The 1897 Diamond Jubilee & Popular Protest
Queen Victoria’s Diaries are now available on-line but the quite extensive entry for 22nd June 1897, the day of her Diamond Jubilee does not really tell us anything new of note. It was a day of celebration of imperial military power.
Antony Taylor [Historical Research Vol 68/167] has looked at the background to late Victorian anti-monarchism and republicanism and noted above all the role of Reynolds’s Newspaper in setting the tone which he describes as ‘disrespectful and insulting, it gloated over royal tragedies’. Yet Reynolds’s a Sunday newspaper sold 300,000 copies a week.
For the 2002 Jubilee I produced a paper with the late Professor Brian Manning on the republican tradition in England [he on 1649, myself on the red republicanism of 1848/9] and for 2012 I’ve moved on to look at 1897.
60th anniversaries are not particularly common affairs when it comes to the length of time someone has held public office. The current Queen’s Jubilee in June is only the second such event in recent British history. The earlier one was in 1897 when Queen Victoria marked her 60th anniversary.
1897 was the year of Dreyfus in France and an uprising on the Indian North-West frontier. It also saw the first marketing of aspiring and the invention of the diesel engine.
The world of 1897 was rather different in some important respects to that of 2012. There were also similarities.
For example St Pauls Cathedral, the church of Empire, was the scene for the main Jubilee ceremony on 22nd June 1897. Earlier in the day Victoria had been at the central Telegraph Office in St Martins Le Grand to send a message worldwide to her subjects. It was the equivalent to sending an e-mail or arguably posting on Twitter.
1897 however was the heyday of the old British Empire. The Empire had a population of 372 million according to Jan Morris’s Pax Britannica and an area of about 11 million square miles. There were British colonies [usually numbers of them] in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australasia, the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. In addition Britain was militarily occupying Egypt and running Cyprus which was nominally Turkish.
Morris notes that ‘it was the largest Empire in the history of the world, comprising nearly a quarter of the land mass of the earth and a quarter of its population
It was an Empire and Monarchy that felt considerably surer of itself than it does in 2012.
British capitalism was a dominant world power, still expanding. It policed the world for imperial power with wars across the world on a yearly basis often in a bloody way as John Newsinger’s book on Empire makes clear
Rowena Hammal writing in History Today has argued that: Undoubtedly, imperial imagery was commonplace in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Soldiers were proudly depicted on advertisements for whisky and cigarettes. There were spectacular military reviews, such as the 1897 Fleet Review to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Rising literacy rates followed the 1870 Education Act, and by the turn of the century a new type of newspaper had developed to cater to the large lower middle class market. The Daily Mail was founded in 1896 and the Daily Express in 1900, and both were decidedly jingoistic. The Express declared in its first leader: ‘Our policy is patriotic, our policy is the British Empire’. In the music halls, a tremendously popular form of entertainment at the time, performers sang songs about Empire and national pride.
Queen Victoria’s Jubilee was a celebration of imperial power.
Victoria had not always been a popular monarch. After the death of her partner Albert the Queen had become reclusive and as often seems to be the case the activities of some of the Royal children were an embarrassment. By the early 1870s a strong Republican tradition had developed with the formation of working class republican clubs. The leadership of this movement was not entirely from the left but was to be found with radicals like Charles Bradlaugh and elements of the Gladstonian Liberal Party. They were certainly not consistent opponents of monarchy or imperial power but it symbolised a class divide in society and Victoria was its figurehead.
What of opposition in 1897 itself?
At the heart of the beast in Britain we might argue that it was relatively muted- the SDF , the first openly Marxist party, published an article on the monarchy and democracy- or we could say that there was considerable working class support for the celebration. The late Victorian period certainly had an element of jingoism and popular support for imperial endeavour. That was to fall abruptly by the time of the Great Unrest of 1910-14.
Antony Taylor argues that those who have written of the monarchy in this period David Cannadine, Linda Colley and others have perhaps over played the popular support it had.
Reynolds’s News, as noted a best selling Sunday Paper, which dated back to the Chartist period had a strong record of support for Republicanism and Opposition to the monarchy. It’s issues record some of the opposition there was in 1897.
