Life might be tough in tenement and hovel, but a least the flag flew, the rhythms of the jingoistic music hall tunes made obeisance to the Queen. For the hundreds of thousands of Britons who had overtaken their parents by learning to read, the concept of Empire was a dramatic revelation. High adventure was the passion of the time, space and opportunity seemed to lie at the feet of every Britisher, and one could dream of taking passage to the colonies and fight the Zulus, or prospect for gold.
Throughout these immense territories only a handful of Britons lived. Administrators. Military men, merchants and a few planters. Nowhere was there even a flicker of self-government, nowhere more than a thin veneer of British culture. It was an Empire of aliens ruled autocratically by temporary exiles from Britain. Both the empires, of the Orient and the Occident, were vaguely familiar to the British at home. Millions had a cousin in Australia or an uncle in British Colombia and hundreds of thousands of soldiers had done their time on tropical station.
If Victoria had a nickname it would have been The Unexpected”. Only two years before she was born, it seemed clear that Princess Charlotte, only child of the Prince Regent, (later George IV) would succeed her father. But Charlotte died in childbirth in 1817.
Suddenly, succession was a frightening problem, for the Prince Regent refused to have more children by the wife he disliked and his eleven ageing brothers and sisters were either spinsters, childless or the fathers of illegitimate offspring debarred from the throne. A grim parliament demanded that the four unmarried Royal Dukes take wives and strive to produce an heir. To the perennial hard-up Duke of Kent, the substantial allowance payable on the birth of an heir, was temptation enough to cause him to jilt his French mistress of 28 years standing and wed princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg, who at 30 was 20 years his junior. On May 24th 1819 a girl, Alexandrina Victoria, was born to this marriage of convenience.
By the time she was 11, Victoria was fully aware that she would be queen and she solemnly stated “I will be good” and on the whole, she was, despite the contradictions and inconsistencies of her complex character. In her dealings with others she could be either tactful or blunt, sympathetic or implacable, direct or devious. She was at once a Queen of unparalleled dignity and a bourgeoisie who adored dogs, horses and children.
Treasuring memories, she yet loved change, physically brave, she could be very nervous. Believing that Britain had a civilising mission in the Empire, and a moral obligation to help the poor ‘natives’, she ruled her subjects as an adoring mother - but dominated her children, grandchildren and numerous in-laws as an imperious Queen.
No high minded hierarchy or order could have held power, without a fundamental tool of authority - armed force. Like all other empires the British Empire was based upon warlike power. It had been conquered by the sword and was held by the sword or more pertinently the battleship. The Royal Navy was the ultimate guarantor of the jubilee. This was a sea empire. Command of the sea, gave it, in effect, internal lines of communication and kept it clamped. An American historian, discussing the influence of British sea power had described, Britain’s ‘distant storm-beaten ships, standing between Napoleon and world domination”. If he had been writing of the fin-de-siècle (end-of-the-century) he might have envisaged those fleets supporting the whole edifice of empire. Standing guard in harbours across the world, patrolling the sea routes of every ocean, paddling up the Irrawady, or edging through the North sea mists, and ensuring by their mere enumeration that the Queen’s empire stood inviolate, guarded by 53 Ironclads and armoured cruisers, 21 more than France, her nearest rival. This gives the true importance of the Royal Review of the Fleet at Spithead four days after the jubilee procession to St. Paul’s , but a far more explicit statement of intent!
The colonial premiers well understood the importance of the Royal Navy. They all went down to Spithead for the Review because they knew that the survival of their countries depended on the Royal Navy, as did visitors from rival powers and subject territories. They knew that so long as the Royal Navy remained all-powerful no seditious movement within the empire would stand much chance of success. The Royal Navy at Spithead deliberately struck its grimmest and gaudiest pose. The Navy’s corporate character was a combination of ruthlessness and panache. The Spithead Review was claimed to be the largest assembly of warships ever gathered at anchorage, and it was one of the most brilliant. In lines 7 miles long, the 170 ships including 50 battleships lay dressed overall. Most were less than 10 years old all preposterously ablaze with brass and bunting. They were war machines of formidable silhouette. Their crews in wide straw hats spotless in white beside the rails, their officers arrayed on the bridge in postures of unapproachable swagger.
No British monarch has ever reigned longer than Victoria A queen at 18 for 64 years she devoted herself to restoring the dignity of a crown that had long been discredited by her Hanoverian predecessors. In this she was helped immeasurably by the devotion of her husband, Albert of Saxe-Coburg, who with sweet reasonableness and conscientious idealism, assumed many of the day-to-day burdens of government.
His death in 1861, ended both her happiness and for a time her popularity. Beset by dark despair for two decades, she avoided public functions. Only in her old age, as she slowly re-established her links with her people, did they remember her lifelong dedication to their moral and material improvement. At her diamond jubilee they showed their gratitude.
The Prince of Wales and his guests (the Queen did not feel up to a long Naval review) inspected the fleet from a little convoy of elegant yachts and steamers, and to provide the necessary Nelsonic impertinence, to add the panache of ruthlessness, suddenly there burst through the stationary line of warships, unannounced and unexpected the fastest ship afloat, Charles Parson’s experimental “Turbina” , belching flame from its funnel and weaving exuberantly among the ironclads, demonstrated to the world that there was British sea borne wonders yet to come. The New York Times went so far as to declare that ‘The United States a part, a great part of a Greater Britain destined to dominate the world’.
In spite of an economic depression living standards rose in the three years prior to 1897 and there had been a big increase in consumer spending, which had transformed the lives of many ordinary workers. The growth in the number of shops reflects the fact that the members of the public now have more money to spend.
Whilst the growth of the countries heavy industry has slowed. The retail sector has blossomed. Big multiple stores such as Lipton's the Grocers and Freeman Hardy & Willis the shoe shops, Boots the Chemist and Hepworth’s the tailors were expanding rapidly. There were now 11,000 multiple stores in Britain’s high streets, against 1500 in 1880. Advertising had come into its own with the growth in selling.