Celebrations for Queen Victoria's wedding, Monday, February 10, 1840

Guernsey was muted in its celebration of the royal wedding in 1840. Not everybody agreed with the official approach, and things got rather fraught.

Gazette de l'Isle de Guernesey, Saturday, 15 February, 1840.

The marriage of her Majesty the Queen was not celebrated1 in any particularly noteworthy way in the island. The bells of the Town Church began to peal at 7 o’clock in the morning. During the morning, the Committee, (appointed according to the decision taken at last Friday’s parish meeting, the Lieutenant-Governor in the chair, where it was decided that instead of illuminations, money should be collected from the public in order to give out free bread and meat to the poor), began the distribution, the meat in the meat market, and the bread, in the fish market. Adults received a pound and children ¾ pound of meat; all received a pound of bread. According to the official report, 6,359 pounds of beef, at a cost of £158.19.6, and 5,714 pounds of bread, at a cost of £44.12.9 were distributed, along with £6 given to the old and infirm, instead of bread and meat, totalling £209.12.3.

At midday, a 21-gun salute and a volley from the 8th regiment were fired at Fort George.

Several Town shops were decorated with satins and white ribbon, and displayed other merchandise appropriate to the occasion. Flags were flying in almost every part of the Town.

The children from the Sunday schools, the National schools, and the Infant School, 1,080 of them, were given tea, and gâche and other cakes at the Sunday school at the Mont Gibel steps.

The poor resident in the Town Hospital were given a dinner of roast beef, bread, and vegetables, with some strong beer to drink, and for supper, bread and cheese.

ST MARTIN: All the Sunday school children of this parish, around 150 in all, were given tea and cakes, in the parish schoolrooms. Donations of 3-400 pounds of beef and 500 pounds of flour were made, to be distributed amongst the poor of the parish.

In the Câtel, the rector, The Rev. Havilland Durand, treated the Sunday school children of the parish to tea and gâche [The Gazette later published a correction; the tea was paid for by public collection].

The Lieutenant-Governor, Sir James Douglas, in the chair, had proposed to a packed parish meeting the previous Friday that

whilst all would of course most heartily concur in the propriety of celebrating with joy the great and auspicious event of her Majesty’s nuptials, there might probably be diversity of opinion as to the manner in which that might best be done. The question, in his opinion, was this;—How shall we, on so interesting an occasion, produce the greatest amount of happiness? Some would perhaps propose an illumination; but this would promote no one’s happiness. What worthy gratification could there be in strolling about the streets, looking with gaping mouths, and tongues hanging out, at illuminated houses? He would recommend, that instead of an illumination, a subscription should be opened, and to appropriate the amount to give a dinner to the poor. This was his own individual opinion – which, however, he did not wish to impress upon others. He wished all freely to express their views,—and if the majority were for an illumination, why he would cheerfully submit, - all that he hoped was that, whatever was done, it might be done unanimously. He left others to decide, and, he repeated it, if they were for an illumination, he would at once abandon his project of a dinner to the poor.—(His Excellency was loudly and repeatedly cheered.)

The plan was adopted and a committee of 25 men appointed by Douglas to make the arrangements for the food handout. A bright spark did, however, raise the question—are we still having illuminations?—to which Douglas, a little put out, replied that he though that the adoption of his plan meant obviously not, but called for a show of hands if anyone would like illuminations, and, says The Star meaningfully, 'not a hand was raised.'

'Illuminations' had been popular all over the country at time of celelebration for decades. They consisted not so much of fireworks as lighted candles, used to decorate houses and public buildings, very much as our electric Christmas lights are used today, and painted oil paper, lit up from behind. Not only were the ratepayers of St Peter Port not providing a show, the Royal Court then made things much worse by issuing an Ordinance the next day forbidding any private individual from illuminating their own house on the big day. They claimed that insurance companies would not pay up if there were fires, and as most houses were rented they may have had a point, but that the island was to be deprived of its party did not go down well in all quarters. The Star huffed:

