The other diamond jubilee

Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee procession, 22 June 1897, probably filmed by Prestwich at Parliament Square. The Queen’s carriage comes at the end of the sequence (look out for the crowds waving as the carriage approaches).

The tumult and the shouting have died, the captains and the kings have departed. The pomp, populism and absurdity of the diamond jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II have ended, and the critical eye of history can now take over.

The paraphrase of Rudyard Kiping’s ‘Recessional‘ in that opening sentence is appropriate, because Kipling wrote his famous lines about the uncertainties that lay behind the triumphalism of empire following the diamond jubilee procession of Queen Victoria, an event much discussed of late for its obvious parallels with 2012′s celebrations. The parallels are not just in the ceremonies to mark sixty years of a monarch’s reign, but in the calculated pageantry designed to overawe and to enthral the eye. In 2012 we had a rain-soaked flotilla, a pop concert and a religious service, with much controversy over the tone adopted by some of the television coverage. In 1897 there was a procession through London, witnessed by vast crowds, and recorded by a new industry eager to prove itself by documenting the greatest event in its short history – motion pictures.

The theme of the 1897 diamond jubilee was Empire. It was conceived of (by Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain) as a celebration of Empire, designed to impress upon the British people the nature of its colonial achievement, with the queen processing through London as the central piee of imperial showmanship. £300,000 (£30M in today’s money) was spent on decorating London, vast stands were put up along the route and an estimated three million visitors swelled London’s population for the day itself, 22 June 1897.

The procession was chiefly composed of 50,000 troops escorting assorted dignitaries, colonial premiers, and the British royal family, in carriages and landaus, culminating in the aged Queen Victoria herself. It started at Buckingham Palace, went up Constitution Hill, along Piccadilly, down St James Street, along Pall Mall, past the National Gallery, down The Strand and Fleet Street to Ludgate Circus, then to St Paul’s where official ceremonies were held outside the cathedral because the queen was too frail to climb the steps, into the City, across London Bridge, along The Borough, back across the river over Westminster Bridge, past Parliament Square and Horseguards Parade, then down The Mall and back to Buckingham Palace once more. The six mile journey was to take three hours.

Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee was a media event. It was documented by newspapers, photographers, cartoonists, painters, diarists and cinematographers along every inch of the procession. All along the way there were motion picture cameras. It is not certain how many firms or camera operators were there, but it seems likely that there were up to forty operators present representing up to twenty firms – mostly British, but at least two French and one Swiss concern also being represented.

The diamond jubilee procession with known motion picture camera positions marked. Other film companies were represented but their positions are not known or not certain.

The map above is taken from The Times of 21 June 1897, to which I have added colour markers to show where the cameras were positioned that we know about. The principal films were taken by Robert Paul (who had two operators, including himself) based outside St Paul’s and one at Westminster Bridge, Gaumont (led by its British representative John Le Couteur) with operators at Hyde Park and on the steps of St Paul’s itself, Joly-Normandin (‘Professor Jolly’) in St James’ Street, Biograph based at Horse Guards Parade, Velograph at Charing Cross, Prestwich at Parliament Square, Chard at four or five locations, and R.J. Appleton and Lumière (working with Fuerst Bros.) located in the Borough capturing the procession passing through South London.

Other firms known to have been there but whose location is unclear (or may not have produced successful films) were (according to the film historian John Barnes) W.& D. Downey, Haydon & Urry, the London Stereoscopic Company, the Ludgate Kinematograph Film Company, Northern Photographic Works (Birt Acres) J.W. Rowe, Dr J.H. Smith (from Switzerland), W. Watson and Wrench – though in some cases these firms may have merely advertised films that were taken by others.

The series of views taken by British Cinematographe, representing the French form of Joly-Normandin (which exhibited in the UK at ‘Professor Jolly’). The camera was positioned at the corner of Piccadilly and St James’ Street. The film shows an Indian contingent, Horse Guards, assorted carriages (the Queen is not seen in the surviving film), a gun carriage, a mounted band and Indian dignitary Sir Pratab Singh.

A number of these films survive. Each film was a single short record of around a minute’s duration, recording just one part of the procession from one angle, but each operator took several scenes from the one position, enabling each film company to then advertise a series of views that documented the highlights of the procession to the hundreds of thousands of people who missed it (or who wanted to see it all again) and were able to do so in variety theatres and halls up and down the country, as the motion picture camera made the pageantry of the moment reproducible, exportable and permanent. As theatre jounral The Era reported:

Those loyal subjects of her Majesty who did not witness the glorious pageant of the Queen’s progress through the streets of London to the thanksgiving service at St Paul’s on June 22nd, should not miss the opportunity of seeing the wonderful series of pictures at the Empire, giving a complete representation of the Jubilee procession. We owe much to the recent development of scientific photography; and by the invention of the cinématographe a means has been discovered for the preservation of what is to all intents and purposes living representations of memorable events. Our descendants will be able to learn how the completion of the sixtieth year of Queen Victoria’s reign was celebrated in the capital of the country.

Below are the surviving films from 22 June 1897, as held by the BFI National Archive (with links to the videos where these are available on YouTube courtesy of the Royal Channel):

I’ve had a lot to do with these films, ever since I put together a show that marked the centenary of the 1897 diamond jubilee procession back in June 1997. The show, helpfully entitled Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, recreates the event by having a narrator (yours truly) take the audience around the route taken by the procession, showing the surviving films in their correct sequences and filling out the story with eye-witness accounts from people such as Mark Twain, Molly Hughes, G.W. Steevens, Kier Hardy, Edward Burne-Jones and Victoria herself, read by two actors.

The show has been put on several times since then, and it will have its final outing on 21 June 2012 at the Bedford Park Festival, Chiswick, on 21 June 2012, with actors Neil Brand and Liz Fost. For anyone interested, I’ve made the script of the show – with frame stills from the films featured – available in PDF format on my personal website. Combine this with the YouTube videos above, and you can recreate your very own Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and see all the pomp of yesterday now one with Nineveh and Tyre …

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