Queen Victoria assassination attempt

Queen Victoria – the eight assassination attempts

At the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, there was a wave of anarchist inspired political assassinations. The Empress of Austria, King of Italy, Prime Minister of France, King of Greece and President of the United States (William McKinley) were all killed by assassins. But one ruler blithely survived an astonishing eight assassination attempts during the 19th century: step forward indestructible Queen Victoria.

DISCOVER: Was Queen Victoria a drug addict?

While other heads of state breathed their last – the Queen of Britain and Empress of India seemed to almost bat away the bullets. So let’s list all those attempts on Her Majesty’s life:

  1. Edward Oxford was the first would-be queen killer taking a shot at Victoria in 1840. She was still a young woman and had barely been on the throne for three years. Her assailant was a mild-manner unemployed man called Edward Oxford. Victoria’s security was unbelievably lax. Shooting her as she drove past in her carriage was beyond easy. Oxford just stepped forward, took aim and fired. At his trial, claims to be part of a conspiratorial group called Young England proved to be a fantasy and it soon become clear he was insane. The jury certainly thought so and off he went to an asylum for the next 24 years. After which he was sent off to Australia where he assumed a new identity and married a woman who apparently never knew who he actually was. Oxford – now called John Freeman – was an upstanding member of the local community and nobody was any the wiser.
  2. Two years later and a man called John Francis, described by Prince Albert, Victoria’s husband, as a “little, swarthy, ill-looking rascal”, pulled out a pistol and fired on the queen as she drove down Constitution Hill. But the pistol mercifully jammed and Francis ran away.
  3. Well, if you don’t succeed the first time – come back and have another go. Incredibly, the following day – 30 May 1842 – Francis did exactly that. This time he was arrested, sent to Newgate Prison and sentenced to death. Strictly speaking, the punishment for treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. I’ll spare you the details. This horrific medieval punishment was only removed from the statute books in 1870. Francis, it turned out, was the son of an employee at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Before taking aim at the queen, he’d been seen walking round the nearby park yelling obscenities about Victoria – so not exactly keeping a low profile.
  4. 1842 was going to be quite memorable for Queen Victoria. Because she’d barely got over two assassination attempts in May when along came another one on 3 July. This time the pistol wielder was John William Bean. His gun was a ramshackle affair that failed to fire. Bean was only four feet high and severely disabled. He was clearly a very unhappy chap and the subsequent story was that his assassination attempt was more or less a cry for help. But Victorian England wasn’t such a kind place. The order went out – I kid you not – to round up every ‘hunchback’ in the vicinity. Bean was captured but shown some leniency – by which I mean he wasn’t hanged publicly but sent to a pretty dreadful prison. In fact, he was imprisoned at the Millbank Penitentiary – which is now the site of Tate Britain in south London. Eventually released, he got married, had a son but happiness proved elusive. He lived not far from my house here in the Camberwell district of London and in 1882, killed himself with poison.
  5. Bean claimed to have been inspired by Edward Oxford – as did the perpetrator of the next assassination attempt on Queen Victoria. Like Oxford, William Hamilton was unemployed. His gun was only loaded with powder and there doesn’t seem to have been a serious desire to murder the queen. Hamilton was Irish and had left his homeland during the appalling famine of the 1840s. By 1849, when he took aim at Her Majesty, he was broke and like many at the bottom of society, thought prison might be a better option than life on the streets. However, Hamilton instead was transported to Gibraltar and from there to Australia.
  6. Hard to know whether to regard this one as an assassination attempt – but Robert Pate certainly meant the queen considerable harm. A former army lieutenant in the Tenth Hussars, life on civvy street hadn’t been kind to this gentleman. Many Londoners saw this strange man marching frantically around Hyde Park as if he was still on military service. Frankly, he became a bit of a joke. Even, it’s said, Queen Victoria was aware of him. But the joke turned sour when he ran at her coach and whacked the sovereign on the head with a cane. She was left with severe bruising and I think it’s safe to say that despite her famous stiff upper lip – this was a deeply unpleasant incident. This was in 1850 and it’s simply mind-boggling that Victoria’s protection was not up to scratch.
  7. Queen Victoria now had a two decade respite in her long reign until 1872 when Arthur O’Connor raised his gun. Like Hamilton, O’Connor was an Irishman. But whereas Hamilton seemed to have no political motivation, O’Connor claimed his act was intended to goad the British state into releasing Irish Republican prisoners. This was a time when the movement for Irish independence from the British Empire was gathering pace. And Irish nationalists were the first to bring what we would now call terrorism to the British mainland to make their point. Well, another Celt – the queen’s Scottish servant (and very, very close friend) John Brown – wrestled O’Connor to the ground. As with previous assassins, he was spared the rope and instead got prison, a spell in an asylum and transportation to Australia.
  8. Ten years later in 1882 came the final assassination attempt by Roderick Maclean. Now this was at a time when anarchist killings were picking up. But Maclean’s shooting at Victoria outside Windsor Station was a clumsy affair. Schoolboys from Eton College beat him to the ground with their umbrellas – which can hardly have been the heroic image he was striving for. He spent the rest of his life in an asylum.

