The Queen apparently keeps a diary, and has done so for many years. It will no doubt be pure gold for future historians, though I doubt whether it will appear in my lifetime.
It would be interesting, though, to know what she thought of last week’s Jubilee festivities. My mother is just 3 months younger than Elizabeth II, and while Mum probably does a good deal more shopping, cooking and laundry than the Queen, I don’t think she could have stood for hours in the rain, let alone clamber into a barge for a ceremonial journey down the Thames.
The present Queen’s great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, kept a diary too. Thirty years ago I visited Windsor Castle to read part of it. It took weeks to arrange: I had to get the necessary permissions and the security clearance, and there were limits on what I could read. I had to say which years I wanted to read, and there were definitely no photographs allowed, either of the journals or of my surroundings.
After all the preliminary hoops to jump through, when I arrived everyone was friendly and helpful. I was even invited to join the staff at morning tea, where we made painstaking conversation about cricket. I know nothing about cricket, but the Ashes were being played at the time, and this was clearly a safe topic to discuss with a colonial.
I was looking for information about Oswald Brierly (1817-1894), an artist who spent the 1840s in New South Wales, working for Benjamin Boyd, before returning to England in 1851. Brierly specialised in painting ships, and in 1874 he was appointed marine painter to Queen Victoria. There are some 150 of his paintings in the Royal Collection.
Brierly was close to the royal family. He painted scenes from the Royal Yacht, Victoria and Albert. In 1867/8 he accompanied one of Victoria’s younger sons, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, on a world cruise on HMS Galatea. During that tour they visited Australia, where on 12 March 1868, Prince Alfred was shot and badly wounded by an Irish Fenian in Sydney.
I hoped that Queen Victoria might mention hearing this news in her diary – but I could find no reference to Brierly anywhere, nor any mention of Alfred’s brush with death. One of Victoria’s daughters, Princess Beatrice, transcribed her mother’s diaries, and no doubt censored some of the more personal material in them.
So my trip out to Windsor was wasted – except for the chance to see behind the scenes of a royal palace. Those sorts of thrills are becoming increasingly rare these days, as the digital world opens up to everyone, what was once only available to a privileged few.
As part of the Jubilee celebrations, Queen Victoria’s Journals have been digitised and put on line here.
We can’t do anything about Prince Beatrice’s deletions – but they are still a remarkable source. I particularly love Victoria’s sketches. Not as skilful as those of Oswald Brierly, perhaps, but providing a remarkable insight into the private life of the queen. (But you’ll have to go to the website to look at them as they are copyrighted)
John Milner and Oswald W. Brierly, The Cruise of H.M.S. Galatea (1869)
Note to regular readers: I’ve been overseas for a couple of weeks, and took longer to recover from jet lag than I had expected. Apologies for not posting as frequently as usual – but normal service has now resumed.