This week we look back 120 years to a notable event in Wellington’s history – the last visit of Queen Victoria, in May 1900.
Almost fifty years previously, Victoria and her husband Prince Albert had been very influential in the foundation of Wellington College. Albert in particular had taken a strong personal interest, helping to select the first Master, starting the College Library, and riding over on many occasions to see the building’s progress. Accompanied by Albert, the Queen had laid the College’s foundation stone in 1856 and officially opened it in 1859. When Albert died in 1861, however, she entered a prolonged period of mourning and carried out very few public engagements for the next twenty years. The College was lucky enough to receive a low-key visit from her in 1864, but after that, although she continued as Royal Visitor and sent her grandson, Prince Christian Victor, to College in 1881, the Queen did not visit until 1900.
Her visit may have been prompted by the fact that in the Summer term of 1900 another of her grandsons, Prince Alexander of Battenburg, joined the College. The day of her visit, a “gloriously fine” Saturday 19th May, turned out to be remarkable for another event too, as that morning news reached the College of the relief of Mafeking, a town in South Africa where British forces had been besieged by the Boers for over six months. The siege had been widely reported in the press, and news of the relief prompted celebrations throughout Britain. Wellington students, therefore, spent the morning “celebrating the joyful tidings with the utmost enthusiasm.”
In the late afternoon, Her Majesty arrived by carriage from Windsor. She was eagerly anticipated – the Reading Mercury reported that “the beautiful grounds, for which Wellington is distinguished above all other schools, were invaded by thousands of people from Reading, Wokingham, Guildford and the surrounding country… But space at Wellington is so abundant that really the influx of people was hardly felt, and the conduct of the crowd was admirable.”
Over a hundred members of the College’s Rifle Corps formed a guard of honour for the Queen, who arrived at what is now the Mordaunt Gate on Sandhurst Road at about five o’clock. “All the way up from the gate… on either side of the road, above which hung festoons of flags suspended from tree to tree, the people stood in lines many deep.” Her Majesty’s carriage drove along the kilometre, up past the Master’s Lodge, and to the Chapel archway.
The Queen was almost 81 years old, and rheumatism had made her lame; therefore, on descending from her carriage, she got into a “wheeled chair” pushed by her Indian attendant (not Abdul Karim, who was in India at the time, but another). She first visited the Chapel, where the South or Benson Aisle had been completed only the year before, and admired the small table there made from the supports of the foundation stone which she had laid in 1856. Then she went into the Library and saw the cloak worn by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo (now in Great School), and the plan on which Prince Albert had noted the locations for the busts and statues around College (now in the College Archives). After visiting the Hall, now Waterloo Hall, she joined other members of her family for tea at the Master’s Lodge.
At six o’clock, once more in her carriage, the Queen drove around to North Front, where she found “on the right-hand side the masters in their caps and gowns, and on the left-hand side the boys in the school having near relatives in South Africa… Down the drive were drawn up in open order on either side the school Rifle Corps, and behind them the mass of boys.” The Head of School presented her with a bouquet of the College colours – yellow tulips and blue forget-me-nots – while the youngest boy in College, Guy St George, gave her a bouquet in red, white and blue. The son of Sir John French, a cavalry officer who had recently become a hero in the war in South Africa, was also introduced to her, along with some senior teachers. Eventually, the Queen drove away “amid vociferous cheering,” and a day off was later in June granted to the school at her request.