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The royal sweet shop

The Royal Collection RCIN 2106422, Public Domain,

Situated between Abergeldie and Balmoral is a house and little shop which claims a charming association with Queen Victoria’s grandchildren. The shop was originally owned by Mr and Mrs Symon, who were related to Queen Victoria’s devoted Highland servant John Brown and a house that Brown once occupied on the Estate is bypassed on the way to the shop. Mr and Mrs Symon were photographed by George Washington Wilson in the mid-1860s, and their photographs survive in one of the albums belonging to Princess Helena, the third daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Wilson was commissioned in the early 1860s to photograph the families on the Balmoral estate. Mrs Symon’s photograph shows her in a dark gown with a black bonnet trimmed with lace. To visit this shop today (still functioning as a small local store) is to tread in the steps of many of Queen Victoria’s family with their pocket money across decades of regal childhood.

There is something touching about the stories of these royal children trotting down the paths at Balmoral to Mrs Symon’s shop, which sold sweets in Queen Victoria’s reign (Greg King, The Last Empress, 23). According to her biographer Baroness Buxhoeveden, the last Tsarina of Russia Alexandra Feodorovna, used to visit the shops on the Balmoral estate as a child, together with her cousins the Waleses and as Princess of Hesse. The little shop seems to have been a favourite and was known to the Queen’s grandchildren simply as ‘the merchants’. Mrs Symon’s shop – according to Buxhoeveden – sold everything which might appeal to the royal children as small gifts; in addition to sweets, their wares included notepaper. By this time, Mrs Symon appears to have been running the small shop with her sister. It is to Buxhoeveden that we owe the delightful story that the future Tsarina of Russia was taught how to make scones in Mrs Symon’s shop. If true, this was something which was never forgotten and apparently recounted much later to the Tsarina’s own daughters, the four Grand Duchesses, in far-distant Russia (Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, pp. 7-8). Like much of Buxhoeveden’s memories, she does not tell us exactly when and how these stories were recounted, yet we must remember that she knew the Tsarina personally and much was apparently told to her.

Queen Victoria apparently also visited the shop, often referring to the little collection of buildings that made up the houses and shops on the estate as its own village. Unsurprisingly, the widowed Queen Victoria noted the death of Mr John Symon in her journal on 25 July 1876 and went on to write with sympathy of Mrs Symon without her husband. This might also explain why Buxhoeveden wrote that the future Tsarina was taught by Mrs Symon and her sister, as Princess Alix was born in 1872 and her earliest visits to Balmoral would have meant she only saw Mrs Symon as a widow. The Queen’s journal shows that she continued to call on Mrs Symon when she was at Balmoral even as late as the 1890s. At Osborne in January 1898, she recorded the death of Mrs Symon with genuine sadness, noting typically how many years she had known her and the nature of their connection. It is this journal entry which in fact tells us that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had built the house and shop that belonged to Mr and Mrs Symon. As Tsarina, Alexandra apparently revisited the little shop during the Russian imperial visit to Balmoral in 1896, a touching fact, if so (Annie Gray, The Greedy Queen, 283).

Characteristically for Queen Victoria, who expressed a warm interest in the families of her faithful retainers as well as all those who lived on the royal estates, the Symon family were also photographed and the subject of the artwork, even by the Queen. The girls Victoria-Alice and Mary Symon (sometimes spelt Symons) were photographed at Balmoral; Queen Victoria twice sketched Mary Symon and Elizabeth (Lizzie) Stewart and the artist Carl Haag painted them. The Queen considered them ‘dear little lassies’ in true Scottish tongue and photographs of Mary Symon exist in the Royal Collection showing her as a young woman in the 1870s.

There is something about the little shop near Balmoral not unlike the Swiss Cottage at Osborne, with its kitchen gardens for the royal children and model shop of Spratt the grocer, which was shown to Alfred, Lord Tennyson and his children in 1863 (ed. Michael Turner, Osborne House, 28).

When I visited the shop in 2004, I was pleased to note that like any local store, it still sold sweets.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. An expert on past British and European royalty as an academic subject, she speaks as an independent scholar on matters royal historical for both TV and radio, including the BBC. She specializes in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918). She was selected as an historical advisor for the first-time translation from English to Russian of the classic biography (1928) of the Tsarina by Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden (Moscow, 2012). She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017. She writes for academic journals and specialist magazines and is a long-standing contributor to the historical and genealogical Swedish journal Royalty Digest Quarterly and currently also writes for the Tudor Society's magazine, Tudor Life (2018 - ). She is a former contributor to the official Jane Austen Centre magazine, Jane Austen's Regency World (2013-2018) and was History Writer for the world's leading royal news site, Royal Central (2015-2019). Her research interests include royal correspondence and royal weddings, speaking on BBC Radio Berkshire's coverage on historic weddings at Windsor prior to the marriage of TRH The Duke and Duchess of Sussex in May 2018. She is particularly interested in royal architecture and contributed to the TV Yesterday Channel series, World's Greatest Palaces (2019). She conducted original research on W. A. Mozart (2015-2019) and wrote a mini-series on Mozart for the Czech Republic's sole English language newspaper, the Prague Post (2017-2019). Her two-part article on Mozart in London was published in the USA in the Newsletter of the Friends of Mozart Society (New York, Summer/Fall 2016). Elizabeth worked in the heritage sector for over ten years and has been an active supporter of numerous cultural heritage organizations including The Georgian Group, Historic Royal Palaces, Berliner Dombau-Verein e.V, Förderverein Berliner Schloss e.V, Verein Potsdamer Stadtschloss e. V, and Freunde der Preußischen Schlösser und Gärten e.V. Also a poet, Elizabeth's poetry has been published in various literary journals, including The Oxonian Review, Coldnoon and Allegro Poetry. Her first mini-collection of ten poems is forthcoming in the Edinburgh-based quarterly journal Trafika Europe, Issue TE18 All Poetry. Her debut pamphlet of poems is forthcoming with the Welsh-based publisher Marble Poetry in 2020.