Diamond Jubilee 1897 – amazing images!

Regular visitors to the blog know that I have a huge archive of old books and newspapers stretching back 300 years. And one dusty, crumbling specimen is a photo album published for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897.

It includes images that reveal a Britain that is at once familiar and very different. In this most royal of weeks, leading up to the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II as I write, let me share some of these images with explanations. They are a fascinating insight into England 120 years ago.

DISCOVER: England’s lost royal palaces

The first scene below is in front of Buckingham Palace. The building may look a bit unfamiliar because in 1913, sixteen years later, a new Portland stone facade was slapped on the front of the palace to match the gleaming white Victoria memorial in front and to create a more impressive backdrop for royal events. Behind the facade is the original palace that was built throughout the first half of the 19th century.

What we see is an honour guard of sailors on the left and “blue jackets” on the right who may look like police but – and correct me if I’m wrong – were actually sailors as well, sent to put down the Boxer Rebellion in China amongst other things.

With the next image, we glimpse Queen Victoria leaving for her Diamond Jubilee procession. Note that today’s impressive railings around the palace are absent and obviously the memorial to Victoria I mentioned above isn’t there either as she was still very much alive. The Mall has yet to be turned into the wide roadway we see in 2022.

FIND OUT MORE: The impressive state funeral for Queen Victoria

Below we get a view of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee procession going through the City of London near the Bank of England and Mansion House. In the foreground towards the left you can see a large group of ‘Bluecoat’ boys from Christ’s Hospital school. The pupils were from poorer backgrounds. The school was founded by King Edward VI in 1552.

It was housed in the remains of a Franciscan monastery shut down during the Protestant Reformation of Henry VIII. Five years after this photo was taken the boys were moved to a new school outside London ending centuries of being based in the middle of the city. The school is still thriving and today admits girls.

The next image has the Diamond Jubilee procession heading down Pall Mall towards Trafalgar Square and a huge multi-level stand has been erected at the junction. Of particular interest is the reference to “various West Indian regiments” as these could have come from Jamaica, Barbados, and other Caribbean colonies, which now are questioning their future in the Commonwealth following the death of Queen Elizabeth II who was still their head of state.

Finally, Queen Victoria arrives at St Paul’s cathedral, which remains an iconic presence on the London skyline. The masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren, constructed after the Great Fire of 1666 that incinerated the ancient medieval cathedral. The buildings to the right are mostly still there but elsewhere around the cathedral, the Blitz of the Second World War levelled a great number of buildings.

DISCOVER: Medieval buildings bombed in World War Two

Note the amount of soot on St Paul’s. I remember it took until the middle of the 1980s for London to be cleaned of all its soot revealing a very different city to the dark place I grew up in. Creamy exteriors we had previously thought to be pitch black.

The chaotic funeral of King George III

On 29 January 1820, King George III died bringing an end to a very long reign of sixty years, long surpassed by Queen Elizabeth II who was on the throne for seventy years. George III was Elizabeth’s great-great-great-great-grandfather. Because of intermarriage, they’re related in other ways too. Unlike the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, that of King George was a chaotic and disorganised affair as news reports of the time testify.

Aged 82 and after sixty years on the throne, King George III died at Windsor Castle. Once news had arrived in central London, the Privy Council descended on Carlton House, the extravagant home of his son the Prince Regent, who was about to become George IV. The new spendthrift monarch was set on demolishing Carlton House, deeming it wasn’t good enough for his new role.

He had long waited for his father to pass away and now was able to become the undisputed monarch.

DISCOVER: The worst royal funeral ever!

Prelude to the chaotic funeral of King George III

According to The Observer, the body of his late father George III wasn’t embalmed in the “usual manner” but wrapped in cerecloth, a very medieval way of preserving the body. This involved binding the king’s body with strips of fabric impregnated with wax to exclude air and therefore decomposition.

