The Queen looking very much askance at a fly buzzing by her head. The fly is Paul Kruger, complete with top hat. The Queen did not live to see her armies beat Kruger. The Anglo-Boer war ended on 31 May 1902, 15 months after the Queen’s death. French Postcard by Philippe Norwins around 1900. Author’s Collection.
Asa Lord Briggs, President of the Victorian Society
22 January 2001 – Launch of Michael Nelson’s book: Queen Victoria and the Discovery of the Riviera by Robert Elphick.
Lord Briggs introduced the book as President of the Victorian Society. He observed that he had come down by train from Scotland that very day and it was interesting to see that mile per mile per hour, he traveled just a little more quickly than Queen Victoria did to France a century ago.
The centenary had aroused great interest in the Monarch whom the diarist, Greville, described as the greatest mind and character of the nineteenth century. He would not go as far as that but it was true that the Queen was a fascinating subject. The BBC were putting out many programmes of commemoration. In general, there were many books concentrating on the early part of her reign when Prince Albert was alive. Other books concentrated on the time after Albert’s death. Michael Nelson’s book looks at the third part of her reign and provides details fascinating for Victorian historians.
“Describing her connection with the Riviera, this paradise of nature as she described it, is a wonderful way of bringing her into a French setting,” Lord Briggs said.
Among the personalities that Queen Victoria was involved with in the south of France was Lord Salisbury, her Prime Minister on occasions. He had the habit of making uncomfortable remarks like: “The Riviera is a difficult place: too many flies in summer, too many Royals in winter.”
Apart from talking high politics on the Riviera, the Queen took part in the battles of flowers at Nice and Grasse. While her soldiers were fighting wars, the Queen and her party were also active throwing flowers at other soldiers.
“We’d all have liked to be there with her in that Paradise indeed,” Lord Briggs declared.
The Times of London published this story by the author on 21 January 2001:
SATURDAY JANUARY 20 2001
The Queen is dead: where’s our reporter?
For once, The Times was not on the spot at a great news event. Michael Nelson recalls an embarrassing newspaper memory
IT IS a story to bring any news reporter out in a cold sweat. There was the foremost descriptive writer of the world’s most august newspaper, sent by his venerable Editor to cover the imminent death of the great Queen Empress at her beloved home at Osborne.
Hotels and boarding houses all over the Isle of Wight were crammed with competitors from newspapers across the world. The Post Office had moved its new-fangled telegraphic equipment into East Cowes, together with 40 emergency staff standing by round the clock.
Then came the terrible moment for which they had all been waiting; the chief of the Queen’s police strode portentously down the steps of Osborne bearing a piece of paper. The press pack stood ready for his announcement, pencils and notebooks in trembling hands, ready to speed the news to the farthest corners of empire.
And James Vincent, special correspondent of The Times, was . . . nowhere to be seen.
The story of the hapless Vincent and his unexplained absence as the greatest story of his life was breaking 100 years ago is told in a new book on Queen Victoria which throws an intriguing light on her relationship with the royal ratpack and which has contemporary resonances in the hysterical coverage of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the relentless pursuit of her two sons.
In Vincent’s defence, it has to be admitted that covering the story was a nightmare.
The first announcement that the Queen was ill came on the night of Friday, January 18. Early the next morning journalists from London caught the train to Portsmouth and then the ferry to the Isle of Wight.
Estimates of the number of reporters, artists and photographers on the story ranged from 50 to 100, including Frenchmen, Germans and Americans. But there was only one small hotel near to Osborne House and little accommodation in nearby East Cowes. West Cowes is separated from East Cowes by the estuary of the River Medina and could be reached only by a floating bridge which took about ten minutes to cross. One clique of London journalists bought up all the food in East Cowes so that their competitors had to absent themselves for long periods in travelling to West Cowes to eat.
The journalists crowded round the gatehouse at Osborne for four days. There were two lamps on the gatehouse but the road to East Cowes was pitch dark from early evening. It was very cold and windy.
The only source of news, other than official announcements, was interviewing staff as they went in and out through the gates. Thus the Daily Mail got this nice little scoop: “It was early in the morning yesterday that she awoke and asked to have her little Pomeranian dog brought to her. Her Majesty fondled the pet for a moment or two.”
The final bulletin of Victoria’s reign was issued over the signature of the Minister in Residence at Osborne House, Arthur Balfour, at 6.40pm, ten minutes after the death.When the announcement of the death to the journalists came at 7.08pm, the reporters leapt on their bicycles and into their carriages and careered the mile or so down the hill in the dark to the Post Office. First to arrive was a reporter from the Portsmouth Evening News on a bicycle. The reason for the rush was that newspapers were bringing out special editions at every news break.
The Reuters correspondent, Arnold Gawthrop, established a relay of helpers along the road from his own base at Osborne to pass secret signals indicating the death to an assistant at the telegraph office.
