What hasn't changed in UK since Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee

Jun 4, 2012

War in Afghanistan, an old Etonian in Downing Street and a bust economy... the last time Britain had a Diamond Jubilee

THE ONLY British monarch to reach her Diamond Jubilee before Queen Elizabeth II was Queen Victoria, who celebrated her 60th year on the throne in 1897. Great Britain - and the world - was of course a very different place 115 years ago, but some things seem strangely familiar…

Then, as now, Britain was governed by a coalition. The coalition of 1897 was made up of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Unionists. Prime Minister Lord Salisbury - like David Cameron an old Etonian who attended Oxford - was the last British Prime Minister to rule from the House of Lords.

Salisbury pursued a foreign policy of 'splendid isolation' during his three terms as Prime Minister. Unlike other European countries, Britain entered into no formal alliances during the last two decades of the 19th century, maintaining political leverage through an informal agreement with Bismarck and Germany.

Historian and writer Juliet Gardiner says: "1897 could be seen as the apogee of British power... once the Boer War started [in 1899] it was clear that we were a bit friendless in Europe."

Britain was, as we are now, involved in conflict in Afghanistan in 1897, which culminated in the Siege of Malakand. British troops faced a force of Pashtun tribesmen whose tribal lands had been bisected by the Durand Line, the 1,519-mile border between Afghanistan and British India drawn up at the end of the Anglo-Afghan wars to help hold the Russian Empire's spread of influence towards India. (Afghan war sketch by W LLoyd, pictured.)

British forces held out in their garrison for six days against a 10,000-strong Pashtun army before being relieved. The siege was also notable in that it was Winston Churchill's first actual experience of combat - and the officers were playing polo when first attacked.  

Britain was also languishing in a period of economic bust. An investment boom in the 1880s fed a massive financial bubble around United States and Argentine assets. The bubble burst in the Panic of 1890, leaving banks in London exposed…

…Which brings us to another Victorian precedent: a banking bailout. Barings Bank, exposed to Argentinean debt, had to be bailed out by a consortium led by the Bank of England and the Rothschilds. The "entire private banking system in London would have collapsed", remarked Natty Rothschild, had this bailout not happened.

Poverty was a growing problem in 1897, which was the year that Charles Booth published his report into the London poor. He noted that a third of Londoners were living below what he termed the 'Poverty Line'. In Life and Labour of the People in London Booth also argued for the introduction of an Old Age Pension, something that might seem oddly out of step with current political thinking on provision for the elderly.

Telecommunications made a great leap forward in 1897. In July, just after Queen Victoria's Jubilee celebrations, Guglielmo Marconi took out a patent for "radio communication" following a transmission between Lavernock Point in south Wales and Flat Holm Island in the Bristol Channel, inaugurating the wireless age. Today, 40 million people in Britain have a mobile phone.

FOOTBALLERS, HOWEVER, WERE VERY DIFFERENT… Football was a very different beast in 1897. Players had only turned professional in 1888 with the formation of the Football League, and many players still worked full-time outside football in the off-season. Aston Villa won the League and the FA Cup, and Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United (then Newton Heath) were not even in the top flight; all were battling in the old Second Division.

Footballers' wages were, of course, a pittance in comparison to today's inflated salaries. A superstar of the day, William 'Fatty' Foulke, the League's premier goalkeeper, was sold in 1893 to Sheffield United for £20. Foulke was given a salary of £3 a week in 1897 (the average wage of a working man was just under £2 a week), with a 50p win bonus. Foulke was also granted the rare luxury of a retainer over the summer months.

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