123: Chelsea Barracks, London, June 1897

Celebrations to mark Queen Victoria’s sixty years as monarch were scheduled for June 1897 and held in many locations in the British Isles and abroad. The Royal Navy – and visiting warships from European nations – put on a magnificent display in the Solent, attended by monarchs and potentates, diplomats and the powerful. The major event was the parade in London, from Buckingham Palace to St Paul’s Cathedral (where the now queen-empress sat in her carriage as she was too frail to climb the steps and enter the grand building), and back.

London’s barracks accommodated some of the troops, and there was a tent city for 17,000 men on the heathland at Hounslow (today: London airport). All together 46,881 soldiers with 6,808 horses and 116 guns paraded through the streets. There were more than sixty bands too. Indian and colonial troops totalling 1,077 men participated. Many of them were based in tents in Chelsea barracks, and the curious were attracted by such semi-exotics in their colourful uniforms who could be seen through the railings. The bulk of the soldiers from the British West Indies were artillerymen, who were on training courses at Woolwich. They were from Jamaica, St Lucia, Trinidad, and British Guiana: and Bermuda. The West India Regiment was represented by a non-commissioned officer and six men from both the 1st and the 2nd battalions, much attention being paid to Sergeant William Gordon who had been awarded Britain’s highest recognition of military bravery, the Victoria Cross, in 1892.

There was a handful of men from the Sierra Leone Frontier Force, and the police forces of British West Africa’s Nigeria and Gold Coast [Ghana] were represented by Hausas,  Nigerians favoured for military purposes by the British. Sikh police from Hong Kong and Malaysia, Chinese police from Hong Kong, Dyaks from Borneo, and various Indian soldiers were joined by Australians. It was noted that the New Zealand Mounted Rifles included nineteen Maoris: one was a captain. Theatre managers invited them to their shows, free of charge, and the Methodists arranged a church service at their missionary society head quarters in Bishopsgate, which was well attended (Gordon went). Others with connections to the men’s natal lands were welcoming too, and Hausas stayed a weekend near Sevenoaks at the stately home of Sir William Geary, attorney-general of the Gold Coast.

The Daily News of 24 June 1897 noted: ‘a cynical observer writes: The crowd of nursemaids and West London maidens assembled around Chelsea Barracks to flirt with the foreign visitors is so rapidly growing as to threaten to make the road way impassable. It is not uncommon to behold half-a-dozen respectable looking girls hanging around one little Hausa or stately Sikh’.

What the visiting soldiers thought is unknown.

Information from Daily News (London), 24 June 1897; Morning Post (London), 17 June 1897; The Times (London), 12 June 1897 p 14 and 21 June 1897 p 17.


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