Diamond Jubilee then and now
As the country prepares to celebrate sixty years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, John Newth looks back to how another Queen’s Diamond Jubilee was celebrated in Dorset 115 years ago
Published in June ’12
One of the pleasures of reading copies of the Dorset County Chronicle from the 19th century is the different styles of reports from the county’s towns and villages, ranging from the severely matter-of-fact to the most purple of high-flown prose. Nowhere is this more true than in the accounts of the festivities to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897, yet it is also striking how similar the celebrations were throughout Dorset.
For most communities the starting point was in their parish church on Sunday 20 June. Congregations used a service that had been specially composed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple (a rather less well-remembered Primate than his son, William), and sang ‘O King of Kings’, a hymn written for the occasion by Bishop How of Wakefield with music by Sir Arthur Sullivan. It is rarely heard today, unlike a hymn also written to celebrate the Jubilee with – confusingly – the same title, by Dr Henry Burton to music by Stainer.
The day set aside for secular celebrations was Tuesday 22 June. Although it was right in the middle of the haymaking season, there was barely a place in Dorset that did not stage some sort of event. In Swanage, ‘the break of Jubilee Day was announced at 5 o’clock by the cheery ringing of the church bells’, which must have tested the reciprocal cheeriness of even an early-rising community. Traders vied with each other to cover their shops in the most patriotically lavish decorations, and in Sherborne, ‘the streets presented an appearance the equal of which has never before been seen in the town.’ One trader in Bournemouth installed a fountain from which spouted perfume instead of water, and people held their handkerchiefs underneath to get the scent. Also in Bournemouth, the illumination of the Lower Gardens by candles, which had started on a small scale in the previous year to mark the visit of Princess Eugenie of Austria, was greatly developed in 1897 and continues to this day.
The first event of that Tuesday was usually a procession. In the villages, slate and loan clubs, friendly societies, oddfellows and working men’s clubs would take part. In Wareham, there were forty cyclists in fancy dress (the bicycle was still quite a new-fangled device), while in Sturminster Newton, according to the Chronicle, boats ‘processionalised’ the Stour. A contemporary account of the Stoke Abbott procession reports: ‘The band rode in one of Mr Smith’s farm waggons. Harry Bartlett drove them and every now and then he did smack his whip and the horse did nearly jerk the band off their seats. Then Harry did turn round and say to them playing the fiddles, “Come on, scrape it out, bide there a-scratchin’ at en” and then to the flute player,
“Why doesn’ en blow in the thing – ’pon my soul I can’t yer what thee’t playin’, bide there a-spittin’ in en.” All the men were in procession behind and all fairly well oiled.’
After the procession came a sumptuous lunch, which in Bradford Peverell consisted of ‘viands of the most substantial kind’. At Wallisdown, 250 pints of beer, 85 pounds of beef and 25 bottles of mineral water were provided. In some places the cost was met by subscription and in the towns by the council, but in most villages the spread was dependent on the largesse of the squire. Most of them took the opportunity to address the company in response to toasts to their health. At Winterborne Whitechurch, Mr Mansel-Pleydell’s listeners may or may not have been riveted by his ‘brief resumé of the progress during the last 60 years, making the English nation the first among the nations of the earth’, while at Corfe Castle Mr Bankes took the opportunity to mention his family’s and the village’s loyalty to the King in the Civil War – 250 years is but the blink of an eye on the Isle of Purbeck. At both Wareham and Bridport, the inmates of the Union, or workhouse, were given a lunch of Christmas fare: roast beef, plum pudding and a pint of beer. At Wareham they also enjoyed an ounce of tobacco, ‘kindly presented by Mr Day of the National Provincial Bank’.
