This article attempts to describe the gift of the Queen Victoria statue to Abingdon and some of the many events to which it has been witness. Could she speak, she would have many a tale to relate about her time here from 1887.
Before Queen Victoria, there was an obelisk on the Market Place, with lamps on it. These were the first public gas lamps in Abingdon, installed in 1835 and powered by fuel delivered by pipes from near Thames Street up to the obelisk. Then in 1887 the Obelisk was removed and in its place in the middle of the Market Place there appeared a statue of Victoria, Empress of India since 1877. Lighting continued here though, as in 1887 two new gas lamps were set up in the Market Place to replace those removed for the statue. With Victoria’s Jubilee that year, those lights would have been much appreciated.
The statue was the gift of one of the town’s leading figures, Edwin James Trendell, to commemorate Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and is of Sicilian white marble. The image of the Empress stands 7 feet 6 inches high (2.28 metres) although in reality she stood a ‘famously short’ 4 feet 9 inches (1.49 metres), very short indeed. Her husband Prince Albert was 5 feet 10 inches tall (1.78 metres). The statue stands on a plinth of Portland Stone so that plinth and statue together stand 15 feet high (4.47 m). She is depicted as being dressed in a satin skirt, heavy velvet cloak and wearing a crown and royal orders.
Why No Orb?
Many illustrations of Royalty picture monarchs holding a sceptre in the right hand and an orb in the left. However this statue holds a lotus flower in its left hand, denoting that since 1877 she was Empress of India.
A Word About Mr Trendell
He had been Mayor in 1858-1860, owned an interest in the ’Two Brewers’ public house next to Saint Nicolas’ church, was a shareholder in the Abingdon Railway Company and owned a wine and spirits store at 8 High Street. He was also a tea-dealer, grocer and tallow chandler, residing at Abbey House which was until recently the home of the Borough Council and (in 2021) is up for sale. Thus Trendell’s Folly was in what was then his back garden.
The statue was to be symbolically given to the people of Abingdon on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee (20th June 1887). The Council felt that a simultaneous unveiling ceremony and a celebration of 50 years on the throne would spoil both events, and so a decision was made that the unveiling would take place on Saturday 18th June with the Jubilee being celebrated on the following Tuesday 22nd.
The ceremony began with the arrival at Abingdon GWR station of the Queen’s representative, the Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire Lord Wantage. He was carried with his party by coach and four to the Council Chamber, and together with the Corporation, proceeded to the town centre where a huge Abingdon crowd waited, tense with excitement, for the proceedings to commence.
At the end of the speeches the statue was unveiled at exactly 3 pm and we can imagine the cheers which accompanied this. A poem by a reader and later published in the Abingdon Herald, was read out:
Shout for Her Majesty, cheer her right lustily! / Make the old Market Place ring with the sound! / Hearts in old Abingdon beat yet right trustily / Subjects more loyal can nowhere be found.
Cheer for Her Majesty old men who’ve known her / Ruling so wisely for 50 long years / You whose young voices once helped to enthrone her / Greet her today with your heartiest cheers!
Shout for Her Majesty, children shout cheerily / Someday you’ll point to the statue I ween / And say, when your heads with old age are bent wearily / You were there on the day and you cheered the good Queen.
A Bun Throwing
With the main ceremony completed, it was time for a bun-throwing, a tradition unique to Abingdon and which began at the Coronation of George III. Of course, the Abingdon Corporation and guests would have stood on the north side of the County Hall roof when throwing. As the statue was placed at the centre of the Market Place and the crowds reaching as far back as the shops, how likely was it that Queen Victoria would have been struck by buns?
The statue would have been subjected to at least five Bunthrows:
1887 at the time of the unveiling, 1897 on the Diamond Jubilee, 1902 for King Edward VII’s Coronation, 1935 for King George V’s Silver Jubilee and 1946 to celebrate the anniversary of Victory in Europe Day (May 1945).
The Golden Jubilee Celebrations 1887
These took place on Tuesday the 22nd of June, following the Saturday unveiling and were very much in the Abingdon tradition: church services were held in all the local churches, then the procession formed up in the Market Place, (no bun-throwing on this occasion). Among others there was the band of the Berkshire Volunteer Battalion, the Foresters and Odd Fellows benevolent societies, the town Volunteer Fire Brigade, Appleton Brass Band, Master and Governors of Christ’s Hospital and the National School Drum and Fife Band.
