In search of privacy, a place “quiet and retired” Queen Victoria and Prince Albert discovered Osborne, an 800 acre estate near East Cowes on the Isle of Wight, that guaranteed seclusion for their private life. The existing building was demolished and a new one - Osborne House - built in its place to Albert’s own Italianate design. Though few could afford to build in the Osborne manner, the contents of the house still reflect the Queen’s taste for mementoes and bric-a-brac, a taste that was copied by loyal subjects from Balham to Bangalore.
The Queen bought the original Osborne House for £26,000. It was a charming 18th Century building but clearly too small for a growing family - four of the nine royal children were born by then. Prince Albert engaged Thomas Cubitt, the famous London builder to turn his vision of an Italian palace into reality.
The first section known as the “Pavilion wing”, containing living quarters for the Royal Family, was ready in September 1846, but it took 5 more years before the building was complete. In order to make the mansion fireproof, Cubitt incorporated cast iron beams into its construction. Albert, with his characteristic thoroughness, was not content with simply designing the house. He supervised the decoration of the elaborate interiors and further displayed his skilful use of space by the creation of Renaissance-style terraces, walks and gardens in the extensive grounds.
The royal couple allowed no grandeur to intrude into their private apartments, even though the need for State rooms to fulfil the demands of protocol compelled them to spend £20,000 on a more palatial retreat than they had intended. With paintings. Chintz and mementoes, they created the snug surroundings they had dreamed of. The Queen’s taste, however, was considerably less restrained than Albert's. While he furnished his study with an almost austere simplicity, she cluttered her graceful sitting-room with furniture, paintings, photographs and objects of every description This divergence of tastes apart, their union was remarkably successful. The closeness of their marriage - symbolised by the double desk used by both of them - was revered as a model by middle-class couples who strove to emulate the Royal way of life.
With the exception of highland holidays at Balmoral, the Queen and Prince Albert spent their happiest hours at Osborne. Life was so informal - one of their favourite pastimes was to listen to nightingales on a summer evening - and the climate was so relaxing at their “sweet, peaceful abode” that the Royal Family went there several times a year.
It was at Osborne in 1847, that the Queen took her first dip in the sea. Recording the experience in her Journal, she wrote “I thought it delightful until I put my head under the water when I thought I should be stifled”. There were also many delights for the children at Osborne but perhaps none more popular than the substantial play house called ”Swiss Cottage“. Here the princes learned carpentry and gardening and their sisters the essentials of housekeeping and cookery. In its dining room they had their parents to tea.
It would be hard to say whether Kipling was read more avidly by adults or children - and in this he resembles many lesser storytellers among his contemporaries. The years of his prime were also the heyday of swashbuckling romantic fiction for ‘boys of all ages’ often with imperialist overtones if not an explicit imperialist content. The most notable example, unless we count Kipling himself, was his friend Sir Henry Rider Haggard, whose popularity dates from the resounding success of King Solomon’s Mines (1885) . Haggard had served in Africa in the 1870‘s and taken part in the temporary annexation of the Transvaal in 1877. He was hostile to the Boers and sentimentally attached -up to a point- to the Zulus. : his African stories have been described as ‘the epic of a dying people’. One effect of Haggard’s writing though not necessarily his intention, was to draw a veil of romance and high adventure over a part of the world that had become the scene of some distinctly unsavoury transactions.
The one subsequent African romance to rival or even outstrip Rider Haggard in popularity was Edgar Wallace’s ‘Sanders of the River’. Wallace had covered the Boer War as a newspaperman, but by the time the Sanders stories began to appear in 1909, much of the fictional glamour had departed from South Africa, and he chose West Africa for his locale instead. Mr. Commissioner Sanders deals out rough justice in an unspecified tropical territory “three hundred miles beyond civilisation”. One name which must be mentioned in even the sketchiest account of literary imperialism is that of the crippled poet W. E. Henley. During the 1890‘s two or three of Henley’s poems achieved an almost Kiplingesque impact, but it was as an editor and promoter of other men's works that he exerted his most effective influence. Kipling and Rider Haggard were both among the writers who owed him a good deal at an early stage in their careers.
Few of these imperialist writers were actively involved in promoting imperial policies or organisations. But the life of one man Lord Robert Baden Powell - “B.P.” - love of empire was expressed in words and deeds that still absorb young people. B.P. a magical set of initials also stands for “Be Prepared” the motto of the Boy Scout movement which he founded in 1907. Although the movement was formally non-political, it was only so in the sense that the Empire was meant to be above politics, and there can be no mistaking its imperial origins. “Be Prepared” had also been the motto of the South African Constabulary, and Baden-Powell’s pep-talks, such as the ‘Camp Fire Yarns’ in “Scouting For Boys” leave no doubt about how passionately devoted he was to saving the empire from the fate which waits on decadence.
Girls had their part to play too: the ‘Handbook for Girl Guides’ (1912) carries the sub-title ‘or How Girls can Help Build the Empire’. In the event the scouting movement turned out to be far less warlike than critics feared, far more concerned with ‘good deeds’ and international amity; but with its rituals and jamborees it undoubtedly heightened awareness of the Empire, often in quarters which had been largely untouched by the more sophisticated forms of imperial propaganda literature.
