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Tea and Queen Victoria

By Alexander Bassano -, Public Domain

Queen Victoria is for many, synonymous with the notion of afternoon tea, probably because the social ceremony became properly established during the later years of her reign. The Queen’s evident love of tea, however, reaches back much further than this elegant ritual. Indeed, the word occurs 7,587 times in the various typescripts or edited copies of her journal, proving it was part of her routine, becoming ever more important as she grew older. It also became a regular habit on many of her outdoor excursions, as her sketches and various engravings, confirm.

The first mention of tea occurs in the journal of the thirteen-year-old Princess Victoria on 18 August 1832, at Beaumaris, Anglesey, in her slanting, elegant hand. It is consistently mentioned afterwards, but interestingly, the figures leap up into the two hundreds in 1867, having doubled between 1864 and 1865 from 64 to 129 mentions. Perhaps significantly, in the years of her marriage (1840-1861), Queen Victoria mentions it under ten times a year, for example, in 1850, when it occurred only once. The widowed Queen probably sought the same comfort in her beverages, as she evidently did in her food. Unsurprisingly, the most mentions of tea occurs at Balmoral, where she often enjoyed having it made up outdoors, over a stove. An interesting fact is that her ‘tea’ overwhelmingly is taken with her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice.

Our image of the Queen at work in the tents she invariably had set up under trees is a lasting one. On these occasions, the elderly Victoria would be seated, usually with an Indian servant in attendance, surrounded by her official boxes and other faithful companions, namely her family of cups, coffee pots and teapots (Annie Gray, The Greedy Queen, 289). The number of cups is explained by one of her favourite grandchildren, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, who wrote in her private reminiscences: ‘For breakfast and tea Grandmama used two special cups and would pour the tea from one into the other to cool it’ (cit., David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, 271).

Another royal source that confirmed this was German Princess Louis of Battenberg’s sister-in-law, Marie of Battenberg, later Princess zu Erbach-Schönberg: ‘She drank her tea and coffee after it had been poured from one cup to another to cool it. On this account, she had always several cups in front of her…’ (cit., Reminiscences, pp. 236-237). Rather fascinatingly, the granddaughter of Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, The Lady Brabourne, remembered that her grandmother, Princess Louis of Battenberg, knew how to delight a child by making a doll’s teaset out of acorns.

In her private memoir, written down much later in 1872, Queen Victoria mused of her taking her bread and milk as a child in a small silver basin, adding that tea was only granted as a special treat (A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, The Letters of Queen Victoria: A Selection of Her Majesty’s Correspondence between the years 1837 and 1861, pp. 11-13).

Queen Victoria had as a child, received a child’s tea set from her beloved aunt, the Duchess of Clarence, later Queen Adelaide (Gray, 15). Fittingly, her famous doll’s house, which survives at Kensington Palace, had, of course, its own simplified Regency dining room, set for tea (Ibid, 15). The doll’s house (c. 1825-35) is surprisingly modest for a royal child but could well reflect her austere childhood at Kensington Palace. Two tea cups are set out in the upper room of the doll’s house, white with green decorations. Little chairs are gathered around the tea-table. Incidentally, a porcelain cup and saucer survives in the Museum of London, said to have been used by Princess Victoria at the tea-parties held for her at Kensington Palace (Deirdre Murphy, The Young Victoria, 102). Later, a miniature portrait of the aged and white-veiled Queen Victoria, 2.1 x 1.7 inches high and in a silver frame, found its way into another doll’s house, in this case, Queen Mary’s Doll’s House.

Later, Queen Victoria gave a beloved granddaughter, Princess Alix of Hesse, the future Tsarina of Russia, a tea set for her twenty-second birthday, in 1894. This tea set survives, remarkably and is preserved in the State Museum for Ethnography, St Petersburg, although several of the pieces are now missing (Elizabeth Jane Timms, Princess Alix of Hesse’s Visit to Harrogate, in Royalty Digest Quarterly, 2018/1, 41). Somewhat endearingly, even the Queen’s spoons, which perhaps also stirred tea on occasion, had crowns on their tops, complete with the royal monogram; her biographer, Elizabeth, Lady Longford, owned one (Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 11).

Nor did the Queen confine her drinking of hot beverages to simply tea. Princess Marie, Princess zu Erbach-Schönberg tells us that ‘the Queen had many German ways – for example, she liked to soak cake, and things of that sort, in her coffee, which in England is absolutely forbidden…’ (cit., Princess Marie of Battenberg, 237). Another granddaughter, Queen Marie of Roumania, remembered in the first volume of her memoirs, The Story of My Life (1934) that breakfasting with the Queen would mean experiencing ‘a delicious fragrance of coffee…’ (cit., Gray, 289).