It reprinted an anarchist leaflet that refers to Queen Victoria as a ‘fat old lady’ and end by arguing that despots should go to hell. Entertaining though it is, its publication in Reynolds’s probably reflected its maximum impact.
Elsewhere the paper reports events. A bonfire built to celebrate the Jubilee on the highest point of the Cotswolds was set alight before the appointed day, and the authorities sought to arrest the miscreant who had done it. Meanwhile in Bristol, the Mayor had invited local trade unions and friendly societies to join a Jubilee procession. They all refused on the grounds that the Jubilee was not something that felt they were included in.
Reynolds’s returned to the fray with its post-Jubilee edition on 27th June 1897.
It reported the sermon of a Durham vicar TJ Dent from Haslington who concluded that the Bible showed that the existence of the monarchy- a ‘worn out fraud’ it was called was delaying the Kingdom of Heaven.
An Editorial on the events noted ‘the Jubilee celebrations with their curious mixture of real enthusiasm with sickening flunkeyism’. It concluded that ‘at last the ghastly farce is over. The Jubilee show has passed’ and argued that ‘Radicalism and servility do not go well hand in hand’. It finally suggested that ‘the final great lesson of the Jubilee is that the people now have to fight wealth’
The detail of the Jubilee day however is perhaps as interesting as the protests. It was a fine sunny day as the Royal procession made its way from Buckingham Palace to St Pauls and afterwards to the poorer areas of Borough via London Bridge.
There were crowds in some places and police horses and troops were used to control numbers. Some who had camped out overnight for a view of the Royal Party complained that they had been pushed into side streets by the police as crowds grew.
However the areas where crowds gathered were quite limited and in most places there were few bystanders. Reynolds’s speculated that many may have preferred to avoid the occasion or leave London for the day, even though in this long before TV age the only way to actually see the event was to attend in person. Another possibility that has a strong contemporary echo is that police closed off roads surrounding the Royal procession so that only those who had arrived very early could get a glimpse.
The fall out, reported in Reynolds’s of 4 July 1897 made the point. A businessman successfully applied to Southwark Council for a return of fees he had paid to erect a stand for spectators in Westminster Bridge Rd. There had it seems been very few takers. In an even odder report several traders applied to a judge for permission to cut up 500 pairs of stilts they had been given to sell for firewood. The owner had disappeared, the police had banned the use of stilts to watch the Royal procession and very few people were interested anyway.
The 1897 Jubilee took place when the modern labour movement, both politically and in trade union terms, was in progress. Dorothy Thompson’s book on Victoria notes that there was place for support for monarchy and royalty amongst organisations that sought a more equal society. Labour politicians like Keir Hardie were almost instinctively, in class terms, against the monarchy. But they did not see its abolition as a priority beyond the political work of changing society.
By the time of the first Labour Government we can see a process underway where the attitude of leading Labour figures was little different to that of their Tory contemporaries. If abolition of the monarchy was not a priority then an accommodation would need to be achieved.
Yet the main opposition was not at the centre of Empire but at the periphery. There were anti-Jubilee protests in Dublin organised by socialists including James Connolly which led to rioting. The Irish nationalist MP Redmond proposed an amendment to the Loyal Address to the Queen outlining the destruction her reign had caused in Ireland back to the Potato Famine and before.
There were also significant protests in India. The Editorial of Reynolds’s on 4 July 1897 had reflected that ‘there is more food for reflection in the condition of India than in the inanities of Jubilee No.2’. It reported a flypost in Poonah that stated ‘none but demons would celebrate a Jubilee when the famine, earthquake and plague prevailed’. Several British soliders were shot and injured during the Jubilee period.
Commenting on the Diamond Jubilee Honours List in Reynolds’s of 4 July 1897 Gracchus noted that ‘militarism is acclaimed as the chief glory of the Queen’s reign’
The opposition to the Jubilee across the Empire is something that is rather missing from UK focused accounts and that does need to be addressed. At the same time the underlying argument of this paper is that opposition to the monarchy ebbs and flows as does support for Republican alternatives. There is an element of calculation about how far pro-monarchy celebrations can be pushed out and it was clearly judged that an event marking the imperial power of the Empire in 1897 would find a public echo. That it did, but we should not take from that universal support or lack of protest.