War which lasted from October, 1899, to May, 1902. Concerned about morale, the Queen decided to send each soldier and sailor a gift of chocolate, which was a luxury item for most people in those days. All the army and navy personnel (including Australian contingents) received the special tins as a Christmas/New Year gift in 1899/1900.
Australia and Ireland
The Commonwealth of Australia came into being on 1 January, 1900. Though increasingly frail, the Queen travelled to Ireland in early 1900, in the hopes of recruiting more men for the British Army, who were away fighting in Africa. Opposition to her visit helped establish an organisation which eventually gave rise to the political party Sinn Féin in 1905.
Queen Victoria's grandson, Prince Alfred, died on 6 February, 1899, aged 24 years. He had shot himself two weeks previously, during an argument with his mistress. The following year, on 31 July, 1900, his father Alfred6, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the Queen's second son, died of throat cancer.
On 4 August, 1900, a bona-fide Victorian by less than half a year, Lady Elizabeth Angela Marguerite was born in Scotland to Lord Glamis and his wife Cecilia. This little charmer was destined to become Queen Victoria's great-granddaughter-in-law - and future and final Empress of India7.
The End of an Era
On 22 January, 1901, after reigning for almost 64 years, Queen Victoria died from a cerebral haemorrhage at Osborne House; the Victorian era ended with her. She was 81 years old. The Queen left specific instructions for her funeral and these were followed to the letter. She was dressed in a white gown and her wedding veil, then placed in the coffin by her own sons. No black was allowed and London streets were bedecked in purple and white. Following the funeral service, which was filmed on early cine-film, the late Queen was buried beside her beloved husband in the Frogmore Royal Mausoleum at Windsor Castle.
Through her children Queen Victoria became 'the Grandmother of the European Royals' as they married into almost all the major Royal families across the continent. The Queen's elder daughter Victoria died on 5 August, 1901, just eight months after the death of her mother.
The Edwardian Age
Queen Victoria's elder son, Prince Albert Edward (who became Edward VII), ushered in the Edwardian age. He took his dynastic title from his father's side, becoming the first monarch of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. King Edward had married Princess Alexandra of Denmark and they had six children: Prince Albert, Duke of Clarence (1864 - 92); George, Prince of Wales (later George V, grandfather of Elizabeth II); Princess Louise; Princess Victoria; Princess Maud and Prince Alexander.
Today's Commonwealth Day (Empire Day before 1958) is celebrated on 24 May, Queen Victoria's birthday.