‘Thus terminated one the most brilliant scenes that has ever taken place in this or indeed any part of England’
In our long history, where did the most spectacular event take place? For the Bedford & Peterborough Gazette, it was 30th June 1838 on Parker’s Piece, Cambridge. Clearly, there is some (if not a lot) of journalistic bias going on here. Nonetheless, it was a hugely exciting occasion for the county, and indeed the entire country. This was the coronation dinner to celebrate the new Queen – Victoria!
Chester Chronicle 29 June 1838, 4.
According to the newspaper, 15,000 people were invited to a huge public dinner on Parker’s Piece. However, this number doubled and then ballooned further to 35,000 as attendees to the festivities continued to swell. The report details how locals experienced what could only be described as a series of spectacular games not seen since the Roman times! A remarkable way to begin the dawn of the Victorian age. To help the festivities, lots of beer and food was given away (and apparently no drunkards were in sight…). The sun was ‘refulgent’ and shone down on the many games and sports (along with showers of rain). Finally, the festivities ended with balloon displays, illuminations, and fireworks.
This was not the first time the green spaces of Cambridge were used for such fanfare. A generation before, Parker’s Piece had been the site of commemoration for the peace that had been signed to (supposedly) end the Napoleonic Wars. These revolutionary conflicts had raged for over a staggering twenty years. Naturally, this event was celebrated with a massive public dinner. According to information printed on the tickets, up to five thousand people were invited. Even for this great occasion, Victoria’s coronation festival would multiply this number seven-fold (if the newspapers can be believed). No doubt attendants of the Peace dinner were later disappointed when the wily Napoleon managed to escape the confines of his exile (Elba) and return to France, resuming hostilities until the bloody affair of Waterloo settled the matter indefinitely in 1815.
Ticket for Table 19 of the ‘The Happy Return of Peace’ Dinner held 12th July 1814
The celebrations of Victoria were national. Newspapers everywhere reported on these local celebrations. They record details such as the food and drink on offer, which attests to the love of late Georgians (now Victorians) for holding public dinners. Feasts were common in the early nineteenth century, and were frequently held around local matters, such as elections and anniversaries, like the Battle of Waterloo. However, Victoria’s coronation took this scale to another level. The menu at Parker’s Piece included over 1,000 joints of meat cooked in 15 college kitchens, 72lbs of mustard, 125 gallons of pickles, 45,000 loaves of bread, more than 1600 puddings, and, of course, 99 barrels of beer. A quantity that makes the lack of drunkards at the public dinner even more dubious…
A Dinner ticket for the Victoria’s Coronation Dinner at Parker’s Piece, 28th June 1838
Some of the best fragments, however, survive in the humorous lists of games that were held. You might consider the Victorians austere or unamused. The coronation brings out a markedly different character. On the day of the coronation, 28th June, a spirit of fun was on display. ‘Rustic Sports’ were arranged with ‘Biscuit Bolting’, a ‘Grinning Match’, and the bushtucker trial sounding ‘Dipping for Eels’.
Cutting from a newspaper listing the Coronation Games
The day after the dinner, a series of races were held as part of the festivities and kept crowds entertained. Sweepstakes were arranged with valuable rewards of 15 guineas (a little under £1,000 in modern money). A make-shift track was designed for the horses to race on, one of which included Mr Ind’s appropriately named ‘Victoria’.
Horse Racing Slip for the Coronation Races
It is unlikely we will see such a spectacle again. The vision of trestle tables lined with cake is perhaps the more common view when one imagines a coronation celebration. We do, however, hope to see the same spirit of royal revelry on show at Parker’s Piece on 8th May. King Charles III deserves the same enthusiastic celebration, Victorian style!
If you want to learn more about how coronations past were celebrated in Cambridge check out www.capturingcambridge.org.uk or come down to the Museum from 5th May 2023 to explore the New Exhibition “Mugs, Medals, and a Meal for 15,000: A People’s History of Coronations in Cambridgeshire“