Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession in St James’s Square, Newport. Picture courtesy of IW County Records Office.
WIGHT LIVINGIT WAS a time when Britannia truly ruled the waves — and a quarter of the surface of the globe.
From the Empire’s 'crown jewel’ of India to the bustling port of Hong Kong, the proud boast of the British, that their Empire was one on which the sun never set, was not an idle one.
Victorian science, commerce and industry were the envy of the world. And at the very apex of the most powerful nation on earth sat the Empress of India herself, Queen Victoria.
In June 1897, the world’s most powerful monarch celebrated her diamond jubilee, just as the British Empire was at the zenith of its power and prestige.
In so doing, she ignited an outpouring of celebration across the four corners of the Empire, not least on her favourite holiday island where, in common with millions of people across the planet, IW residents took to the streets to mark 60 years of her reign.
More than a century later, the Island is once again gearing up to celebrate the reign of a very different monarch.
And although Victoria and Elizabeth share two obvious traits — they are both women and they both celebrated their diamond jubilees — the country over which they sat at the head could not be more different.
If Victoria’s reign was marked by national expansion and pre-eminent power on the world’s stage, Elizabeth’s has been one of strongly perceived national decline, punctuated by a few 'feel-good’ moments.
We lost the Empire but won the World Cup. We invented Concorde, yet lost most of our manufacturing capacity.
Back in the far-off days of 1897, the County Press reported how the Island was united in celebration for Victoria’s diamond jubilee.
The paper heralded 60 glorious years of her reign and outlined the scores of commemoration services that were held the length and breadth of the Island.
The paper said:
"Stirred by a common impulse of loyalty to the throne and moved by a common sentiment of devotion to the gracious lady who, for the past 60 years has adorned that throne, Her Majesty’s subjects in all parts of the world-wide dominions have this week joined in celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with befitting rejoicings.
"The occasion has been a unique one, and as it is without parallel in all our past annals, so will it become eternised in all our future of our speech and song. More than a thousand years have rolled away, it has been well said, since England became a kingdom but during all those centuries no sovereign has worn the crown as long as Queen Victoria or has seen such moral and material blessings conferred upon the country."
It’s an editorial which could not be written now. Or could it?
Yes, Britain has lost its pre-eminence in the world but the country is universally respected as a bastion of human rights and democracy.
We are a less deferential country but the opportunities for UK citizens, especially women, have increased dramatically since Victoria’s day.
We are all wealthier, much healthier, and still are seen as world leaders in design, the media and the arts.
All these changes have happened in the past 60 years, presided over by the current Queen Elizabeth.
And as we gear up for the huge celebrations due to take place this year, it has to be remembered it was Elizabeth II’s fate to reign when we shook off the last dusty remnants of the Victorian era and stood blinking in the modern world.
That, no matter what your feeling about the institution of monarchy, is no mean achievement.