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Alice in Eastbourne: A Royal Holiday in 1878

In the summer of 1878, Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, came to Eastbourne, because she had been ordered rest. The sojourn on the East Sussex coast was the gift of Queen Victoria to her daughter, (David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, 177) and Alice visited the seaside town with her family in what would poignantly prove to be the last holiday that they would enjoy together.

Grand Duchess Alice was exhausted. The accession of her husband as Grand Duke Ludwig IV upon the death of Grand Duke Ludwig III of Hesse in 1877, meant that the heavy burden of responsibility was placed upon her already weary shoulders in full measure. She was worn out by work, perhaps mirroring her father, Albert the Prince Consort’s fatalistic and deep inner fatigue towards the end of his life. Alice wrote to Queen Victoria: ‘Too much is demanded of one; and I have to do with so many things. It is more than my strength can stand.’ (cit., Ibid, 176). I want to explore the Hessian family’s time at Eastbourne and discover what may still commemorate it.

The fact that it was their last holiday together lends the Hessian stay in Eastbourne a strange quality of a still-intact unity, something supremely captured by the eminent Austrian painter Heinrich von Angeli, who had come to Darmstadt that April to paint a family group, a commission from Queen Victoria. The result, The Family of the Grand Duke of Hesse, is signed and dated 1879. This simple date has a tragedy beneath its surface, for on 14 December 1878 – the exact anniversary of the death of her father, Prince Albert – Grand Duchess Alice died in Darmstadt, whispering the words: ‘four weeks – May – [her youngest daughter, Princess Marie of Hesse, who had recently died during the outbreak of diphtheria that swept through the ducal palace in Darmstadt] dear Papa – !’. (cit., Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 376). Angeli’s finished portrait captures Alice, after her death.

Queen Victoria paid Angeli £1260 for the painting on 3 December 1879; Angeli probably completed Alice’s figure based on a wonderfully like, three-quarter-length portrait of her that he had made earlier that year, hanging today in the Schlossmuseum in Darmstadt. The picture was brought to Osborne in January 1879, just over a month after Alice’s death. Its permanent place is still Osborne, where it hangs in the Dining Room, where Alice had married Prince Ludwig ‘Louis’ of Hesse, in a wedding that was more funeral than otherwise, because of the recent death of the Prince Consort.

Previous family seaside holidays had taken the Hesses to Houlgate on the Normandy coast – such as the summer of 1877 – or the town of Blankenberge, in Belgian West Flanders, which Alice disliked. Eastbourne brought Alice back to the land of her birth – England. At Houlgate the previous year, she had sea-bathed, admired the French coastland – ‘the nicest sea-place I have been at yet’ (cit., Ibid, 356) – and visited a tumble-down church at Dives.

Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse with her children, late 1870s (United States Public domain or Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Alice’s curiosity in the locality of Eastbourne could either be an example of her restlessness or her philanthropic interests, depending on the point of view. Once arrived in Eastbourne, she made enquiries about the poorer areas of the town where the fishing population lived, visited the parish Day and Sunday Schools and attended services at Christ Church, consecrated by the Bishop of Chichester in 1859. A memorial window dedicated to Grand Duchess Alice can now be found in Christ Church at the centre of the Chancel; it was installed in April 1880. I was gratefully shown it on a blistering hot day some fifteen years ago, by a kind warden who collected the church key.

The Chancel in Christ Church, Eastbourne. The Alice Memorial Window is the central panel of stained glass (Gordon Griffiths / Christ Church Interior, via CC)

Grand Duke Ludwig IV had to return to Darmstadt soon after the Hessian family’s arrival in Eastbourne, but he returned to join them before their stay ended. Queen Victoria’s journal records the Hessian family visiting her at Windsor from Eastbourne in July 1878; the Queen also mentions that they were still there in late August.

Perhaps the psychological removal from Darmstadt was to help Alice regain strength physically; but instead, she reapplied her energies immediately into replicating the same behaviour as at home, visiting charitable organisations and institutions and presenting prizes at a local college to raise funds for the building of All Saints Church (Christopher Warwick, Ella: Princess Saint and Martyr, 56). She also opened a bazaar in Eastbourne’s fashionable Devonshire Park (Ibid, 56).

Her children, by contrast, built sand castles on the beach and hunted for crabs. Much later in Russia, Alice’s daughter, Princess Alix of Hesse, then Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, had a dream of herself as a small girl on an English beach, looking for crabs, building sand castles and bathing in the sea, (Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 29) so probably, Alexandra was dreaming of Eastbourne.

At some point, the Hessian family visited the Duke of Devonshire’s Georgian villa at Compton Place. A photograph was made showing them at the entrance, often wrongly identified as being the entrance of the Hessian hunting lodge at Kranichstein, in the district of Darmstadt. The photograph shows Grand Duchess Alice seated in the carriage, with little Prince Ernst Ludwig opposite her, Princess Alix of Hesse is sat next to the carriage holding a parasol. Princesses Victoria, Irene and Elisabeth ‘Ella’ of Hesse stand alongside the carriage, whilst the Grand Duke Ludwig IV is stood near Alice; footmen cluster in the doorway. The youngest daughter, Princess Marie ‘May’ is seated on the pony pulling the carriage, dressed identically as her elder sister Princess Alix, whom Alice proudly referred to as ‘such a lovely little pair as one does not often see…’ (cit., Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 367). The future Tsarina of Russia was also taught to play tennis at Compton Place (Greg King, The Last Empress, 16).

