Traditions of Victoria Day

Every year the traditional “May 24th” holiday, the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birthday, occurs on a different date.  This year it is early – on Monday, 20th May. The holiday weekend consists of celebrations ranging from a parade, boating, festivals and even, on one memorable occasion in 1896, a tragedy.

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 was born on that day and would later give her name to the capital city of British Columbia even though, during her long reign, she never once visited the city named for her.

Here in Victoria, we have celebrated the Queen’s May birthday since the establishment of Fort Victoria in 1843.  One of the first major celebrations was in 1853 when horse racing took place in Beacon Hill Park, a pleasant distraction for the early settlers that continued for many years during which time more sporting events were added, including cricket.

Many of the early “Queen’s celebrations” centred around the Gorge waterway though, which soon became known for its boating, regattas, and picnics.  The citizens of Victoria were said to have enjoyed “lively times up the Gorge Arm” for many a year.  In addition, some of the more prominent Victoria families were soon building elegant homes along the banks of the waterway.  Families such as the Grants, the Drakes, the O’Reillys, the Dunsmuirs and the Fawcetts.

However, as with all joy, there was also sorrow. The May 24th week-end celebrations in 1896 ended in tragedy when a happy crowd of holidaymakers crossing the Point Ellice bridge on Streetcar Number 16, plunged to their deaths following the collapse of the over-crowded bridge. The people who perished on that day left an incredible void in the lives of many 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, as it had come to be known, was deemed to be celebrated every year on the first Monday preceding May 24th.  Parades, fireworks, festivals, marching bands followed by the Swiftsure races have all added to the celebrations through the years.

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 she had resurrected a belief in a strong work ethic and a morality, at least at face value, second to none. This was not always the case behind the scenes!


Today, we may well have long-since forgotten whose birthday we were originally celebrating on the May 24th weekend. To many people, it is now simply the first holiday weekend of the year and a pleasant way to head into summer.

In The McBride Chronicles (Book Two Destiny), I describe how my fictional character Sarah McBride helped save and care for some of the survivors of the Victoria Day tragedy in 1896. This is just one of the many events I have illustrated in the four-novel series. They will all be officially released as a collection in less than two weeks on June 1, 2024. If you enjoy historical fiction, please contact your local bookstore or my publishers at  They will also all be available on