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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

She walked to London to visit the Queen...

In 1897,  Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. Sixty Glorious Years.  June 22 was declared Jubilee Day and a grand procession through the streets of London was planned. The prime ministers of all the self-governing dominions were invited, and  troops from every part of the empire were to be included in the parade.

In the small industrial town of of Rawtenstall about 14 miles north of Manchester in Lancashire, a young girl, probably no more than 16 or 17, decided to walk to London to see Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee procession.  I don't know her name, but for the sake of the story, I will call her May. 

Rawtenstall in the early years of the 20th century
It is hard from the distance of over a hundred years to imagine the excitement that pervaded England in 1897, although perhaps we've seen a little of it in the past few days as England celebrates Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee. It was the height of the British Empire and presiding over it was the seventy eight year old monarch. Never had any monarch, male or female reigned for so long. Victoria was adored by her subjects which now stretched across every continent.
In the little kitchen of May’s two up, two down home in Rawtenstall, built by the industrialists who owned the mills that dominated the town, May and and a friend  counted their pennies and their hearts must have fallen when they saw they  barely had enough for a fare to Manchester, let alone all the way to London. With true Lancastrian grit, these two young girls decided to walk the 177 miles from Rawtenstall to London.

I know nothing about how long it took them, where they spent the nights on the road or where they lodged in London.  We do know over 4 million people flowed into London for the celebrations so we can assume that the roads of England were filled with loyal subjects all making the same pilgrimage through what was unusually  appalling summer weather. Spirits would have been high. This was a moment of high history and they were going to be a part of it. 

The day of the procession dawned bright and clear. Accompanied by the colonial troops and the great leaders of the Empire, the tiny monarch, dressed in black, and now crippled with arthiritis rode in her open carriage rom Buckingham Palace, via Mansion House, past Parliament and then across Westminster Bridge before recrossing the Thames for a service at St Paul's Cathedral (which was conducted on the steps of the Cathedral as the Queen was too crippled to climb the steps into the Cathedral). Lining the route were hundreds of thousands of spectators, huddled beneath bunting and banners - one of which declared Victoria "Queen of earthly Queens". 
In the poor streets of London (and the major cities), the streets were hung with bunting and free feasts for the poor were laid on by wealthy philanthropists. The tea magnate Thomas Lipton laid on one such party with free ale and pipe tobacco. A chain of beacons were lit across Britain and there were fireworks and a son et lumiere was played out on St. Paul’s Cathedral.

In her journal the Queen wrote: "No one ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me, passing through those 6 miles of streets . . . The cheering was quite deafening & every face seemed to be filled with real joy. I was much moved and gratified." 
The Procession Route

For two young girls from Rawtenstall, it must have been magical.  With the last of her money May bought a souvenir of this wondrous occasion,  a delicate tea cup decorated with roses and royal banners, proudly declaring “For Union and for Queen”. She wrapped it carefully and carried it back to Rawtenstall along with the stories of all that she had seen.

In 1956, as a woman in her late seventies, May became embroiled in a family drama and she was placed in the position of having to formally adopt her grandson, a boy in his early teens.  The young social worker assigned to the case became close to the old woman and when she announced that she would be leaving England to take up a new role in Kenya, the old lady rose to her feet and crossed to her cupboard. From it she took a delicate tea cup and saucer, now cracked but still bearing its clear pattern of roses and imperial flags.  “I would like you to have this,” she said to the young woman, “as a momento.” May then told the young woman about how she had walked to London to see the Queen...

How do I know this story? The young woman was my mother. The little teacup and saucer has travelled with her over many moves and countries and now professionally mended, has pride of place in her home (along with her own more recent souvenir of the present Jubilee). Across the span of time, she no longer remembers the name of the woman who gave it to her, but she remembers the story she was told.

The following video is actual footage of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee Procession. Perhaps if you look closely perhaps you can see May's shining face in the crowd...