Fun with Flags and Furniture: The Material History of Royal Tours and the Invention of Tradition in New Brunswick

By Barry Mackenzie

I suspect most historians would agree that, in the midst of working on a larger project, there emerge tantalizing side stories that are both too intriguing to ignore, but often a little too tangential to form a central part of the narrative. Such was my experience with material history and the invention of tradition during royal visits to New Brunswick.

While documenting the ways in which the early 20th century anglophone press could reveal the attitudes and beliefs of New Brunswickers and the monarchy, the Empire, and sundry other things, I found myself constantly running into interesting tales of royal relics from days gone by. Whenever a new royal visitor was due to arrive, the people of the province always managed to dig up some artifact highlighting New Brunswick’s royal past. Often, it was a piece of furniture with royal provenance, or some other regal souvenir. In one particularly memorable instance, the relics in question were two stained and battered flags with an alleged provenance that would impress even the most diehard imperialist.

The tradition started early. In 1860, when the young Albert Edward, Prince of Wales visited New Brunswick, he was invited to watch a concert from the comfort of a chair that had been used by his grandfather, the Duke of Kent, during a tour of the province in 1794. 1901, the Daily Gleaner reported that local merchant John H. Reid “still has, and shows with considerable pride, the Royal Standard which flew over Government House here on the occasion of the visit of the Prince of Wales…forty years ago [in 1860]. Mr. Reid, who took a very active part in the reception of His Royal Highness, has also several other interesting momentoes [sic] of that event….”[1] Reid died in 1911; according to his obituary, he also had in his possession “the saddle on which the Prince rode through the streets of Fredericton.”[2]

The greatest scramble of all to resurrect royal relics, however, took place in 1939. That year, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth undertook a staggering month-long trip across the nation and back again, as well as a brief trip to the USA. For Canadians, this was unlike any other royal visit, because never before had a reigning sovereign set foot in the country. As such, the whole nation rolled out the red carpet, figuratively and literally. This included a particularly spirited race for artifacts with a royal provenance.

The subject of much discussion in the NB press was a chair that had been earmarked for the King’s use at the Legislative Assembly in Winnipeg. The chair had formerly been used by the president of New Brunswick’s Executive Council (abolished in 1892), but also provided a moment of rest for the aforementioned Prince of Wales in 1860.  The news of the chair’s intended use caused a reaction in Saint John, where the Evening Times-Globe proclaimed “Saint John possesses a chair of as much or greater interest in connection with the royal visit of [1860].” The city’s contender was a chair made for the 1860 visit and which had the added value of having been saved from destruction during the Great Fire of 1877.  As if these discoveries were not sufficiently thrilling, a chair and couch came to light in June 1939 which had been used by the Prince while he stayed at Chipman House in Saint John.  Should one be tempted to assume that interest in this chair mania was restricted to members of the press, consider that hundreds of people lined up to sit in the chairs used by the King and Queen when they visited the Legislative Assembly building in Fredericton.

Andrew W. Dodds (1865-1955) courtesy Marilyn Stewart Evans

The most exciting relics highlighted in 1939 were not really royal at all, however, though they had last seen the light of day at the time of the Coronation of Edward VII in 1902. The artifacts in question were two large flags, displayed in the small rural hamlet of Taymouth by their aged owner, Andrew Dodds. One of the flags, a naval ensign, reportedly bore a stain made by the blood of Admiral Nelson as he lay dying aboard HMS Victory after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. According to Dodds, the flags were given to a midshipman named Abercrombie to wash after the battle; instead, he took the flags home to his mother, who left them to her daughter, Dodds’ ancestor. Used by the York County militia in the 1870s, they had been stored away safely in Dodds’ home since 1877. The Daily Gleaner suggested, “it would seem that this Province has, through Mr. Dodds, relics whose historical value is almost impossible to estimate, forming as they do such a link with the great naval hero of Britain.”[3] The story was widely reported in Canadian papers, having been picked up by the Canadian Press.

Trafalgar Flags on display courtesy Marilyn Stewart Evans

Dodds told the Daily Gleaner that he had been offered significant sums of money by several collectors, but had refused to sell. Aside from their being displayed briefly in June 1939, Dodds had also declined to “place them on loan for historical purposes.”[4] He died in 1955. Today, the flags are still in the possession of his family. Whether the story about Nelson’s bloodstains is authentic or not, is almost irrelevant. For Dodds, his neighbours, and for the numerous New Brunswick, Canadian, and international journalists who wrote about the flags, they were potent symbols of Empire, having an almost mythological origin in the midst of one of the most iconic battles in British imperial history.

Trafalgar Relics Newspaper Story courtey Marilyn Stewart Evans

The display of royal relics persisted long after 1939, too. In 1951, the New Brunswick Museum put on display two figureheads (carved by local ship carvers) which had been erected on ceremonial arches in 1860, a ‘picture’ of firemen pulling the Prince of Wales’s coach in 1860, a silk map and timetable from 1901, and other royal souvenirs not related to tours.  The Evening Times-Globe carried a further report about a necklace, which had been worn by a local when she danced with the Prince of Wales in 1860, which had survived the Great Fire of 1877, and which was now in possession of her daughter.

Edward VII Bible from Christ Church Cathedral (courtesy Hank Williams).

Also in 1951, the then-Princess Elizabeth and her husband were shown a variety of artifacts during a visit to Christ Church Cathedral in Fredericton. These included a bible presented to the church by the Princess’s great-grandfather in 1860, as well as gold altar cloth that had been used in Westminster Abbey during the Coronation of William IV. The bible had been autographed by the King and Queen in 1939, and would later be signed by the Duchess of Kent and Princess Alexander in 1954, Princess Margaret in 1958, the Queen and Prince Philip again in 1984, and the current Prince of Wales in 1996. It’s not inconceivable that the bible will continue to make appearances during future royal visits to the province’s capital city.

I would argue that there was a twofold purpose of dusting off these relics and writing about them in the press. On the one hand, these reports added a local touch to predictable royal visit proceedings that were often repeated in town after town and at whistle stop after whistle stop. More importantly, they were about creating a royal tradition in a far-flung corner of the Empire, seeking to prove that the Loyalist Province and its people had a long-standing relationship with the Royal Family and the Empire of which it was the head.

The story of Andrew Dodds’ famous flags is arguably the penultimate example of the way in which these pieces of material history were used to highlight New Brunswick’s loyalty, and indeed its small connection to one of the most significant moments in 19th century British imperial history.

Barry Mackenzie teaches in the History Department at St. Francis Xavier University.

Sources

[1] Daily Gleaner, 14 October 1901, 8.

[2] Daily Gleaner, 5 January 1911, 1.

[3] Daily Gleaner, 9 June 1939, 9.

[4] Daily Gleaner, 9 June 1939, 9.

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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