Whilst researching for a forthcoming academic article on Louisa Louis, the devoted dresser to Princess Charlotte of Wales (1771-1838) who was deeply valued by Queen Victoria, I encountered the name of Mrs Brock. She belongs to that fascinating roll-call of characters that claim a connection with Queen Victoria, who have become all-but historically invisible and are normally banished to the realms of a mere biographical footnote.
These ‘lost’ connections, however, do not diminish in importance because of that fact, for these people form part of the vast congregation of the life that was Queen Victoria’s, a monarch who was the figurehead of Empire as well as Europe’s royal matriarch, and who had met or was familiar with the voluminous cast-list of her century. Mrs Brock or ‘dear Boppy’ (op. cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 21) is just one such character, albeit one who sometimes even misses indexes. I have tried to ‘find’ her.
‘Boppy’ belongs to the period in Queen Victoria’s early childhood, which the Queen would later describe as ‘very unhappy’, a definition of her judgement, formed with all the prejudices of adult selective ‘memory’. This account is taken from the remarkable memoir which the Queen wrote down in 1872, for which we have no definitive evidence of what provoked it, as it is short and once written, was never resumed.
I have a personal theory as to what occasioned the writing of this memoir in 1872, namely, that it was the death of her beloved half-sister, Feodora, Princess of Hohenlohe, which inspired such a reflection. Feodora died on 23 September 1872. The Queen received the news whilst at Balmoral, and her journal entry starkly reveals the rawness of this painful loss. The Queen does not mention her private memoir in her entry for 23 September 1872. If my theory is correct, then the memoir must have been written down sometime between September and December 1872. As this was a half-sister who she adored that had shared the lonely isolation of her childhood at Kensington Palace, it is easy to understand that with Feodora’s death, the Queen felt that her childhood was ‘gone’ and the loss of that ‘link’ could well have been responsible for this reflection, which she never repeated in this format.
Tellingly, the memoir is written about her early childhood and mentions Princess Feodora, although it does not describe her demise. She had visited Feodora in Baden-Baden some short time previously, whilst on holiday in Germany. To Gladstone, she wrote on Feodora’s death: ‘Her loss is quite irreparable… Her [the Queen often wrote in third-person in her political correspondence] only and most admirable Sister and the very last Link (for no one is left now) with her Childhood and Youth gone…’ (op. cit., A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 355). These words are similar to the Queen’s journal entry on Feodora’s death.
Mrs Brock is mentioned in this 1872 memoir and thus takes her early place in Queen Victoria’s personal chronology, however small. Brock is usually referred to as Princess Victoria’s ‘nurse’ or ‘nursemaid’ by the biographers who mention her. I have yet to discover what Mrs Brock’s first name was. She was taken into the household of the Duchess of Kent whilst Victoria was still a baby (Wilson, 49) and therefore belongs at the very beginning of Queen Victoria’s memoir of 1872, when the Queen recalled her first memories being of Kensington Palace and crawling on a yellow carpet (ed. A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, The Letters of Queen Victoria, vol 1, 10). Queen Victoria remembered: ‘Up to my 5th year I had been very much indulged by every one, [sic] and set pretty well all at defiance. Old Baroness de Späth, the devoted Lady of my Mother, my Nurse Mrs Brock, dear old Mrs Louis…’ (op. cit., Ibid, 14).
Mrs Brock is mentioned in connection with Claremont, the mansion house near Esher, which was the home of Victoria’s uncle, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, later King of the Belgians and had been where his first bride, Princess Charlotte of Wales, had died after giving birth to a stillborn son, to great national grief. She was fussed over at Claremont, where she spent much time in her early childhood, by Mrs Louisa Louis, the late Princess Charlotte’s devoted dresser, as well as by Mrs Brock and the German lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Kent, the Baroness de Späth (Hibbert, 21). The latter petted the little princess so much that it was more or less idolatry.
The three of these ladies triangulate into a sort of Claremont clique, who ‘all worshipped the poor little fatherless child [herself] whose future then was still very uncertain’. (op. cit., Benson and Esher, 14). This was true, as Princess Feodora later wrote to Queen Victoria in 1843: ‘She [Baroness de Späth]… used to go down upon her knees before you, when you were a child. She and poor old Louis [Mrs Louisa Louis] did all they could to spoil you…’ (op. cit., Ibid, 18). Interestingly, the second recorded account of expenses relating to Princess Victoria concerns Mrs Brock directly; we know this because Mrs Brock was paid out £2 5s 0 ½ d ‘for Princess Victoria’s washing at Claremont’ (op. cit., Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 84).
Such glimpses are tantalising, because such they remain. ‘Dear Boppy’ seems not to have had her appearance recorded, neither by the hand of the young princess she idolized, nor by that of a later painter. Fittingly perhaps, the most lifelike image we have of her is Queen Victoria’s pen-portrait, describing the woman much later, in whose charge she had once been. Telling perhaps of the early possessiveness of Princess Victoria’s devoted governess Baroness Lehzen, (who never “once left her” in the thirteen years of her service), Mrs Brock dressed the young Victoria (Hibbert, 22) whilst Lehzen read aloud, ostensibly to discourage the Princess from talking to her servants, a sure indication if correct, that Lehzen excluded herself from this bracket, in her own mind (Ibid, 22).