When I arranged to visit Compton Place – now a language school – I was shown a window with a royal signature etched into the glass: ‘ALIX’. This confused me, because I knew of windowpanes that bear Alix’s name scratched into the glass, both as a child and adult, in both Germany and Russia, but had never seen this one. The signature, however, lacked Alix’s classically elegant looping ‘A’. I assumed, therefore, it was of Alix, Princess of Wales, born Princess Alexandra of Denmark. This I now have finally been able to confirm through the discovery of an entry in Queen Victoria’s diary, where the Queen mentions that the Prince and Princess of Wales stayed at Eastbourne’s Compton Place in 1892.

The fact that Princess Alix and Princess Marie ‘May’ of Hesse were a beautiful ‘pair’ is given particular proof in a set of enchanting photographs made of the Hessian children whilst the family were on holiday in Eastbourne. The pictures were taken in July 1878 by the firm of photographers G & R Lavis, who had studios in both London and Eastbourne. They were in business until at least 1912, according to their biographical listing at the British Museum, as researched by the present author. Their Eastbourne quarters were at Studios 71 & 73 in Terminus Road at the time of the Hesse visit; they had been based there since 1867.

Princess Marie of Hesse, photographed in the Lavis studio at Eastbourne (United States Public domain or Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The charm of these photographs, captured on a long-ago summer, shines through. They are lent a special poignancy because, by November, the family unit was ripped apart through illness, when all but one daughter, Princess Elisabeth, succumbed to diphtheria. In the photographs, the Hessian children appear carefree, as indeed they were. Princess Alix of Hesse is barefoot in one of these sittings, clasping a fishing net, with her straw hat to one side and holding a bucket – fitting symbols of what the children had been doing in their days on the English beach – there is a mocked-up beach even in the Lavis studio. Princess Alix is sat on top of a box with the words painted on it in black: ‘EASTBOURNE’. Princess Marie of Hesse sits in a boat barefoot, holding the oars. These delightful images are preserved in the voluminous leather-bound albums containing portraits of the royal children, in the Royal Collection. A particularly entrancing image is of Princesses Alix and Marie of Hesse, this time in white dresses, Alix tucking a doll in her arm. Today, a shoe-shop stands on the site of the Lavis studio at 71-73 Terminus Road, where these lovely photographs were made – an interesting thought, for the little Hessian princesses, when posing, were required to take off their shoes.

Grand Duchess Alice was not forgotten in Eastbourne after her death. Most appropriately, given Alice’s interests, Eastbourne opened a living memorial to her, aside from the commemorative window in Christ Church. It was given the name Princess Alice Hospital. The foundation stone was laid by Alice’s younger sister, Helena, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein in 1882, as reported in the Illustrated London News, 15 July 1882. The News reported that Princess Christian laid the stone for the building on a spot close to the railway station, because ‘the late Princess Alice resided at Eastbourne with her family several weeks in the autumn before her death, and on her decease it was resolved at a town meeting to give expression to the respect in which she was held by erecting what should be called the Princess Alice Memorial Hospital.’ (The Illustrated London News, No.2254—Vol. LXXXI, Saturday, July 15, 1882, p.66). Subscriptions were received up to the figure of £3300. Surely unknown to the News, they included an illustration of Terminus Road in their reportage on Princess Christian’s visit. As if in the spirit of her elder sister, Princess Christian visited the All Saints’ Convalescent Home before leaving Eastbourne and planted a tree at Hurlingham House. Princess Christian fittingly wrote the moving personal introduction to the book Alice: Biographical Sketch and Letters, published by John Murray in 1884.

‘The Princess Alice Memorial Hospital at Eastbourne to be opened today by the Prince and Princess of Wales’; engraving 1883 (Wellcome Collection/ Free use via CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)]

The Prince and Princess of Wales formally opened the Princess Alice Memorial Hospital in July 1883. Queen Victoria’s journal mentions the forthcoming opening and tells us that Alice’s second daughter, Princess ‘Ella’ of Hesse, was going to accompany her uncle and aunt at the ceremony. The Princess Alice Hospital was demolished in the early 2000s. The hospital dedicated to Alice’s memory in Darmstadt, das Alice-Hospital, thrives by contrast.

Today then, the memorial window in Christ Church exists as one of the few souvenirs of that family summer in Eastbourne before tragedy struck. The same English beach provides a setting for crab-fishing, sand-castle building and bathing for children in the present day as much as it did for a group of royal children in 1878 before their family life changed forever. In imperial Russia, the children of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra can be seen in photographs, for example, fishing in the inlets of the Gulf of Finland, when the imperial family cruised in their yacht or engaging in outdoor games. In one photograph, the little Tsarevich Alexei wears a straw hat and holds a parasol after a day on the beach. Typical juvenile pastimes perhaps, but they were activities that his mother, the Tsarina had taken part in with delight as a small girl at Eastbourne.

Alexandra’s biographer, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, writing in 1928, wrote that she had ‘golden memories’ of Eastbourne and as such, we should believe her (cit., Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 9).

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

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