CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in Ottawa's history.
Despite her deteriorating health, Queen Victoria continued to work from her favourite palace, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
On Monday, Jan. 14, 1901, she asked Field Marshal Lord Roberts pointed questions about the Boer War. Roberts had just returned from South Africa, having turned over command of British forces there to Lord Kitchener. It must have been a difficult interview as the Queen opposed the conflict. On Tuesday, Jan. 15, the Queen went for a ride in the palace grounds. However, it became clear that something was wrong; she was visibly affected by some malady. On Wednesday, Jan. 16, she suffered a paralytic stroke and experienced an intense physical weakness that caused the left side of her face to sag. Queen Victoria never recovered.
For the next few days, as she moved in and out of consciousness, family members, including Edward, the Prince of Wales, and her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, gathered at Osborne House. At the Queen’s request, Turi, her pet Pomeranian dog, was brough to her. Throughout her last days, she was cared for by two nurses and four dressers, overseen by a matron. The Ottawa Journal reported that she was nourished through these last days with “warm milk, champagne and brandy.”
Shortly after 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan, 22 1901, her doctors summoned members of the Royal Family and the Rector of the Royal Chapel. The end was near. For a short period, the Queen was strong enough to greet her children and grandchildren one last time, reportedly receiving them singly and in groups of two or three, before she relapsed into unconsciousness. She died peacefully that evening at 6:30 p.m.
The news of her passing quickly spread throughout Britain and across the Empire. Despite her advanced age, people had difficulty comprehending that the Queen had died. She was the longest reigning monarch at that time, and had become the embodiment of an age. She seemed indestructible. Even the Court was flummoxed with few arrangements for her funeral prepared ahead of time. Nobody knew what the protocol was. All the courtiers who had organized the funeral of Queen Victoria’s predecessor, King William IV, were long dead.
Official news of the Queen’s passing was conveyed to Lord Minto, Canada’s Governor General, by cable from Joseph Chamberlain, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Minto replied that “No greater sovereign has ever ruled over the British people, or been more beloved and honoured by her subjects than Her Majesty Queen Victoria, and by none has this love and respect been more deeply felt than by the people of His Majesty’s Dominion of Canada.”
Ottawa’s newspapers immediately posted bulletins announcing the Queen’s death at their offices. The Ottawa Journal also telephoned the news to schools and other places in the city. Within the hour, the bell at Ottawa City Hall began to toll, followed by the city’s church bells. Flags were lowered to half mast. Large crowds appeared in front of the offices of the Ottawa Journal and the Ottawa Citizen to await news updates. Everywhere, the death of Queen Victoria was the sole subject of conversation.
At city hall, the council met to pass a resolution of regret. The Ottawa Journal reported that “never before in the history of the Corporation of the City of Ottawa has such solemnity reigned over a council meeting.” The council chamber was immediately draped in black. A large engraving of Queen Victoria surrounded by heavy black drapes appeared above the front entrance of city hall on Elgin Street.
A sombre Mayor William Morris said: “The Queen had been so long inseparably connected in our minds with the Empire which has grown to such vastness during her reign that we can scarcely realize the possibility of the awful loss which will be felt in every portion of the globe, and will be mourned by every nation. Windsor Castle and Rideau Hall in Ottawa have been linked by the ties of Royalty almost since Confederation. Ottawans have had better opportunities of judging Her Majesty’s representatives than have had other Canadian communities. She has been reverently esteemed by the Radical and the Loyalist alike in an irreverent age. I think the judgment of history will concede her the foremost place among the monarchs and colossal figures of the nineteenth century.”
The Ottawa city council’s resolution was moved by Aldermen R.J. Davidson and Napoleon Champagne. It began: “The council of the City of Ottawa assembled on the occasion of the death of our late beloved Sovereign, Queen Victoria, hereby, on its own behalf and on behalf of the citizens, records the deep and heartfelt sorrow experienced by our people by the decease of one who for upwards of sixty years has ruled over the destinies of our Empire and by the innate nobility of her character and her many great and estimable qualities of head and heart, has been enshrined in the affections of her subjects.” In addition to extending Ottawa’s “loving sympathy” to members of the Royal Family, the resolution authorized the mayor to proclaim the suspension of business of the day of Queen Victoria’s funeral, and to lower flags to half mast between then and the day of the funeral.
