Victoria Day: The 24th of May (and Every Day) in Newfoundland

The sun didn't set on her empire but Queen Victoria didn't make use of all that daylight to see her world. In fact, she didn't leave Europe.  You'd never guess that here in Newfoundland.   Like good, loyal subjects we didn't let the fact that she'd never been near the place dampen our enthusiasm for her.  Like lots of places, we put her face on coins and stamps. We borrowed her name for communities and parks across the island. Even one of our most iconic landmarks was built in her honour... all of that's nothing compared to how we celebrate her birthday.

May 24th, Queen Victoria's birthday, is still one of the most anticipated long-weekends of the year in Newfoundland.  Not that many of us spend a lot of time thinking of Victoria -- we're mostly checking the weather forecast and ensuring we have enough propane to heat the trailer.  It's become, a sort of unofficial first weekend of summer and a sizeable piece of the Newfoundland populace takes advantage of the Victoria Day holiday to hitch-up a camper and head out to the woods for a weekend of camping.  

Queen Victoria & Victoria Day

Queen Victoria was born on May 24, 1819 and ascended to the British throne in 1837 at the age of 18.  Despite being the subject of 8 assassination attempts, Victoria became the longest reigning monarch until Queen Elizabeth II, Victoria's great-great granddaughter, surpassed her in 2015.

Victoria reigned over a period of great technological and cultural advancement, and her lifestyle set trends we still follow today.  Victoria is credited with sparking the adoption of the white wedding dress and images of her family around the Christmas tree helped spread the custom.

Victoria & Albert beside a Christmas Tree.

In Canada we continue celebrate Victoria Day on May 24th but, technically it’s not Victoria's birthday we are celebrating.  May 24th is the day we honour the birth of our monarch… so if you’re inclined to sing Happy birthday on the 24th it should be ‘dear Elizabeth’ not Victoria.

Through a weird quirk of fate, our current May 24th camping tradition is not the first time camps and Queen Victoria have collided in our history.  The last time it happened was altogether less fun, however.

The quiet community of Victoria, near Carbonear, was once the site of a German POW camp.  The community, originally called Victoria Village in honour of the queen, was selected to serve as the site of a British internment camp to house war prisoners.  As the war progressed in Europe and more German prisoners were detained, keeping them in Britain began to cause some concern. They worried all the captured people might prove a security risk to the country.  To calm their fears, a plan was implemented to move these prisoners of war away from England and into other parts of the commonwealth.  Newfoundland, as loyal and cash-strapped, member readily agreed to the construction of a camp.   $200 000 was pumped into the local economy to build the impressive site.  When it was finished, in November 1940, it had 20 prison bunk houses, a hospital, kitchens and more.  For all that money and effort, the site never saw any prisoners -- for several reasons.  First, the Canadian and American governments were weary of bringing prisoners (and the response that might draw) to North America.  Second, there were water and sewer deficiencies in the site, leading to health and safety concerns.  No one wanted the site for prisoners, or anything else. In 1943, three years after its construction it was demolished and the Victoria Camp was no more.

Okay clearly that's a tangential Newfoundland/Queen Victoria connection but I've got a better one. 

Cabot Tower -- one of the island's most iconic structures -- was built to honour Queen Victoria.  The tower, which sits upon Signal Hill in St. John's, was built to jointly commemorate Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee and the 400th anniversary of John Cabot's arrival in Newfoundland. At the time, there was not a lot of love for the project.  St. John's had been decimated by the Great Fire of 1892 and the banks collapsed in 1894.  Set against that backdrop, the building of an expensive tower high above the city seemed like a questionable use of funds. Construction of the tower began in 1898 and it was completed in 1900. 

Fog rolling over Cabot Tower and Signal Hill, St. John's, NL

In 1901, near the tower, Marconi received the first trans-atlantic wireless message and in 1920 a wireless station in the tower received one of the first transatlantic voice messages ever. It was from the steamship leaving England sailing toward NL.  At about 1200 miles from the island voices were successfully transmitted to Cabot Tower.  The name of the ship sending the message happened to be the SS Victorian.

This wasn’t the only time Queen Victoria and Newfoundland rubbed shoulders in the history of transatlantic telecommunication.  Queen Victoria’s words were some of the first transmitted through the brand new transatlantic cable laid between Ireland and Trinity Bay, Newfoundland in 1858.  The cable was the first of its kind and laying it was an audacious task that many doubted was even possible.

Once the cable was laid, there was much celebration and Queen Victoria sent a message to, the US President James Buchanan.  Reportedly, it took 16 hours to send Queen Victoria’s 98-word greeting.  Today that seems ludicrously slow, but at the time it represented a tremendous leap forward. Prior to the cable it had taken up to two weeks to send a letter between North America and Europe, the new cable meant much easier communication.

Robert Charles Dudley's Telegraph Watercolours

Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, Exterior of the Telegraph House in 1857-58

The process of laying the transatlantic cable was documented in watercolour by painter Robert Charles Dudley.  The images appeared in Willam H. Russell's 1866 book "The Atlantic Telegraph" that documented the long, challenging process. 
The paintings are now in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sadly the 1858 cable did not prove as successful as hoped. In fact, it died after just three weeks of use.  It wasn’t until 1866, when a new cable was landed in Heart’s Content, NL that successful transatlantic telegraph messages were possible, ushering in a bright new future of worldwide communication.  Victoria, once again, sent congratulations.

Speaking of bright, Victoria Park in St. John's has had a custom of lighting-up in an annual Lantern Festival.  The day long event held in July culminated in a creative (and beautiful) glowing installation of community-made lanterns.  Victoria Park is, of course, named for Queen Victoria.  The park occupies the site of the former Riverhead Hospital -- Newfoundland's first civilian hospital.  The hospital was demolished in 1888 and work began on the park in 1889.  It held its grand opening in June, 1896.  Victoria Park offers a self-guided journey through the park's history with the Story Walk app.  It's free and you can download it through the park's website.  

I'm not sure of the current status of the Lantern Festival.  Their website and social postings weren't updated at the time of writing...

So many great events (around the world) have been de-railed in the last 18 months.  And, for the sake of public safety, I certainly understand.  Nevertheless as Victoria might have said, "We are not amused."

Not in the least.

Brighter days, and hopefully lantern lit night festivals, are coming soon.   


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