The route it took was from the Market Place along East and West Saint Helen Streets, Ock Street, right into Victoria Road, Park Road, Bath Street, High Street, Stert Street, Broad Street then up to the grounds of Mr Heber Clarke’s Fitzharrys estate.
The Abingdon people would earlier have purchased tickets for the dinner, which would consist of cold meats and new potatoes and beer or ginger beer. They were asked to bring their own knives, forks and spoons, to help reduce overall costs. 1,900 children and 1,200 adults sat for the meal which was followed by games and sports. With countless flags flying and the bands playing military and popular melodies on that fine Summer day, and the National Anthem which had some new ‘Jubilee verses’ written especially for the occasion. For example:
“We raise on high to thee / Whose glorious reign shall be / Forever blest…”
It would have been a day never to forget.
Later the crowd would have moved to Albert Park where they were treated to a grand firework display.
The Diamond Jubilee Procession 1897
This event was in some ways much grander than the earlier Jubilee. This time the procession formed up in Park Road at 10.30 on a dull and chilly but dry morning. Led by the band of the West Surrey Volunteer Regiment band, the town Corporation followed, then two dozen ex-soldiers, men of the town Volunteer Fire Brigade, twenty decorated cars manned by persons of various trades, their cars (wagons) bedecked with indications of that trade, e.g. brewers, saddlers, maltsters and so on. Friendly Societies were there, as were two Fife and Drum bands of the Wesleyan church and other churches. Many school-children of the town and their teachers played their part too. These then paraded around the centre of Abingdon (without the long walk along Ock Street and back along Park Road as in 1887) and made their way to the Market Place.
A large crowd was there to meet them, standing by the County Hall and surrounding Queen Victoria’s statue. As the National Anthem played and the crowd sang lustily they could see how beautifully decorated she had become. Perhaps some of the men were wearing ties of royal purple as advertised in the Abingdon Herald by Simpson’s shop.
The decorations had been the work of some town ladies. Since about 1890 iron railings surrounded the statue and the whole area between these and the base of the plinth was covered in evergreens and flowers. Some devices had been created such as a crown of yellow flowers on a cushion of roses, adorned with the letters ‘VR’ and ’37 on one side, ‘97 on the other.
After the speeches of loyalty to the Crown, there followed a bun-throwing, with people scrambling frantically to obtain one of these perishable souvenirs.
After the speeches and the bun-throwing, the band and townspeople moved over the bridge to the cricket and football fields to take part in and to enjoy the sports events on land and river. A grandstand was earlier erected opposite Wilsham Road and people were reminded that it was in a spirit of fun rather than athletic prowess that they should judge the events. Stalls were available for the purchase of refreshments and they appeared to be doing very good business.
So, bicycle races, 3-legged events, relays and all the usual activities were taking place. In the evening after a number of competitive events, the crowds were entertained by events along the river.
There was a procession of illuminated boats, all highly decorated with coloured candles, ribbons and the like in a display which reached from along Wilsham Road to the bridge. There was musical accompaniment from the various bands in the parade.
In conclusion Abingdon was entertained by a firework display paid for by an earlier door-to-door cash collection in town. It raised around £250. This also helped to pay for a special commemorative penny coin for each child plus a small book telling of Queen Victoria’s rule. They were given cakes and buns and bottles of ginger beer. No ticket-dinner for the adults. A set of swings were provided free until 6 p.m. after which one had to pay. A bonfire was ignited that evening on Boar’s Hill. The town Corporation, out on the County Hall roof in the dark, could see a number of twinkling lights, one being in the grounds of Radley College, others in the direction of White Horse Hill and Hendred. There were several others and no doubt most villages had one.
Victoria and Mafeking Night 19th May 1900
The first war against the Dutch settlers of South Africa – the Afrikaaners – had begun in 1880 where the settlers strongly opposed taxation by Britain and felt their culture was being threatened after diamonds and later gold were discovered, leading to a gold- and-diamond-rush bringing many thousands of prospectors who had no interest in Afrikaaner culture. Soon shots were fired and the war had begun.
