The sight of elegant Osborne House in East Cowes is perhaps one of the most famous associated with the Isle of Wight – it is certainly the most famous building on the Island. Views of Osborne's twin Italianate towers adorn many a postcard, tourist brochure and tea towel, and in many ways have since become synonymous with the Isle of Wight as a whole – and rightfully so. The events that happened at Osborne in Victoria's reign not only reflect events happening on the Isle of Wight as a whole in the era, but also in the whole country and world. For Osborne House was the personal palace of Queen Victoria – who at the height of her powers was the centre of the most important empire in the world, and when she was centred at Osborne House, Osborne House was in effect the centre of the world.
The Early Years
Victoria had always loved the Isle of Wight, and some of her happiest times in childhood were spent in East Cowes on the Island, in particular in Norris Castle, which had been built between 1795 and 1805. Victoria stayed there with her mother, the Duchess of Kent, in her youth in 18311 and again in 1833.
Victoria ascended the throne at the age of 18 in 1837. At the time she married in 1840, she had only three palaces. Victoria felt that Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton all were unsuitable homes to bring up a family, although perfectly adapted for ceremonial purposes. She wished to have somewhere with a large, private garden and generous nursery space2.
Victoria wrote in her journal on 19 October, 1843 how she wished to buy Norris Castle, with the words 'during our usual morning walk Albert and I talked of buying a place of our own, which would be so nice; perhaps Norris Castle might be something to think of.' Victoria was unable to persuade the owner to sell. Instead, she concentrated on purchasing what was then Osborne Manor, Norris Castle's neighbouring estate to the east, from Lady Isabella Blachford. After viewing the original Osborne House in 1844, Victoria wrote in her diary:
I am delighted with the house, all over which we went, and which is so complete and snug. With some alterations and additions for the children it might be made an excellent house.
The alterations and additions that Victoria had in mind were to result in the complete demolition of the original Osborne Manor within four years of this viewing.
She famously wrote after her property hunt: 'It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot – we have a charming beach quite to ourselves – we can walk anywhere without being followed or mobbed.' In May 1845 Victoria and Albert bought the 342-acre Osborne estate from Lady Isabella Blachford for £26,000 as well as the adjacent Barton Manor and its 500-acre estate which was owned by Winchester College, with her private funds. Over the next few years she gradually increased the area she owned until in 1864 the estate stretched over 2,000 acres and included several buildings and cottages, although Norris Castle was always to be denied her. Since Victoria's death, however, much of the land, including Barton Manor, has been sold off.
Although the site of Osborne was without doubt picturesque and delightfully private and secluded, the house itself was by this time old and outdated. There were few rooms, and this cramped space was considered a major problem by the Queen. Charles Greville, Clerk to the Privy Council, wrote that the house was a miserable place and such a vile house that the Lords of the Council had no place to remain in but the entrance hall. The Illustrated London News described the house with the words:
The mansion has on the ground floor a drawing-room, dining-room and library with two ante-rooms and halls. The first and second floors contain sixteen bed and dressing-rooms; very inadequate for a royal suite.
Prince Albert had the perfect solution. The house was to be completely rebuilt by Thomas Cubitt, a building contractor with whose work he was familiar. Cubitt would be able to construct the palace quickly, cheaply, reliably and without the bureaucratic delays that architects of the time generated. Cubitt, who would later build the new East façade at Buckingham Palace, was experienced in the Italianate style which Prince Albert felt was perfect for Osborne; the view and climate reminded him of the Bay of Naples. Osborne House was the epitome of the Italianate style3, and introduced a new architectural feature that soon became an essential part of Italianate villa and country house design – the Osborne Tower.
As Osborne House was constructed with the Queen's personal funds, Prince Albert was determined to make the most of the limited available budget as well as using modern innovations to the maximum. Albert believed strongly in the development of new technology and techniques. He allowed Osborne to be built in concrete as opposed to stone. The cement used to build Osborne allowed a cheap and quick construction that still presented the House with the appearance of its having been built from fashionable Bath stone. Prince Albert's innovative approach and fondness for environmentally friendly progress led to the estate having a revolutionary sewage processing system. He also supervised the laying of over 360 miles worth of underground pipe tiles for irrigation and to improve the Osborne estate's soil quality.
