Victoria and Nottingham

The Queen Victoria statue in January 2022

Nottingham isn’t short of reminders of Queen Victoria – the Victoria Centre, Victoria Park, the Victoria Embankment, the Victoria Leisure Centre, Victoria Street… the list goes on. But what was once Nottingham’s most prominent reminder of the woman who counted Empress of India and Grandmother of Europe amongst her formal and informal titles is now hidden away outside the city centre (of which more later…)

Queen Victoria was born Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent on 24 May 1819 at Kensington Palace, and reigned from 20 June 1837 (aged 18) until her death. She married her first cousin, Prince Albert, on 10 February 1840. They had nine children, but Victoria was grief-stricken after Albert’s death on 14 December 1861 and rarely appeared in public for many years thereafter. She died on 22 January 1901, aged 81, at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and was buried at the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore in Windsor.

Victoria seems to have visited Nottingham only once, on 4 December 1843, aged 24, when she and Albert passed through on their way from Chatsworth to Belvoir while on a tour of the Midland Counties. They arrived at Nottingham by train, arriving at  the present station’s predecessor, which was located where the Magistrates’ Court stands today, before continuing their journey by carriage.

It was a fairly tight schedule. The royal couple were due to leave Chatsworth at 9am, passing through Chesterfield at 10am, Derby at 10.50am and Nottingham at 11.30am, before reaching the final destination of Belvoir Castle at 1.45pm. The Corporation must have been disappointed to learn that, as its Royal Visit Committee reported on 29 November, the Queen would ‘only pass through the Meadows and will not be able to receive addresses personally’, though any that were prepared would be ‘laid before her afterwards’.

The Illustrated London News of 9 December 1843 described the weather on the day of the visit as ‘… truly beautiful and, for the time of year, remarkably warm.’ It goes on to say that, ‘The reception given to the royal party at Nottingham was brilliant in the extreme … The arrival terminus had been boarded over for the accommodation of spectators, and, along with the adjoining promenade, held, it was computed, about 3000 persons, each of whom was admitted by ticket only. … Galleries were erected at various places on the line of the road, for the accommodation of the thousands anxious to catch a glimpse of royalty. Eight triumphal arches were also erected…’.

Quite a fuss for what was actually a fairly brief transfer between modes of transport. We are further informed that, ‘Precisely at twenty minutes past eleven, the discharge of cannon from the Castle announced the arrival of her Majesty. … Her Majesty … was conducted to the waiting-room, where a collation was provided for the royal visitors by Mrs. Ward of the George the Fourth Inn. … In about ten minutes after, the royal party appeared in front of the station, where the Duke of Rutland’s carriage was in waiting. They immediately entered it, and proceeded, amidst the cheering of the assembled thousands, the ringing of bells, and the firing of cannon. We should say that there were at least 100,000 persons on the ground.’

The carriage made its way along what was subsequently to be named Queen’s Road in Victoria’s honour, before heading out of the city, and that was that.

Victoria seemed to have been reasonably amused by her brief encounter with Nottingham, for, as we learn from the borough records, on 19 December the Royal Visit Committee was able to report the Queen’s ‘gratification at the brilliant reception given to Her at Nottingham; and which, Her Majesty was graciously pleased to say, had not been surpassed during the whole of her progress through the Midland Counties.’

Queen Victoria’s visit to Nottingham (Illustrated London News, 9 December 1843)
Queen Victoria’s visit to Nottingham (Illustrated London News, 9 December 1843)
Queen Victoria’s visit to Nottingham (Illustrated London News, 9 December 1843)
Queen Victoria’s visit to Nottingham (Illustrated London News, 9 December 1843)

Nottingham, along with Bradford and Hull, was granted its city charter in 1897, as part of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. The main jubilee celebrations took place throughout the country (and, indeed, the empire) on Tuesday 22 June 1897, which was declared a bank holiday in Britain, Ireland and India. Events included a six-mile procession through the streets of London and, in the evening, the lighting of a chain of beacons across Britain. The journalist George Basil Barham claimed that thirty-three of them could be seen from Mapperley.

