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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Victoria Memorial in London

What is the Victoria Memorial?

Victoria Memorial is a towering marble memorial to Queen Victoria, the United Kingdom’s second-longest reigning monarch. It stands proudly at end of The Mall in London.

Victoria Memorial

History of Victoria Memorial, London

This grand memorial to Queen Victoria was commissioned within a year of her death in 1901. Standing at nearly 25 metres, it’s the tallest monument to a monarch in England, and its prominent location in front of Buckingham Palace honours Victoria’s 64-year reign.

To the modern observer, the white marble memorial resembles a traditional wedding cake. Its numerous forms are rich in symbolism. A woman sculpted in bronze crowns the structure: the goddess Victory. She stands on a globe, representing Victoria’s position at the head of the British Empire, which during her reign encompassed a quarter of the world’s population. Beneath Victory appear the figures of Constancy, holding a compass with its needle pointing true north, and Courage, holding a club. Closer to street level throng the allegories of Naval Power, Military Power, Science and Art, as well as figures of Peace, Progress, Manufacture and Agriculture.

Funding for the memorial was gathered from around the empire, and from the British public. By October 1901, £154,000 had been raised for its construction. The next year, several tribal chiefs from the west coast of Africa sent goods to be sold, with the proceeds going towards the fund. These donations seem implausibly generous – and undeserved – when compared with Victoria’s own meagre contribution to the relief of her imperial subjects during the Irish Famine of the 1840s. Despite possessing a personal fortune of £5 million, Victoria donated only £2,000 to the relief fund; or around £200,000 in today’s money. A million Irish people died as a result of the inaction of Victoria and her government.

The memorial was unveiled to the public in 1911 with much ceremony and celebration. Addressing a large crowd which had gathered on the Mall, King George V spoke of his grandmother’s popularity with the public. This probably seemed pointed, as both the king and the public were aware of Victoria’s sometimes testy relationship with the British people.

Victoria Memorial Close Up

When her husband had died, Victoria clung to her grief at the expense of her personal relationships and royal duties. Her state of mind increasingly lapsed into solipsistic melancholia. She retired to her castles in Scotland and Windsor, avoiding public engagements, and refusing to entertain foreign visitors. Prince Umberto of Italy was unamused when he was informed there was no room for him at Windsor Castle; he had to stay at a nearby inn. After three years, Victoria’s mournful seclusion began to irk the public, and her popularity plummeted. There were rumours that she would abdicate, or that she had gone mad. But the Queen would not relent. In a letter to a national newspaper, she wrote: ‘The Queen heartily appreciates the desire of her subjects to see her…But there are other and higher duties than those of mere representation’.

Victoria would never fully engage with her public again. But following the illness of her son in 1871, and an assassination attempt, the public’s attitude towards their aloof ruler softened. By the time the Victoria Memorial was completed, she was being remembered as a grandmotherly figure, and a respectable, devoted widow.

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