‘To dear Miss Robson’: Cards to a Royal Governess

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The name of Miss M. Hope Robson belongs to that both visible and invisible host of British royal nannies and governesses which appeared at the royal courts of Europe in the nineteenth century, known to their charges but in some cases, almost forgotten to biography. Correspondence sent to them in burgeoning childish scrawl and later in a mature script, chart the chronology in pen or pencil of the place held by the nurse or governess in the lives of these royal children.

In November 2018, Bonham’s, London included in their Knightsbridge auction Fine Books, Manuscripts, Atlases and Historical Photographs an album of decorative Christmas and New Year cards listed as Lot 36, which Miss M. Hope Robson carefully preserved from her royal charges. Dating mostly from the 1890s, they still possess the power to charm. The governess’s initials are on the spine, and the album is of green half-calf. It sold at auction for £2,750.

‘Miss Robson’ is how she was referred to by Queen Victoria on the occasions where she was mentioned in the Queen’s journal. This is fairly typical when referring to a governess for her grandchildren; an immediate example being Miss Margaret ‘Madgie’ Hardcastle Jackson, governess to her Hessian grandchildren, who was and baldly called ‘Miss Jackson’ in correspondence. We know, of course, that the Queen took the keenest interest in the education of her grandchildren, not least her Hessian grandchildren in Darmstadt for whom she felt particularly responsible since the premature death of their mother, her second daughter Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, deliberating attempting to become a type of ‘ersatz’ mother to them and on occasion, possibly even knowingly signing her letters to the eldest granddaughter, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg in the early period after the death of Alice as ‘Ever your devoted Mama V.R.I’.

Miss Robson’s album contains two inscribed cards from Queen Victoria: ‘VRI’. Queen Victoria mentions Miss Robson directly in a letter to Princess Louis, one of her favourite granddaughters, in November 1894. Evidently, Miss Robson had developed family difficulties, which were causing problems in her employment. The Queen wrote that was distressed and it seemed that Miss Robson now had to stay with her mother, who was presumably, ill or dying. Concerned, the Queen added quickly, that a replacement must be found. This was the Queen and Empress of Empire who even was concerned down to the smallest detail, such as the habit of one of her grandsons biting his nails (Ernst Ludwig, Grossherzog von Hessen und bei Rhein, Erinnertes, 83).

Miss Robson was first the governess to three children of the Duke and Duchess of Connaught – Queen Victoria’s favourite son, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn and his wife, Princess Louise Margaret of Prussia, who had married at St George’s Chapel, Windsor in 1879. These were Princess Margaret, later Crown Princess of Sweden (1882-1920), Prince Arthur of Connaught (1883-1938) and Princess Patricia of Connaught, later Lady Patricia Ramsay (1886-1974). They grew up at the Connaught country residence of Bagshot Park in Surrey. Clarence House, the Connaught’s London residence, was made available to the Duke and Duchess and their family only after the home was redecorated in 1901. Prince Arthur inscribed a delightful card of four Victorian postmen for Miss Robson, each carrying a letter: ‘Wishing you’ ‘a very bright’and happy’ ‘New Year’: ‘for Sobsie from Arthur’.

After her employment with the Connaughts, Miss Robson went on to become a governess to the children of Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg – maternal grandmother of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. Miss Robson was governess to the eldest daughter, Princess Alice of Battenberg, later Princess Andrew of Greece. Her royal pupil was congenitally deaf and may not have at first been the easiest of charges. This is indicated in one of her Christmas cards to Miss Robson sent just before she was twelve (1896): ‘from your (rude) Alice’ and another from 1899, sufficiently reformed three years later: ‘from her now affectionate and repentant pupil Alice Battenberg’.

Other cards were listed as from Miss Robson’s employers, which must have been, of course, the Duke and Duchess of Connaught and Prince and Princess Louis of Battenberg. Also included were cards from Princess Louis of Battenberg’s younger sisters, Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna and Princess Alix of Hesse. Princess Alix sent her cards to Miss Robson for the years 1892/3 and from Russia as Tsarina, in 1895. Alix’s cards read: ‘To dear Miss Robson… from Alix’. Princess Alix of Hesse kept in contact with her former governess, Miss Jackson, sending her gifts and letters from Russia, as late as 1915. Whenever she wrote to Miss Jackson, she unfailingly signed off with the usual ending: ‘Yr. loving old P.Q. No III, ALIX’, this being the pet-name which her governess had given her in her babyhood – ‘My Poppet Queen No. 3’ (Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 32).

The first mention of Miss Robson occurs in Queen Victoria’s journal at Balmoral in 1888. Little Princess Alice of Battenberg was born in 1885 at Windsor Castle, in the same room in which her own mother’s birth had taken place, in 1863. Princess Alix of Hesse probably met Miss Robson properly at Balmoral in 1888 because they were both together in several of the tableaux given as part of evening entertainment at the castle. As Miss Robson’s cards date mainly from the 1890s, she probably did not become a governess to Princess Alice of Battenberg until at least that period.

Looking at the Queen’s journals, we can see that Miss Robson spent Christmas Day at Osborne in 1890; she took continued to take part in tableaux at Osborne in 1891-2. The Hesse sisters must have distantly remembered her from Balmoral but have known her chiefly, as the governess to their Battenberg nieces and nephews, although Queen Victoria always referred to Miss Robson as governess to the children of her son, the Duke of Connaught in her journal.

Evidently, Miss Robson must have treasured these cards, because she preserved them carefully in an album. If she did have to leave royal employment after 1894, the cards went with her, wherever she went. They are living documents of her royal service that now, in turn, help to ensure that she is remembered.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, an historical consultant and independent scholar. An expert on past British and European royalty, she speaks on matters royal historical for both TV and radio, speaking on historic royal weddings at Windsor for BBC Radio Berkshire prior to the first Royal Wedding in 2018. She regularly writes for journals, specialist magazines, newsletters and the web. She is a contributor to the academic genealogical journal Royalty Digest Quarterly, currently also writing for the Tudor Society's magazine, Tudor Life. She specializes in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918), with a particular interest in her correspondence. She conducts and publishes original research on W. A. Mozart and writing on Mozart for the English-speaking Czech newspaper Prague Post's culture column and for the newsletter of the New York society, Friends of Mozart. She has made a significant contribution to the field of royal studies and conducts original research on the subject, making a number of important finds including 'lost' royal letters and rediscovering Queen Victoria's perfume. As an historical consultant, she responds to a wide range of enquiries from media to private individuals, as well as for numerous books, talks and research projects. She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017. A passionate supporter of historical and culture heritage, she has been an active member of numerous societies including The Georgian Group, Berliner Dombau-Verein e.V, Historic Royal Palaces and Freunde der Preußischen Schlösser und Gärten e.V. Also a poet, her work has been published in various literary and poetry magazines, including The Oxonian Review, North of Oxford, Coldnoon, Nine Muses Poetry and Allegro Poetry, with poems forthcoming in Trafika Europe Journal. Her first pamphlet of poetry will be published in 2020 by Marble Poetry.