The Pavilion Wing
The first stage was the construction of a new wing to the house – the Pavilion Wing. This was where the Royal Apartments were housed. The building work was done of ironwork, bricks and cemented over to imitate bath stone, and Cubitt was ahead of his time in ensuring that fire prevention and insulation was strongly incorporated in his designs4. By September 1846, the year after purchasing the site, the Royal family moved in.
The basement contains some of the areas of the palace which are hidden below stairs, including the boiler room, coal cellar, Queen's lift winch room and, the only area open to the public, the Table-Deckers' rooms. The Table-Deckers were responsible for laying the tables for lunch and dinner, doing the final preparations for the food and arranging floral displays. The rooms are painted blue as this was believed to discourage flies. The food itself was cooked in the kitchen court, a wing east of the Main Wing, positioned far enough away to prevent kitchen smells reaching the main parts of the house.
The Pavilion Wing's ground floor rooms are the Horn Room and Billiard Room on the northwest side, the Drawing Room on the northeast side and the Dining Room on the southeast side, with a stairwell and corridor between. The southwest side contains the corridors that lead southeast to the Main and Household Wings and southwest to the Durbar Wing.
Next to the Durbar corridor in the southeast of the wing is the Queen's lift. This hand-operated lift was built in 1893 by Otis to allow Her Majesty easy access to her first-floor apartments when she found using the stairs increasingly difficult. Next to this is the Horn Room, so named as all the furniture is made out of antlers, which were bought in 1846. Next to the Horn Room is the Billiard Room – Victoria herself was a keen billiards player. The largest room on the ground floor is the Drawing Room, which contains a pianoforte and was one of Osborne's more formal rooms, used as a reception room for when foreign royalty and other distinguished guests visited. The Dining Room is adjacent to the Drawing Room and it was in this room that Princess Alice, Victoria's second daughter, married Prince Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse on 1 July, 1862. It was also here that Victoria's body lay in state after her death, before being taken to Windsor.
The first floor contained the Queen's Sitting Room, Dressing Room and Bedroom, the Prince Consort's Bathroom, Dressing and Writing Room and the Royal Schoolroom. This last room, which is not open to the public, was intended to be Prince Albert's Bedroom but as it was rarely used by him it was re-used as a schoolroom. After Victoria's death, Edward VII installed an iron gate to prevent anyone outside the royal family entering the Queen's suite; however in 1954, Elizabeth II granted permission for members of the public to be allowed access. Although the schoolroom is not open to the public, it is possible to see Prince Albert's bath and shower – which were rare luxuries in the 1840s. After Albert's death, Victoria kept his rooms as they had been in his life, even having fresh hot water brought to his dressing room each day.
The Queen's Sitting Room enjoyed a large bay window and balcony, with views over the Solent5. The Queen loved watching the moonlight on the water and listening to the birds in the trees from the balcony. It was in the Sitting Room that the Queen and Prince Albert worked, ploughing their way through dispatch boxes and memoranda. Prince Albert was employed as the Queen's Private and Personal Secretary. This room was also used for their private supper.
The Queen's Dressing Room also included a bath and a shower, as well as a water closet. The Queen's Bedroom is where Victoria died on 22 January, 1901, on a small couch bed. The room was kept as a shrine to her until 1954. The original bedding has been replaced with bedding from the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert.
The second floor contains the Royal Nursery Suite, and was deliberately sited close to the Queen's private apartments one floor below. Victoria's children stayed in the Royal Nursery until they were six, after which time they 'graduated' to the schoolroom on the floor below. Rooms open to the public in this area are the bedroom and sitting room of Lady Lyttelton, Superintendent of the Royal Children, which contains an octagonal table and eight chairs for the Queen's first eight children (these were made between 1846 and 1854, before the birth of Princess Beatrice in 1857). The Nursery Bedroom has been restored to its appearance in a photograph taken in the 1870s, although the cradle is original and was made for Queen Victoria's daughter Victoria, the Princess Royal and oldest of her nine children, in 1840.
Lady Lyttelton described her duties as including dealing with 'accounts, tradesmen's letters, maid's quarrels, bad fitting of frocks, desirableness of rhubarb'. The Royal Nursery Suite was opened to the public in 1988.
The Household Wing
The next stage was the construction of the Household Wing, which was completed by August 1847. This wing, most of which is not open to the public, housed the Royal Household and included the Dining Room. Apart from the Grand Corridor and unrestored Household Dining Room and Writing Rooms, which contain exhibits on the lives of Victoria and Albert, none of the rooms in the Household Wing are open to the public. The Grand Corridor contains several works of art and especially fine statues, including one of the young Victoria herself.
