The news of Wellington’s great victory at Waterloo precipitated an outpouring of celebration across the United Kingdom. This was fuelled partly by relief that the long years of struggle against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France were at last really over.
But even more, compared to the rejoicing which had followed the supposed coming of peace the previous year, the events of the Hundred Days could plausibly be characterised as a triumph for British arms. Though patriots might acknowledged the contribution of Britain’s allies, the latter’s role was viewed as having been subsidiary; certainly as non-essential. To admit otherwise would be to diminish the achievements of a warrior whose fame was now generally held to have outshone Marlborough’s; whilst the apotheosis that was Waterloo was held to have eclipsed Agincourt exactly 400 years before. As one soldier put it, “Many a battle had been fought in the Peninsula with as much credit and bravery, but there was a combination of circumstances at Waterloo which gave éclat irresistible.” Even for those too young to fully understand, there was at least the recognition that something exceptional had just taken place. A pupil at Kimbolton School recalled how George Cole, legendary for his severity as an English teacher and boarding master, had ordered a half-holiday when news of the victory reached him. “There was no more work that day, and though most of us were too young fully to appreciate the effects of the victory, the joy on everyone’s countenance [was]…sufficient to impress us with the fact that the event was of great and vital importance to the country.”
Celebration and commemoration took many forms. Ringing of church bells was the first and most common. Individuals chose to mark the news in their own unique way. The Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, went with William Wordsworth and other Lakeland acquaintances to the summit of Skiddaw, where they ate roast beef and plum pudding whilst singing the national anthem. Even whilst they feasted, other writers had begun scribbling. By the end of 1815, there were at least seventy books or pamphlets relating to the battle in print. But it was poetry that was initially seen as the most apt written medium. Admittedly, much of it was execrable doggerel but Robert Southey’s The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo and Walter Scott’s The Field of Waterloo enjoyed popular success. And the third canto of Byron’s Childe Harold, completed in June 1816, remains a classic.
When it came to more solid memorials, people and communities metaphorically fell over themselves in undertaking initiatives which would consciously link civil pride with what their countrymen had achieved on the slopes of Mont St Jean. The Marquis of Lothian had caused a monument standing a hundred feet high to be raised and dedicated as early as mid-October 1815. From Haworth Parsonage, the Rev Patrick Brontë and his daughters would be able to look across the moors and see the monument celebrating Napoleon’s defeat, completed in 1815, surmounting Stoodley Pike. The foundation stone of Robert Smirke’s memorial to Wellington in Dublin’s Phoenix Park was laid on 18 June 1817. On the Blackdown Hills in Somerset, overlooking the town of Wellington, some 10,000 people attended the ceremony to lay the foundation stone for another Wellington monument in October 1817. Six acres of land around the memorial were to be tenanted by three former servicemen, respectively from England, Scotland and Ireland. Their duties included maintaining the four-acre memorial site and helping to oversee an annual athletics festival on 18 June. It was not quite the Olympic Games: a handbill for the self-styled 1819 Waterloo Fair invited hopefuls to participate in wrestling, donkey racing and jumping in a bag! A prize of five guineas was on offer for the champion. Though notable, these were hardly unique examples. A column to the Marquis of Anglesey (who, as Lord Uxbridge, was famously wounded in the leg near the end of the battle), was completed on the island in 1817 and still affords a spectacular view of the Menai Strait and Snowdonia. In southern Wales, at Carmarthen, in August 1825, an estimated 10,000 people attended the ceremony to mark the laying of the foundation stone to Britain’s best known fatality in the battle, Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton. Picton’s Waterloo medal was placed beneath it. The memorial was officially opened on Waterloo Day 1828. Meanwhile, local legend has it that it was a group of returning veterans who decided to settle just north of Portsmouth on the London road, that gave rise to the new settlement that came to be known as Waterlooville. In Sanditon, her unfinished novel of 1817, Jane Austen caught the mania for building especially well when she described how Mr Parker proudly showed a visitor the fruits of his attempts to turn a Kentish coastal village into a fashionable resort. “You will not think that I have made a bad exchange when we reach Trafalgar House – which by the bye, I almost wish I had not named Trafalgar – for Waterloo is more the thing now. However, Waterloo is in reserve – and if we have encouragement enough this year for a little Crescent to be ventured upon – (as I trust we shall) then, we shall be able to call it Waterloo Crescent.”
