Short but sweet: a royal visit in 1863 by John Hollands

 Long-time residents of Basingstoke may remember the Queen’s visit on Monday 19th November 1973, or may even have been actively involved in the day’s arrangements. Its main purpose was to perform the official opening of the new AA headquarters, but there was also a royal walkabout and a civic luncheon at the Technical College. If you would like to find out about the day’s proceedings in more detail can do so in the Willis Museum’s Local Studies Room. 

You can also see a variety of material, some original, some transcribed or photocopied, relating to an intriguing but much shorter royal visit some 110 years earlier. Much was made of the occasion even though the royal visitors were in the borough for only ten minutes according to one account and three minutes according to another, and may not have actually set foot in Basingstoke at all.

It happened like this: on March 10 1863 Edward Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) married Princess Alexandra, the daughter of Prince Christian of Denmark. After the wedding in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, the royal newly-weds boarded a train en route to their honeymoon at Osborne House. The train was scheduled to make a brief stop at Basingstoke, according to an account in The Times for the locomotive to take on water. So it was a day to celebrate anyway, but much more so because of this very brief visit to the borough. A good impression of what happened can be pieced together from the documents in the Local Studies Room.

There is a photocopy of a very detailed contemporary record of the planning for the great day, and of some aspects of the day itself and its aftermath, presumably based on council minutes. Serious planning had begun a month in advance at a public meeting held on February 10. The day of the visit was to be a public holiday in the town and various committees were formed to progress the arrangements. There was to be a procession, so a “procession committee” was needed. A “canvassing committee” was to organise house-to-house collection to pay for a public dinner for the town’s poor and their children. Tents would be needed to shelter these diners, so there was a “tent committee”, and a “catering committee” to organise the actual dinner, both overseen by the “General Entertainments Committee” whose members would officiate as carvers at the meal. Local butchers were invited to tender for the supply of meat – needless to say there was no vegetarian option – and a list was made of inhabitants who undertook to assist with the cooking of the joints (presumably in their own homes). A Mr Watts was appointed to take charge of the “pudding department”. Thought was given to holding the dinner on the canal wharf, but eventually the Market Square was chosen, with the younger children accommodated beneath the then open arcaded front of the Town Hall.

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An original handwritten document on a sheet of the Basingstoke Iron Works and Steam Engine Manufactory’s headed notepaper lists all the items needed to make tables and seats for this public feast, and explains with a diagram how these were to be arranged. For example, “under the Town Hall”, there were to be four rows of tables two feet wide with three feet between. Thirty-two twelve foot deals would be needed with twenty-four barrels for supports. Eight 8 ½ yard long table cloths were to be supplied by the Angel Inn. Three hundred and twenty children would be accommodated here allowing fifteen inches for each child. The document is unsigned but the account already referred to indicates that Mr Soper (who was in fact the owner of the iron works) was in charge of this part of the arrangements, so it is most likely by him.

According to local diarist George Woodman the morning of March 10 was a frosty one. The weather kept fine all day but became “gloomy” later on. George was up at 6.45am eager not to miss the start of the festivities. The church bells were ringing and people were out putting up decorations at an early hour. At 8 o’clock the Basingstoke Juvenile Drum and Fife Band began to march through the principal streets starting at the Town Hall, and an hour later, the band of the Volunteer Rifle Corps started to play for an hour, with the Corps firing three rounds at 9.30am. At the same time people began delivering dinners to the homes of the “aged, sick and infirm” who would not be able to make it to the Market Place. At 10.30am a grand procession set out from the “Common Gate on the London Road”, headed by the town’s police, the Volunteer Rifle Corps Band and “Blue Coat Boys [from the Richard Aldworth School] carrying white wands”. The dinner in the Market Place began at 12.30pm, and over two thousand of the town’s poor were served with 1200lbs of boiled beef and 640lbs or roast beef, plus prodigious quantities of mutton, bread, potatoes, and plum pudding, all washed down with 360 gallons of beer. (Children under seven were given oranges and buns for dessert under the direction of a committee of ladies).