The Royal Court having thus forbidden any illumination on the QUEEN’s marriage, the only outward demonstrations of public joy have consisted in the exhibition of flags in the streets, and on the vessels in the harbour, the firing of a few cannon, and the jingling of the bells at the Town Church.
With respect to the Ordinance of the Court, we certainly think it a most extraordinary stretch of power, and we are among those who decidedly object to any extension of penal enactments; a country should rest on the common law of the land, and on the good sense of the inhabitants. We, however, are not insensible to the abuses, and even dangers, that attend illuminations; we allude to the mischievous practice of throwing squibs and crackers about the streets. Still, we conceive that the liberty of the subject on an occasion which may only happen once in the lifetime of her Majesty, ought not to have been so forcibly coerced. Had it been left open to all who chose to illuminate, and the penalty been attached to those who broke windows unlighted, the public would have been better satisfied. Liberty would thus have been preserved, and licentiousness repressed. In justice to the Constables, who are drawn into the Ordinance, we hope the public will suspend their judgment. They may still be heard in justification; whether they will or not, rests with themselves. In Jersey the Lieut.-Governor wrote to the Bailiff recommending a general illumination, and we learn from our correspondent that preparations have been made to celebrate the auspicious day in a manner consonant to true English feelings.

The Star's report of the marriage included a very detailed account of the illuminations in London and those in Jersey. In Guernsey, on the evening of the wedding day, windows had been broken and graffiti appeared on walls in Town, but worse was to follow. It appeared that James Douglas had taken fright. The guard at Government House had only recently been stood down, but he had posted a double guard on the evening of the 10th, had brought down the garrison from Jerbourg Barracks and furnished them with extra bullets to quell the riot he apparently expected.

The Editor of The Star was quietly apoplectic.

A letter from the LIEUT.-GOVERNOR to the Royal Court, respecting the military preparations at Fort George, on the day of the Queen's marriage, is published in The Star of this day. That letter is far from being satisfactory; for the main fact, the fact of the soldiers being in readiness to march into the town, is not denied; that was the gravamen of our charge, and the explanation given by Sir James Douglas deprives it of none of its force. It stands quite firm in its integrity. In a constitutional point of view, it is perfectly indifferent who gave the orders animadverted upon; the ball cartridges were supplied to the troops, and they were ready to attack the citizens. Now these proceedings are expressly forbidden by the Order in Council of 1608; consequently there has been a violation of the constitution and of the positive commands of the SOVEREIGN. A species of military law, absolutely prohibited, has been threatened to be enforced, and since Sir James Douglas disclaims having given any special order to deliver ball cartridge to the troops, the public now desire to know, and they have a right to have the question answered, who did give such orders? It is evident that if Orders in Council are allowed to be violated, the protection of the subject is lost; we know what would be done in similar circumstances in England; whether the wet blanket apathy of Guernseymen will be roused on this occasion, time will show. The Star, 24 February, 1840.

In the previous edition of The Star, a letter from 'Sarniensis' reveals some long-term resentment of Douglas,

who has openly asserted his power as Lieut.-Governor, despite the Reglemens des Commissaires of 1607, and the Order in Council of 1608, to order out the troops in times of profound peace, without the sanction of the civil authorities, and to take upon himself, by means of the soldiery, the ordinary administration of the police; this he did last year in the town church affair, and, notwithstanding the correspondence between himself, the police, and the Court on this subject, he appears now unconvinced of his error, and orders ten rounds of ball cartridges to be served out. Pray sir, may I ask for what purpose? Am I to suppose that in the most peacable town in all her Majesty's dominions, where not even one man can be thought to meditate treason against the person of the authorities, or against the constitution of the island, that it was necessary to provide two or three hundred soldiers with ball cartridge, to annihilate, by fire and sword, the few boys, who, in their disappointment at having no illumination, might have thought fit to break some panes of glass. Could this be the potent inducement to fire upon the people, and, mixing up the innocent with the guilty, as is invariably the case in street firing, destroy the peaceable citizens of our crowded town, in order to punish a set of troublesome little boys.

Douglas, who had come to Guernsey in 1837, left the island in 1842 and was replaced by his old friend William Napier2 as Lieutenant-Governor, under whose tenure relations with islanders deteriorated almost to the point of rebellion.


1 On a very similar theme, see J. P. Warren's 'How Guernsey celebrated the Coronation in 1838,' in the Quarterly Review of the Guernsey Society, IX (1), Spring, 1953, pp. 3-5. This presents an altogether different picture of Guernsey en fête, only two years previously, with treats for the children, processions, a Coronation ball that went on until until 4 a.m., fireworks at Castle Cornet (not a good display, a sentiment echoed by Jane Barlow in her diary); 'the balloons, bonfires and fireworks in different parts of the Town were alleged to be equal if not superior to the display at Castle Cornet. Not less than 20,000 persons were in Town that day.'

2 See Johnston, Peter, 'Major-General Napier,' in Review of the Guernsey Society, Autumn 1996.