In London, at 7.03pm, the Lord Mayor read to the large crowd, including journalists, assembled outside Mansion House the following telegram: Osborne Tuesday 6.45pm.
The Prince of Wales to the Lord Mayor My beloved mother, the Queen, has just passed away, surrounded by her children and grandchildren.
Reuters transmitted the news to the world at 7.15pm, which was a bit slow, given the fact that the reporter had to run just a couple of hundred yards round the corner to the Reuters’ offices in Old Jewry to file it.
Criticism of the way the press covered the story anticipated the complaints about reporting of royalty nearly a century later. Paparazzi — though they weren’t called that at the time — came under fire for the first time. A photographer snapped his camera in the visiting Kaiser’s face and he and his colleagues were banned from Trinity Pier when the King arrived.
“No secret was made by certain press representatives that, when facts were not forthcoming, invention would take their place,” wrote The St James’s Gazette. The curiously named fortnightly magazine The Journalist and Newspaper Proprietor complained: “Gentlemen of the press in the vicinity of Osborne have, it must be admitted, in some cases put the press before their gentility.”
The morning after the death the newspapers gave copious coverage, with black rules down every column. Nevertheless, the reader of The Times had to wade through the paper to Page 11 before reaching the story of the death.
The tone of the coverage was very different from what it would have been 30 years earlier, when the Queen had been subject to rumour-mongering scurrilous even by today’s standards.
Then there had been severe criticism of her withdrawal from public life after the death in 1861 of Albert, the Prince Consort. In 1866, Reynold’s Newspaper repeated the assertion of the Gazette de Lausanne that the Queen was carrying the child of John Brown, her Highland manservant. She was thought to be acquiring vast personal wealth and in 1871 a pamphlet What Does She Do With It? had wide circulation.
But, largely under the influence of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, later in her life she appeared in public much more often and became more popular.
Her change of mood was shown in her frequent visits to the Riviera, where she displayed a new, girlish side to her character, even throwing flowers at the young Army officers in the Festival of the Flowers. “If only I were at Nice I should get better,” she said as she was dying.
The fulsome newspaper tributes after her death showed how she had shaken off the unpopularity of earlier years: “Her triumphs have been won by sheer force of character,” The Times. “All is altered round which our hearts have twined,” The Daily Telegraph. “There is none today but will feel himself the poorer by her death,” the Daily Mail. “By her subjects of today her memory will be cherished more nearly as that of a gentle lady who loved them,” the Daily Express. “The ordinary phraseology of courtly panegyric, so often lavished on the worthless or the commonplace, seems too deeply tainted by that abuse to be worthily applied to the wise, kind and brave lady who is now dead,” The Manchester Guardian.
So what happened to Vincent after he failed to witness the announcement of the most important royal story of the 20th century? This was his excuse, published in The Times on January 24, 1901: I cannot close this brief narrative without a description of a very painful scene witnessed last night, which is described only out of a sense of duty, and in obedience to an instinct of journalistic self-preservation. It happened that I was not at the gates of the lodge last evening when the news of the Queen’s death was announced by Mr Fraser (chief of the Queen’s police) nor was there any object in being there; since the news was certain to be received in London; in fact it was received some minutes before it could be received at the gate.
Vincent was at least right about the news being transmitted directly from Osborne to London, but he still couldn’t explain why he was not there. His absence is the more remarkable, given that at four o’clock in the afternoon, two and a half hours before the demise, the announcement was made that the Queen was slowly sinking.
As he himself put it: “All day long the Angel of Death has been hovering over Osborne House. One could almost hear the beating of his wings, but at half past 6 those wings were folded and the Queen was at rest.”
He described where he was when the story broke: “A few moments after the news had been made known at the gate I was driving up York Avenue to Osborne in obedience to the summons and in ignorance of the calamity which had befallen the nation, when I was apprised of it in a very shocking and unprecedented way. Loud shouts were heard in the distance, then came a crowd of carriages at the gallop, of bicycles careering down the hill at breakneck speed, of runners bawling ‘Queen dead’ at the top of their voices.
“It has to be confessed with shame that they were emitted by persons connected with the press, although not, of course, with any London paper of long standing.”
There is no record of any reproof from his bosses. Indeed, a couple of months later The Times sent him to accompany the Duke of Cornwall, later to be King George V, on a tour to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada.
But the newspaper was clearly getting fed up with him. Charles Moberly Bell, the manager, exploded when he received his expenses claim of £170 (£9,000 at today’s values) for clothes for the trip, including 102 shirts. “I presume you do not suggest that you will have worn out this number in the 210 days of your trip,” Bell berated him. Vincent received several cables criticising his coverage and eventually he was put out to grass as a part-time motoring correspondent.
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