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Queen Victoria’s baby shoes

With 2019 marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria, possibly the most symbolic objects to commemorate this historic date, are the baby shoes thought to have been owned by the Queen, which are preserved in the Royal Collection and kept at the Museum of London. The future Queen Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on 24 May 1819; the shoes date from around 1820.

Queen Victoria’s own account of her childhood – dramatized by the selective bias of age – was written down much later in her ‘memoir’ of 1872; her first memory was of crawling on a yellow carpet at Kensington Palace. Her mother, the Duchess of Kent, noted down the actual day that her infant daughter walked for the first time on her own – 21 May 1821 – just shy of her second birthday: ‘Heute Morgen ist mein geliebtes Kind Victoria allein gegangen’ [This morning my beloved child Victoria walked on her own] (Quoted in A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 43). When the Duchess of Kent died in 1861, a distraught Victoria – who recognised her mother’s devotion only much later, which added to her devastation at her death – discovered when sorting through her mother’s effects at Frogmore, that the Duchess had preserved ‘precious’ relics of her babyhood, as she wrote to her eldest daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia, the following month (Roger Fulford, Dearest Child: Letters between Queen Victoria and the Princess Royal, 319).

Touchingly, the room in which Queen Victoria was born at Kensington Palace, today contains various samples of the infant clothes and accessories associated with Queen Victoria’s children, in sliding drawers. (Several of these exquisite satin slippers are well captured in the large portrait by fashionable portrait painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter, The Royal Family in 1846; in particular, on the feet of the Queen’s second son Prince Alfred, who is dressed in a frock and runs with open arms towards his three sisters, including the newly born, Princess Helena, on a white, ermine-wrapped cushion). Royal baby boots were shown as part of the Museum of London’s exhibition ‘A Royal Arrival‘ in 2013. These included the black baby shoes of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VII (inscribed ‘P. Wales’), the tiny black satin shoes of Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice and the grey baby booties of the Queen’s granddaughter, Princess Maud of Wales, later Queen of Norway.

The Duchess of Kent with Princess Victoria, in a variation of the painting by Sir William Beechey, by Henry Bone (Henry Bone, United States Public domain or Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In this same Birth Room, is displayed the well-known portrait of Princess Victoria with the Duchess of Kent by Sir William Beechey, showing the Duchess of Kent still in mourning for her husband, the Duke of Kent, with the two-year-old Princess Victoria clasping a miniature of her father, as she leans against the Duchess’ shoulder. Just visible is a tiny white shoe, which Victoria is wearing, as she stands.

A delightful portrait made two years later, Queen Victoria, aged four, 1823, by the artist Stephen Poytnz Denning, now in the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, shows the future Queen Victoria in charming outdoor dress, wearing a Regency plumed hat which appears large enough to be her mother’s. In the picture she wears little black shoes, though these are surely not the same ones as her baby shoes, which she would have quickly outgrown and indeed, may not have hardly worn.

Queen Victoria’s shoes were made by Richard Gundry from 1824 onwards, as the Duchess of Kent’s accounts reveal. Gundry remained the Queen’s supplier and held the royal warrant as Boot and Shoemakers to the Queen until as late as 1898, although Gundry (‘Messrs. Gundry’) were only based at their premises of 1 Soho Square from 1831-1883 (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 86; ‘Soho Square Area: Portland Estate, No. 1 Soho Square’, in Survey of London: Volumes 33 and 34, St Anne Soho, ed. F H W Sheppard (London, 1966), p. 55. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols33-4/p55 [accessed 13 September 2018].).

Gundry probably made the shoes which the Queen wore at her coronation in 1838; the paper labels stuck inside the soles of Gundry shoes proudly read – beneath an engraving of the royal coat of arms – : ‘Gundry & Son, Boot & Shoe Makers TO THE QUEEN, the Queen Dowager [Queen Adelaide], Their Royal Highnesses The Duchess of Kent & Princess Sophia, Soho Square, London’ (Ibid, 114). The toe of one of the shoes Queen Victoria wore at her coronation is sensitively captured by Sir George Hayter, in the official coronation portrait, Queen Victoria, 1838. The thick lace of the ancient coronation garment, the colobium sindonis – which the Queen wore under the dalmatica robe – was such that the Queen tripped at the first sitting for the portrait (Ibid, 115). Hayter’s end result makes it easy to see how this happened, as the shoe sticks out from a wealth of trailing lace.

The baby shoes are of black satin with thick, bowed ribbons and measure under 5 inches (12 cm) long. They are little worn and are the earliest piece of clothing associated with Queen Victoria to survive (Staniland, 85). Perhaps they were among those pieces to do with her babyhood which Queen Victoria found among her mother’s things at Frogmore; it seems probable that it was the Duchess who initially preserved them and not the Queen. The paper label inside them is of the firm G. F. Vandervell, who as the name inside appears to read: ‘[Shoe Maker] to the late Princess Charlotte of Saxe Cobourg [the only legitimate daughter of the Prince Regent, George IV as of 1820], the Duchesses of Cumberland and Gloucester, the Princess Sophia…’ G. F Vandervell of Hanover Square, London was the shoemaker to Princess Charlotte (Ibid, 85). Although as the author Kay Staniland points out, this shoemaker is not recorded in any payment in the accounts of the Duchess of Kent, so it seems that they were probably a gift to the infant Princess Victoria, in a loaded attempt to secure a royal patronage (Ibid, 85).

It is touchingly apt that infant shoes associated with Prince Albert have also been preserved in the Royal Collection; making an early illustration of their shared cousinage between London and Coburg – that royal pair of babies who were even delivered by the same woman, the celebrated German obstetrician, Madame Siebold. These baby shoes symbolise the birth of the future Queen Victoria and the early childhood that she later described in 1858: ‘I led a very unhappy life as a child – had no scope for my very violent feelings of affection… never had had a father – from my unfortunate circumstances was not on comfortable or at all intimate or confidential footing with my mother…’ (Quoted in Wilson, 44).

We might imagine these infant shoes on the feet of the young Victoria, whose childhood – shielded from onlookers at Kensington Palace, in an early foretaste of what became later known as the Kensington System – is little documented at first-hand. We are left with Victoria’s memories, which, whilst being the most primary of accounts, are for that reason alone, perhaps in part, the least accurate. Lord Albemarle, who was attached to the household of the Duke of Sussex, wrote that he saw the little Princess Victoria in the grounds from a window at Kensington Palace, as a ‘bright, pretty little girl [dividing the contents of a watering can] between the flowers and her own little feet’ (Sarah A. Tooley, The Personal Life of Queen Victoria, 32; quoted in Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 28).

These shoes are the earliest items of clothing which have survived which are associated with Queen Victoria, so to look at these baby shoes in more detail is to take us back literally into Queen Victoria’s childhood. However, she later remembered it. This is something inevitably touching about this because these shoes might remind us of the baby shoes we once wore, or those worn by our children. In Queen Victoria’s case, they were the shoes she wore before she grew into her historic destiny. A destiny which would take her feet up the aisle of Westminster Abbey on the day of her coronation, to be crowned Queen of England, presumably in shoes by Gundry. So these baby shoes are essential in other ways too; they are the earliest surviving shoes that Queen Victoria wore.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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