Happy (un)Birthday, Your Maj


Yes, Ma’am, another un-birthday- although given that your birthday is celebrated on multiple days in multiple countries, and you have your ‘real’ birthday and your ‘official’ birthday, you must be about 428 years old by now.  We’re celebrating it today in Australia- although not all of Australia mind you- Western Australia celebrates it on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October. This is because Western Australia celebrates its Foundation Day on the first Monday in June, and we can’t use up all our Public Holidays at once, can we ma’am?

Her Maj’s birthday is actually on 21 April, but after George V died they decided to keep the ‘official’ birthday on or around 3rd June, which was his birthday.  England celebrates the Trooping of the Colours on the 1st, 2nd or 3rd Saturday in June, but this actually commemorates the anniversary of Elizabeth’s coronation on 2 June 1952.  And it doesn’t really count because it’s a Saturday.  Anything worth celebrating is worth a day off, I reckon.

Up until 1936 the Monarch’s  birthday was celebrated on the actual day.  So up until 1820 that would have been 4 June for George III; between 1820-1830 it was 12 August for George IV; between 1830-1837 King William IV’s birthday was celebrated on 21 August, then 24th May for Victoria’s birthday between 1837-1901.  You’ll note that these are all in summerish months in England.  Edward VII’s birthday on 9 November was celebrated between 1901-10 and both he and his people came to appreciate the idea of birthday celebrations in summer rather than winter.  George V’s birthday was honoured on 3 June between 1910-1936- a more favourable date for Northern Hemisphere climes than November.  It’s been 3rd of June or thereabouts ever since.

New South Wales celebrated King’s Birthday right from the start.  David Collins described the first celebration of King’s Birthday in 1788

His Majesty’s birthday was kept with every attention that it was possible to distinguish it by in this country; the morning was ushered in by the discharge of twenty-one guns from the Sirius and Supply; on shore the colours were hoisted at the flag-staff, and at noon the detachment of marines fired three volleys; after which the officers of the civil and military establishment waited upon the governor, and paid their respects to his excellency in honor of the day. At one o’clock the ships of war again fired twenty-one guns each; and the transports in the cove made up the same number between them, according to their irregular method on those occasions. The officers of the navy and settlement were entertained by the governor at dinner, and, among other toasts, named and fixed the boundaries of the first county in his Majesty’s territory of New South Wales. This was called Cumberland County, in honor of his Majesty’s second brother; and the limits of it to the northward were fixed by the northernmost point of Broken Bay, to the southward by the southernmost point of Broken [sic] Bay, and to the westward by Lansdown and Carmarthen Hills (the name given to the range of mountains seen by the governor in an excursion to the northward). At sunset the ships of war paid their last compliment to his Majesty by a third time firing twenty-one guns each. At night several bonfires were lighted; and, by an allowance of spirits given on this particular occasion, every person in the colony was enabled to drink his Majesty’s health.

Some of the worst among the convicts availed themselves of the opportunity that was given them in the evening, by the absence of several of the officers and people from their tents and huts, to commit depredations. One officer on going to his tent found a man in it, whom with some difficulty he secured, after wounding him with his sword. The tent of another was broken into, and several articles of wearing apparel stolen out of it; and many smaller thefts of provisions and clothing were committed among the convicts. Several people were taken into custody, and two were afterwards tried and executed.

The following year was slightly more decorous:

The anniversary of his Majesty’s birthday, the second time of commemorating it in this country, was observed with every distinction in our power; for the first time, the ordnance belonging to the colony were discharged; the detachment of marines fired three volleys, which were followed by twenty-one guns from each of the ships of war in the cove; the governor received the compliments due to the day in his new house, of which he had lately taken possession as the government-house of the colony, where his excellency afterwards entertained the officers at dinner, and in the evening some of the convicts were permitted to perform Farquhar’s comedy of the Recruiting Officer, in a hut fitted up for the occasion. They professed no higher aim than ‘humbly to excite a smile,’ and their efforts to please were not unattended with applause.

Thomas Keneally drew on this for his novel The PlaymakerWatkin Tench has a description of it too:

The anniversary of his majesty’s birth-day was celebrated, as heretofore, at the government-house, with loyal festivity. In the evening, the play of ‘The Recruiting Officer’ was performed by a party of convicts, and honoured by the presence of his excellency, and the officers of the garrison. That every opportunity of escape from the dreariness and dejection of our situation should be eagerly embraced, will not be wondered at. The exhilarating effect of a splendid theatre is well known: and I am not ashamed to confess, that the proper distribution of three or four yards of stained paper, and a dozen farthing candles stuck around the mud walls of a convict-hut, failed not to diffuse general complacency on the countenances of sixty persons, of various descriptions, who were assembled to applaud the representation. Some of the actors acquitted themselves with great spirit, and received the praises of the audience: a prologue and an epilogue, written by one of the performers, were also spoken on the occasion; which, although not worth inserting here, contained some tolerable allusions to the situation of the parties, and the novelty of a stage-representation in New South Wales.

