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The Swiss Cottage, Osborne and Queen Victoria’s Children

The Swiss Cottage at Osborne is a capsule of successive royal childhood, which continued to hold a place in the affections of the first children that used it – the nine children of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – long after they had grown up, just as it would for their own children, most of whom played there in the next generation. The Princess Royal, for example, returned to the Swiss Cottage as Crown Princess of Prussia on visits to the Queen at Osborne, with her two children, Prince Wilhelm – future Kaiser Wilhelm II – and Princess Charlotte of Prussia. When the Prince of Wales – the future Edward VII – recovered from typhoid in 1871, he was overcome at the sight of the tools he had used at the Swiss Cottage as a child, when convalescing at Osborne two months afterwards.

The Swiss Cottage remains a unique place in royal terms, with no existing equivalent in the other principal private residence of Queen Victoria – Osborne’s sister in the Scottish Highlands – Balmoral. Similarly, there was no such playhouse built at Windsor Castle – the grounds of Royal Lodge, Windsor, do however contain the ‘little house’, Y Bwthyn Bach, gifted to Her Majesty The Queen when Princess Elizabeth of York by the people of Wales, in 1932.

Despite the private family rooms that, of course, existed in the official royal residences of Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, there was no such rustic cottage put up in the grounds of these; instead, the family Christmases in Queen Victoria’s family later so immortalised in watercolour, were very much part of life moments indoors. The schoolchildren that fill the rooms of the Swiss Cottage today with their cameras are a happy reminder of past children who, in the case of Queen Victoria’s family, included a future German Empress, a British King and a Grand Duchess of Hesse, no less. I found it touching to see how these visiting children took an interest in these royal children of their own age, childhood straddling time. To visit the Swiss Cottage is effectively, to enter the youths of the princes and princesses who used it; something underlined by the fact that a lovely covered path known as the ‘Rhododendron Walk’ stretches down from it to the private beach, where Queen Victoria sometimes sketched her family and where the royal children played.

The Swiss Cottage at Osborne, with the garden plots of Queen Victoria’s family in front – in the foreground, that of Princess Alice (By Loz Pycock (Flickr: Swiss Cottage) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Prince Albert instructed the building of the Swiss Cottage between 1853-54, just under ten years since the Prince Consort and Queen Victoria had acquired Osborne as a private family retreat for the summer months. The pre-fabricated wooden chalet which was erected about half a mile from the Italian palazzo-style villa that Osborne House became when it was rebuilt under his aegis, very much followed a current trend then fashionable in Europe for similar types of Swiss chalets. Their exact contemporaries, King Maximilian II and Queen Marie of Bavaria, had their own Swiss House called the Bleckenau, close to where their eldest son, the legendary King Ludwig II of Bavaria, would later build his iconic castle of Neuschwanstein. Queen Victoria’s own beloved half-sister, Princess Feodora of Leiningen had had a Swiss chalet built for her children at Baden-Baden. Queen Victoria’s own dolls’ house – still preserved at Kensington Palace – also had its own miniature kitchen fitted out with charcoal stoves, a happy foretaste of the kitchen that one day would grace the ground floor of Osborne’s Swiss Cottage.

The inspiration behind the Cottage at Osborne appears to have been taken from the Swiss Cottage near Schloss Rosenau, where Prince Albert grew up, and which he had sketched as an eleven-year-old boy. The Swiss Cottage measures 25ft by 50ft and was restored in 1990, during which it was established, that the wood from which it was constructed, was pine wood from North America. The umber logs on the outer design were stained with black tar in the twentieth century but have since been repainted. Biblical texts in German from the Book of Psalms as well as Victorian educational truisms adorn the cornices of the Swiss Cottage balconies.

The Cottage’s foundation stone was laid on 5 May 1853, with the children present, the Queen and Prince Albert’s third son, Prince Arthur, performing the honours at the age of three – an early training for royal unveiling ceremonies. The Prince of Wales and Prince Alfred helped to set up the stone plinth. It was formally unveiled on the Queen’s birthday, in 1854. As time would show, it would come to be something of a present to the Queen in effect, who delighted to see the pleasure it afforded her children, but also in time, would come to use herself regularly.

The Swiss Cottage was in fact also designed to enable the royal children to be practical, despite their privileged status; they received instruction for general housekeeping and cookery. The grounds contained individual vegetable plots enclosed by fences, each one marked by the name of each child, much as it is today. Each prince and princess would tend their allotment for several hours a day and would be paid by Prince Albert for their work; the Prince Consort also oversaw the selling of their produce. The royal children usually grew strawberries, currants and potatoes, as well as flowers. When I recently visited, it was touching to note raspberries still growing in one of the allotments and to see quotations of the children planted in the ground on boards, with the young Princess Helena’s warning about the wasps in her garden a letter to her father, which continue to be as troublesome now as they no doubt were then.

The Prince of Wales helped to construct the little charming garden shed, with his younger brother, Prince Alfred. The shed contained the tools and wheelbarrows used by the princes and princesses, which are still painted with their individual initials, ‘Pss’ for princess, ‘P’ for prince. The shed also used to contain a swing which once hung from the trees in the Cottage grounds. As he recovered from typhoid at Osborne in 1872 – two months after the crisis of his illness at Sandringham – Queen Victoria wrote to her eldest daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia: ‘He was quite pathetic over his small wheelbarrow and little tools at the Swiss Cottage…’ (op cit. Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, pg 345, 2000).