London too, of course, had – and has – its fair share of testimonials to the Iron Duke and his most famous victory. The modern A-Z includes at least eight Waterloo Roads and twenty Wellington Roads. The best known landmark in the Metropolis, however, was Waterloo Bridge. The original structure was opened on 18 June 1817 when the Duke processed across it arm in arm with the Prince Regent and the Duke of York. Designed by the Scottish engineer, John Rennie, it was 2,890 feet in length. The Times effused that “No mode of perpetuating great deeds by works of art is more consistent with good taste than where such works combine, in a high degree, what is ornamental with what is useful. Monuments of this kind have stronger claims on public respect than the costly construction of pillars, obelisks, and towers.” The bridge quickly came to assume a special status as a sort of national memorial to the battle. More ephemeral was the annual fete held in Vauxhall Gardens, whose highlight was a re-enactment of the battle on a site covering several acres. In its early years numerous veterans took part. The only regular event to rival it was J. M. Amherst’s The Battle of Waterloo staged at Astley’s Amphitheatre from 1824. It provided the perfect vehicle for the famous equestrian performer, Andrew Ducrow. It ran initially for 144 nights and was several times revived over the next half century. As a one-off spectacular, however, both would be upstaged by the regatta on the Thames organised by the Duke of Clarence (later William IV), on 18 June 1828. It was reputed to be the first event of its kind since the reign of Charles II. There was arguably, nothing like it again until the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations of 2012. The most iconic of all Waterloo gatherings though, was the annual dinner hosted by Wellington for officers who had served with him during the 1815 campaign. This was held each 18 June at Apsley House, the Duke’s London home. What began fairly quietly around 1820 quickly became a media event attracting large crowds anxious to catch a glimpse of their heroes.
In an age before the advent of telecommunications, however, popular celebration of 18 June during Wellington’s lifetime inevitably assumed a local character. The ringing of church bells, though in decline by the mid-1840s, was still widespread. For most ordinary Britons it was above all, a convenient midsummer date on which to eat, drink and make merry. These ranged from public dinners in Aberdeen, to balls and suppers in Ipswich and dinner dances at Pontefract. The military marked Waterloo Day in its own way: those who had fought in the campaign were excused duty and received an extra day’s pay; those on duty sported laurel leaves in their caps. Veterans might dine together and relive past glories: in Bury St Edmunds, until he died in 1836, the master of ceremonies was William Middleditch, erstwhile of the Grenadier Guards, and latterly landlord of the Ram Inn. But veterans were also much sought after guests. Corporal John Dickson, the last survivor of the charge of the Scots Greys spent 18 June 1855 in the coffee room of his local inn in Crail, clay pipe in hand, ready to recount his Waterloo story to both habitués and visitors. In that part of Fife “Waterloo Day was a high day in the village, kept in ripe memory by the flags flying and the procession of school children, decked in summer attire and gay with flowers, to do honour to ‘mine host,’ whose deeds of valour were on every tongue.”
Wellington’s death, in September 1852, in many ways marked a natural end to Waterloo commemoration. Locally, in some places, such as Sheffield and Preston, a dwindling band of veterans kept the memory of 18 June alive. The view from on high, however, especially when Britain found itself in alliance with France during the Crimean War, was that it was impolitic for former antagonisms to be remembered in public. The fiftieth and seventy-fifth anniversaries of the battle attracted relatively little notice. There were, however, plans for a series of international events to mark the centenary. In Britain these were to have focused around an imperial exhibition. Instead, the outbreak of a new Great War in 1914 rendered most projects irrelevant, underscoring the fact that the Hundred Days was indeed past history. Paradoxically, it would not be until after the Second World War, specifically with the rise of the idea of greater cooperation between European nations, that Waterloo can be seen to have assumed a new relevance. Though perhaps questionable history, there can be no gainsaying the worthiness of the European ideal as the theme to inform commemorations of the bicentenary of the events of 1815.
This article is based on material from the author’s Wellington and Waterloo. The Duke, the Battle and Posterity 1815-2015, The History Press, 2014.