The Main Wing
1848 saw the demolition of the original Osborne House – a year in which many of Europe's Royal Houses, Families and Dynasties ended throughout Europe. Revolutions occurred in Berlin, Budapest, Dresden, Madrid, Paris, Rome, Venice and Vienna. King Louis-Philippe of France fled his own country to the safety of England, as did Prince William of Prussia, who was later to become German Emperor. However, as symbolically a new and better Osborne House was being constructed, a new and more popular image of the monarchy in Britain was also rising. Victoria had in her early years faced accusations of stupidity and ignorance from her own obsessively controlling mother who did not wish to lose the powers her title of Regent had given her. Victoria had also made major political mistakes with the Lady Flora Hastings affair6 and 'The Bedchamber Crisis' which had lost her public support. Thomas Creevey MP had even described her with the words 'The Queen is a resolute little tit' and her marriage to Prince Albert had been questioned. Yet by 1848 all of this was behind her and, like her new house, Victoria's image was rising to stand magnificent, proud and tall.
By 1851 the Main Wing had been constructed on the site of the original house. This three-storey wing contained the Audience Room and Council Room, which are the only two rooms in this wing open to the public, as well as bedrooms for older royal children, guests and government ministers. The Council Room is the central, and largest, room in the Main Wing. It was here that the Privy Council met and the room was also used for entertaining before the construction of the Durbar Wing. Sadly, in later years when Osborne House was used as a convalescent home, this room was used as a smoking room, severely discolouring the walls and ceiling. The Audience Room next door was where the Queen held audiences with her councillors.
The Durbar Wing
The two-storey Durbar Wing at Osborne's northwest corner was the last part of the house to be constructed. It was built between 1890 and 1891, and the main room, known appropriately as the Durbar Room, was Osborne's state banqueting hall. 'Durbar' was an anglicised version of the Hindi word 'Darbar', which means court. The room's Indian-influenced architecture and theme reflects that Victoria was Empress of India. In 1890 Lockwood Kipling, director of the Lahore School of Art and father of Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling, designed the room and started work there with craftsman Bhai Ram Singh in January 1891. The room under construction had Edison and Swan electric lightbulbs and also contains a first-floor minstrel gallery, thereby seamlessly merging traditional with modern to form a breathtaking spectacle.
The first floor of the Durbar Wing was the private residence of Princess Beatrice and her family. Princess Beatrice, the youngest of Victoria's children, was only given permission to marry on the understanding that she continued to live with the now elderly Queen. Beatrice was appointed Governess of the Isle of Wight and Governor of Carisbrooke Castle after her husband's death in 1896 until her own death in 1944.
Also constructed were the minor wings of the house. These included the two-storey Spur Wing where Victoria's mother the Duchess of Kent had rooms until her death in 1861, and which was used by the Prince and Princess of Wales after their marriage in 1863. Other parts of the house not open to the public include an Orangery wing, the stable block built in 1861, the kitchens court and a Smoking Room. The Smoking Room was built for the Prince of Wales in 1866 adjacent to, but outside, the main house as Victoria refused to allow smoking in her house. This shows, once again, that Victoria was ahead of her time, although sadly her wishes were neglected after her death - as mentioned earlier in the use of the Council room as a smoking room.
In 1880 a private chapel, also known as Victoria Hall, was built adjoining Osborne House. By then, Victoria found attending church in the nearby Royal Church of St Mildred, Whippingham, which had been rebuilt by Prince Albert, to be difficult.
The Two Towers
The Flag Tower, the first and tallest of the two towers, was built next to and at the same time as the Pavilion Wing, and is 107ft high7. It contains an observation room near the top, accessible by a spiral staircase, but unfortunately this is not open to the public. The 90ft8 Clock Tower adjacent to the Main Wing was intended to look like an Italian Bell Tower. The clock was originally made for Kew Palace in 1777 and was installed in Osborne House in 1850. These towers inspired the 'Osborne Tower' architectural feature much copied in large, British houses in the later half of the 19th Century9 as well as abroad, including as far away as Governor House, Melbourne, Australia.
