Osborne House, Isle of Wight

Queen Victoria seemed to control her vast empire from the Isle of Wight but she was more vulnerable than her image suggests writes Michael Edwards

Osborne - Isle of Wight

Experienced Isle of Wight travellers look out for Osborne Beach as their Wightlink Ferry crosses from Portsmouth heading into Fishbourne. Around 150 years ago Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, with their brood of 9 excited children, would have sailed through the Solent, on the Royal Yacht, headed for East Cowes.

After travels to the Isle of Wight, as a child, with her mother, Queen Victoria had a soft spot for the Island. She had fond childhood memories of an island with beautiful beaches and quiet country lanes. Her passion for the island was shared by Prince Albert. Purchasing land at Osborne, Albert drew up plans for a pale yellow Italianate palazzo style house with elegant formal gardens leading to the gentle downhill walk to the sheltered and secluded Osborne beach.

Osborne from the Solent

Queen Victoria, was well aware that Windsor with its suffocating formality was no place for children who wanted to play and shrill with pleasure. Prince Albert designed the Swiss Cottage, the ultimate upscale Wendy House, for the children to escape into their own make-belief worlds.

Meanwhile, a room was set aside in the House for Queen Victoria to meet with the Privy Council and work through her dispatches box, occasionally looking up to take-in the glorious sea view through an avenue running down through the woodland. When Queen Victoria was pregnant Prince Albert took over the reins. Some say he encouraged her frequent pregnancies so that he could exercise power over the growing British Empire …

Swiss Cottage

As you tour the main house, which will probably take around two hours, you will see a family tree of Queen Victoria’s descendants. Known as “The Grandmother of Europe” she plotted for her children and grandchildren’s strategic marriages with Europe’s royalty to strengthen bonds and guarantee peace. The nursery shows the cots where her grandchildren stayed when they visited a woman who was a grandmother many times over.

Heading below stairs, an entire room devoted to warming plates gives some sense of the scale of the operation required to feed the house guests. Back upstairs in the Durbar Room, which could seat 70 guests, a table is set for dinner. Even though some of the Queen’s guests would have fought Napoleon’s forces at Waterloo, the menu is given in French which was revered as the language of fine dining. With courses of soup, fish and entrements arriving before the main course it is perhaps not surprising that the Queen was described by some as a little “dumpy” in her later years.

In 1876, Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India but she was never to visit that faraway and vast part of her Empire. At Osborne House you can view the exhibition of Rudolph Swoboda’s work. For two years, he painted portraits of the Indian people, from the Untouchables through to Maharajahs, so that Queen Victoria could have a better understanding of her Indian subjects.

Orangery at Osborne

But that was not enough for Victoria. Another exhibition reveals her incredibly close relationship with the Indian Abdul Karim, who became her teacher of all things Indian, or “Munshi”, as he liked to be known. The recent film, starring Judi Dench, shows how Victoria’s obsession with Abdul infuriated both courtiers and politicians.

If Victoria had travelled to India she would never have coped with the heat. Tour the Ice-House in the grounds to discover that, in summer, Victoria liked blocks of ice cooling the rooms. Although the severe winter of 1859, provided 60 horse-drawn cartloads of ice, for her drinks Victoria preferred clear-ice from Massachusetts.

Above all Osborne House revered family values. Birthdays were celebrated enthusiastically, beginning with the birthday boy or girl being woken by the Royal Band playing beneath their bedroom windows. This summer a special exhibition, commemorating the 200th anniversary of both Albert and Victoria’s birth, presents the elaborate gifts that the couple gave each other over the years.

In an era when people made their own entertainment, the children were encouraged to hone their dramatic and musical skills. Victoria’s diary in 1856 states “The children performed a Quintet quite admirably … Alfie playing a solo on the violin so well.”

Osborne interior

Osborne House, with constant ongoing repairs, is presented in immaculate condition by English Heritage. If Victorian Royal life has intrigued you browse through the books on offer in the bookshop. In particular, “Serving Victoria”, tells the story of the 64 years of her reign, revealing a monarch who far from being “not amused” was given to fits of giggles and often gobbled down her food greedily. Although the architecture and artefacts of Osborne House present her as controlling her household and the empire beyond, Queen Victoria was a surprisingly vulnerable character.

Find out more

Sail to the Isle of Wight with WightLink

Learn more about Osborne House at English Heritage
For details of more attractions on the island look at Visit Isle of Wight.

Photos: ©English Heritage

Last modified: June 10, 2021

Written by 9:00 am Around The UK