Queen Victoria’s visit to Wolverhampton in November 1866 was a great event for celebration locally, but also an important event nationally. Since the death of her beloved husband, Albert, in December 1861, the Queen had been in deep mourning, and had accepted no invitations to public engagements and the people were wondering if she was still alive, so this was her first venture into the public domain.
Prince Albert had been well loved by the country, and towns and cities were erecting statues to honour him. Wolverhampton’s Mayor, George Underhill, led the fund-raising for a commission to sculptor Thomas Thornycroft, well known for statues of Boudicca and Queen Victoria herself, for Wolverhampton’s own statue. The Queen was consulted on this and she requested the carved image of Prince Albert should show him riding his favourite horse, which was put at the sculptor’s disposal, and dressed in the uniform of Field Marshall, which she loaned to him. She also visited Mr Thornycroft at his studio to see how he was progressing, and he finally finished the work on 1 October 1866, at a cost of £1150, after which it was sent away to be cast in bronze. Alderman Underhill had offered to pay for the plinth on which it would stand, and the completed memorial was placed in position at the beginning of November on High Green, which had been the Town’s market place.
As a matter of etiquette members of the Council went to London to invite the Queen to officially unveil the statue, thinking she would not accept, as she had already declined invitations from other cities such as Manchester and Liverpool. However the Queen accepted and proposed a date for the ceremony just nine days away. They had forgotten that while public bodies had sent her messages of condolence after Albert’s death, she had been deeply moved by a personal letter from the widows of Wolverhampton, sympathising with her widowhood and loneliness. At the time she had declared that if she appeared again at a public function, it would be in Wolverhampton,
“for the love and sympathy of the widows comforted me in my darkest hour”.
The town was thrown into tremendous activity. Two routes were agreed, one for the Royal procession from the Great Western (Low Level) Station to reach the statue, by way of Wednesfield Road, Railway Street, Queen Street, Dudley Street, Cleveland Street, Salop Street, Darlington Street to High Green, the second for the return down Cock (Victoria) Street, Skinner Street, School Street, Waterloo Road, Stafford Street, Little Berry Street, Princess Street, Queen Street to Railway Street, so giving plenty of places for people to see everything. A grandstand and scarlet and gold pavilion were constructed by the statue, giving seating for two thousand invited guests, and a series of triumphal arches depicting local industry erected along the route. These included one of coal (one piece weighing four tons) and bars of iron, decorated with picks and shovels, at the station drive entrance, one in School Street representing trades, with tools, hardware, japanned goods, and in Waterloo Road, an arch of architectural and floral design. Everywhere streets were decorated extensively, houses were cleaned, painted, and had extra decoration added.
The Low Level Station was to be used for dining, and local builder Henry Lovatt was in charge of creating three classes of dining room and even more classes of lavatories – for the Queen, other Royal family, Lords and Ladies, down to the attendants!
Friday 30th November was a cold day. It had been declared a holiday to allow as many people as possible to witness the event. During the morning the streets filled with thousands of people, and trains carrying passengers from Birmingham, Black Country towns, Worcester, Stafford, Stoke and places further afield had been bringing more and more to line the route. The Royal coaches, brought from Windsor for the occasion, had been kept at the Swan Hotel, High Green, and were driven to the station by 1 o’clock. The Royal train, pulled by the Lord of the Isles, arrived at the platform at 1.08 with the party, which included the Prince and Princess Christian and Princess Louise, also John Brown, the Queen’s manservant. A Royal Salute was fired by the Artillery Volunteers, the signal was sent to St Peter’s Church for a peal of bells to be started, and the band of the Hussars played the National Anthem. As the procession followed the route, everywhere crowds cheered, shouted, applauded, and bands played.
After the arrival in High Green, the Royal party were shown to their seats to the further cheering and shouting from the crowds, and the National Anthem was played, before the Bishop of Lichfield delivered a prayer and led the Lord’s Prayer, and the Recorder read from the illuminated address with the Corporate Seal, inviting Her Majesty to unveil the statue. The Mayor, John Morris, then handed this Address to the Queen, who was so impressed with the reception that she borrowed a sword and to everyone’s surprise knighted the Mayor, which led to more cheers from the crowds. The Queen was introduced to the various dignitaries, then signified her pleasure that the statue be unveiled. Thomas Thornycroft pulled the cord for the unveiling, to the great delight of Her Majesty and more crowds cheering. She spoke to Mr Thornycroft to thank him for his work, and the Royal Party then entered their carriages for the return journey to the station via the alternative route, to more cheering from crowds lining the streets.
Luncheon had been prepared for the Royal party in one room at the station, and for the entourage in another. After nearly an hour, the guests re-appeared, and the Mayoress, her daughter, Miss Ironmonger, and Miss Mander, were introduced to Princess Christian, to whom they presented, in the name of a few ladies of Wolverhampton, a very handsome bracelet. At 3.45pm the Royal carriages were brought to the platform, the band of the 8th Hussars again played the National Anthem, and the train moved off amid the cheers of the assembled multitude.
Between 4pm and 5pm there were upwards of three hundred noblemen, ladies, and gentlemen, at a sumptuous banquet at the Exchange Building, on the invitation of the Mayor. At this event were various toasts, by the Mayor, the Recorder to the Bishop and clergy with a reply by the Bishop, the Lord Lieutenant, and an important speech by Alderman Henry Hartley Fowler, talking of the great qualities of the Prince Consort and linking his support of industry and the sciences to the work of Wolverhampton.
Activities went well into the night with illuminations, created in numerous streets around the town, and fireworks at the Race Course (now West Park). One sad note on the day concerned a serious accident to one of the artillery men firing the Royal Salute from one of the cannons stationed on the Racecourse. William Bridgeway was about nineteen years old, and the gun at which he was assisting had been fired twice, but whilst Bridgeway was loading it again, for some reason the charge went off. His hand was blown off, and his arm fractured in three places, besides which his face was badly bruised. He was removed to the General Hospital, where his forearm was amputated.
The Queen settled a life annuity of £20 upon William Bridgeway.
Commemorating the visit, High Green was renamed Queen Square, and Cock Street was renamed Victoria Street.