The Swiss Cottage
In the garden lies the Swiss Cottage, a 25ft by 50ft two-floor cabin10 built of North American pine in an alpine style. This was constructed as a present from Victoria to her children in 1853/4, with the royal children laying the foundation stone in 1853.
Prince Albert intended the Swiss Cottage to be a place to encourage his children's education. In the garden outside, the royal children grew vegetables and sold them at a commercial rate to Albert to encourage their monetary skills. In the cottage itself the children were encouraged to collect a miniature natural history museum – which later was re-housed in a museum building nearby. The princes and princesses were also taught housekeeping and cooking in the cottage, and often had Queen Victoria as a guest in the dining room upstairs.
Also on display is the Queen's Bathing Machine. This is, in essence, a wheeled shed equipped with a changing room and a flushable water closet that was wheeled down its track into the sea. Victoria could enter the bathing machine, change into clothes suitable for sea bathing while the bathing machine was wheeled into the sea, and then emerge into the sea without anyone seeing her. Victoria wrote in her diary in 1847,
Drove down to the beach with my maids and went into the bathing machine, where I undressed and bathed in the sea (for the first time in my life)... I thought it delightful till I put my head under the water.
At this time in nearby Sandown, Lewis Carroll, author of Alice In Wonderland, wrote The Hunting Of The Snark, which includes the words:
The fourth is its fondness for bathing machines,
Which it constantly carries about,
And believes that they add to the beauty of scenes -
A sentiment open to doubt.
Prince Albert was a great believer in sea bathing and swam with his children almost daily.
The Isle of Wight and the area near Osborne House in particular have long had a close association with Royal Yachts11. This dates back to the construction of the Rat O' Wight in 1589 for Queen Elizabeth I. This ship is often considered to be the first English Royal Yacht and was built in Cowes, across the river Medina from what would later be the site of Osborne House. In 1673 a Royal Yacht was named Isle of Wight. Since 1826 the headquarters of the Royal Yacht Squadron has been Cowes Castle. Following in this tradition, it is perhaps unsurprising that two Royal Yachts were named Osborne.
The first Royal Yacht Osborne had originally been launched as HMY (Her Majesty's Yacht) Victoria and Albert, which was a twin paddle steamer launched on 25 April, 1843. She was the first royal yacht powered by steam. After the launch on 16 January, 1855 of HMY Victoria and Albert II, she was renamed the HMY Osborne and stayed with that name until being scrapped in 1868. Two years later, she was replaced by another yacht of the same name, HMY Osborne, which was also a paddle steamer and was launched on 19 December, 1870. This craft was frequently used on the trips both abroad and to and from the Isle of Wight as well as keeping in contact with the political situation, delivering dispatches and ministers from Parliament, before finally being retired and scrapped 38 years later in 1908.
At Osborne by the sea there was a pier and landing stage, from which the Queen was able to discreetly board a royal yacht and come and go as she wished, an impossible achievement at Windsor or London. The pier sadly no longer exists.
The last royal yacht named after the Isle of Wight was the Medina, named after the river between East and West Cowes, which was built in 1911 before being torpedoed in early 1917.
In keeping with this fine and noble tradition, on display at Osborne House is the deckhouse from the Royal Steam Yacht Alberta, a paddle steamer tender to the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert II. The Alberta had been launched in 1864.
Victoria Fort and Albert Blockhouse
A much-ignored part of the grounds of Osborne House is the Victoria Fort and, within it, the Albert Barracks. These form a small mock fort, with the Victoria Fort built in 1856, two months after the end of the Crimean War, and the Albert Barracks constructed in 1860 – the time of the Invasion Scare. Both of these dates mark events of major importance to Britain's world affairs, and the construction of forts as the playthings of princes is perhaps a profound statement on the generation that would later lead Britain in the Great War.
In the Crimean War, Britain and France together had defeated Russia, but by 1860 Britain feared invasion from France, the traditional enemy. This fear led to the construction of a new breed of warship, beginning with HMS Warrior, and a national chain of new fortifications around Britain's most important locations. Fifteen forts were constructed on the Isle of Wight, and four more sea forts in the Solent between 1850 and 1870 alone12. Forts were not merely follies or ornaments, but were Britain's second line of defence. The Victoria Fort, though quaint-looking and small, was built when its earth ramparts were cutting edge technology, similar to the full-sized forts not only on the Isle of Wight but also used in the Crimean and American Civil Wars.
