Lately I have been pondering on the passing of time and in particular on certain dates throughout history—like May 24th for instance—a Queen’s birthday anniversary celebrated every year on the Monday preceding May 24th. This year in my hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, the holiday will fall on Monday, May 18th.
It is usually a weekend of celebrations ranging from a parade in town and boat races and festivals along the Gorge waterway. Sadly this year it will all look a little different because of Covid-19. And for the first time there will be no parade.
According to historical weather records, May 24th 1819 in England when Victoria was born, was a cloudy day with an east wind blowing. It was also the fourth wettest day of the month. But, in Kensington Palace in London, a future Queen of England came into the world and would later give her name to our city in British Columbia, Canada. During her long reign, however, she never visited the city named for her.
The Queen’s May birthday has been celebrated since the establishment of Fort Victoria in 1843. One of the first major celebrations was in 1853 with horse racing taking place in Beacon Hill Park, a pleasant distraction for the early settlers which continued for many years. More sporting events were added as time went by including cricket.
Many of those early “Queen celebrations” centered around the Gorge waterway though, which soon became known for its boating regattas and picnics for the elite who lived along the Gorge. The citizens of Victoria were said to have enjoyed “lively times up the Gorge Arm” for many a year. Some of the more prominent Victoria families such as the Grants, the O'Reillys, the Drakes, the Dunsmuirs and the Fawcetts had built elegant homes along the banks of the waterway.
The O'Reilly house Point Ellice House, still stands today. It is a relatively unknown gem in the city, and is open to the public. In my forthcoming novel Providence, I have placed the home of my own fictional family, the McBrides, along the Gorge waterway.
Sadly one of the May 24th celebrations ended in tragedy. In 1896 a happy crowd of holiday-makers crossing the Point Ellice bridge on Streetcar Number 16, plunged to their deaths when the bridge collapsed. The people who perished on that day left an incredible void in the lives of many of Victoria’s families. A similar tragedy today would be comparable to the city losing over a thousand of her citizens at one time.
The annual May 24th holiday was originally known as Empire Day but around the time of Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, Empire Day was merged with the Queen’s birthday and, in 1904, was officially set aside as a special day. By legislation in 1952, Victoria Day, was celebrated every year on the first Monday preceding May 24th. Parades, fireworks, festivals, marching bands all followed by the Swiftsure boat races have added to the fun through the years - until 2020 when we will simply have to celebrate in different ways.
Throughout her long reign, Queen Victoria also gave her name to many other places around the world and within the then British Empire such as a state in Australia, the British Cameroons in Africa, a town in Texas, and our own city in British Columbia. In addition, an Island in the Arctic, and Falls in Southern Rhodesia, Argentina, and Brazil are named for the Queen.
It bears remembering that Queen Victoria’s reign, described in the newspapers of the day as “the longest and greatest reign in the history of the British Empire,” had seen the rise of an industrial revolution, progress of railroads, the introduction of the automobile, and the development of a democratic system of rule.
She was a Queen who depicted goodness, duty, conscience and solid virtue, and had resurrected a belief in a strong work ethic and a morality, at least on the surface, second to none.
Today, we may well have long-since forgotten whose birthday we were originally celebrating on the May 24th weekend or what this particular holiday once stood for. To many people, it is now simply the first holiday week-end of the year and a pleasant way to head into summer where, this year, we hope to gradually celebrate socializing with family and friends once again.
How will you spend this long weekend? Hopefully you will stay inside or go out safely by staying six feet apart from others.