Queen Victoria found the coffee in Germany ‘excellent’ (cit., Ibid, 224) and the Queen’s grandson-in-law, the future Tsar Nicholas II, regularly described driving to Frogmore with the Queen and Princess Alix of Hesse, his fiancée, where they had coffee or tea (Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, pp. 75-79).

True to her Georgian ancestry, she also enjoyed hot chocolate, drinking it with Prince Albert’s elder brother Ernest, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Gray, 224). Her great-great-grandfather, King George II, died at Kensington Palace on the morning of 25 October 1760, having enjoyed his usual chocolate at seven o’clock (Lucy Worsley, Courtiers, 315). His beloved wife, Queen Caroline, had drunk her preferred recipe of chocolate, containing a dash of brandy.

Many little buildings on the royal estates became associated with the Queen’s breakfasting or tea-taking. The Garden Cottage at Balmoral was one such place, where the Queen enjoyed having breakfast outdoors on the veranda (Delia Millar, Queen Victoria’s Life in the Scottish Highlands, 133). Queen Victoria especially loved a favourite alcove on the terrace at Osborne as a place for breakfast, where she could enjoy the pleasant scent of jasmine, orange blossoms and roses from the nearby pergola (Michael Turner, Osborne House, 24). A delightful watercolour by the Queen is inscribed ‘From where I took my Tea [at] Osborne’, dated August 1869.

At Frogmore gardens, which the Queen greatly loved, was the Georgian Gothic Ruin, whose neo-Tudor-decorated interior she used either as a breakfast or reading room (Royal Collection Enterprises, Frogmore House and the Royal Mausoleum, 39) and of course, her brick and tiled Gothic teahouse in the south-eastern corner of the gardens, where the Queen had a tent put up in the summer months (Ibid, 37). Queen Victoria even made a charming watercolour, probably in a tent, of her Tea House at Frogmore, dated 1 & 10 July 1872 ‘[b]egan July 1. finished July 10. 1872’. She took tea with the Duchess of Sutherland, her Mistress of the Robes, in the idyllic, riverside Spring Cottage at Cliveden and apparently, with the Cliveden housekeeper, having driven over from Windsor (Gray, 291).

Queen Victoria introduced tea to her garden parties from the 1860s onwards. She took tea in her tent for her Garden Party on 28 June 1897 at Buckingham Palace, for the Golden Jubilee.

Other occasions for tea-making were invariably outside, whether on bracing excursions in the Scottish Highlands or alongside the road in the South of France. In Scotland, this usually took the form of a journey from Balmoral and then sat down for lunch, where some outdoor picnic or refreshment would be enjoyed from a pleasant outlook, suitable for sketching.

One such example is a pencil drawing by the Queen of a man brewing tea in a rural Highland setting. The inscription in the Queen’s sketchbook is simply: ‘Tea – Making, Oct: 13 – 1864 – ‘. An amusing occasion was a sudden snowstorm in Glen Beg. The Queen captured the scene in the mid-1860s when herself and two of the princesses were caught in a sudden flurry of snow; in her sketch, the royal party sits shuddering under umbrellas, whilst a man in Highland dress quickly makes ready a stove for tea. Another was when the artist Carl Haag was making a picture of the Queen, eventually to become ‘Corrie Buie’ (1865), showing the Queen with her daughters, Princesses Helena and Louise and the Highland ghillies John Brown and John Grant. The unfortunate artist was sat in the pouring rain on the hillside near Ballochbuie forest, as the Queen came to take her tea on the hillside with Princess Helena and the Dowager Duchess of Athole. The royal party sent the dampened painter a cup of tea to fortify him (Millar, 122).

Movingly, the last mentions of tea in the Queen’s (edited) journals occur at Osborne, where the once lively entries have become as weary and sinking, as the Queen’s own rapidly declining health. Prince Albert had similarly, taken ‘tea’ and dry rusks during the last days of his illness at Windsor in 1861; just days before he died, Queen Victoria recorded him having chicken tea, probably for medicinal purposes, like beef tea.

The Queen’s ‘tea’ shortly before her death had instead become nothing more than miserable arrowroot with milk (Millar, 142), which touchingly though, she continued to call ‘tea‘. Even the milk changed, from a drop of whisky in the milk to finally, warm milk (A. N. Wilson, Victoria, pp. 567-568). It was as if the Queen was becoming a child again, on liquid food, recalling her earliest memories of bread and milk in a silver basin, when very young. Sadly, for a Queen who had so loved her tea, her last ever journal entry – Sunday 13 January 1901 – recorded only a drink of milk (Gray, 303).

The great journal began in 1832, finally came to an end. Princess Beatrice’s handwriting (in red ink) records underneath that this was the last entry in the Queen’s journal before her death. Queen Victoria died at Osborne on 22 January 1901.

Tea, then, had been a constant companion to Queen Victoria for life, faithful, going everywhere with her, like her dogs.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019