At 3.30pm the procession re-assembled in the same order to march to the London and South Western Railway station to await the arrival of the royal train. Another most interesting document in the archives is an original plan signed by R A Davis, and dated March 1863 showing how the station platforms were divided into sections to accommodate various groups of officials and spectators. For example space for 500 was provided in one area for “Gents’ schools and sons of burgesses” (Burgesses were householders whose property qualified to vote). George Woodman was among the spectators and drew a diagram showing how the Mayor, Charles Webb, and his corporation positioned themselves in preparation to salute the royal couple.

At 5pm the royal train arrived via the Great Western line from Reading .George Woodman remarked in his diary that this was the first “narrow gauge” train to use the connection. He was alluding to the fact that the Reading line was originally laid in 1848 to Brunel’s “broad gauge” of 7ft 0 ¼ ins. However the “South Western” which had reached the town in 1839 along with all the other companies, used Stephenson’s “standard gauge” of 4ft 8 ½ ins, which is what Mr Woodman meant by the “narrow gauge”. So it was not possible to make a junction between the two systems and the Great Western line therefore came to a dead end at a terminus where the station car park is now located. As the national network expanded the incompatibility of the two gauges became an ever increasing inconvenience, forcing the Great Western to add a third rail to their tracks to take both standard and broad gauge trains (“mixed gauge”), and eventually to abandon their technically superior broad gauge altogether.

I checked George Woodman’s remarks against other sources and found that they were not quite correct. Mixed gauge and a junction had been in use since 1856, but these were used by standard gauge goods trains only; the Prince’s train was indeed the first passenger train to use the connection. It was not until 1902 that regular long distance passenger trains began to use the junction, whilst local trains from Reading continued to use the separate terminus until the 1930s.

The archives contains a typescript account of the proceedings at the railway station transcribed from a source I have not been able to identify, but possibly also a council minutes book. Whilst the Volunteer Band played the British and Danish national anthems, followed by “God bless the Prince of Wales”, the Marquis of Winchester stepped forward to present the Mayor to the Prince. All were wearing dress coats and white cravats and gloves, and those that had them, robes of office.

The Mayor advanced towards the Prince, and handed him a “loyal address” speaking these no doubt well-rehearsed words: “Your Royal Highness, we the Mayor, Corporation and Burgesses of Basingstoke beg most respectfully to present to your Royal Highnesses this Address of Congratulation on your wedding day, and may every blessing in this world be showered upon you.” To this the Prince replied: “Thank you, thank you, I am most obliged to you”. I am not clear about whether he actually stepped on to the station platform or merely stood at the door or the window of his carriage. Anyway George Woodman failed to get a sight of him and only saw the back of the Princess.

Visit the Local Studies Room and you can read the full text of the loyal address. Here is a part of one paragraph to give you a taste of it: “You, Sir, … know better than our lips can express, though not more deeply than our bosoms feel, the merits of a mother whose name is revered even among those transatlantic regions whose inhabitants, ignoring regal rule, are not insensible to regal virtues; and of a father whose name has, alas too early, become associated with the memories of the best and wisest of England’s departed princes…” I hope this makes you want to come and read more of this wonderful piece of Victoriana. 

And so the royal train steamed off, and the highlight of the day was over, but the celebrations had not yet come to an end. At 6pm a public dinner for the more well-heeled inhabitants of Basingstoke began at the Angel Inn under the presidency of the Mayor. It included soup, fish and dessert at a cost of 3/6d a head. Later a part of the tented space in the Market Square was put to use as a dancing tent under the supervision of Mr John Smith of The Wheatsheaf. Inside the Town Hall an amateur concert began at 7pm followed by a ball.

Later a balance sheet for the day’s festivities was drawn up. The Canvassing Committee had collected £211 10s, the food for the poor had cost £127 6 11d, plus a further £3 4s 4d for the buns and oranges for the “infants”, and the evening’s events had been large self-financing. After various other expenses had been deducted the sum of £5 8s 8d was left over and put into the Mayor’s hands “to be applied as he shall think proper”. A good, well-managed time had been had by all.

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