Today (May 17) in London History – “the Captains and the Kings depart”

In one of her last public appearances Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for the V & A. That was on May 17, 1899. This podcast takes up the story.


The tumult and the shouting dies;

  The Captains and the Kings depart:

Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,

  An humble and a contrite heart.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;

  On dune and headland sinks the fire:

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

  Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Two stanzas from Kipling’s poem Recessional. 

They put it best.

They capture the feeling of the moment. The moment being that short ceremony on Cromwell Road, in London, on this day, May 17th, 1899. 

Yes, London calling.

London Walks connecting.

Today in London history beckoning.

It’s useful to think of this Today in London History podcast as an Extra edition of newspaper. An Extra edition that’s just a single sheet, printed on side only.  Effectively just a front page. A front page with a big headline and just one story –the story that accompanies that headline. 

Going to confide with you now. Sometimes it feels like I’m looking over my own shoulder when I’m deciding what’s going onto that front page.

I’ll be thinking – well, this option, this story, is pretty compelling but it’s not going to make the cut.

What is it about the one I’m going with today that gets it over the line and relegates that pretty compelling one to the sidelines? 

Why is this one the Extra? Why did it crowd that other one off the front page?

Today’s a really good case in point. 

I was sorry tempted to go with a May 17th story out of the 1930s. I mean when you’ve got a good tale already and it’s got the booster rocket of a 1938 photograph of the English football team giving the Nazi salute in front of a 100,000-strong crowd in a Berlin stadium – well, that’s got ‘look at me, investigate me’ written all over it. 

But in the end it went into the “also-ran” tray, the Rejection tray. Maybe next year.

Instead I plumped for what happened on May 17th, 1899. 

And when I thought about why the 1899 option made the running, I realised it had a booster rocket too. 

A contemporary booster rocket. I’m thinking about last week’s State Opening of Parliament. A ceremony the Queen has taken centre stage at for nearly 70 years now. But this year, for the only the third time in all those decades, her majesty had to pull out. Her son, the Prince of Wales, deputised for her. The other two times she missed what is after all a hugely important constitutional ceremony she was pregnant.

This time… well, it hardly needs spelling out. The plain fact of the matter is the queen is 96-years-old. She has, as Buckingham Palace puts it, “episodic mobility problems.”

So that was just in the air when I went fishing in London’s May 17th waters. Casting about for the event I was going to showcase on this Today in London History podcast.

And then suddenly there it was, On this day, May 17th, in 1899 the ageing Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for the Victoria and Albert Museum.

And it struck me so forcibly, the mood of that moment 123 years ago has a great deal in common with the mood of the moment here, today, right now – mid-May in the year of our Lord 2022. 

On May 17th, 1899 Queen Victoria was just a week away from her 80th birthday. At her Diamond Jubilee – two years earlier – the service at St Paul’s had had to be performed in front of the cathedral because the 78-year-old queen’s painful arthritis prevented her from climbing the cathedral steps. She stayed in the carriage for the duration of the 20-minute service at St Paul’s. And that was two years before our date in 1899.

And here’s a little extra for you. A historical nugget that’ll be catnip for those of you who live and breathe history. 

Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee had commenced with a solemn family Thanksgiving service at Windsor Castle on Sunday, June 20th, 1897 – the exact 60th anniversary of her inheritance of the throne. The next day she’d come to London. That night, Sunday night, there was a state banquet at Buckingham Palace. And here you go, here’s the aforementioned nugget, the unforgettable factoid: seated next to Victoria at that banquet was Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 would spark World War I.

Yes, like me, you won’t be forgetting that any time soon. 

Anyway, yes, the next day, Tuesday, was the service at St. Paul’s – the service that had to be held in front of St Paul’s because the ageing, arthritic queen had mobility issues, couldn’t climb the cathedral steps.

And – bears repeating – that Diamond Jubilee service was two years before today’s event – May 17, 1899 – when she laid the foundation stone of the Victoria & Albert Museum. 

Queen Victoria won’t live to see the building completed. It took ten years to build. Queen Victoria will be dead in less than two years. 

That day on Cromwell Road in 1899 had more than a touch of the valedictory about it. Everybody knew that it wouldn’t be too long now. Knew her date with eternity was just ahead. In the event Queen Victoria died early in 1901.  Reckon days in a life as grains of sand in an hourglass, the old Queen was down to her last 600  days, her last 600 grains of sand – when she laid that foundation stone. 

There’d be a last trip to Ireland – and one or two more public appearances but the sand all but run out of the hourglass told the story. As did her manifest frailty. The old queen was – as they used to say – failing fast. Her arthritis. Her mobility issues. Then there was her eyesight – it was clouded by cataracts. She felt weak and unwell. She was drowsy, dazed and confused.

Death was coming for the Queen – that was the ghost at the banquet of that foundation stone ceremony.

And to paraphrase the greatest American poet of them all, that carriage that’ll be stopping for Queen Victoria won’t be holding just her and Death and Immortality. It’ll also be holding, carrying off an era. Most people couldn’t remember a time when Queen Victoria wasn’t on a throne. Those days were all but over. 

That was the felt presence. Ergo the faint valedictory tone of the newspaper accounts of that ceremony on Cromwell Road.

We started with a few lines from Kipling. Let’s end with a few lines from the American poet I’ve already alluded to. Emily Dickinson knew about that felt presence, was able to articulate it better than any other poet.

Here’s how she puts it.

The Stillness Was like the Stillness in the Air – Between the Heaves of Storm.

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –

And Breaths were gathering firm

For that last Onset – when the King

Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away

What portion of me be

Assignable – and then it was

There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –

Between the light – and me –

And then the Windows failed – and then

I could not see to see –


But hey, we can see to see. There’s no blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz between us and Today in London.

So what else for it but carpe diem – don’t miss the Victoria & Albert Museum tour that London Walks serves up every Friday. Today in London recommendations don’t come any better than being shown round that great museum with art historians Simon and Molly. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The walking tour company invariably dialled up by those who know. Numbered among those who know, many many Londoners. We get more Londoners and their patriots than we get tourists. So there’s some sage, time-honoured advice for you, “when in London,  do as Londoners do.” 

It’s a perfect fit: savvy, discerning visitors, tack-sharp Londoners and elite guides. Guides who are well-connected, experienced, accomplished professionals:

barristers, doctors, geologists, historians, archaeologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors. Let alone London Walks’ Delta Squad members: the creme de la creme of Blue Badge, Westminster and City

of London professionally qualified guides.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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