Mrs Brock appears some five times at least, in Princess Victoria’s juvenile journals. As if to link her with her charge in documentary perpetuity, these references are made in those early journals, written in Victoria’s handwriting, only a given number of which survive, from 1 August 1832 until 1 January 1837. The first of these is dated 6 May 1833, written from Kensington Palace, in the future Queen’s unique, slanting scrawl, complete with crossings-out and words disappearing into the edges of pages, a habit she would later adopt, when failing eyesight forced her words to compete with ever-wider borders of black mourning on her stationery. Appropriately, all the entries that mention the nurse are written from Kensington Palace.
We know that the early journals of Princess Victoria were read by the Duchess of Kent and therefore lacked the piquancy that we have come to expect with the vivid nature of Queen Victoria’s letters and journals, although the latter were, of course, edited later by her youngest daughter Princess Beatrice, on the Queen’s instructions. Paradoxically, though much has been made of the later journals of the Queen suffering from this editing, it is noteworthy that her earlier memoirs probably suffered in a different way, because they were read by additional eyes as well as her own and so, possibly edited by herself. Reading them, there is a probable sense of the petulant Princess Victoria, gagging her own instinctive voice, because the journal was read by others. Nevertheless, the power of her own personality still bursts on to the pages, perhaps symbolic of her own struggle within the suffocation of what became known as the ‘Kensington system’ – her character pushing its way through.
In the journals, we see that Mrs Brock was at Kensington Palace on Princess Victoria’s birthdays in 1833 and 1835, her fourteenth and sixteenth birthday respectively. Perhaps significantly, Victoria does not describe any gift from Mrs Brock, though she would describe receiving presents from Mrs Louisa Louis. The language used is distant and lacks any emotion. The implication is that she is a visitor and no longer part of the Household. On Christmas Eve 1832, Princess Victoria gave Mrs Brock a gift: ‘In the course of the morning I gave Mrs Brock a Christmas box and all our people’ (op. cit., Viscount Esher, The Girlhood of Queen Victoria, vol I, 61). She records giving her a present again in her journal for January 1836.
The last entry that concerns Mrs Brock was made in Princess Victoria’s journal, for Sunday 22 May 1836, two days before her seventeenth birthday. Unsurprisingly, it is the most detailed entry because it records Victoria receiving the news of her former nursemaid’s death. In it, we have a character sketch of Mrs Brock, although again there is no emotion. Predictably, however, as would become typical with Queen Victoria, death was the occasion to reflect in writing her connection with the individual and usually, the length of time in question. The death of ‘dear Boppy’ was no exception: ‘Received the news of the death of my poor old Nurse, Mrs Brock, which took place the day before yesterday…’ (op. cit., Esher, The Girlhood of Queen Victoria, 159). This tells us then that Mrs Brock died on Friday, 20 May 1836. We do not know the cause.
Princess Victoria went on: ‘She was not a pleasant person, and undoubtedly had, as everybody has, her faults, but she was extremely attached to and fond of me, having been with me from my birth till my fifth year, therefore it is impossible, and it would be very wrong, if I did not feel her death…’ (op. cit., Ibid, 159).
Interestingly, this tells us that Mrs Brock did indeed leave the household of the Duchess of Kent at Kensington Palace and that this must have been sometime in 1824. Whatever the truth of the possible pleasantness or unpleasantness of Mrs Brock’s nature, we must also remember the notorious tantrums of her royal charge, who had once thrown a pair of scissors at her governess. The Duchess of Kent once replied that her little daughter had ‘been good this morning, but yesterday there was a little storm.’ ‘Two storms’ was the impertinent (though no doubt correct) comment from Princess Victoria, ‘one at dressing and one at washing’. (op. cit., Hibbert, pp. 17-18). So, whatever Mrs Brock’s temperament, she had to put up with childish royal pique.
One of the most important mentions is a hidden story all of its own. Princess Victoria concluded: ‘My chief regret is, that she did not live till I was my own mistress, and could make her quite comfortable…’ (op. cit., Ibid, pp. 159-160). Viscount Esher, who edited a selection of Victoria’s diaries for the years 1832-1840, produced his own typescript of her journals from 1 August 1832 until 16 February 1840 and co-edited three published volumes of the Queen’s letters, makes clear the importance of this last sentence, explaining that it is the first recorded instance that Princess Victoria made in her journals to acknowledging her future position. This had been tactfully done by Baroness Lehzen one morning at Kensington, who discreetly inserted a family tree into the pages of her history books. ‘I never saw that before…’ was the subdued comment: ‘I see I am nearer to the throne than I thought’ (op. cit., Hibbert, 29), after that Princess Victoria promptly burst into tears.
Perhaps it is significant that Mrs Brock, who had been with Victoria since her babyhood, was the indirect occasion for her making her first recorded reference to the fact that she knew she would become Queen, an event that finally occurred on 20 June 1837, at Kensington Palace. The baby she had nursed was now set to become Queen Victoria.