It would be wrong to think because the holiday is called ‘Victoria Day’, that only royalists participate. Although originally developed as a tribute to the long serving monarch, the day is well timed. As comedian Robin Williams observed “Spring is nature’s way of saying “Let’s party””. Of course William’s was not talking about Queen Victoria’s birthday, but it’s Spring timing and it’s long association with excursions and picnics, has done a lot for how and why the day (and the Former Queen) still gets celebrated in Canada.
Our Canadian winters are long and difficult, by the 3rd week of May, winter’s grip on the country has all but gone and we are in dire need of some fun in the warm spring sunshine. Although our celebrations have changed from picnics and excursions, to cottages and back yards, the need for a Spring break remains the same.
Originally celebrated on the 24 May, Victoria’s actual birthday, today the holiday falls on the Monday prior to the 25 May each year. So why the lingering relationship?…once again timing plays a part. Queen Victoria’s reign overlapped with the industrial revolution, and the resultant widespread modernization and change. During this period many Canadians moved from living in rural communities to urban life and work in the country’s factories.
For ordinary Canadians the first few years of the official celebration of Victoria’s birthday went without notice, but by the 1880’s that had changed. As modern technologies became more widespread, a bit of time taken in pursuit of pleasure became the norm, including for the working class both rural and urban. The experience of Victoria day for Letitia Lyons born 1869 in Chatham, New Brunswick would probably have included a holiday excursion picnic on the river, but not on a private boat.
Although picnics had been reserved for the wealthy, by the 1880s churches, and local clubs were organizing excursions for working class families. A single day in the fresh air with friends and family was possible even as a longer vacation remained beyond the grasp of most people.
For Elizabeth Groves born to a working class family in 1848 in the small island out port community of Cinque Cerf, NL1, a celebration of Empire Day2 would certainly have involved a picnic and an excursion. The collection of fishing communities on the South coast, many although now isolated and abandoned were at the time center to fishing trade and supply. The many bays, island and inlets conveniently located near the bountiful Rose Blanche fishing banks, afforded the fishing fleet a base, to land their catch, seek shelter, and supplies. During summer months, the ports and communities of the South coast were as central as any other Atlantic Canadian port.
Both the Miramichi region and Newfoundland’s south coast had been linked to Triangular trade3, with Europe and the West Indies during the 18th century. They would continue to be key to Empire’s supply of raw materials to factories elsewhere in the Empire . Cheap dried salted fish from Newfoundland’s fishing banks went to feed the workers on the sugar and cocoa plantations of the West Indies. Lumber, and eventually value added products from the Miramichi went to feed mills and markets in the UK.
Like most young women of their time, Elizabeth and Letitia would likely have followed news of the Empress Queen and her family. They would have heard about the trend of picnics, for working class families like their own, sweeping England. Of course Elizabeth and Letitia’s picnic would have far more humble than that of their wealthier neighbours.
A select few dined aboard their private boats, on neatly cornered sandwiches with crusts trimmed. Sandwiches filled with meat and cheese all served on fine bone china. For dessert a selection of hand held treats, including cakes, and pies.
Elizabeth and Letitia would have prepared a picnic of thick slices of whole grain bread, filled with roast meat, fish, chicken, possibly venison. Dessert might well have been more bread spread with jam or molasses. But it might just have included a cake, something hardy but just a bit ‘special’. Their picnic was wrapped in paper and snugged next to their bottle of fruit shrub in a basket.
The ‘special’ ingredients available to Letitia and Elizabeth would have included cocoa. Grown in the West Indies, cocoa from plantations in Trinidad and Tobago4 was making its way in to the markets and diets of the East coast by the late 19th century. First introduced in Europe more than a century before, chocolate had taken a while to become available to working class families. It is possible that this cake made with cocoa and oatmeal would have appeared in Elizabeth and Letitia’s picnic baskets. Dark, rich and delicious this Chocolate oatmeal cake from My Mother’s Cookbooks, is a wonderful blend of the ordinary and the special. Its moistness and flavour does not require frosting making it a logical choice for a picnic.
Chocolate Oatmeal Cake
1/2 cup rolled oats
4 Tbsps of Cocoa
1 cup boiling water
1/2 cup oil or melted butter (other fat)
11/2 cups brown sugar
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
pinch of salt
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Mix oats, cocoa and water together and set aside
3. Cream, sugar, eggs and oil together in another bowl
4. Combine dry ingredients and add to egg mixture;
5. Add oats and stir to combine
6. Bake in a 8 inch x 8 inch greased pan for 30 minutes or until it springs back when tested.
Chatham, Northumberland County, New Brunswick
The former town of Chatham, NB now comprises a good part of the current city of Miramichi. NB. Located on the main Miramichi river, Chatham’s location a short boat ride to Miramichi Bay, made it a prime location for wharves and other port facilities to serve the regions lumber industry. The large old growth timber once prized for its use as ship masts had served to open the area up for settlement beginning in the late 18th century.
By 1900 Chatham and the region had developed and diversified, mills and manufacturing facilities were dotted along Chatham’s waterfront. Victoria Day would have seen the bustling town festooned with colourful flags and banners. Those enjoying the days festivities would have been entertained with music and other forms of entertainment, brass bands were particularly popular at the time.
Explanations and Resources:
1. Cinque Cerf, Newfoundland is an island in Cinque Cerf bay on the South coast of the Island of Newfoundland. The fishing community which in 1870 boasted a population of 30 souls, was abandoned by 1911. Located a few miles west of the small but bustling ports of Rose Blanche and Petites, the island affords, inlets with beautiful sandy beaches, rolling hills and fresh spring fed ponds. It is entirely possible that local Victoria Day revelers would have made Cinque Cerf their holiday excursion.
2. Until Newfoundland joined the Canadian Confederation in 1949, the annual celebration was known as “Empire Day”.
3. Triangular trade is the pattern of trade established by the European empires, where raw materials from the colonies were transported to Europe for processing and manufacturing. The slave trade, where Africans from West Africa were transported to the West Indies to toil in the sugar plantations, was key to triangular trade. The end of slavery did not end the lucrative trade.
4. Trinidad and Tobago, a nation of two islands in the former British West Indies, was home to both sugar and cocoa plantations. Depending first on the labour of African slaves, by the mid 19th century, indentured servants from the Indian sub continent joined former slaves, toiling in the islands’ plantations.