By the time our Judge Willis arrived in Port Phillip, it was Queen Victoria’s birthday that was being celebrated on 24th May, as it was to be for sixty-five years.  From the 1820s onwards, Sydney society had celebrated the Birth Day of the monarch with  a levee and ball at Government House, and by 1841 a similar practice was proposed for Melbourne.  However arrangements broke down in acrimony in 1841 over whether the ball should be a public or a private event.

The private ball (sneering described as the ‘Dignity Ball’ by its critics) was defended by the Port Phillip Herald as a private occasion that had been postponed from the race-week earlier in the year, and that it just happened to occur on the Birth Day.  The Herald argued

When the Government give a ball, which is generally on the birth day of the sovereign, cards of invitation are issued to the public and to different classes of society and this is as it should be for a simple and substantial reason- the expenses are defrayed out of the public purse. (PPH 7 May 1841)

However, this was a private occasion, overseen by stewards prominent in Port Phillip Society at the time: Simpson, Powlett, Meek, James McArthur, J. Lyon Campbell, Verner and Major St John.

The Port Phillip Gazette and Port Phillip Patriot, affronted at these “upstart exclusives” and “ill-bred puppies” proposed a truly public ball to be held at Yarra Yarra House in Flinders Street on 24th May, with admission tickets for a gentleman and a lady priced at 2 guineas.  Messrs Abrahams, Langhorne, Kerr and Sullivan were stewards, with Connolly and Urquhart’s disputed involvement.

So who won the Battle of the Balls? The private ball was postponed until 4 June, then later until 8th June to accommodate Presbyterian families who would not have been able to attend on the 4th because that week had been set aside for religious observances.  The Public Ball went ahead on 24th as planned, but it rained.  The Private Ball took place on 8th June, attended by 44 ladies and 67 gentlemen; the stewards provided a most magnificent supper, which was done ample justice, and festivities continued until 5.00 a.m.  In a coup for the  more exclusive Private Ball,  Superintendent La Trobe and his wife attended: they had not attended the Public Ball.

The next year only one private ball was held.  I find myself wondering why the fuss of the preceding year was not repeated: perhaps it had been just newspaper hot-air. The Port Phillip Herald of 27th May devotes half a column to it:

THE BALL. The most splendid entertainment that has ever yet taken place in the province was held in the long room of the Royal Exchange on Wednesday evening, in honor of the Queen’s birth-day.  The ball, although got up by private subscription, and as one of the regular “private assemblies”, was attended by nearly all the rank and fashion of our rising town.  Notwithstanding the very unfavourable  state of the weather, and the almost impassable state of the roads, the ball room was crowded at an early hour.  Several of the gentlemen appeared in rich fancy disguise, and some of the dresses were very much and deservedly admired.  The gentleman who appeared as an Italian Brigand was perhaps the most successful in attracting the fair notice of the visitors, although there were other parties very elegantly attired.  The enlivening colour of the different fancy dresses added much to the brilliancy of the entertainment, which was considerably increased by the fascinating beauty of several of the ladies, who, believing that “beauty unadorned is adorned the most,” trusted to their usual tastes in not appearing in fancy costume.  His Honor Mr La Trobe and Lady honoured the Ball with their presence, and dancing was kept up with the greatest spirit throughout the whole evening; the arrangements altogether were excellent.  The music gave evident satisfaction, and was only eclipsed by the management of the supper, which met with deserved encouragement, and reflected great credit upon the caterers of this very necessary appendage to a dance.  Nearly three hundred persons, it is calculated, graced the scene, and all departed to their homes highly delignted with the evening’s amusement.

Georgiana McCrae attended the 1843 Queens Birthday Ball and describes it as follows:

Dr Thomas drove out in his gig and took me to town.  At 10 p.m. we went en masse to the Mechanic’s Institute.  All the elite of the colony assembled, and in full swing, including Mr and Mrs La Trobe; the Mayor, Mr Condell and his niece, dressed in Mantis green, not unlike the insect itself in the waltz attitude. Mr C. H. Ebden’s movements somewhat eccentric, now and then cannoning among his neighbours…Dancing was kept up briskly till after 1.a.m.

Well, ma’am no dancing any more.  In fact, it’s a dead loss as a celebration of anything except perhaps the opening of the ski season and a few football matches.  And a very merry un-birthday to you ma’am.


Paul de Serville Port Phillip Gentlemen

Hugh McCrae (ed) Georgiana’s Journal

Ken Inglis Australian Colonists Ch.4

2 responses to “Happy (un)Birthday, Your Maj

  1. Pingback: Day 2 Toronto | From Muddy York to the Great Wen

  2. Pingback: Queens Birthday | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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