Less than four years later, on 22 January 1901, Victoria’s remarkable reign of more than 63 years came to an end with her death.

The following day, the Nottingham Daily Express reported that, ‘The news of the death of the Queen was received in Nottingham about a quarter past seven [in the evening], and in a very few minutes, by means of special editions of the evening newspapers, was widely disseminated throughout the city. The influence of the tidings – though the demise of our late beloved monarch was not unexpected – was quickly observable. The murmur of conversation from passers by was hushed as the people purchased their news sheet to convince themselves of the sad truth, and for the rest of the evening the death of Queen Victoria was almost the sole topic. Presently, from the belfries of the parish churches came the dull, slow boom of the passing bell, and in the centre of the city the event was further marked by the sudden extinction of the lights of the Theatre Royal, as the audience quietly dismissed, made their way into the streets, and mingled with the crowd. It was not long before the electric wire bore a winged message from the Mayor of the city expressing to the King of England, in terms which all the inhabitants will endorse, the deep sorrow of Nottingham.’

After Victoria’s death, a local memorial fund was set up, the initial meeting to discuss the matter having taken place in June 1901. Subscriptions were solicited and enquiries made concerning the possibility of commissioning a replica of an existing statue or model, to be sited somewhere in the city centre. Nottingham, it seems, had been letting the side down. As the Nottingham Evening Post opined on 1 May 1903, in reference to a letter read out at a meeting of subscribers to the fund held at the Exchange Hall that morning, ‘Most other cities and towns had long ago had their memorials completed, and it was certainly desirable that no further time should elapse before the matter was bought to a conclusion as regarded the city and county of Nottingham.’

An alternative proposal of putting the funds towards the founding of some memorial cots at the Children’s Hospital having been dismissed, the Mayor moved, ‘ the appointment of a committee to decide upon the precise form of the statue, to appeal to the City Council for the selection of a site, and to make such other arrangements as were necessary…’

In late September of the same year, the Nottingham Daily Express reported that, in spite of the fact that subscriptions had fallen short of the figure aimed at, sculptor Albert Toft had been commissioned to create an original statue of Queen Victoria for the city. Toft had already produced a statue of Victoria for Leamington, so was presumably regarded as a safe pair of hands. He would later produce another statue of Victoria, this time for South Shields. War memorial statues were another of his specialisms, while locally, as well as the statue of Queen Victoria, he produced memorials to Major Jonathan White and the poet Philip James Bailey, both of which are in the grounds of Nottingham Castle.

The Express report includes an amusing tirade about the paucity of Nottingham’s statuary, the paper being of the opinion that the statue of Feargus O’Connor in the Arboretum was ‘kindly hidden by the trees and shrubs’, while that of Sir Robert Clifton was ‘a crude piece of work, and a libel upon Sir Robert’, the most appropriate option being ‘to keep it out of sight’.

The small matter of the location of the proposed statue of the Queen is also mentioned, with the memorial committee proposing that it be sited ‘at the north-west end of the Market place, opposite Bromley House’.

By early 1905, a subsequent proposal to place the statue in the centre of the Market Square had prompted considerable debate amongst the public, with alternative suggestions including the Arboretum, the Castle (which seems, in fact, to have been the original plan), Victoria Embankment, the front of the Exchange, Victoria Park, the top of Queen’s Walk, King Street, the front of the Theatre Royal, the junction of London Road and Arkwright Street, the outside of University College, ‘the west end of the market, at a point between Angel-row and Long-row’, Canning Circus and St Peter’s Square. Some folk were unhappy at the potential effect on the livelihoods of stallholders if the statue was sited in the centre of the square.

Finally, on 20 March 1905, the location was confirmed by the Nottingham Evening Post as being ‘opposite the bottom of St-James’s-street’. The last step in the decision-making process was the use of a wood and canvas model of the statue and pedestal to decide which way the statue should face – ‘square with the Market-place and the Exchange Hall’ or ‘fronting rather towards Wheeler-gate and South-parade.’ The latter option was the one chosen.