City council then adjourned and made its way to Rideau Hall to present the resolution to Lord Minto, who personally welcomed them to Government House. After the City Clerk read the address, the Governor General thanked the mayor and council and said he would forward the resolution to the proper place. He added that Queen Victoria was “a model Queen and a model woman.”
Queen Victoria’s funeral was held on Feb, 2 1901. Following instructions she had left behind, the Queen’s body was dressed in a white gown with her wedding veil over her face. In her coffin, attendants placed mementos of her beloved husband, Prince Albert who had died forty years earlier, including his dressing gown and a plaster cast of his hand. King Edward, Kaiser Wilhelm, and her youngest son the Duke of Connaught took responsibility for placing her body in her coffin. (The duke was to become Canada’s Governor General from 1911 to 1916.) Later, again according to her instructions, her personal physician folded her hand over a photograph of John Brown, the Scottish gillie who had worked for Prince Albert and had later become the Queen’s personal attendant and friend. The doctor covered the photograph with flowers so that it could not be seen.
Queen Victoria’s body was conveyed from Osborne House and placed on the ship Alberta, for the short trip across the Solent to Portsmouth. From there, it was transported via train to London where her coffin was placed on a gun carriage drawn by eight white horses. (See the British Pathé film of Queen Victoria’s funeral.) After the funeral cortege, her remains went by train to Windsor where her coffin rested in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle for two days before she was buried beside her beloved husband at Frogmore Mausoleum.
All of Canada went into mourning. federal buildings across the country were draped in black or purple through the mourning period. The front of the centre block on Parliament Hill was swathed in bunting in a similar fashion as during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee held in 1897 except in the colours of mourning instead of celebration. Above the front entrance to the Victoria Tower was a crown wreathed in black. Most principal buildings and shop windows in the city were also draped in mourning colours. The window of Wright’s Flower Shop at 63 Sparks Street was the exception. In it was a picture of the late Queen surrounded by a wreath of white roses, calla lilies, white carnations and white hyacinths, topped by two white doves looking downward with a third with its wings outspread at the bottom of the display. On the right of the Queen’s picture was a large cross of roses, carnations and white hyacinths. On the left was a crown of yellow daffodils, violets, white carnations and lilies of the valley.
On the day of Queen Victoria’s funeral, all business came to a standstill. At 11 a.m., the city hall bell began tolling and guns boomed from Nepean Point. Schools and churches across Ottawa held memorial services. At Notre Dame Basilica, Archbishop Duhamel and Monseigneur Routhier held a High Mass in honour of the late Queen.
Thousands of people watched a military parade, consisting of men from the 43rd Regiment and the Garrison Battery, make its way from Parliament Hill to Christ Church Cathedral where Lord and Lady Minto was to attend. Regimental colours were draped in black. The interior of the cathedral was draped in royal blue, sable and purple. With the military in their bright dress uniforms the Ottawa Journal described the scene as one of “serene beauty.” Archbishop Machray, Primate of Canada, gave the sermon. In addition to speaking of the late Queen’s attributes as a monarch and mother, he stressed the scientific progress made during her long reign. “The discoveries and inventions of men of science have almost made a greater change during it in the conditions of life than in all the 2,000 years before. Comforts and conveniences in countless ways are brought to the man of very ordinary means that previously the greatest monarch was a stranger to… The world is not only a richer and brighter but a happier, kinder and probably better world than she found it.”
Fast forward 121 years, the world witnessed another epoch-marking event with the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The parallels between the passing of the two monarchs are striking. Both held the record for the longest reign, with generations of people knowing only one monarch on the throne. Both died leaving the Crown in the uncertain hands of Kings who in other circumstances would be long retired. Queen Victoria witnessed the apogee of an Empire on which the sun never set, while Queen Elizabeth saw the dissolution of Empire, though also perhaps the creation of something better, the development of a Commonwealth of equals where countries freely join out of bonds of friendship and shared history rather than imperial conquest. Just as Archbishop Machray spoke of the amazing technological achievements of the Victorian age that had improved the lives of millions, one can also marvel at humankind’s achievements over the seventy years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. However, the archbishop’s view that the world of 1901 was a “happier, kinder and probably better world” than the one Queen Victoria saw on her coronation in 1838 is clouded by our knowledge of what was to come. Just thirteen years later, the world would be at war. The German Kaiser who had lovingly rushed to the side of his dying grandmother, would become Britain’s greatest foe. As people around the world today mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth, another European war is underway.