There clearly wasn’t the appetite in 19th century England to impose draconian punishments on these assassins. Britain was becoming a parliamentary democracy with radical movements like the Chartists and the emerging trade unions as well as other pressure groups campaigning for a more humane and just society.

For her part, Queen Victoria seems to have been bitterly disappointed at the relatively lenient punishments. She wanted consequences that were way more severe. A noose around the neck and a long drop. It left the queen with the distinct impression that parliament viewed these incidents as either irrelevant or maybe worse – amusing.

She, though, was not amused.

Queen Victoria drug habit

Queen Victoria and her naughty drug habit

I’ve just started a new mini-vlog series on my YouTube site – Templar Knight TV – called Beardy History. It’s intended to give you bite-sized insights into the scandals and mysteries of the past. And I will often film on location for these small films. My first one is about the alleged drug habit of Queen Victoria.

It may surprise you to know that Queen Victoria had a drug habit. Well, they were different times. Apparently she shared cocaine infused chewing gum with a young Winston Churchill. She also took marijuana during pregnancy. These things were not frowned upon to the extent they would be today.

For example, the very buttoned-up Prime Minister, William Gladstone, is said to have stirred opium into his tea before making terribly important announcements in parliament. Just to give himself a little pick-me-up. And opium was openly unloaded at British docks, just like any other cargo coming in from overseas.

DISCOVER: The boy who stole Queen Victoria’s underwear!

I talk about this while strolling round the idyllic settings of Kensington Gardens a green space in London with lots of fountains. It was devised by Prince Albert who gave it to his wife Queen Victoria as a present.

Future episodes of Beardy History will deal with all kinds of topics. I’m working on one right now to help American followers of the blog find their Irish ancestors. I’m half-Irish myself and have found American relatives that I never knew I had. Thanks to the power of Ancestry.com

I’m also intending to take you round east London and share some new insights into the notorious 19th century serial killer, Jack the Ripper. But for this week, please enjoy the drug habit of Queen Victoria!

I originally discussed this topic on a TV documentary series called Private Lives of the Monarchs presented by Tracy Borman, curator of the Royal Palaces. It’s currently showing on the Smithsonian channel and I recommend it of course!

Dog dung used to make books look good!

Before the advent of synthetic products, some very odd natural materials had to be used for processes we take for granted today. Take curing leather bindings on books. In the good old days, getting a nice brown sheen on the cover of books was achieved by using dog dung.

And that dung had to be supplied by somebody. Well, there were people on hand happy to provide the raw materials!

The people who collected dog dung for books

Collecting dog dung for a living has to be about the most revolting job ever created. I’ve been re-reading the works of a Victorian Londoner called Henry Mayhew who, in 1851, published a book describing the appalling ways in which people were forced to make a living. The scraping of “Pure” (the slang word for dog excrement) from the streets has to be the worst.

Why on earth, you may reasonably ask, was dog dung referred to as “Pure” and what possessed anybody to go out and collect it? Well, it’s all to do with turning animal skins into leather. In the Victorian period, this would be done at a tannery.

That would be a workshop where animal skins were delivered to be cleaned; the fat and hair scraped off and then fermented using dog or pigeon dung.

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Needless to say, tanneries stank. I mean, really reeked. And so they were normally placed out of the centres of town by the 19th century – though not always. The leather created using dog dung transformed goat and calf skins into book covers, gloves and other quality items.

So, if you have a leather bound book from the Victorian era, I’m afraid dog dung may have been involved in its production. Canine excrement was essential for quality books.

The supply of dog poo was done by people called “Pure Finders”. The brown stuff was called “Pure” because it cleansed and purified the animal skins turning them into leather.

