January 1901: This month last century

One hundred and eleven years ago, Queen Victoria dies aged 81 (22 January 1901).

A profound sense of grief followed in the wake of the Queen’s death. This black-edged silk portrait was issued by a woman’s magazine so that readers had their own, personal memorial of the late monarch.

Memorial Portrait, Queen Victoria, 1901, England (based on a photograph by Walery). Te Papa

Memorial Portrait, Queen Victoria, 1901, England (based on a photograph by Walery). Te Papa

Victoria’s death was reported widely in New Zealand newspapers. The Auckland Star stated that: Queen Victoria, ripe in years and full of honour, has passed to her rest.’ 

Victoria had been on the throne from 1837, since she was 18 years old. She had reigned over the colony of New Zealand from February 1840, in her capacity as the Queen of the United Kingdom, of Great Britain and Ireland, and the nominal head of the British Empire.

Her reign covered 63 years and 7 months. It was the longest reign by a British monarch. New Zealanders, like Victoria’s other imperial subjects, had enthusiastically celebrated milestones along the way, such as her Golden Jubilee in 1887 and then her Diamond one in 1897. The plate pictured below celebrated the latter. The palace in the bottom right corner, Osborne House, was the Queen’s residence when she passed away.

Plate, circa 1897. Maker unknown. Purchased 1994. Te Papa

Plate, circa 1897. Maker unknown. Purchased 1994. Te Papa

Many local commentators believed Victoria had presided over a golden age – ‘the grandest period of human progress, of moral and intellectual advancement’ according to the Thames Star.

Editorials eulogized the late Queen in lengthy columns edged with black. ‘Goodness was the characteristic of her life, the motive chord of her mind, and goodness is immortal’, wrote the Thames Star. The Manawatu Daily Times declared, ‘Her life was as noble as it was pure’.

The press also referred to her as the ‘Mother of the Empire’, and a number of papers suggesting that many New Zealanders would feel her passing as keenly as that of a family member.

Frederick William Lock, The bridal morn, 1840. Te Papa

Frederick William Lock, The bridal morn, 1840. Te Papa

At the beginning of the 20th century, a complex system of public and private mourning rituals had developed around bereavement: Victoria herself had remained in mourning after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. (The engraving above shows them at the time of their wedding in 1840.)

Grief was expressed in strict and sober dress codes and even styles of jewellery such as the brooch below, which holds locks of hair, probably from a late-lamented relative.  Socialising was usually circumscribed by a bereavement while handkerchiefs and stationery, edged in black, declared the status of bereft.

Mourning brooch, 19th century. Maker unknown. Gift of Mrs Helen Watson, 2008. Te Papa

Mourning brooch, 19th century. Maker unknown. Gift of Mrs Helen Watson, 2008. Te Papa

It was therefore critical that correct rituals were followed to mourn a monarch as notable as Victoria. In New Zealand, public activities were deferred, entertainments postponed, and offices and shops closed. Flags flew at half mast, with black streamers above them.

Details of mourning etiquette and attire appeared in newspapers. One Wellington department store, expecting a rush on bereavement supplies, assured shoppers that it had in stock, ‘ample supplies of Black Crape, Mourning Bands, Ribbons,… and all Mourning Requisites’.

The whole colony seemd to be swathed in black. For example, when members of the Manawatu Cycling Club were invited to participate in a memorial parade they were asked that their ‘machines  be draped in black’.  Government buildings were subjected to this rule.

Queen Victoria Statue, 01.03.1912, New Zealand. Muir & Moodie. Te Papa

Queen Victoria Statue, 01.03.1912, New Zealand. Muir & Moodie. Te Papa

Today, after more than a century since her death, Victoria exerts a profound cultural influence. She lent her name to an era, a style and a sensibility, as well to local streets and suburbs. You could says that she continues to reign over our everyday lives, even in the 21st century.

Read more about New Zealand at the end of the Victoria era, on the Slice of Heaven website

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