Even at 82, Queen Victoria left a nation unprepared for her death

The British excel at great state occasions, reports Clare Garner
Click to follow
The Independent Online
In a strangely similar way, Queen Victoria's death, despite her great age, was unexpected. It might have been supposed that there would have been some forward planning for such an important event, particularly given that she was 82 years old. This, however, was not the case and her ceremony in 1901, like Diana's, had to be planned from scratch in a matter of days.

The late Queen's household pulled it off - just. Whereas the funerals of her predecessors had always been at night, Queen Victoria's took place in the daytime, a custom followed ever since.

Other traditions - such as the dragging of the gun-carriage - also began with Victoria's send-off, albeit by accident. A mishap at Windsor station brought about the birth of a new royal tradition. As the coffin was placed upon the gun-carriage on which it was to be drawn to St George's Chapel, the horses of the Royal Horse Artillery kicked over and broke their traces. It was therefore suggested that the naval guard of honour should replace the horses and drag the gun-carriage to the castle. The effect was so striking that the practice has been followed at every sovereign's funeral since.

Mishaps or no mishaps, the words of a man from Chicago as he gazed in wonder at Sir Winston Churchill's funeral ring true today. "No one can do this sort of thing like the British," he said.

Despite its uniqueness, Saturday's ceremony will be stamped with the same solemnity as the magnificent state funerals of the past.

Just as Saturday 30 January 1965 went down in the history books as "a triumphant Churchillian day", so Saturday 6 September 1997 will be remembered as "Diana's day".

On such occasions, the sense of loss is offset by the pageantry and pomp, and the silence is set to music. The streets of London are lined with mourners, many of whom have stayed up all night with their vacuum flasks of coffee.

By 3am on the morning of Churchill's funeral there were more than 500 mourners outside the cathedral. By daybreak the humble and the mighty were crammed cheek by jowl, some on balconies and others squeezed into doorways.

State funerals embody not only a person; they also capture a mood, become part of the British saga.

In the case of Sir Winston Churchill, the nation was saying farewell to a man who had saved their country. Similarly, Queen Victoria's death, coming as it did at the dawn of the new century, marked the end of an era. "She was our Mother," wrote Marie Corelli, the popular novelist.

On the day of Sir Winston's funeral, hundreds of thousands watched the procession as his coffin was borne from Westminster Hall, up the Strand and Fleet Street, to St Paul's cathedral. Some stood along the river to witness the quiet journey upstream to Festival Pier. After the ceremony, the coffin was taken by launch from Tower Pier to Waterloo Station, on its way to burial. Everything was done with astonishing precision.

Unlike Diana, who will be interred on the same day as the funeral, Queen Victoria's body was simply carried into Albert Memorial Chapel adjacent to St George's Chapel, where it lay for two days, until it was drawn in a procession to the mausoleum at nearby Frogmore to be reunited with that of the late Prince Albert.

Merged with the crowd was the press. While we will take for granted the television coverage of the Princess's procession and funeral, for Churchill's funeral in 1965 it was a mass operation the like of which no one had known before.

The television coverage was a story in itself. Cassandra wrote in the Daily Mirror of "the Great Pagan God Telly", and there were marvelling accounts of the BBC's 35 cameras. Live television coverage had the biggest audience ever recorded - 350 million in Europe alone. Churchill's funeral, one of the most complex technical operations in television history, went virtually without a hitch.

Although the BBC had been planning the event for five years, it had only five days for practical preparations. Richard Dimbleby narrated for the BBC and Sir Laurence Olivier for ITV.

The world stood still for Churchill, just as it will on Saturday for Diana. Stores, cinemas and theatres closed. Footballers and racegoers stood, heads bowed, for one minute's silence.

Big Ben framed the day's mourning. The mighty 13-ton bell struck at 9.45am and then fell silent. At midnight, the clock which had heralded all Churchill's great wartime speeches began to strike again, announcing the dawn of the first day without the man who had been at the helm of people's lives for generations.

For many, this Sunday will seem similarly strange.