Queen Victoria 200

Friday 24 May 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth. Her long reign (1837-1901) saw an expansion of worldwide trade, facilitated by innovations in ship construction. Brunel’s SS Great Western, for example, was launched only a few months into her reign in 1838, and paved the way for the transatlantic ocean liner that would dominate maritime traffic for over a century.

Queen Victoria herself and the great changes in shipping that took place during her lifetime are both well-documented. Perhaps less well known is Victoria’s intimate connection with ships, shipping and shipwrecks, despite the many Fleet Reviews of her reign that set a precedent for later monarchs.

Black and white photograph of a billiard table in a room decorated in late Victorian style, with three lampshades low over the table.
Billiard table at Windsor Castle, fashioned from timbers recovered in the early years of Victoria’s reign from the 1782 wreck of the Royal George, Spithead. Bedford Lemere and Company, 1893. Source: Historic England Archive

Victoria kept a lifelong journal recording her interest in ships from an early age, beginning with her teenage visits to resorts on the Kent and Sussex coasts. She took a lively interest in all the ships and sailors she saw and took great pains to learn their names and nationalities. Then as now, press interest in royalty, was intense, including a stay at St. Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex, in late 1834, which coincided with a spell of bad weather: ‘The weather has been very unfavourable, since the arrival of the Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria for out-door exercise . . . ‘ (1)

On 20 November, a coal brig homeward-bound to nearby Rye sprang a leak off St. Leonards. A rescue party in a boat was swamped and all on board drowned, a loss that was made all the more poignant because the crew of the original wreck had in fact saved themselves by abandoning ship. The royal visitors ‘most liberally subscribed . . . towards the relief of the several families who have been thrown into great distress . . .’ (2) Victoria’s entry for 5 January 1835 describes an encounter with one of the widows: ‘As we walked along by the towers we met Mrs. Weeks, one of the widows, with her little girl . . . She looks as pale as death . . .‘ (3)

One of the most famous wrecks of the entire Victorian era occurred very early in the Queen’s reign, primarily because its heroine was a young woman not much older than the Queen herself. Grace Darling (1815-1842) won international fame by accompanying her father in the perilous rescue of the survivors of the paddle steamer Forfarshire, wrecked in 1838 among the Farne Islands, Northumberland. In her journal for 28 September 1838 Victoria records hearing of the ‘gallant behaviour of a girl called Grace Darling’ from Lord Melbourne. On a rather boisterous voyage to Scotland in 1842 aboard the Royal Yacht, Victoria was nevertheless eager to discern ‘ . . . Farne Island, with Grace Darling’s Light House on it, & curious rocky islands . . . ‘ (5)

The 19th century saw enormous gains in the matter of ship safety. From 1850 the Admiralty was responsible for compiling records of shipping losses, a duty which devolved to the Board of Trade through the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854. For the first time, registers and summary abstracts (Board of Trade Casualty Returns) provided a centralised record from which to distil a statistical overview of shipwrecks and identification of common trends in shipping casualties. Hazards which caused regular or frequent losses could be identified and mitigating measures adopted (such as building new lighthouses where needed). The Returns were very successful and were copied elsewhere, for example in Denmark, and have become one of our key sources for wrecks of the Victorian era.

Similarly, a further Merchant Shipping Act of 1876 enforced the compulsory marking of a load line on British ships to do away with the overloaded ‘coffin ships’ that all too often foundered with all hands or were sent to sea unseaworthy. The load line, which is still used in a much refined form today on modern shipping, is popularly known as the ‘Plimsoll line’ after the MP Samuel Plimsoll, who had campaigned for many years to achieve its adoption.

Not all the legislation in the world could avoid ‘stress of weather’, natural hazards, or tragic accidents. The sheer volume of naval, commercial and leisure traffic in the Victorian period ensured that collisions were a frequent occurrence in crowded waterways, in the Thames, Humber, and English Channel in particular.