The afternoon was given over to sports or a funfair or both. At Milton Abbas, where the Hambro family threw open the Abbey grounds, the events included ‘a donkey and cart race over half a mile, restricted to residents on the Milton Abbey Estate and the parishes of Hilton and Melcombe.’ At Warmwell there was an ‘old men’s race… but perhaps nothing provided greater mirth than the for a time fruitless efforts to secure a nice fat pig, whose tail had undergone a special lubrication for the occasion.’ At Sherborne, ‘everything passed off satisfactorily with the exception of an accident to a lad, named Ridout, who, whilst doing a little amateur performing on the greasy pole fell and broke his leg.’
Tea followed, although almost all the Chronicle reports specify that it was for the women and children only; no doubt the men shunned tea in favour of beer or cider. It must have loosened their inhibitions when the evening was given over to dancing; in the words of the Bradpole correspondent, ‘The followers of Terpsichore tripped it gaily to the strains of the band.’ At Wallisdown there was a row because the band, ‘having been paid £4, was out of action by teatime due to beer’.
When night fell, some places ran to fireworks and almost everywhere had a bonfire. On Portland it was at Yeates Corner, where – a modern touch – ‘balloons were liberated’. Whitchurch Canonicorum had its own bonfire, but the correspondent wrote also of ‘the red glare that illumined the whole circumference of the northern heavens’. At Christchurch they avoided the mistake of ten years earlier, when the Golden Jubilee bonfire on the Barrack Road Recreation Ground had so scorched the pitches that neither cricket nor even soccer could be played there for years after.
As well as the jollifications on that Tuesday in June 1897, several places opted for a more permanent commemoration. Perhaps the most striking is at Thornford, where the clock tower erected to mark the Jubilee (but not actually finished until the end of 1898) dominates the centre of the village. Possibly the people of Thornford were inspired by Weymouth’s decorative and colourful Jubilee Clock, erected ten years earlier – or possibly not, as Thornford’s is a solid, no-nonsense construction. The clock itself came from a clockmaker in Yeovil, but the weathervane on top was the work of Albert Gabe, a local blacksmith. A tap is incorporated in the base.
Even slower off the mark was Portland, where the Victoria Gardens did not open until 1904, although they were originally conceived to commemorate the Jubilee. In Dorchester, the Borough Gardens had been opened in 1896 and to celebrate Jubilee Year acquired the bandstand, the gift of Col W E Brymer MP. And how many tourists, sitting on the base of the cross in the Square at Corfe Castle to eat their ice-creams, notice the plaque which informs them that it ‘was erected to commemorate the sixtieth year of the reign of Queen Victoria’?
Some Jubilee projects were more practical, with £47 being subscribed in Cerne Abbas for the repair of the town clock and chimes. In Bothenhampton, ‘to commemorate the great event it is proposed to light up the village with oil lamps.’ At Upwey a stone shelter was built at the famous Wishing Well, and most practical of all, Lyme Regis extended its cottage hospital in Church Street; this was amalgamated with an earlier hospital in Pound Street in 1927.
It is in Dorset’s churches that most mementoes of the Jubilee survive. At Powerstock, the bells were re-hung and the tenor bell re-cast, while Canford Magna added a sixth bell to its existing peal of five. The now-redundant church of St Kenelm at Stanbridge had stained glass installed in the chancel, while the patron, Sir Richard Glyn, presented a font, lectern and chalice. St James’s, Poole, also acquired a stained glass window in honour of the occasion. The words ‘Jubilee 1897’ can still be made out in the metalwork of the arch and lantern spanning the entrance to the churchyard at Owermoigne. Holy Trinity, Bradpole, was extended in 1897 and in the same year the striking gilded wall paintings on the chancel arch and east wall were added. Nothing now links these specifically to the Jubilee but there is a commemorative marble tablet on the outside of the churchyard wall.
Not everyone in Dorset celebrated Victoria’s sixty years in the same way. The people of Maiden Newton and Frome Vauchurch, for example, decamped en masse for a village picnic on Eggardon Hill. And the lack of any comment on the event from Thomas Hardy, who was ready to comment on most things, is explained by the fact that the old curmudgeon took himself off to Switzerland to escape the celebrations!