The Birth of a Royal Baby: Then and Now

As the Queen met her great grandson, now named as George Alexander Louis, two days after his birth on 22 July 2013, newspapers and the wider media highlighted the fact that it was the first time in almost 120 years that a reigning monarch had met a great grandchild born in direct succession to the Crown. The last occasion was on 27 June 1894, when Queen Victoria met her great grandson, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, four days after his birth on 23 June 1894. The infant Edward, later Edward VIII, was also third in line to the throne.

As the Royal birth happened to just about coincide with a project team meeting, we unashamedly decided to capitalise on the event by considering the differences between royal births now and in the past. In recent days, anyone with access to any form of media knew when the Duchess of Cambridge had gone into labour. In 1894, newspaper reports, published after the event, more discreetly referred to Edward’s mother, Victoria Mary, the Duchess of York, having been ‘taken ill’.  As was the custom for the wealthy classes, the Duchess of York was delivered at home, home being White Lodge In Richmond, former Royal residence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert before his untimely death from typhoid in 1861. The Duchess of York was attended by an elite male obstetrician, in this case, John Williams of Harley Street, and the family’s medical advisor, John Wadd, rather than a midwife, as was the custom for the lower classes. Today, almost all births take place in a hospital setting, and yet this is only the second time an heir to the throne has been born in a hospital, the first being Prince William. All hospital settings are not equal though, with the cost of the Duchess of Cambridge’s stay and level of professional attendance at St Mary’s of London being widely covered in the press.

In 1894, the Duchess of York was attended by her mother-in-law, the Princess of Wales throughout her labour, in addition to the medical men. By Royal standards, this was a relatively private delivery. The London Gazette reported that Queen Victoria had been attended by no fewer than seven people, including her husband, at the birth of her first child in 1840, with a further 13 people in an adjoining room, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and various Ministers of government, and a further 8 members of the Royal household in an ante-room. Aside from Queen Victoria herself, and her Lady in Waiting, the members of the birth party were all men. This was a complete reversal of the practice up until the seventeenth century when only women were present at a royal birth. Contrary to popular belief, the Home Secretary was not usually in the room when a royal heir was delivered, but in an adjoining room.

The Birth in the Glasgow Herald, page 6

Much was made of the fact that news of the recent royal birth was conveyed by email and/or Twitter, a departure from the ‘tradition’ of announcing the birth on an easel outside Buckingham Palace. In 1894, the news was also spread using the most up-to-date modern technology: namely, the telegraph. The Scotsman reported that the Duke of York entirely blocked the local telegraph apparatus after the delivery, telegraphing close members of the Royal Family and the Home Secretary, Asquith, who made their way to White Lodge to see the new baby. In this case, Asquith came after the birth, and the  the baby was presented in another room by a nurse. Queen Victoria was also informed within a few minutes of the birth. Telegraphs were also sent within the hour to various other Royal personages across the globe, including the Kaiser of Germany, the Czar of Russia, the Sultan of Turkey and so on, showing the networks of power in place at the end of the 19th century. At some point, however, someone must have also informed the crowds waiting ‘at a respectful distance’ outside White Lodge, as the Scotsman reported ‘an outburst of enthusiasm throughout the district’ on the intimation of the news, with the churches of Mortlake and Barnes ringing out ‘merry peals’. (At least one can switch today’s media off). Were that not celebration enough, the good residents of the area around White Lodge lit bonfires and ‘gave vent to their unbounded enthusiasm in various ways’. Unfortunately, the Scotsman was hazy on the specifics of these various ways. However, coincidence-watchers might be interested to know that locals around White Lodge informally named the new baby George. And what of the people who were neither important Royal personages, nor loyal subjects waiting outside White Lodge? How did they find out? The birth was on a Saturday evening at 10pm, and the newspapers did not carry the story until the Monday morning.

But even in 1894, there were ways of sharing such happy news quickly. Both the Herald and the Scotsman reported that, at 10.48pm, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh was sent a telegram, and telegrams were sent through the press agencies to the clubs in and around Princes Street, Edinburgh, at around midnight. This refers to private gentlemen’s clubs, accessible only to wealthy men. Ministers across Scotland were informed by the Lord Provost, and shared the news with their congregations throughout the next day, which was of course a Sunday, with more joyful bell-ringing ensuing. Thus, to quote the Herald, ‘intelligence of the interesting event spread rapidly’. It is of course a measure of our times that news spreads via Twitter today rather than through Church attendance. However, reflecting on the hierarchies evident in 1894 as the news was spread, it is notable that, while one might assume electronic media is more egalitarian, the media and the Twittersphere were notified a good four hours after the birth in 2013.

And what of the traditional easel? A formal letter was written by Asquith to the Lord Mayor of London shortly after 11.30pm, who ‘at once’ had the letter posted outside the Mansion House. Then, as now, the most important part of the news, that mother and baby were doing well, was included.

Asquith's Letter