Queen Victoria, Canada’s First Queen

by Douglas Phillips

On June 20th, 1837, a young princess was awakened and ushered into her sitting room. Alone, and only wearing her nightclothes and robe, she met two members of the British Privy Council.  They had come to give her the news that her uncle, King William IV, had died a few hours earlier. Addressing her as “Your Majesty,” they knelt before her and kissed her hand.   In her diary, she later wrote, “I am Queen.”

The Victorian era was born with an eighteen-year-old queen on the throne.  For all of her life she had been known as Alexandrina, but from then on she would be known as Victoria.

Portrait of Queen Victoria in Coronation Robes By Sir George Hayter (1792-1871) British Royal Collection, H.M. Queen Elizabeth II

This historical moment has been captured in the new lavish British production drama “Victoria” now showing on Vision TV starring Jenna Coleman as the young Victoria.  This eight-part series details her early life, her relationship with then Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg- Gotha, and the birth of their first child, Princess Victoria in 1840.

Her widowed mother, the Duchess of Kent along with Sir John Conroy, influenced her childhood in what became called the “Kensington System,” to keep her under strict control and away from her philandering relatives.  Conroy wanted to become Victoria’s Regent, but once she became queen, Conroy was dismissed from court and was never allowed to return.

When Victoria ascended the throne the country rejoiced, church bells rang out, and a new modern age swept in.  Goodbye to the old reign of the Hanoverians and their philandering ways. Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent, and his brothers, known as the “wicked Royals” had enjoyed lavish lifestyles, all mired in debt and royal scandals and many illegitimate children. If opinion polls were taken back in 1837, the headlines would read the “Monarchy’s approval ratings at an all-time low.”

Photo of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, with all of their nine children c.1857 at Osborne House By Caldesi and Monteechi British Royal Collection, H.M. Queen Elizabeth II

Victoria would go on to become the “Peoples’ Queen” and restore the monarchy’s popularity. She set Britain on the path of industrial prosperity and responsible government at home and in its expanding worldwide empire.  There were advances in science and technology, political, legal and social reforms.  Gas lamps, steam locomotives, iron ships, modern nursing, and photography were invented, and the world was changing very quickly.

Canada would also see rapid changes over the following thirty years on the road to becoming a self-governing Dominion. It was not an easy journey with many political twists and turns.

When Victoria became queen our land was a group of colonies, each governed by the Constitutional Act of 1791, ministered by lieutenant governors who appointed executive councils and provincial parliaments. These appointments were elected by a small number of voters.  However, all was not well and in 1837 the Mackenzie uprising in Toronto and Lower Canada rebellions around Montreal, lead to Lord Durham’s visit in 1839.  His report on the “Affairs of British North America” resulted in Lord Melbourne’s government passing the Act of Union in 1840 which joined Canada West and Canada East into the Province of Canada under a single Parliament. Then in 1867, under the Confederation of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Queen Victoria signed the British North American Act’s declaring July 1st Dominion Day, now Canada Day and thus Victoria became Canada’s first queen.

Victoria’s Legacy and Ties to Canada

Victoria never visited Canada, but her legacy and name live on today with a national holiday, place names, statues, wedding and social trends.

We celebrate Queen Victoria every May on the last Monday before May 25th, which was established in 1845 in honor of her birthday on May 24th.  Following her death in 1901 legislation was passed to name May 24th officially as Victoria Day.  In 1857 Victoria was asked to name the capital of The Province of Canada and she chose Ottawa with the help of Sir John A. MacDonald, our first Prime Minster, and again in 1867 as the new Dominion National Capital.

Afternoon tea celebrating Queen Victoria’s Birthday with Empire cakes. Place settings “Victorian Garden” by Royal Doulton

Street Names and Statues

No matter where you live in Canada today, there is a street is named Victoria.  At last count, there were over five hundred, and three hundred streets named Albert, after her husband. In Ontario, there is Victoria County, Victoria Hall in Cobourg, University of Toronto’s Victoria College, as well as parks, harbors, lakes, and even cars; the 1932 Ford Victoria and later the 1992 Crown Victoria. There are nine prominent statues of Victoria to remind us of our recent history, erected between 1871 and 1914 to commemorate her sixty-four-year reign.  These effigies are located across the country on Parliament Hill, the grounds of Queens Park and outside the legislative buildings in Manitoba and Victoria B.C.  The bronze statue situated outside McGill University’s Royal Victoria College in Montreal was sculpted and donated by Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria.

White Wedding Gowns

Chances are you may be invited to a wedding this spring, and the bride will be fashionably dressed in a  white wedding gown. Queen Victoria set the trend in 1840 when she married Prince Albert, going against royal protocol of wearing gold or silver.  The trend did not catch on until later in the 19th century, the working class still married in their Sunday best.

The Wedding Register c1900 City of Bristol Museum

The Afternoon Tea Tradition

Victorians dined in the evening and to fill the long gap between lunch and dinner, afternoon refreshments of tea, sandwiches, and cakes were served.   The originator of this was Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford. She was a lifelong friend of the Queen and Court Lady in the mid-1840s.  Afternoon tea became very popular, and many of us still enjoy the Victorian tradition of an afternoon tea at home or as part of a day trip to the country where high tea is still served at many tea shops.  To experience an authentic Victorian high tea, visit the Prince of Wales Hotel in the historical town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Tea is served daily in a traditional setting.  The Hotel was established in 1864 and named in honor of the 1901 visit of the Duke and Duchess of York, grandson of Queen Victoria, and later King George V.

Afternoon tea celebrating Queen Victoria’s Birthday with Empire cakes. Place settings “Victorian Garden” by Royal Doulton

Queen Victoria Collectibles

Today Victoriana is very collectible but getting harder to find. China and pressed glass commemorating her 1838 coronation and 1840 marriage are available at reasonable prices. Many dealers offer 19th-century postage stamps and coins bearing Victoria’s image issued before and after Confederation.

Victoria’s Children’s Connections to Canada

Victoria and Albert had nine children, and although she and Albert did not step on the shores of Canada, four of her children did.  They were the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII; Prince Leopold; Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, who resided in Canada from 1878 to 1883, wife of the Marquis of Lorne, the 4th Governor General of Canada; and Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, 10th Governor of Canada 1911-1916.

Clementina Trenholme Fessenden (1843-1918) born in Quebec, was an author and social organizer.  Always trying to strengthen links to the British Empire, she identified herself with Queen Victoria and worn mourning black like the widowed Queen after her husband died.  Clementina was responsible for introducing Empire Day on May 24th (Queen Victoria’s Birthday) in Canadian schools beginning in 1898.  The celebratory day was instituted in England by Lord Meath in 1904.  Empire Day in Canadian schools occupied the whole day with speeches and songs such as The Maple Leaf and Just Before the Battle.   She died in 1918, and in 1929 a monument was placed on her grave in the churchyard of St John’s Anglican Cemetery, Ancaster, Ontario which reads “Clementina Fessenden, Founder of Empire Day.”

Empire Day is now Commonwealth Day and is celebrated on the 2nd Monday in March with a service held at Westminster Abbey attended by H.M. Queen Elizabeth II. Canada observes the day by flying the Royal Union Flag alongside the Maple Leaf Flag on Government buildings.

Portrait of Princess Victoria and “Dash” her King Charles spaniel c.1833 By Sir George Hayter (1792-1871) British Royal Collection, H.M. Queen Elizabeth II