Earlier, in 1857 – prior to her marriage to Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussia the following January – the Princess Royal had in the Queen’s words, spent her last time at Osborne, where she ‘bid farewell to her dear Swiss Cottage, which quite upset her’ (op. cit, Annie Gray, The Greedy Queen, pg 160, 2018). Most poignantly, the Queen recalled the last visit of the royal children to the Swiss Cottage in July 1861, before Prince Albert’s death: ‘Walked over to the Swiss Cottage with Vicky [Crown Princess of Prussia]… I met Albert & Fritz and all the children & where the results of the morning’s cooking were displayed & relished’ (op. cit, English Heritage board, Swiss Cottage).

Inside the Swiss Cottage, three of the ground floor rooms are dedicated to exhibition space but were once lived in by the housekeeper, Louisa Warne ‘Warnie’ and her husband Thomas the undergardener, who looked after the allotments of the royal children whilst they were away. There was a pantry with a simple fireplace and sink, where Prince Alfred, in particular, helped to look after the stove, mending cutlery and preparing vegetables. The ground floor centrepiece was the blue and white tiled, three-quarter kitchen with its coal-fired range made by a Belgian ironmonger, J. Mathys, in which the princesses were taught to bake cakes and dishes, by Louisa Warne, in the old-fashioned chafing oven, using family recipes or those suggested by Mrs Warne. The Queen’s fourth daughter, the artist Princess Louise, etched her name on the inside of one of the cupboards. Princess Louise later remembered that as children, she and her brothers and sisters had hurried to the garden to enjoy the literal fruits of their labour, which had also included gooseberries, peas, radishes, beetroot, parsley, raspberries, carrots, turnips, beans, parsnips, asparagus, onions, artichokes and maize (Gray, The Greedy Queen, pg 160). In this kitchen, the royal princesses would cook; pancakes appear to have been a favourite choice. Louisa Warne died at the Swiss Cottage in 1881; when Thomas died three months later, the memorial erected to the couple which was paid for by Queen Victoria specifically recorded them both as ‘during 27 years [having] had charge of the Swiss Cottage’ (Ibid, pg 162).

The Swiss Cottage at Osborne (Tony Grant / Swiss Cottage via Geograph.org.uk)

The upper rooms contain a Lobby, Dressing Room, Sitting Room and Dining Room. The Dressing Room did not contain beds and was instead a place where the royal children changed from their daily clothes into gardening smocks or muslin dresses, after which they would either tend to their allotments or bake in the kitchens. The Dining Room is poignantly set for tea with china cups, napkins and places ready, in an installation which I think captures something of the sense of the Royal Family’s timeless presence in this place, as if time has stopped and recreated a long-ago summer afternoon in the 1850s. In the Dining Room (or Queen’s Room), Queen Victoria’s children would often sit down to tea with their parents to relish the food they had prepared in the kitchen below. Queen Victoria continued to use the Swiss Cottage even after her children had grown up, on her many visits to Osborne, sometimes writing her journal or work on her State Papers; the writing desk is still preserved under glass on the left wall, replete with quills and blotting-book, with a silver seal stamped ‘Swiss Cottage’ (Michael Turner, Osborne House, pg 27, 1989). Fittingly, she sometimes wrote to her children and later her grandchildren, from this writing desk in the Swiss Cottage.

An extraordinary feature of the Dining Room is the fact that the pictures of the Queen’s five daughters on the wall, each have miniature glass domes built into the frames, which in turn contain cutting from their individual wedding bouquets, something I have not seen before or since. Flowers under glass domes continue to be a feature of the Swiss Cottage; in the Sitting Room is a skeletal bouquet of flowers assembled by Queen Victoria at Balmoral. There are also flowers under domes for example at Frogmore House, the Queen’s private retreat in Windsor Great Park, but those at Frogmore date from the time of Queen Mary.

A view of the Swiss Cottage from the front was painted by the watercolour artist William Leighton Leitch, who was particularly admired by Queen Victoria, who paid him 12 guineas for his sketch of the Swiss Cottage as a pair, on 24 September 1856 (RCIN 919867). Queen Victoria chose the Cottage as inspiration for her artwork, sketching it for example in the mid-1850s and painting a watercolour near its grounds, in 1867. An inventory was made of the Swiss Cottage in 1904, three years after Queen Victoria’s death.

The Swiss Cottage grounds contain a remarkable ‘Museum’, constructed in 1862 – the year of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort’s second daughter, Princess Alice, whose marriage was celebrated in the Dining Room at Osborne House. It contains a vast amount of geological specimens, including shells and stones, some of which were assembled by the royal children themselves. The great array of wooden cases contain rarities from foreign royal tours as well as exotic items which had been presented to Queen Victoria and stuffed animals and birds shot by visiting royalty as well as the royal children are displayed in large glass vitrines. An interesting item presented by Queen Mary in 1915 for the Museum – Queen Mary was responsible for the so-called ‘Family Museum’ at Frogmore – was a box containing the locks of hair of all of Queen Victoria’s children, formerly the property of Queen Victoria. Also under glass is a stuffed bullfinch that died at Buckingham Palace, of which Prince Albert had been particularly fond and had brought with him from Germany. The grounds also contain the Victoria Fort and Albert Barracks, in imitation of Prince Albert’s forts from his Coburg childhood, completed at the end of the Crimean War; again as with the Swiss Cottage shed, the princes helped with its construction.

The Swiss Cottage is a memorial to Queen Victoria’s children, enjoyed by successive generations. Just as Osborne House commemorates a royal love, the Swiss Cottage is a royal life in miniature.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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