The king had once been a hefty figure, generously proportioned. But The Observer reported that at death “the corpse of his Majesty exhibited a painful spectacle of the rapid decay which had previously taken place in his constitution. His once vigorous frame was reduced almost to the appearance of a skeleton”. For this reason, conventional embalming was deemed to be too difficult to perform on a body that had wasted away.

Tightly wrapped, the king was then placed in a mahogany coffin with an interior fold of white satin. This was then placed inside a lead coffin, which was then inserted into yet another mahogany coffin.

“The whole will finally be enclosed in the state coffin, which will be covered with crimson velvet, richly ornamented with gilt nails, and bearing the royal arms.”

On top of this funereal Russian nesting doll of multiple coffins was the following inscription:

DEPOSITUM

Serenissimi Potentissimi et Excellentissimi Monarchae

GEORGII TERTII

Dei Gratia, Britanniarum Regis, Fidei Defensoris

Regis Hanoverae ac Brunsvici et Lunenburgi Ducis

Obiit xxix die Januarii. Anno Domini MDCCCXX

Aetatis sure LXXXII, Regnique sui LX

The funeral was to be in Windsor where George had died so he lay in state in the castle and was then removed to his tomb. This meant that vast crowds descended on this small town just outside London. The streets became a sea of confusion with a jumble of carriages and “jaded horses”. And things only got worse.

The chaotic funeral of King George III

There was little by way of crowd control and those who had come to gawp at George were not especially well behaved or dignified in their conduct:

“Males, females, and children, were huddled together in an indiscriminate mass and the shrieks of the latter as they were crushed against each other, or against the railing by which their numbers were confined, were so dreadful, that apprehensions were entertained of the most serious mischiefs, and many were extricated with difficulty from a state of the greatest peril.”

The Observer’s description is chilling and leaves a lot of unpleasantness to the imagination. Having emerged from that hell, mourners found themselves flung into another. At each entry point into another part of Windsor castle people were “sucked into the vortex of an impatient throng”. The report went on:

“It was a complete scramble, in which the infirmities of age, the delicate habits of many respectable and beautiful females, who were intermingled with the throng, and the helplessness of infancy, were alike disregarded.”

Ten years later, George III’s son George IV would die after just ten years on the throne. His passing was far less mourned, but some lessons had been learned from the chaotic scenes in 1820. And in 2022, we see a police operation around the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II that beggars belief in terms of scale and cost.

England’s lost royal palaces

Some of England’s royal palaces have gone missing – lost at some point in history. Grand structures that once dominated the landscape have vanished into thin air. So, what happened to them?

Every day I pass by an office block called Edinburgh House in south London – a typical post-war block on a busy street. Hard to believe it was once Kennington Palace – built by the Black Prince, one of the military heroes of the Middle Ages. Yet today, not a scrap of the place is left. Why?

Kennington is one of several lost palaces in London alone. There is the mystery of Baynard’s Castle, a looming presence on the river Thames up until the 17th century. Now the site of a 1970s brutalist monstrosity.

One of our largest lost royal palaces

Or the vast 1,500-room Whitehall Palace that King Henry VIII built in Westminster and from where the Tudor monarchs terrorised the country with their conflicting ideas on religion. Whitehall rivalled the Pope’s new Vatican palace in the 16th century and was only eventually outshone by Versailles, constructed by the ‘sun king’, Louis XIV. Today, a solitary building – Banqueting House – is all that remains.

DISCOVER: The filth and stench at Versailles

Where the Savoy Hotel now stands was once the Savoy Palace, home to John of Gaunt. He was the brother of the aforementioned Black Prince and arguably the most powerful politician of the medieval period. But his once sumptuous home has gone. A victim to a wave of violence that swept the city.

To find out more about our lost royal palaces, watch the film below for some answers that might surprise you!