Extract from OS 25 inch; rev. 1913; pub. 1915, showing the original location of the Queen Victoria statue
The former location of the Queen Victoria statue in 2021

Details of the statue itself began to emerge. In April 1905, the Nottingham Daily Express quoted Albert Toft as saying, ‘…the figure of the Queen is made from a really magnificent block of Carrara marble. I sent the model to Italy to save time and ensure a good block… In this memorial I have throughout endeavoured to emphasise the womanly and lovable disposition of Queen Victoria rather than her Imperial and powerful character as ruler of the Empire. …the panels of the pedestal depict such human and charitable acts as ‘Feeding the Hungry’ and ‘Clothing the Naked.’

Some still mumbled and grumbled about the location of the statue, with many having preferred the idea of a position in front of the Exchange building. A number of market traders were displaced and the Nottingham Daily Express reported later in the year that, ‘The section of stall-holders most affected by the erection of the Queen Victoria statue was the bird, dog, and dealers in other canine pets, who are now relegated to Cheapside.’

With the unveiling of the statue scheduled to be performed by the Duchess of Portland on 28 July, the attention of the public had been well and truly captured, with one Evening Post correspondent even suggesting that the street names Beastmarket Hill and Angel Row be dropped and ‘the strip of pavement from Wheeler-gate to Chapel-bar be known as Victoria-parade.’ Issues of the Nottingham Daily Express on the day were to include an art plate featuring illustrations of the statue. The stage was set.

On the appointed day, the Duchess met the Duke, who arrived separately by train, at Midland Station, and their private carriage formed part of a civic procession that was to proceed to the Exchange via Carrington Street, Lister Gate, Albert Street, Wheeler Gate and Long Row. More ceremonials were then to follow, before the procession made its way to the statue for the unveiling ceremony.

Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland, was a well-known public figure at this time. An ardent animal lover, she became the first president of the RSPB in 1891, and was also a vice-president of the RSPCA. Perhaps the most interesting story relating to the Portlands was an incident that took place in 1913 while they were being visited at their home, Welbeck Abbey, by Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination the year after was to contribute towards the outbreak of the First World War.

The Duke and Archduke had been out shooting on the estate when, as the Duke subsequently wrote, ‘One of the loaders fell down. This caused both barrels of the gun he was carrying to be discharged, the shot passing within a few feet of the archduke and myself… I have often wondered whether the Great War might not have been averted, or at least postponed, had the archduke met his death then and not at Sarajevo the following year.’

The Evening Post, in the introductory section of its report of the proceedings on the day of the statue’s unveiling, commented that, ‘…it is well that some permanent memorial should be set in the public places of our great cities to remind generations yet unborn of the woman who Kept her throne unshaken still, Broad-based upon her people’s will, for so many years ruled an empire, and invested the name of Great Britain with such shining lustre.’

The weather was fine and a crowd of thousands was assembled in the vicinity of the statue. In its report of the event, the Nottingham Daily Express stated that, ‘Not since the times of wild enthusiasm witnessed at various stages of the war in South Africa has such a scene been witnessed in the magnificent Market-square.’

Following a speech by the Duke, the statue, which had been in its spot for some weeks while covered and nearly complete, was duly unveiled by the Duchess, the Express noting politely that, ‘The cheering which greeted the unveiling could not be described as enthusiastic, but the feeling of satisfaction was unquestioned.’

A second procession was then formed, and it made its way to St Mary’s Church for the unveiling, by the Duke, of a memorial to the Nottingham men who died in the Boer War. Later, for the lucky few, the day was rounded off by a garden party at the Castle.

The Duke and Duchess of Portland at the statue unveiling ceremony (Nottingham Daily Express, 29 July 1905)
The Queen Victoria statue immediately after its unveiling (author’s collection)
The Queen Victoria statue immediately after its unveiling (author’s collection)
The Queen Victoria statue immediately after its unveiling (author’s collection)

The Nottingham Daily Express described the statue thus:

‘…It stands 10ft. 10 ins. in height, and reveals the Queen in regal robes. In her right hand she holds the Royal Sceptre and in her left the Orb … The features have been modelled from Mr Toft’s greatly admired statue at Leamington … A long lace veil (ornamented) hangs gracefully from the head down the back of the figure. Four handsome bronze panels…are sunk into the granite pedestal… On the front of the pedestal there is a simple design – a shield with a decorative arrangement of rose trees, helmet, and crown, and the inscription, “Victoria, Empress Queen, 1837-1901”. The panel at the back is more elaborate, representing a figure of Maternity nursing a child in either arm, and the children are toying with ships and engines – symbolical of navigation and engineering. The figure is treated in a decorated and symmetrical style, and in its general form it outlines a cross symbolising Christianity. In the side panels…[both] subjects are illustrative of Charity. One is feeding the hungry; the other clothing the naked. In these panels the sculptor has successfully endeavoured to treat his subjects in such a manner that the eye is gradually led up to the statue of Her Majesty.’

Not all were impressed by the statue. In his 1924 novel Sails of Sunset, Nottingham author and journalist Cecil Roberts writes, ‘Was it fair to perpetuate her memory so – robustly? Even the sun cast a malicious glance, emphasising the imperial rotundity, and the laws of perspective aggravated the aspect of that crowned head fading heavenwards, and almost shut off from loyal eyes by the tremendous central girth ballooning the unfortunate lady…’

Image of the Queen Victoria statue in its original location (author’s collection)
Image of the Queen Victoria statue in its original location (author’s collection)
Image of the Queen Victoria statue in its original location (author’s collection)
Image of the Queen Victoria statue in its original location (author’s collection)
Image of the Queen Victoria statue in its original location (author’s collection)

The newly installed statue seems to have a led a largely unremarkable existence for its first few years, but it wasn’t too long before the possibility of relocation was being mooted. In 1926, during construction of the War Memorial Arch on Victoria Embankment, a Nottingham Journal columnist noted that, ‘It has been suggested that the Victoria Embankment should be… the place for the Victoria statue – a fitting place being near the entrance to the fine boulevard which bears its name.’

Shortly afterwards, a correspondent wrote in to say that the Victoria statue was in a ‘deplorable condition’, being ‘nothing else but a pigeon roost’, and that it would ‘look well if placed at the entrance to the Victoria Embankment, or surrounded by beds of flowers in the Castle grounds or the Arboretum.’

Victoria Embankment had received its official opening on 25 July 1901, some six months after Victoria’s death. It was opened by the Chairman of the Public Parks Committee, Alderman William Lambert, who, along with his brother John, had funded the building of the Theatre Royal. The brothers were wealthy lace manufacturers who owned a factory on Talbot Street.

Lambert was accompanied by the Mayor, Frederick R Radford, who believed that, ‘…the time will come when the citizens of Nottingham will have a feeling of thanks and gratitude to the present generation and will look upon the embankment as a standing monument of the enterprise and foresight of the Nottingham Corporation of the year 1901.’

Alderman Lambert, meanwhile, amongst other remarks to the assembled crowd, hoped that people would, ‘avoid the practice of throwing litter about’ and ‘endeavour to cultivate a habit of tidiness.’

By May 1939, there were plans in place for a new traffic island in the Market Square which would necessitate the removal of the Victoria statue. The preferred new site for the statue was the west end of the pond in the Victoria Embankment Memorial Gardens. As with the original installation, a wooden model had been placed at the spot in question (as well as at other places in the city) to determine its suitability. However, world events later in the year were to conspire against this plan for the time being.

Appropriately enough, the statue was to perform its patriotic duty by playing a bit part in promoting war finance contributions. The Nottingham Journal of 29 May 1940 reported that, ‘The statue of Queen Victoria in Nottingham Market Square is to be surrounded with a three-sided pyramid hoarding 25 feet high. On one side of this will be a painting by a local artist representing the “Road to Victory.” The “road” runs between green verges, one side representing National Savings Certificates, and the other Defence Bonds. Along this road moves a motor-car bearing the city’s arms and indicating week by week the progress of the city’s savings contributions. The road is graded in degrees of £50,000, the furthest point along the road being the £4,000,000 mark at which the city is aiming. Underneath this road is the slogan: “Nottingham’s drive for victory.” ‘

The pre-war Market Square traffic scheme was revived in 1950. Two fatal accidents had occurred near the statue and the works were to proceed subject to approval by the Ministry of Transport and the availability of finance and labour. Queen Victoria’s city centre reign was nearly over.

