No one living can remember the reign of Queen Victoria, but she still casts a long shadow more than 109 years after her death. Everyone has heard of “Victorian morality,” and Victoria Day is our first holiday each summer.
During the latter portion of her reign, Victoria, through her example and influence, dominated Canadian society and its values. Not everyone admired her – many Scots and Irish migrants regarded her with contempt – but she inspired those Canadians who set the tone for the rest of society.
Veneration of Victoria reached its zenith in 1897, the 60th year of her reign. At that point, the British Empire was at its peak, encompassing a substantial portion of the world, and celebrations were held throughout the realm.
Canadians had already embraced Victoria Day, May 24. It would remain the major summer holiday until a rising nationalism would give primacy to Dominion Day in the 1920s. In 1897, though, the big public events did not come on May 24, but on June 21 and 22, the first days of the 60th year of her reign.
Like most jurisdictions, Wellington County saw a number of celebrations on June 22, which fell on a Tuesday in 1897. Factories closed for the day, as did most stores. Virtually all Protestant churches held special services the previous Sunday, with sermons praising Victoria and the example she set for her subjects.
In Wellington County, the largest June 22 celebration was the one at Mount Forest. The day began there at 9am, when every church bell and factory whistle in town sounded for a full five minutes. By then, a large crowd had already gathered at the market square, drawn from a wide area around the town. Estimates put the number around the 3,000 mark.
As the echoes of the whistles and bells died away, the Mount Forest Citizens Band offered a spirited rendering of God Save the Queen. That was followed by a salute put together by blacksmith H.R. Watson and his men that simulated a cannon barrage. Company 5 of the Wellington Rifles under the command of Captain Coyne, standing in formation, gave the Royal Salute.
At 10am, a parade began, marching from the Market Square and around the town, then back to the beginning point. The Citizens Band led the procession, followed by the Wellington Rifles, various officials and dignitaries, with boys and girls on bicycles drawing up the rear.
Back at the Market Square, the balance of that morning was devoted to long-winded speeches and patriotic messages. Mayor J.A. Halsted led off, extolling the Queen with purple oratory, and reading a message from Victoria herself to the Dominion, and the reply sent by the Governor General, Lord Aberdeen. A long list of ministers and civic officials from Egremont and Arthur Township followed. The afternoon began with a parade, this one featuring school children from the Mount Forest public and high schools, plus a number of rural schools, marching four abreast and all waving Union Jack flags. More than 1,000 students took part.
The parade ended at the lacrosse grounds, where the children sang several patriotic songs. Then the crowd was treated to a program of athletic games and races for the children. Especially popular were the bicycle races (the 1890s bicycle fad was then at its peak), and a tug-of-war. The afternoon ended with a five-inning baseball game between the high school and the town. There were no food concessions, but most of the out-of-town people broke out picnic baskets for their supper.
The evening program began with a concert by the Citizen’s Band. Some 1,700 people paid admission to the grounds that evening, and about 1,400 children were admitted free. Highlight of the evening was a fireworks display. The organizing committee wanted everyone to carry a Union Jack, but the supply ran out long before every hand was filled.
There were a few blips in the program. The day was to have ended with a large bonfire, but some boys set the pile on fire early in the evening, well before dark, thereby spoiling the dramatic effect intended for the pyre. In the afternoon, part of the grandstand collapsed, fortunately without serious injuries. And there was an injury: a box of fireworks somehow caught fire, and a rocket struck young Byron Walton, badly cutting and burning his hand.
The committee, headed by J.J. Cook and George Allen, reported that the gate receipts of $244 more than covered the expenses of the day.
Some people went to Mount Forest by train, but the organizing committee did not operate a chartered train. It is probable that the railways had required all their equipment for special excursions elsewhere.
Though the most elaborate program in Wellington County that day, the Mount Forest celebration was not the only one. In Fergus, for example, festivities began before 5am. A noisy parade at that early hour was not scheduled. It would be kind to state that it involved young men who could not contain their patriotism. In truth, the demonstration was by some revelers from the previous night who were on their way home. A purloined school bell and an off-key cornet led their procession.
Mercifully for late sleepers, the Fergus festivities did not begin until noon, when an old cannon was dragged out for a deafening salute to the monarch. By then, there were several hundred visitors in Fergus, including a large contingent from Elora. The afternoon featured a lacrosse game between pick-up teams representing Fergus and Elora, with partisans from both towns cheering on their boys. The evening began with a parade to Victoria Park, led by the Hillsburgh Band, followed by more than 600 school children from Fergus, Elora, and several rural schools.
In the park, Reeve G.C. Groves offered some patriotic remarks. The school children, under the direction of Mrs. J.J. Craig, sang a brief selection of patriotic songs, beginning with God Save the Queen. Then the crowd sat and stood through a series of speeches, most by local Protestant clergymen. As darkness fell, organizers lit a huge bonfire on top of the hill to the south, where the “old” Fergus High School stands today.
Complementing the bonfire was a display of fireworks, which ended the day in Fergus. The program there was more typical of the celebrations around the county than the big one in Mount Forest, but the themes were the same at them all.
Organizers everywhere wished to reinforce the notion that patriotism involved loyalty to the Queen and the defence of the British Empire, of which Canada was merely a part. Though the Empire included people of a bewildering range of ethnicities and religions, its natural leaders were white and Protestant, like themselves. This message needed to be ingrained into school children, who were featured in all the Jubilee programs that day.
Some people decorated their houses with evergreen boughs and bunting for the day, as did many storekeepers. There were surely some people who took issue with the jingoistic speeches and the military overtones of the celebrations, but their opinions went unrecorded. Most probably disregarded the messages they found offensive, and enjoyed the entertainment and socializing of the day.
Like most holidays, then and now, the day offered merchants a theme for advertising their wares. Ads the week before included phrases like “For a Jubilee Occasion” and “Jubilee Souvenirs.” Printing presses turned out photographic portraits of Queen Victoria by the thousands. A few of those survive to this day, and are often seen in antique stores, a tangible reminder of that big celebration 113 years ago.
As for Queen Victoria, her reign continued for another three-and-a-half years. She was the longest-reigning British monarch, and the longest-reigning queen anywhere.