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Jubilee Tribulations in Two Victorian Ports: Swansea and Liverpool

2012 November 4
by lucinda matthews-jones

by Mike Benbough-Jackson (Liverpool John Moores University)

In the celebration-packed year of 2012, I mustn’t say this too loudly: celebrations and jubliees are not all about jollity and communitas; they also evoke despondency and division, or, even worse, apathy.

The celebrations that marked Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 were widely held as having been a triumph. Of course no one denied that there was opposition, mainly from Republicans and Irish Nationalists. Yet the very fact that dissent came from these quarters seems to render the event all the more successful. These were minority, sectional interests whose squawks made the lion’s roar sound all the louder.

In later years, even those who were not enamoured by the notion of monarchy, such as Eric Hobsbawm, were inclined to see these late Victorian Jubilee celebrations as having been a ‘success’.[1] It was that damned hegemony again.

However, once we get away from frankly unverifiable and unhelpful  notions of ‘success’ or ‘failure’ and start to look at the fine grain of these events a more complicated and interesting picture emerges.

Swansea and Liverpool were centres of trade. The latter was the second city of empire, the former the second town of Wales. Whereas Swansea was dominated by the Liberals, a large number of whom supported Gladstone’s call for Home Rule for Ireland, Liverpool was a Tory stronghold and with the exception of a brief period in the 1890s, would remain so until the 1950s. Despite these differences, the ports were confronted with the same question that came before as all the cities, towns and villages in Britain: how to mark the monarch’s Golden Jubilee.

A number of options were available. Some efforts could be focused on the locality; others could contribute to a national cause.  Education and rational recreation needed to be considered, too. As were more immediate, charitable events in which the young or old could be fed.

So those who wanted to celebrate the occasion were confronted with options, and the differences of opinion over how to mark the Jubilee are, in many respects, more illuminating than looking at the responses of those who opposed or supported the monarchy. It was as much a question of what to do as whether to do anything at all. A brief assessment of some features of the Jubilee celebrations in Liverpool and Swansea gives some idea of how troublesome the Jubilee could be.

At a town meeting in Liverpool, towards the end of May 1887, it was resolved that part of the money raised for the Jubilee would be spent on a clock tower on the pier head. For one thing, the Liverpool Jubilee Committee thought it would provide employment for working men at a time when trade was depressed.[2] Such sentiments faced a barrage of criticism from several directions. Newspapers derided what would be an ‘ornamental’ building.[3] Shopkeepers and other ratepayers were aghast that they should pay for others ‘jubilising’.[4] Perhaps it is not unreasonable to suspect that a clock tower would serve as a means to impose time discipline on the dock workers. In the end, only half of the money needed had been raised from some 300 subscribers. This sum went towards Liverpool’s contribution to the Imperial Institute in London, which was an equally contentious endeavour.

Like a number of other northern settlements, Liverpool held a Jubilee exhibition. Unlike the exhibitions at Manchester, Saltaire and Newcastle, Liverpool’s event was more a result of necessity than design. The International exhibition of the previous year had made a loss of over £19,000. Therefore, it was decided to run another event in the same building to mark the Jubilee and recoup costs. Many expressed concerns that the Jubilee exhibition market was overcrowded. In 1886, Liverpool hosted the only English provincial exhibition and made a loss. What hope was there when Manchester and other northern centres were in the market? Although the exhibition of  1887 included many new features, such as the recreation of some historic Liverpool buildings, the doubters were proved right when this exhibition made a loss of around £50,000. To make matters worse, Manchester’s made a profit of just under £47,000.[5]

Swansea also had to contend with a large, confident eastern neighbour.  Cardiff managed to put on a rather impressive Jubilee procession when 4000 members of friendly societies paraded through the streets.[6] The main celebrations at Swansea were somewhat overshadowed by a visit Gladstone paid to the port during Whitsuntide. To the annoyance of many Unionists, a Jubilee dinner and the opening of the Free Library was brought forward in order to welcome the champion of Home Rule. The main public parade that marked the Jubilee in Swansea, to open Victoria Park on 20 June, was a popular event. However, as one commentator put it, the inauguration of the park was ‘a distinctly local affair … Her Majesty was almost forgotten in the matter’.[7]

The effort to establish a clock tower in Liverpool came to nothing, but at least some money (£2,500) went to the Imperial Institute. In Swansea it was decided in January of 1887 to divide the Jubilee fund equally between a local fund and the Imperial Institute only if the amount raised was over £2,200.[8] The opposition to contributing to what many in Swansea and Liverpool saw as something that would just benefit the capital resulted in the South Wales Journal reporting that the mayor, Frank Ash Yeo, had given up on his ‘favourite horse’.[9] After a delegation, which included the mayor, had returned from a meeting with the Prince of Wales in London to discuss the Imperial Institute, it was said  they had come back ‘with a lot of London fog in their heads’.[10] Given its Tory majority and status as imperial port, it is understandable that this ‘fog’ persisted for longer in Liverpool than it did in Swansea.

There are many other dimensions to each of these events, most of which have not been scrutinised. Yet a general point may well be made that celebrations are social magnets not only in the literal sense of people gathering to celebrate but as occasions that attract opinions and hopes. The celebration of the Golden Jubilee offered up a space in which interests jostled and dreams came up against harsh reality.

Dr Mike Benbough-Jackson is a senior lecturer in History at Liverpool John Moores University. He has published Cardiganshire and the Cardi: Locating a place and its people, c.1760-2000 (University of Wales Press, 2011); Merseyside: culture and place (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011) (edited with Prof Sam Davies); and, Cardiganshire: a concise history (University of Wales Press, 2007). Part of this research emerges from his article ‘Celebration and Social Divergence: Swansea and the Golden Jubilee, 1887’,Llafur, 9:4 (2007), 61-71.This is his first blog and he has put a tentative toe into academia.edu.


[1] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘ Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870–1914’, Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger (eds) The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1983),  p. 282.

[2] Liverpool Mercury (LM), 25 May 1887; Liverpool Courier, 1 June 1887.

[3] LM, 25 May 1887.

[4] LM, 28 May 1887; Liverpool Daily Post, 1 June 1887.

[5] Lancaster Gazette, 7 December 1887; Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 16 February 1888.

[6] Western Mail, 23 June 1887.

[7] Cambria Daily Leader, 25 June 1887.

[8] South Wales and Glamorgan Herald, 26 January 1887.

[9] South Wales Journal (SWJ), 30 April 1887.

[10] SWJ, 22 January 1887.

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