Saturday, May 6, 2017

Victoria's Light

London's "Great Exposition" opened May 1, 1851 in Hyde Park. It was an amazing place, most of the exhibit enclosed in an opulent glass building called the Crystal Palace. The public was infatuated with the place and its many inventions and ideas on display.

The exposition was the brainchild of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The two are pictured below with their children, opening the exposition from a carpeted dais inside the Crystal Palace. Victoria was wearing a pink gown. Prince Albert was in a red jacket.

A newspaper of the day reported:

LONDON 1 MAY 1851. Queen Victoria came today to Hyde Park to open the world’s most remarkable demonstration of human ingenuity and resourcefulness . The Great Exhibition - devised by Prince Albert, planned by a specially created Royal Commission and housed in a fairy tale structure of iron and glass. “The Crystal Palace”, itself one of the most striking artifacts on show  - is expected, during its five month existence, to attract at least 6 million visitors.

Prince Albert wanted to show the world the latest in science and technology and showcase Great Britain as a leader in the effort to move the world forward. (And, he probably wanted to upstage France's 1844 exposition.) He was a man of great intelligence, vision, and energy, though he has often been panned by historians. Perhaps being married to such a brassy and bossy woman as Queen V overshadowed his contributions.

 Below are images of the real Victoria and Albert, a rather homely but capable pair--

And below is the BBC's recent vision of the two in Victoria, played by popular British actors Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes. They are, to be sure, considerably more attractive.

Why so much talk about history's most famous Royal Couple? Well, they had a lighthouse, you see, built especially for the "Great Exposition," and it still stands today, though in a different place and in a much dilapidated condition.

The famous sentinel at first stood on the grounds of Hyde Park as a technology exhibit for the Great Exposition. But it also was Great Britain's subtle way of bragging about its lighthouse authority, Trinity House (chartered under King Henry VIII) and the organization's vanguard work. The 100-foot-tall, cast-iron lighthouse was a favorite with visitors who enjoyed climbing its spiral iron stairway for a dizzying view of the park and the glass palace that dominated the exposition. Affection for the lighthouse and for the monarchy soon produced the nickname Victoria's Lighthouse.

Though my research did not turn up an image of Victoria's Light at the Exposition, I did find an engraving of the Chance Brothers lens exhibit, seen above.

When the exposition closed at the end of 1851, Victoria's Lighthouse was dismantled and readied for genuine use somewhere in the British Empire. Rumor has it the lighthouse was at first suggested for Sri Lanka. Perhaps other destinations were planned as well. But ultimately, the pieces were taken to the Bahamas and the lighthouse was reassembled on remote and uninhabited Great Isaac Island.

Two ships were needed to ship the many parts of the lighthouse. When the vessels neared the Bahamas they encountered a powerful storm. One of the ships went aground, but the work crew on board was able to salvage all the lighthouse pieces and load them onto another ship.

When everything arrived at Great Isaac Island, the ships and their crews and passengers were greeted by a handsome white stallion running on the beach. A rope was quickly fetched, and an attempt was made to lasso the fine horse. He was too spirited, however, and led the men on a fast chase. Further down the beach, the horse stumbled, fell, and broke its neck. Tragically, it died within minutes.

The question as to why such a beautiful horse was running loose on isolated Great Isaac Island was answered some hours later when the lighthouse work crew discovered a shipwreck on the opposite side of the island. Dead bodies lay on the beach and floated in the sea. Flotsam was strewn everywhere, and the wrecked ship lay in pieces. The horse had obviously been on board. It escaped drowning after the wreck and had swum ashore, only to die from an unfortunate stumble.

The men kindly buried all the dead, including the horse. But a surprise greeted them when they found a live baby girl clutched in her dead mother's arms. The baby was taken to Nassau and given to a family. As you might guess, a ghost story arose about the mother searching for her child. She roamed the beach and the grounds of the new lighthouse and its two houses for the lightkeepers. The men named her the Gray Lady. Her nightly haunting only stopped after the men found her grave and held a proper christian burial for her, adding to the service the story of how her child had been adopted by a fine Nassau family. The restless spirit seemed satisfied and no longer appeared on stormy nights. (Or else the keepers got tired of telling her story and made up a good ending!)

Today, Great Isaac Island Lighthouse looks sad and neglected. The images below convey a less than royal fate for a once royal lighthouse. Feisty, little Queen Victoria would surely be sad to see her lighthouse so unloved. But I bet Prince Albert would be amazed to see it running on solar power.

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