On 20 June 1887, Queen Victoria marked the 50th anniversary of her accession to the throne. There were Golden Jubilee celebrations in the United Kingdom and the wider British Empire and Dominions, including Canada. The Golden Jubilee was the occasion of the first Colonial Conference, a forerunner of modern-day Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings.
Celebrations in the United Kingdom
Golden Jubilee festivities took place in the United Kingdom and the wider British Empire and Dominions in May and June. On 4 May, Queen Victoria received premiers and governors from more than 80 colonies in the British Empire at Windsor Castle, led by Sir Robert Thorburn, premier of Newfoundland, who offered “humble, united and earnest congratulations.” On 20 June, the 50th anniversary of her accession, the Queen departed from Windsor and travelled to London for a series of official receptions. The Jubilee Parade through London and the Service of Thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey, the setting of Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838, took place the following day. On 22 June, the Queen attended a celebration in Hyde Park, where more than 27,000 children received commemorative jubilee mugs; there were also military bands and fireworks. The Round Tower of Windsor Castle was illuminated with electric lights in honour of the Golden Jubilee.
Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee was the first royal jubilee commemorated with jubilee medals. Historian Christopher McCreery wrote, “Special wearable medals were produced in gold, silver and bronze and were awarded to people involved in the jubilee procession and other government officials. In typical Victorian fashion, whether one was awarded the gold, silver or bronze jubilee medal was dictated by one’s social rank.” Canadian recipients of 1887 Golden Jubilee medals included Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and French-Canadian soprano Emma Lajeunesse (Madame Albani).
The Grandmother of Europe
Queen Victoria’s children and grandchildren married into royal families throughout Europe, and the Golden Jubilee celebrations emphasized her role as “the grandmother of Europe.” Royal biographer Theo Aronson concluded, “More than anything, Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee was a family affair… [At the Diamond Jubilee in 1897], she would be hailed as the Queen-Empress of a mighty Empire; now she was being greeted as a European sovereign, head of a cosmopolitan family, the Grandmama of Europe.” At the Service of Thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey, the Queen’s surviving children and grandchildren in attendance embraced the sovereign or kissed her hand while she sat on King Edward’s historic throne (known as King Edward’s Chair or the Coronation Chair). There were also luncheons and dinners with visiting royalty throughout the celebrations.
The Queen commissioned a painting by Laurits Regner Tuxen, The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887, which depicted Victoria surrounded by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including her daughter Princess Louise and son-in-law, former governor general of Canada Lord Lorne (1878–83), her son Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, future governor general of Canada (1911–16), and granddaughter Princess Alice, future Countess of Athlone and viceregal consort of Canada (1940–46). Despite this large extended family, Queen Victoria’s journal entries about the Golden Jubilee emphasized her feelings of solitude because of the loss of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. On 21 June, she wrote about the Service of Thanksgiving, “I sat alone oh! Without my beloved Husband (for whom this would have been such a proud day!)”
Celebrations in Canada
Queen Victoria’s birthday, Victoria Day, had been a public holiday in Canada since 1845. In 1887, the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday took place on 21 June in honour of the “50th anniversary of Her Majesty’s Accession to the Throne.” On 22 June 1887, Governor General Lord Lansdowne hosted a Golden Jubilee reception at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. The Ottawa Journal reported, “The House of Commons took recess early, and many Senators and Members, Ministers of the Crown and others attended.”
Across Canada, there were parades, street parties and services of thanksgiving in honour of the Golden Jubilee. The first cross-country passenger train on the newly completed Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in Vancouver in 1887 and was decorated on the outside with the Queen’s portrait, flowers, a crown and the words “Victoria Jubilee.”
The Golden Jubilee was an occasion for new civic buildings and parks throughout the country, financed by both local governments and public subscriptions. In Victoria, British Columbia, fundraising began for the Royal Jubilee Hospital, which would be opened by the Duke of Connaught in 1890. In Montreal, Donald Smith, 1st Baron Strathcona, and George Stephen, 1st Baron Mount Stephen, purchased a site on Mount Royal for a free public hospital and donated $1,000,000 to the construction of what became The Royal Victoria Hospital. In Halifax, a new bandstand was commissioned for the public gardens, and Stratford, Ontario, opened a new courthouse as part of a jubilee party.
The 1887 Colonial Conference
From 4 April to 6 May 1887, Queen Victoria hosted the first Colonial Conference in London, chaired by British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury. The conference was an initiative of the Imperial Federation League, founded in 1884 to encourage local self-government and form closer connections between the various regions of the British Empire and Dominions. Prominent Canadians, including future Prime Minister Charles Tupper and future Minister of Militia and Defence Samuel Hughes, joined the league because of concerns about annexationist sentiment in the United States.
More than 100 delegates attended. Macdonald and Tupper were unable to attend the 1887 Colonial Conference because the timing conflicted with the spring opening of Canada’s parliament. Canada was instead represented by the lieutenant governor of Ontario, Sir Alexander Campbell, and civil engineer Sandford Fleming, who spoke in favour of a telegraph connection between Vancouver and Australia, a proposal that was approved at the conference. Although not all regions of the British Empire and Dominions were represented at the 1887 Colonial Conference, the event set precedents for future Imperial Conferences and Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings as the British Empire gradually evolved into a Commonwealth of equal nations.