Life at Osborne
Five days after the death of Prince Albert in December 1861, Victoria fled to Osborne and stayed there in solitude until March 1862. This period of her life can be seen in the BBC film Mrs Brown, some of the early scenes of which were set and even filmed at Osborne.
Perhaps the most honest report of life at Osborne was written by ten-year-old Hallam Tennyson, son of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who lived on the Isle of Wight at Farringford House. After a visit to Osborne in 1863, he wrote:
You must always say 'Mam' when in Her Majesty's presence. You must stand until the Queen asks you to sit down. Her Majesty does not often tell you to sit down...
After Victoria's Death
When Victoria died in 1901, her son Albert, crowned as Edward VII, inherited the house. Edward VII preferred Sandringham, and stayed in Barton Manor during Cowes Week as Osborne reminded him of his mother too much. Princess Beatrice, governess of the Isle of Wight, preferred to stay at Carisbrooke Castle or Osborne Cottage. On Edward VII's coronation day in 1902 he decreed:
As Osborne is sacred to the memory of the late Queen, it is the King's wish that... His People shall always have access to the House which must always be associated with Her beloved name.
In December 1902 a committee Edward had appointed enshrined in the 1902 Osborne Estate Act that a convalescent home for officers would be established in the house, and the stables would be adapted as a Naval Cadet College. Barton Manor remained a royal possession until it was sold in 1922.
Royal Naval College
The College for the training of Naval Officer Cadets was opened in August 1904. Boys would arrive at the age of 13, and be trained for two years before graduating to the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. By 1907 over 400 boys were enrolled there each year, with 500 per year during the Great War. Future kings Edward VIII and his brother George VI trained there, meeting explorers Shackleton and Scott in its grounds. In 1909 the Archer-Shee Scandal took place there. This was later dramatised by Terence Rattigan as The Winslow Boy and has been adapted as a film twice, in 1948 and 1999. The college had proved invaluable in supplying the Royal Navy with officers in time for the Great War. After the war was over and peace was restored, the college became redundant, closing in 1921. In 1933 many of the college buildings were demolished; the site is now Osborne House's car park and gift shop.
The Edward VII Convalescent Home for Officers Serving in His Majesty's Forces
The convalescent home, which Osborne House was adapted to become, was based in the Main and Household wings, opening in 1904. Convalescent Homes helped the wounded recover and regain their fitness – they were intended to be far away from the front line to allow a full recovery. It was believed that wounded sent to their own homes took longer to recover and return to the front line.
It was run by the house governor, who lived in the former Nursery suite, and the suites built for Victoria's visiting guests, such as Members of Parliament or visiting dignitaries, were adapted into bedrooms. Among the patients during the Great War were Robert Graves13 and AA Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh. In 1980 the house was modernised to become a nursing home, with the convalescent home finally closing in 2000.
Features of Osborne House
In many ways, Osborne House was ahead of its time. Its design incorporated fire prevention and insulation features as well as an efficient ventilation heating system, with a coal boiler in the basement heating the whole Pavilion Wing of the house. It had flushable toilets, showers and baths, electric light bulbs and battery-powered bell pulls in the mid-19th Century, a time when electrical applications were extremely rare.
Osborne House witnessed the advances that the period had to offer, including science and communication. On 14 January, 1878, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone to Her Majesty in the Council Room. She stated: 'It is rather faint and one must hold the tube rather close to one's ear.' During the 1898 Regatta, Marconi demonstrated his invention of the radio at Osborne. The Prince of Wales was recovering onboard the Royal Yacht Osborne from a crippling fall but was able to keep in contact with his mother at Osborne House through using the radio, only one year after the very first radio transmission over water14.
The Swiss Cottage museum displays the royal animal collection – the royal children were studying zoology at a time when Charles Darwin was on the Island. Charles Darwin started writing On the Origin of Species while at Sandown and returned to the Island in July 1868 to recover from the gastric complaint that had interrupted his work on The Descent Of Man. Darwin described his time on the Island as 'my nine weeks' interruption of all work'.
Osborne House was also one of the first places in Britain to display a Christmas tree, a custom introduced to Britain by Prince Albert. When Albert was alive, although Christmas itself was spent in Windsor, the lead up to Christmas was spent at Osborne. After Albert's death in 1861, Victoria returned to spend Christmas at Osborne each year.