Black British Georgian Rebel – William Davidson

In 1820, a group of English radical activists plotted to kill the entire British government while they were sat down to dinner in central London. The Cato Street Conspiracy – so-called from the place where they met to plot – was uncovered and the ringleaders executed in a public and grisly manner. One of those who died was William Davidson – a black British Georgian rebel.

Davidson is an under-recognised figure in our history. An educated and resourceful radical. The illegitimate son of the slave-owning Attorney General of Jamaica and a local free woman. And a man whose gravitas on the scaffold as he faced his fate was commented on positively by journalists.

Britain had won a long war against Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Empire with the final victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. But far from ushering in a period of peace and stability, the ending of military conflict was followed by economic depression and mass hunger as food prices skyrocketed.

This was a period when working-class people didn’t have the vote and precious few rights in the workplace – if they were lucky to have a job. Demobbed soldiers joined civilians sleeping rough on the streets with many surviving through petty crime even though pickpocketing and burglary could carry the death penalty. And those being hanged in public included teenagers and very occasionally what we would regard as children.

DISCOVER: A horrific day trip to Georgian London

Black British Rebel – William Davidson

Little wonder that radical movements emerged, and Davidson was drawn to them like a moth to the flame. He would play a leading role in the Cato Street Conspiracy that aimed to take out hated ministers like the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. The plotters hoped to display Castlereagh’s head after the government had been wiped out but instead, it would be Davidson who would be beheaded in front of Newgate prison on the first of May 1820.

Join me as we go back to this turbulent yet fascinating period of history!

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.

Jack the Ripper – what did Londoners make of him?

In recent years we’ve had endless theories about WHO Jack the Ripper was and even a commendable in-depth look at this victims – but I’m curious to know what contemporary Londoners made of Jack the Ripper.

So I’ve dipped into my huge collection of old newspapers and publications going back centuries and found a copy of The Times and Punch magazine from the year 1888. This was at the time that the Ripper was at his peak of horror.

Londoners lived in fear of this ghoul stalking the Whitechapel area of the city. But on reading The Times and Punch, I found that Victorians spent most of their time moaning about the police. They viewed the forces of law and order as completely hopeless. The boys in blue were caricatured as bumbling idiots outwitted at every turn by the criminals.

Far from being lauded for their forensic skills or ability to protect Londoners, the police were seen as next to useless. Jack the Ripper was getting away with one brutal slaying after another. And there was no sign of a conviction.

DISCOVER: A horrific day trip to Georgian London!

Indeed, as one cartoon intimates, the police were severely stretched and out of their depth. A letter to The Times has a young parson appalled that his house was burgled in broad daylight even though he lived right next to a police station. Where were the constables? Down in Whitechapel of course!

Watch my vlog above to see the reaction of Victorian Londoners to Jack the Ripper. Two weeks ago, I walked down Hanbury Street in London’s East End to see where Annie Chapman, one of the Ripper’s victims, came to a very grisly end. Today, it’s a post-war building covered in graffiti. Hard to even visualise what happened there.

DISCOVER: Movies that promote conspiracy theories

Below is a photo below of me trying to use my imagination!

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!

coakly lettsom

The Abolitionist who owned a thousand slaves

Near where I live in London, a well known opponent of slavery had a mansion in the early nineteenth century. But somehow, despite his best intentions, this noble abolitionist ended up owning a thousand slaves. So, how did that unfortunate situation arise?

I recently bought a small magazine from February 1825 from an antique dealer that included a feature on Grove Hill, the mansion built by John Coakley Lettsom. Here I am with the magazine below. And it revealed an intriguing story about an abolitionist who unintentionally ended up owning an awful lot of slaves.

This prosperous gentleman was born to a slave owning father and an Irish mother in what is now the British Virgin Islands, a group of Caribbean islands to the right of Puerto Rico if you look at a map.

He was sent off to England as a child where, under the care of a guardian, he eventually studied medicine and became a doctor. Then the news came of a large inheritance back in the Caribbean as both his father and older brother had died. The brother had spent a large part of their father’s legacy but…a hundred slaves were left on the family plantation.

