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Victoria & Friends: Ira Aldridge and Ada Lovelace

The second season of Victoria, the BBC mini-series on the life of Queen Victoria, is currently airing on Masterpiece (PBS) in the U.S. It’s a wonderful production, enriched by the performances of Jenna Coleman as the young Victoria, and Tom Hughes as her great love and husband, Prince Albert.

Regency fans are very aware that Victoria’s story starts in the Regency (she was born in 1819) and continued to involve people and events from that time period. After all, Victoria herself was the niece of King George IV (aka the Prince Regent or Prinny) and if it hadn’t been for the death of George’s daughter Charlotte in childbirth, and the reluctance and/or inability of George’s royal brothers to beget legitimate heirs, she may never have ascended the throne.

Imagine – no Victoria, no Victorian Age. What a loss for Great Britain and the world that would have been!

In the second season of Victoria, there's an episode where we see the young queen and her husband encouraging the arts and sciences to flourish in their kingdom. Featured in that episode were an African-American actor, Ira Aldridge, and a female mathematician, Ada Lovelace (whom I mentioned in an earlier post on Byron, Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know).  

Ira Aldridge and Ada Lovelace weren’t the inventions of some screenwriter’s vivid imagination – they were real people, born during or just before the Regency era. Both were notable pioneers in their respective fields.

I could write lengthy posts about these remarkable people, but I’ll limit myself to a snapshot of their lives. Here are a few facts about each of them:

Ira Aldridge

Ira Aldridge as Othello, by William Mulready

  • Born a free man in New York City in 1807, Ira received his education at the African free school and got his first acting credit performing at the African Grove Theater in New York, the first African-American playhouse in the US., known for its productions of Shakespeare’s plays.
  • Though he landed some roles on the stages of New York, he was discouraged by the segregation and discrimination he encountered in the U.S. In a bid for greater career opportunities, Aldridge decided to go to England in 1824. (Parliament outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807 and abolished slavery altogether in 1833.) 
  • He was the first African-American actor to establish an acting career in a foreign country, starting with a 7-week run at the Royal Coburg Theatre in London in 1825.
  • One of his most famous roles was the lead in Shakespeare's  Othello, and it’s in that role that we see him in Victoria.
  • In 1824, Aldridge married a white English woman, Margaret Gill. Their union lasted for 40 years until Margaret died.
  • Aldridge intended to go back to the United States after the Civil War ended, but he never made it. He died in 1867 during a visit to Poland, where he is buried.
  • Aldridge’s life and work inspired the creation of acting companies bearing his name in cities across the United States. And in 2012, Red Velvet, a play by Lolita Chakrabarti about Aldridge and how he broke the color barrier for actors performing Shakespeare, premiered in London. Since then the play has been produced in several U.S. cities, most recently enjoying a nearly 2-month run in Chicago (December 1, 2017, through January 21, 2018.) 

Ada Lovelace

Ada Byron at age 17 (1832)

  • She was born Augusta Ada Byron in 1815 in London. Her parents were aristocrats – her mother was Anna Isabella Milbanke, and her father was the poet Lord Byron - and they separated soon after her birth. Byron was reportedly disappointed that his only legitimate offspring was a girl.
  • Ada’s mother was so determined that Ada not take after her father and become a poet that she steered the young girl towards science and mathematics. Ada proved to be especially gifted at math.
  • Ada met mathematician Charles Babbage (sometimes called the father of the computer) when she was 17. A decade later, Ada translated an Italian mathematician’s article on Babbage’s Analytical Machine. She added a set of notes that were longer than the original article, explaining in detail how the machine could function. In her notes, she wrote and published the world's first computer algorithm.  
  • Ada was one of the first people to realize that Babbage’s machine could do more than just compute numbers, and could have applications in music, graphics, and other areas. 
  • She married a high-ranking peer, William King-Noel, 1st Earl of Lovelace, and bore him two sons and a daughter.
  • Ada died of uterine cancer in 1852, when she was only 36. Coincidentally, that was how old her father was when he died of fever in Greece in 1824, where he was supporting that country’s war for independence.
  • Ada continues to inspire professionals and students in technical fields like computing, engineering, and mathematics. Schools and computer centers around the world are named in her honor. And here a few other ways she's remembered: the Lovelace Medal, a British Computing Society award; the Ada Developers Academy in Seattle; Ada Lovelace Day, held every October to celebrate women's achievements in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); and Ada, a computer language used by the U.S. Department of Defense.  

So there you have it: two people who lived almost two centuries ago, whose legacy continues to inspire contemporary ideas and innovation in the arts and sciences.

Victoria and Albert would be proud.

For more on Ada Lovelace, here’s a quick clip explaining her contribution to the computing world:

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


  1. Ooooh, I love this article!!! It's nice to know a little more about the people that were featured in that episode of Victoria! I am really enjoying the series. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were really ahead of their time. Maybe it's a good thing that she was so young when she became Queen. She and Albert had ideas and ideals that couldn't be squashed. They were able to bring other people around to their way of thinking and earned their respect and admiration.

    1. I agree! Victoria and Albert must have been an inspiration to others. It sure is fun learning about their lives through this mini-series.


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