One notable incident arose where the small town of Mafeking was under siege by the Boers – the Afrikaaners – for 217 days. Once news of its relief was received, Abingdon and in fact most other towns in Great Britain decided to celebrate. The Borough Council would have been more than a little anxious on seeing piles of wood being gathered and brought to the Market Place and a large bonfire placed very close to Victoria’s statue. Central to this was placed a hangman’s gibbet. An effigy of the Afrikaaner leader, Paul Kruger, was produced, which had been crafted by local man Mr J Gibbens. With a white flag in his right hand, Kruger was paraded around town by uniformed firemen who then placed him on the gibbet suspended by the neck. Then the bonfire was lit. Although the heat was described as intense, there is no mention of any protection for the Victoria statue, but we can picture borough councillors wringing their hands nervously as the flames grew.
In 1901 Queen Victoria died and she was succeeded by her eldest son Edward VII. The statue was losing some of its novelty value and therefore faced less attention from the younger people of town, and of course the iron railings helped. In 1901 the Abingdon Herald published a letter from a local resident of the Market Place complaining of rowdy children using loud and abusive language, making the place unfit for respectable people after dark. No doubt the statue came in for some attention here although no permanent damage can be noticed.
Queen Victoria Drenched
When peace at last was agreed in 1902, Abingdon celebrated in the way it knows best, by a ‘monster torchlight procession’ around town, which was accompanied by fireworks, bands and bells, with many local people wearing fancy dress. It ended in the Market Place which boasted a ’huge’ bonfire and this time the Corporation took some basic precautions with Queen Victoria, protecting her with a huge cloth and drenching this with water.
The King Is Dead, Long Live the King
In May 1910 King Edward VII died and King George V was proclaimed in the normal way: in the Square, outside The Knowl, and in the Market Place very close to the statue. On the latter, railings were positioned and councillors and invited guests assembled looking splendid in their new three-cornered headwear which replaced earlier silk hats.
A large crowd had gathered at the Market Place and the new king proclaimed. Then a procession consisting of the Mayor, Corporation and Magistrates moved to the Council offices for a formal reception.
War’s End 1918
Abingdon was not attacked in the Great War and the Michaelmas Fairs were very small, so the main danger to the statue might have come from army motor vehicles using the Market Place as a car-park. Or perhaps drunken soldiery using her as a climbing-wall. But there is little sign of this. One problem was the amount of noise in the Market Place as crowds bustled to gain access to the Corn Exchange but there is no evidence that this bothered the Queen.
What might have bothered the Council were the celebrations of the Armistice which was the ending of the shooting war and opening of peace negotiations. A bonfire higher than the statue was constructed close to it. A particular issue was that during the conflict buses were fuelled by using coal-gas and the refilling point was – yes – next to the statue’s railings. The filling-point consisted of a wooden box with connectors, fitted flush with the pavement with the gas-meter placed inside the County Hall. So the Fire Brigade as well as the council were more than a little bit concerned but there appear to be no indications that any special protection was given to the statue. However no disasters occurred and the point was not used after 1918.
During the peace celebrations, effigies of Kaiser Wilhelm – ‘Bill’ – and of his son ’Little Willie’ were raised on a gibbet and then lowered on to the bonfire accompanied by the cheering of the crowd. Apparently ‘Little Willie’ was so realistic that a number of people fainted in horror when they saw this.
Queen Victoria Is Moved
During the 1939-1945 war the local authorities realised that enemy bombing might damage the town water supply. They remedied this by building a circular concrete water-container in the Market Place next to Victoria’s statue.
In 1940 as a result of the post-Dunkirk invasion fears, the word ‘Abingdon’ was removed from the statue, to add confusion to an invader. A close look reveals where it was done. It was replaced after the war, unlike the similar wording on the War Memorial which has yet to be replaced. At the same time, the statue was boarded over for its protection.
In 1946 the Borough Council decided to move the statue out of the Market Place and into Abbey Meadow. Two possible reasons have been found for this. One is that the space was needed for a car-park, although this left the problem of the Monday Market. The second is that the statue needed protecting as rides in the Michaelmas Fair were getting larger and could damage the statue.
QV Statue Grade II Listed
The Queen Victoria Statue became Grade 2 listed in 1971. This status which is the responsibility of the local authority, can be bestowed on many different things provided they are manufactured by humans. For example buildings, statues, monuments, memorials, battlefields, shipwrecks, parks, gardens…
Grade 2 listing means that something is of special architectural interest, and no significant alterations can be made without prior local authority permission.
Bob Frampton, local historian and museum volunteer
Featured image: Statue of Queen Victoria decorated with flowers for the Diamond Jubilee 1897