On 18 August 1875 the Queen herself was involved in a wreck event when the Royal Yacht Alberta was involved in a collision in the Solent with the sailing yacht Mistletoe. Victoria’s journal gives a vivid impression of the event: ‘When we [n]eared Stokes Bay, Beatrice said, very calmly “Mama, there is a yacht coming against us,” & I saw the tall masts & large sails of a schooner looming over us. In an instant came an awful, most terrifying crash . . . ‘ (6) Victoria was then ‘horrified to find not a single vestige of the yacht, merely a few spars & deck chairs floating about . . . ‘ Some of those on board the Mistletoe had saved themselves, as was common in such incidents, by jumping aboard the colliding vessel. Three lives were lost, including Thomas Stokes, master of the Mistletoe, who was picked up alive and brought onto the Queen’s yacht, but soon afterwards died of his injuries.

The subsequent inquiries were, of course, much reported in the press, and generated much adverse comment on the conduct of the respective crews. Had the Mistletoe approached too close in order for her passengers to catch a glimpse of the royal party? Why had the Alberta not been able to avoid the Mistletoe?

Less than three years later another shipwreck occurred off the Isle of Wight, which again generated huge publicity. This time it was the wreck of the sail training ship Eurydice, homeward-bound from the West Indies, which capsized in a snowy squall off Dunnose Point on 24 March 1878 with the loss of some 300 lives, mostly young men. The priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) would paint a vivid word-picture in his poem The Loss of the Eurydice of the ordeal of one of the two survivors, Sydney Fletcher of Bristol:

Now her afterdraught gullies him too down,

Now he wrings for breath with the deathgush brown,

Till a lifebelt and God’s will

Lend him a lift from the sea-swill.

The Queen heard of the wreck at Windsor Castle: ‘Too awful! . . . Too fearful! Could think of little else.’ (7) Over the course of that year the Queen and other members of the royal family, in common with much of the country, would discuss the sad fate of the Eurydice on many occasions. She was presented with a copy of The Last Four Days of the Eurydice¬†by Captain E H Verney (1878). (8)

Spending much of their time at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, or at that year’s Fleet Review at Gosport, the royal family regularly encountered the grim sight of the wreck: ‘As we steamed across, we saw the poor Eurydice, lying close off what is called “No man’s land”, just as we had seen her the day of the Review, in fearful contrast to the beautiful Fleet.’ (9)¬†

This blog can only scratch the surface of the Queen’s intimate connection with the sea, one she shared with her people, including direct involvement in a form of shipping tragedy which, statistically, became more common over her reign as more people acquired the leisure for pleasure cruising. She became Queen at a time when many individuals and organisations worked tirelessly to improve both navigational safety and the lot of the ordinary sailor, and it was during her reign that the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, founded in 1824, took the name by which we know it today, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Wrecks were interwoven into her life just as much as they were into the lives of Victorians, many of whom would have gone to sea in the navy, merchant marine, or in the fishing industry, or taken advantage of the new opportunities for passenger travel aboard the steam-powered liner. Others still were moved by what they saw for themselves, or read in the newspapers: the Queen shared all these experiences in common with everyone else.

Oil painting of wrecked ship laid up against white cliffs, with boats surrounding her on a slightly swelling sea, a cloudy sky above.
Henry Robins, The Wreck of the Eurydice, signed and dated 1878. RCIN 406265. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

(1) Hampshire Adviser and Salisbury Guardian, 29 November 1834, No.593

(2) ibid.

(3) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 6, (5 November 1834 – 24 May 1835)

(4) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 7 (11 August – 6 October 1838)

(5) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 14 (1 July – 31 December 1842)

(6) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 64 (1 January 1875 – 29 February 1876)

(7) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 68 (1 January – 24 June 1878)

(8) “The Last Four Days of the Eurydice, National Maritime Museum blog, 09 May 2017

(9) Queen Victoria’s Journals, Vol. 69 (25 June – 31 December 1878)