Getting dog dung for books was good business

In 1851, Mayhew tells us that Pure Finders could make between eight and ten pennies per bucket – and maybe more if the quality was good. The highest price was for something described as the “dry-limy-looking sort”. That apparently had more alkaline and so reacted better with the animal skins to make good leather.

There was always a temptation to doctor the dung to make it look more “limy”. That was done by mixing a bit of mortar with it. I can’t imagine how that was done – actually I can but I’m trying not to!

A lucky Pure Finder might have an arrangement to regularly clean some kennels and could make ten to fifteen shillings a week – good pay in the 1850s. But most had to scour the streets picking up what they could find. Their income was pretty miserable – this was a job you did if you’d fallen on hard times.

A typical tannery in the south London district of Bermondsey might employ 300 to 500 tanners – and in addition, retain 20 or so Pure Finders. Many of the finders were struggling to keep out of the workhouse by doing any job on the streets that was available. Mayhew heard about one finder who was totally unaware up until he died that he was the beneficiary of a vast legacy of thousands of pounds. Lawyers even placed advertisements in the newspapers to find him.

Fittingly, this man’s name was Mr Brown – I’m not kidding.

Tony Robinson is a TV historian and presenter in the United Kingdom and a few years back, he broadcast a series on horrible jobs in history. Here is his episode on the Victorians!

Boy Jones – stealing the underwear of Queen Victoria

What would possess any sane teenager to break into Buckingham Palace and steal the underwear of the reigning monarch. Queen Victoria has to suffer the indignity of a mischievous youth referred to as Boy Jones who kept doing exactly that.

Boy Jones had boasted many times to his workmates that he was going to stage a break in at the palace. Nobody really expected him to do it until….he was caught red handed, in the queen’s private chambers with her knickers stuffed down his front.

Why he targeted that particular garment – I’ll leave to your imagination. At the time, Queen Victoria was still a young woman of child bearing age. Not the dumpy old lady we see celebrated on countless statues and images. But a vivacious character deeply in love with Prince Albert.

Boy Jones and Queen Victoria

By all accounts, Jones was a very filthy and pretty ugly specimen. He was apparently mistaken for the chimney sweep. It’s not known exactly how many times he got into the palace but it’s like to have been more than the three times he confessed to.

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Scaling the walls became a strange obsession. It was a pattern of behaviour he didn’t seem able to break. Maybe he came to believe he had some kind of special relationship with the queen having got so close. And not even a spell in prison could stop the Boy Jones from coming back for more.

There were repeated attempts by the authorities to get rid of him – normally bundling Jones on to a ship bound for somewhere far away. But he kept returning.

Eventually, he ended up in Australia working as the town crier in Perth and with a big alcohol problem. It was during a drunk episode that he fell from a bridge and was sadly killed.

Here I am on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs discussing Jones:

Was Queen Victoria a drug addict?

It’s a strange question but…was Queen Victoria a drug addict? Well, the answer is she may not  have been amused – but she might have been flying high as a kite.

QUEEN VICTORIA DRUG ADDICT: Opium

The contents of Queen Victoria’s medicine cabinet are eyebrow raising to put it mildly. There was obviously opium, sold as a painkiller. But then we also find that Victorian favourite, Laudanum. This was a tonic consisting of opium dissolved in alcohol. One swig and one was ready to perform one’s public duties!

QUEEN VICTORIA DRUG ADDICT: Cocaine

To pep herself up, Her Majesty had chewing gum infused with cocaine. She was very fond of this treat. So much so that she even shared some Charlie laced chewies with a young Winston Churchill when he came to stay at Balmoral, her Scottish estate.

Marijuana for menstrual cramps

Menstrual cramps were eased with marijuana. How very forward looking!  It would be amusing to imagine Queen Victoria approving of those American states that have recently legalised dope for medicinal purposes. And as for labour pains during her many pregnancies, Victoria reached for the chloroform, which she said was “delightful beyond measure”.

DISCOVER: Dog dung used to make books look good

There is one claim, not proven at all, that she wrote an anonymous review in a newspaper for a popular drink called Vin Mariani. This concoction was a mix of alcohol and cocaine.

So – was Queen Victoria a drug addict? Well, we have to consider that the line between legal and illegal was more blurred in the 19th century. The stigma attached to cocaine today – and the criminal penalties – was largely absent. And morphine was viewed as a beneficial sedative – though clearly not taken to excess.