Now, John Coakley Lettsom had become a Quaker in England. And consequently an abolitionist – as that Christian denomination opposed slavery. So the first thing he did was to liberate all his father’s slaves – which left him penniless. He then set up as a doctor and eventually earned enough money to return from the Caribbean to England.

His self-sacrifice as an abolitionist who had stuck true to his principles got him very favourable publicity in London. England, at this time, was turning very much against the ownership of slaves. In contrast to the Americas where slavery would persist until the mid-century, slavery was officially outlawed in legislation passed in 1807 and 1833. Throughout the British Empire, it became illegal to own other human beings.

Lettsom built a large mansion outside London called Grove Hill – on a high point where you could see the city in the distance. As London has expanded, the area today is just another borough of south London. His mansion was demolished not long after his death and a row of very fine Regency houses built, many of which are still there.

DISCOVER: A horrific day trip to Georgian London

Just before he died, fate played a cruel trick on Lettsom. His son Pickering Lettsom went to live in the British Virgin Islands, where his father had been born, and married a rich woman. Tragically, Pickering died a month after the marriage and his wife not long after. They left everything in their will to John back in London including….a thousand slaves that Pickering’s wealthy wife owned.

Before the exasperated abolitionist could free all these newly acquired slaves, he himself died in 1815. So having begun his career by freeing a hundred slaves to widespread public approval in England, he ended his life accidentally owning a thousand!

Below is a picture of the abolitionist at home with his family in Camberwell before learning about his windfall of a thousand slaves.

Walking through Lockdown London with a visor!

On 3 June 2020 I left my home for the first time since mid-March. I live in the London borough of Southwark, just south of the river Thames, and we had distinguished ourselves early on as having one of the highest rates of Covid infection in the capital. So – I was very strict about lockdown and quarantine.

The only reason I left my home today was that back in February, I’d started root canal surgery and it was left with a gaping hole in my molar. That got infected and so I had to dash to the dentist and get the surgery finished off.

So what to say about Lockdown London on 3 June. Well, despite all the reports that quarantine has all but collapsed, I found a city that was eerily deserted still. Yes, there are more cars and construction workers – but no office staff.

I didn’t see a single person in a suit in the middle of town. Even though I walked down Fleet Street and Chancery Lane – centre of the legal community. Not a single arrogant, over-paid lawyer in sight! 🙂

DISCOVER: Coronavirus and panic in history

London is not a stranger to plague and lockdown as I’ve mentioned on the blog. In 1665, we had a Great Plague which involved King Charles II and his court fleeing the city for Oxford. Much to the annoyance of Londoners. They took the full force of the disease while their social betters were miles away.

Then there was the Black Death where the bodies piled up in huge pits – stricken with the bubonic plague. Incidentally, these plague pits are dug up every so often and others lie under your feet in the most unexpected places. Like a supermarket in Whitechapel I won’t mention, for example.

This virus hasn’t been on the scale of 1665 or the Black Death. Nor the many cholera and typhus outbreaks that hit the city over the centuries. And I suppose our response has been more sophisticated – though at present, most Londoners I know are not hugely enamoured of the politicians.

Anyway, I didn’t feel at enormous risk today with my visor. But the lockdown has forced many business sectors in London to rethink their models. Do we need so many offices? Do we need all these hotels? How will transport work with social distancing?

And it’s going to change the way we interact. A year ago, pre-lockdown London was booming. Previously derelict areas of the city were becoming terribly chic and crowded with hip young things. And now?

Are you missing Game of Thrones?

If you are then I am posting here my iPhone footage of the Game of Thrones live concert experience back in 2018. I saw this amazing spectacular with composer Ramin Djawadi conducting the orchestra and choir – plus actors and dancers, etc.

So – relive the glories of Game of Thrones by clicking on my video to watch!