Only in Canada do we look forward to that third weekend in May when we are gifted with a long weekend. Why is that, you might wonder? Is it because after a harsh Canadian winter, we can look forward to summer which is just around the corner, knowing we can finally get outside to clean up winter’s aftermath making room for our transplants, or to open up the cottage? This might be true for most of us these days, but for some it’s an opportunity to celebrate the birth of Queen Victoria who had the distinction of being Britain’s longest reigning monarch… a title she can no longer proclaim since Elizabeth 11 took it over in 2015.
When Victoria died in 1901, our then government decided to make the third Monday in May a statutory holiday to commemorate her birth on May 24, 1819, causing many a raised eyebrow in Britain as well as our neighbour to the south that we should be setting aside this day to celebrate a Queen who was to all extent and purposes a temperamental and dour, old woman who always wore black. However, as we have found out, appearances can be deceiving.
Thanks to her talent and love for writing, we have discovered that Victoria was the exact opposite of that stern image implanted in our brains by our history books and our great grandparents. Present day historians claim that her daily dairies were enough to fill over 700 books beginning with her childhood until her death in 1901. Through them, we have learned that she was a passionate and strong woman who refused to bow to the strict social norms of her time. She not only had a firm grip on who she was as a person, but also on the country she ruled as well as the country she most loved…Germany.
After all, her beloved husband, Albert, was a German and strong personality in his own right who came into her life at the tender age of 19 when she was about to take over the daunting task of Queen. He fulfilled not only the role of her lover, but also provided a strong father figure for her. He was the pillar of strength she needed as she gave birth to their nine children while struggling to keep control of the world’s largest Empire.
Our interest in Victoria has increased over recent years as her descendants have gradually released some of what she wrote. We are learning that this woman had another side which went totally against the acceptable customs of her day especially when it came to her subsequent relationships with men after Albert’s early death. Yes, she suffered from depression which explained her long period of mourning. She never discarded the black dresses, but she refused to stop having fun and being herself when she met a man who understood her, such as her servant John Brown, a rough and ready Scot who adored her. The same was true for Disraeli one of her Prime Ministers.
Even in her final years after receiving the title of Empress of India, she refused to travel there insisting that India come to her. As a result, a young servant with a wife and mother-in-law arrived to carry out the task of teaching Victoria every thing there was to know about his country Thus, began another close relationship for this woman with an old body at 84 who still had a young heart.
Victoria’s personal life was certainly not a boring one. However, it was a source of concern for her family and many of those who worked with and under here as she fought to lead her Empire through the vagaries of the world at that time. As a head of state and ruler of the vast British Empire, we know she survived numerous attempts to assassinate her. We also know that she really came into her own after Albert’s death becoming extremely popular with her public towards the end of her reign. During her 63 years on the throne, Britain experienced tremendous growth in technology, industry and communication. Underground rail systems, bridges, and roads were built everywhere in attempts to unite the country. Judging by the crowds who came out to see her in her later years, it appears she had indeed matured and finally won her battle to take control without Albert’s influence.
Learning about Victoria as a person has made Victoria Day for me just a little more interesting. What started as a day to have a parade and some fireworks, morphing into a time to clean up the yard and plant some flowers to welcome summer has now brought us time to reflect on the personal journey of a woman with two very distinct sides to her personality during a time of change in matters of morality and economic growth throughout her vast Empire.
For my Victoria Day Weekend this year, I had the opportunity to do something different: I was asked to be a greeter for the guests who attended a Victorian Tea and Talk at the Lower Granville Hall. Under the capable leadership of Medea and Alan Holtz, new comers to the community of Port Royal, and some hard-working ladies with much experience in holding dinners and teas to raise funds for their hall, this successful tea did a great job of commemorating the Queen’s birthday. What better way to raise some much-needed money for our hall and the Annapolis Heritage Society who will be using our donation to help fix and paint the exteriors of two light houses: the one in Port Royal and the other in Victoria Beach.
Every effort was made to treat all those who attended this fundraiser an authentic Victorian Tea. Not only did the servers don Victorian dresses, headgear, and gloves, but had to walk carefully to avoid tripping on their long skirts. These little touches along with soft parlour music lent an atmosphere of calm and gentility much appreciated by the guests causing some to linger longer than planned.
The beautiful table settings, the tea served in silver pots, and the dainty sandwiches and sweets were the main attraction. However, the star of the show had to be the peaches! Why peaches? Well apparently Victoria, when introduced to them on a visit to Italy, fell madly in love with them and every year after that insisted that some be shipped to her in England. Unfortunately, peaches aren’t in season on Victoria Day in Nova Scotia. Instead of serving imports the gals made their own life-like peaches from a secret recipe using ordinary cookie dough.
To keep our guests amused a trivia quiz about Victoria’s life as well as the Royals today…especially since this was the day of Harry and Megan’s wedding…was on each table to provide fun and learning for all. What a great way to pull people together.
Our special guest speaker, Barry Moody, a noted local historian, gave an insightful talk on how tea became the favourite drink of the British, and the influence that had on the country’s social norms and economy. Did you know that the first tea was offered in 1658 at a London coffee-house? From there it became the beverage of choice at the Royal Court. It then quickly became an important social occasion giving birth to our famous ‘afternoon teas’. You may have heard of the term ‘high tea’ which was customarily tea served with a meal. With the advent of such social customs came opportunities for the East India Company to import more tea from China. It also provided opportunities for business minded entrepreneurs to start manufacturing such tea essentials as porcelain tea cups and saucers, teapots and even mustache mugs. Barry went on to say that artifacts related to tea drinking have shown up at Melanson’s Settlement, a Historical Site in Granville Beach. He admitted not much else is known about how the ritual of drinking tea influenced the Port Royal area, but noted that it was the French who have given us proof that it existed here in some form. I suspect it was also a popular past time with the Scottish and English Loyalists who settled here. In my own experience, my maternal grandmother was a big fan of ‘afternoon teas’. After my grandfather died, she moved from Halifax to a small farm in Seabright, where she hosted teas every Sunday afternoon for all her friends. Petit fours, shortbreads, Scottish scones made on a griddle, oatcakes with homemade jam were the lure making “Georgie’s” teas very popular.
Like most things today, our rituals and customs are being challenged by the changes occurring in our lifestyles. Tea drinking is losing some of its allure to the rise in our coffee culture. There are still those who prefer their tea because it has less caffeine or none at all if you consider sipping herbal teas possibly for medicinal purposes. Or, it might just be a matter of personal taste. Whatever the reason, our guests and those who organized this event were left with an experience that left us satisfied and wiser about the influence of tea on the British Empire and the Queen who reigned. I am happy to have been involved in this ‘tea’ event which was a hit with all those who attended. Without a doubt, this will become a yearly event on Victoria Day. The Port Royal gals are already looking ahead to next year and planning for it to be held on Monday instead of Saturday.