The venerable queen’s last full day in the Market Place was Saturday 3 January 1953, and on that day the following news story appeared in the Nottingham Journal, with the title, ‘Victoria, a road victim, is to be taken for a ride’:

‘During this week-end, Queen Victoria will ride in state through the streets of Nottingham. But what a state she will be in! The echo of her famous “We are not amused” might well be heard as her statue which has stood at the western end of the Old Market Square since 1905, is hauled down by workmen and taken away on a low-backed lorry. On Monday, if everything goes smoothly, she will be in the Memorial Gardens on Victoria Embankment – facing the War Memorial – a mile and a half from the present site. The City Engineer, Mr. R. M. Finch, said: “It is a big job. The pedestal, made of granite, weights 25 tons and the marble statue weighs seven tons.” He added that it was most appropriate that the statue should be erected in the Memorial Gardens. This is not the first time that arrangements have been made to move the statue. Just before the war, it was to have been transferred to the Victoria Embankment – in fact, to the site on which it will stand after Monday. A full-scale plywood model, pedestal and all, was built by the City Engineer’s Department and put in several places in the city. It stood in the Castle Grounds, and the top of Market Street, facing the Theatre Royal. The model was also erected in the Memorial Gardens, and this was the site decided upon. Then came the war and the queen had to remain in the Market Square amid the noisy bustle of Nottingham traffic. A traffic island will be built in the Market Square so the great queen becomes another victim of the 20th century road.’

Thankfully, unlike the statue of Samuel Morley that had literally fallen off the back of a lorry during relocation from a spot near the Theatre Royal in 1927, the Queen Victoria statue made it to its destination in one piece, as the Journal reported on the day following its installation:

‘A queen and her escort moved through the streets of Nottingham early – very early – yesterday morning. They formed a procession, a rather odd procession, in the Old Market Square. First a tower wagon, then a low-loading lorry and finally a crane and a police car, for a V.I.P must have a police escort. The scheduled time of departure was 8 a.m. but preparations had been quick and the Queen – Queen Victoria – had moved from her plinth where she has watched the years move on by 7.30. Standing tall and upright – so tall that the tower wagon went ahead to make certain there was no obstruction from overhead wires – the statue made her second journey this century to the Memorial Rock Gardens on Victoria Embankment. Special arrangements had been made for her reception. A section of hedge had been removed. A ramp of earth and wood had been erected, and she was gently lowered to the ground in a fenced-off area near her new site. During the afternoon workmen were busy demolishing and moving the plinth ready for work to begin on a new traffic island in the city centre and the Queen has found peace by the rippling waters of the ornamental pond in the quiet garden.’

In the years since its move to more tranquil surroundings, the statue has not been entirely forgotten. It was listed at Grade II on 12 July 1972 and is described in the 1979 edition of Pevsner’s The Buildings of England: Nottinghamshire as follows: ‘Large standing figure in white marble. Square pink granite pedestal with cornice and stepped plinth. Bronze plaques on 4 sides, 3 with figures in relief. Ashlar base, 4 steps.’

Sadly, as of early 2022, the statue is in what might be described as a tired condition, with the sceptre no longer present. To add insult to injury, it is surrounded by tall mesh security fencing.

The pond at the Victoria Embankment Memorial Gardens, with the Queen Victoria statue in the centre background, January 2022
The Queen Victoria statue in January 2022

Good news may be on the horizon, though. A week before the Prime Minister announced the UK’s first lockdown in March 2020, it was reported by the Nottingham Post that, following a successful National Lottery Heritage Fund bid, Nottingham City Council was planning to carry out a restoration of the Memorial Gardens (including the statue of Queen Victoria), with the plans to include the creation of a visitor centre. It is to be hoped that this will still be a viable project post-pandemic, so that the site receives the attention that it surely deserves.

In the meantime, Victoria continues to cast her imperial gaze towards the Trent, providing a reminder of the mighty, sometimes problematic age that changed Britain and the world for ever.

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