Toronto

For this Canadian, Victoria Day honours an often misunderstood queen

For many Canadians, Victoria Day is simply a euphemism for long weekend. But for one Thornville, Ont., woman, it's a celebration of a monarch who reigned during a transformational time in history.

'What can humanize a person more than touching a pair of their knickers?' Barbara Rusch asks

Barbara Rusch has spent more than three decades collecting historical items from the Victorian era. (CBC)

For many Canadians, Victoria Day is simply a euphemism for long weekend. 

But for Barbara Rusch, the holiday celebrates a complex monarch who cared deeply about her husband and nine children, her duties as queen, and the waning empire over which she reigned for nearly 64 years. At the same time, she could be infamously selfish, dowdy, and deeply disliked wearing the crown, often opting instead for a simple black headdress. 

The Thornhill, Ont., collector started amassing Victorian artifacts nearly 35 years ago, and then began anything and everything related to Queen Victoria.

Queen Victoria, shown around 1897, became Queen in 1837. Though history has remembered her as rather humourless, some say the truth is that she enjoyed a cheeky joke every now and then. (Shutterstock/Everett Historical)

"The more I started collecting, the more I realized that if I didn't understand the centrepiece of this entire era, Queen Victoria, then I didn't really understand what I was collecting," Rusch told CBC Toronto.

Her obsession began with portraits of the queen, eventually broadening her collection to all kinds of historic jewels.  

A 'very rare' original invitation to Queen Victoria's wedding in 1840. (CBC)

There's the "very rare" invitation to Victoria's 1840 wedding; a bracelet gifted to the queen by her youngest daughter Beatrice that includes a locket with a portrait of the young girl inside; and a tin box full of chocolate, the queen's profile adorning its cover, that she had sent to every soldier fighting in her name during the Boer War.

Rusch began collecting Victorian-era memorabilia 35 years ago, and says portraits of the queen were the pieces that ignited her passion for collecting Queen Victoria-related pieces. (CBC)

But there is one piece in her collection that may trump all the rest: a pair of Queen Victoria's underwear. In 2008, Rusch flew to England to small auction house, where her bid of $9,000 won her the handmade knickers once worn by the queen herself. 

Dating to the 1890's, the undergarments bear the monogram VR, for Victoria Regina. 

This watch, worn by Queen Victoria herself, was gifted to her by her youngest of nine children, her daughter Beatrice. (CBC)

While the garment was valued at $1,000 before bidding, Rusch said that, "to me, they're priceless."

"What can humanize a person more than touching a pair of their knickers, their underwear."

The queen was, Rusch explains, "very much in the habit of giving away her wardrobe." She purchased the knickers from the family of a young woman who served the queen and was eventually awarded with a pair of her underwear. 

This box of chocolate, dating back to 1900, was sent to British soldiers fighting in South Africa during the Boer War. (CBC)

However, when the queen's husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861, Victoria entered into a "decades-long funk" from which she never recovered, Rusch says. Despite her melancholy, she managed to adapt effectively to a world that changed rapidly during her reign, eventually passing in January 1901. 

"That speaks volumes about Queen Victoria as a woman and as a mother."

Rusch went to an auction house in England to bid on a pair of Queen Victoria's knickers. She won the bidding war and paid $9,000 for the garment, though it was valued at just $1,000 at the time. (CBC)