No individual author, however widely read, could hope to compete in influence with the Press and the flames of the New Imperialism were above all fanned by the New Journalism., which was an equally striking feature of the 1890‘s - although here too, there had been precursors and broad hints of what was to come. The first great penny daily, the Daily Telegraph, which in the 1860‘s had been able to boast the largest circulation in the world, had gradually abandoned its initial Liberalism, and with the Eastern crisis of 1876, when it looked as though the Russians might be advancing on Constantinople, it changed its allegiance for good and became thoroughly Conservative. Its pundit on policies affecting India was Sir Edwin Arnold the former Principal of Poona College, a staunch imperialist, who was however best known to the Victorian public as the author of The Light of Asia an epic in blank verse about Buddha. No paper did more to drum up public excitement at the time of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee of 1887.
By the 1880‘s the more garish possibilities of popular journalism were also being enlarged by W.T. Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette. He published a famous interview with General Gordon which gave considerable impetus to the train of events that culminated in the General’s death at Khartoum in 1885. At the time the personal interview was still enough of a rarity in journalism to be a major news item in itself, but in this case interviewer and interviewee were also extremely well matched.
The outstanding single landmark in the rise of mass journalism remains indisputably the founding of the Daily Mail by Alfred Harmsworth in 1896. Selling at half a penny, proclaiming itself on the front page of every issue as “The Busy Man’s Paper”, by 1900 the Mail had achieved the unprecedented daily circulation of 1 million copies and its readers were left in no doubt as to where its political sympathies lay - for the power and supremacy and greatness of the British Empire.
The power of the British press was never more aptly demonstrated than in January 1884, when the Pall Mall Gazette published a dramatic interview with General Charles Gordon that was to have the direst consequences for both him and the country. Gladstone’s decision to abandon the Sudan (a British sphere of influence since the conquest of Egypt in 1882) to the rebel Dervishes and their leader the Mahdi, sent Gazette editor W.T. Stead rushing off to find the General. He knew that Gordon, a former Governor of the Sudan, who had done much to reduce the slave-trade in the vast land, would be horrified by the proposed pull-out and abandonment of the 6,000 Egyptian garrison troops there. He planned to splash the General’s angry reaction to the withdrawal on the front page of his magazine in an attempt to force the government to undertake an honourable retreat from the Sudan.
Stead tracked Gordon down at his sisters house in Southampton and while the editor reclined on a leopard skin couch taking copious notes, Gordon, his blue eyes blazing, delivered a masterly analysis of the situation, warning that the Mahdi, if unchecked, could seriously imperil the security of Egypt.
On January 9th the interview appeared in the Gazette together with an impassioned editorial urging that Gordon - already famous for his military exploits in China - was the only man who could salvage Britain's sullied reputation in war-torn Sudan. The interview and editorial worked brilliantly. The next day, newspapers all over Britain printed Gordon’s warning and Stead’s demands.
To keep the clamour at fever pitch Stead continued his campaign in special issues containing unrestrained praise for Gordon. The General, he told his eager readers, combined an iron will with compassion and sympathy for the suffering of others. “In the Sudan” Stead averred “he was to slave-dealers and other evil doers an incarnate terror ”. “Notwithstanding his 50 years, his face is almost boyish in its youthfulness, his step as light and his movements as lithe as the leopard”. Stead exclaimed rapturously that Gordon was “ a man of profound piety, passing much of his time in prayer” but also “a fellow of infinite jest and the merriest humour”.
The panegyric had a resounding effect. The government could no longer resist the enormous public demand for Gordon, and towards the end of January he was asked to evacuate the garrison from the Sudan. Stead little knew that he had helped to send Gordon to his death and embroil Britain in costly Sudanese wars that the government, afraid of further reverses, desperately wanted to avoid.
Another element in the popular turn-of-the-century imperialist feeling was provided by the “music halls”. Besides the “jingo” songs, there were innumerable others about the ‘sons of the sea’ and ‘soldiers of the Queen’ and countless“ descriptive vocalists” who kept alive the legends of Lucknow. The most celebrated of the variety theatres which opened in the 1880‘s was named “The Empire”. One popular performer Leo Dryden was known as the ‘Kipling of the Halls’ on account of his colonial cum patriotic numbers such as the “Great White Mother” , and the “Gallant Gordon Highlanders”
Stories, poems, the Press, songs: all no doubt had a cumulative effect as did the constant succession of melodramas built around Queen and Country theme. But a note of caution is necessary at this point.
We must think before concluding that large sections of the populace was in the grip of an unprecedented chauvinism. The whole question of whether or not imperialism had a genuine mass following remains a vexed one. It is hard to say how much influence all the publicity had in practice, or to what extent this is a question of monetary enthusiasms as against rooted convictions.
An equally important force in keeping up awareness of the Empire, was sport. The Ashes did more to make Englishmen feel a kinship with Australians than all the efforts of the imperial federationists. Rugger, especially after the sensational All Blacks tour of 1905, represented a major link with New Zealand. (A Maori XV had come over nearly 20 years earlier).. No other Indian name meant as much in Edwardian England as that of the prince of batsmen Ranjitsinhii.
Some of these reminders of Empire were explicit, others indirect or vague; but all of them reinforced a sense of exotic grandeur and power. There were also the more formal pressures exerted by official bodies, public institutions etc.. The Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 had led onto the opening of the Imperial Institute in South Kensington two years later: at the same time the newly formed Primrose League was busy stirring the Imperial cauldron. Other organisations sprang up in the early years of the 20th century, a period that also saw the long drawn out campaign to establish an official Empire Day.
Much of what passed for an imperial mystique was rationalisation or whitewash, yet without mystique there might well have been less willingness to recognise that power entailed responsibility, and the Empire would probably have been a harsher place than it was
British Empire Map of 1886
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