Playhouse fit for a prince

By Martin Neville

Friday, April 25, 2014


Playhouse fit for a prince

The newly restored Swiss Cottage. Picture by Jennifer Burton.


THE hidden world of royal childhood at Osborne has been revealed for the first time.

A £1.65 million conservation and re-interpretation project at Osborne has seen Swiss Cottage and the miniature fort, where the royal children played, restored.

Made possible by a grant of £776,400 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and donations from the Garfield Weston Foundation and other donors, the Childhood at Osborne exhibition enables families to step into the world of royal childhood at the idyllic seaside home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Set almost three-quarters of a mile from the main house, the Swiss Cottage was a full-size wendy house, built at Prince Albert’s instruction.

It was the domain of the nine royal children, where they played at being adults and learnt skills their father believed would make them better people and better rulers.

Vicky, Bertie, Alice, Alfred, Helena, Louise, Arthur, Leopold and Beatrice escaped there as much as possible when at Osborne for their summer holidays and to celebrate birthdays, and later most of them brought their children back to play.

Now, use of the children’s letters, diaries and paintings has enabled English Heritage to reveal their stories in their own words, giving 21st century families the chance to experience this unique childhood.

Project historian Andrew Hann said: "The children, particularly the girls, did a lot of cooking — they cooked cakes and biscuits and other treats which were then served to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

"They also did gardening and grew maize, carrots and all the other things you would expect.

"Their vegetable patches were arranged by age, with Princess Victoria’s at the far left and Princess Beatrice’s at the far right.

"They were all exactly the same size and Prince Albert would buy the vegetables back from them at market prices to teach them the value of money.

"He had been raised in Germany with a Swiss chalet of his own, and wanted to repeat his childhood for his children. It was all Albert’s idea to make them more competitive. We found one occasion in the children’s letters where Prince Alfred was demonstrating a steam engine and it drenched Bertie’s face with water. On another, Princess Helena discovered how scared she was of wasps."

The cottage was built between May 1853 and May 1854 so the children could experience being 'ordinary citizens’ and was carved with improving quotations in German like 'You will carry your load more easily if you add patience to the burden.’

The boys played an active part in laying the foundations and Victoria wrote in her journal that Prince Alfred "worked as hard and steadily as a regular labourer’ and he was paid by Albert at the same rate.

The girls learned to cook in the well-furnished kitchen, often serving up what they had made to their parents and other guests at luncheons and tea parties.

They were taught to run a toy grocer’s shop stocked with all the basics as well as exotic spices and kept accounts for their father to review.

To one side of the Swiss Cottage, each child had their own garden plot where they tended fruit, vegetables and flowers with their own monogrammed wheelbarrows, tools and watering cans.

They wore smocks and clogs and their produce was assessed by the under-gardener, Mr Warne, and if good enough, Albert would pay the market rate to the child who’d grown it.

When the children grew up, the plots were passed down to the grandchildren and the little market garden continued right up until Victoria’s death in 1901.

Now it is planted with varieties of fruit and vegetables that would have been available in the 19th century.

The children were avid collectors of natural history specimens, fossils, antiquities and curios and items associated with cultures from around the world.

They filled a room in the cottage with their objects so in January 1863, the Queen gave them, in her words, "an additional small cottage, near the Swiss Cottage...for a museum."

Some were given to the royal children by Victoria and Albert, while others were collected by the children themselves or by their children.

The Prince of Wales, Prince Alfred and Prince Arthur made significant contributions to the museum as teenagers.

The museum still remains, with its contents of more than 3,000 objects, including the first transatlantic telegraph message and a five-legged deer.

Schools can take part in free self-led educational visits of Swiss Cottage. Call 0870 333 0606 or book online at

THE project at Osborne has included:

• Vital conservation work to the structure of Swiss Cottage.

• The re-opening of historic rooms on the ground floor, revealing long hidden interior decoration.

• A new interactive exhibition, introducing the royal children and their adventures.

• Conservation of the historic Albert Barracks and Victoria Fort, with new interpretation.

• Conservation of the museum’s collection of 3,000 objects from all over the world.

• Conversion of the Gazelle House (formerly home to the children’s three gazelles) into a new cake shop.

• Installation of a new children’s play area inspired by the fort and Swiss Cottage.

Who’s who of the Royal children

Vicky (Princess Victoria 1840-1901)

Vicky was Prince Albert’s favourite and a confident and talented child, who was fluent in French, German and English by the age of three.

She also enjoyed painting, dancing and reading. She didn’t get on well with Bertie, who she often teased, but was close to her sister, Alice.

Bertie (Albert Edward, Prince of Wales 1841-1910)

Bertie was less confident and intelligent than his siblings, who he was constantly compared with by the Queen. She and Prince Albert worried about his bad behaviour and poor school work.

Aged 11, he was separated from the other children as a bad influence, and given a tough study programme to prepare him to be king.

Alice (Princess Alice 1843-1878)

Alice was the most even-tempered of the children and got on well with all her siblings. She was like an aunt to her younger brothers and sisters and was the only person who could draw her moody older brother Bertie into children’s games.

A gentle, charming and intelligent girl, the Queen called her 'good amiable Alice’.

Alfred (Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh 1844-1900)

Affie was the most mischievous of the children, always getting into trouble for playing pranks or teasing his siblings.

He was happiest when in his workshop at the Swiss Cottage making toys for the younger children, or taking apart and reassembling some mechanical device.

Helena (Princess Helena 1846-1923)

Helena, called Lenchen by the Queen, was a tomboy and the toughest of the girls. She wasn’t interested in cooking, and would much rather help Affie in his workshop or play soldiers with Arthur at the fort. She loved gardening at Swiss Cottage and feeding and grooming the horses down at the stables.

Louise (Princess Louise 1848-1939)

Louise was a pretty and affectionate girl, but also strong-willed and rather naughty. She was a very talented painter, and when she was older had a sculpture studio at Osborne.

Arthur (Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught 1850-1942)

Arthur was the best behaved of the children and the Queen’s favourite. He had a very active imagination, liked reading and playing with his toy soldiers. From an early age he was destined for a career in the army, announcing on his first birthday 'Arta is going to be a soldier’.

Leopold (Prince Leopold 1853-1884)

Leopold was an adventurous little boy, and completely fearless, but was often unwell which worried the Queen.

Whenever he fell over, as often happened, he had to stay in bed for several days. By 1860 his illness was getting worse so he travelled round in a 'little carriage’ when outdoors.

Beatrice (Princess Beatrice 1857-1944)

As the youngest of the children Beatrice was known by everyone as 'Baby’. She was treated less strictly than her siblings, and was more spoiled, particularly by Prince Albert.

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