How Princess Victoria’s holiday in Ramsgate nearly altered the future of the royal family
PUBLISHED: 16:06 13 October 2020
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
On holiday in Ramsgate 185 years ago, Princess Victoria contracted typhus and ‘went missing’ for three weeks. Had she died, the future of the royal family could have been quite different | Words: Stephen Roberts - Photos: Manu Palomeque
When we go on holiday, we just want nice weather, decent snaps and some happy memories to sustain us. For Princess Victoria (the Queen to be), life was not always so straightforward, or indeed accommodating.
Her first holiday (Devon, aged eight months) was marred by the death of her father, Edward, Duke of Kent, who contracted pneumonia and was gone quicker than you could say ‘sandcastle’. A later holiday in Ramsgate, when Victoria was aged 16, would almost result in her own death.
We need to bear in mind that Victoria was not expected to be queen when she was born. Sixth in line to the throne, her destiny was to be an obscure minor royal, except that those ahead of her in the queue dropped like nine-pins, including her own father.
The annual seaside holiday was a treat that Victoria had come to expect. Her Belgian uncle Leopold apparently bestowed a grand annually on her mum so that they could dip their toes in the water.
Ramsgate was a popular choice, which they’d already frequented many times (Victoria had been four when she first came here).
The journey was made by steamer from London to Margate, where all the riff-raff disgorged, leaving the well-to-do to make their own way to Ramsgate.
In the autumn of 1835 the royal party was to stay at Albion House, which is today a hotel in Albion Place. Original features date to 1791 and a refurbishment in 2014 has left everything looking spic and span. I’m tempted to say Victoria would have been ‘amused’, except there’s no evidence that she ever actually said this.
It was a big thing to have royals not just visit a town, but actually stay, so the bunting was out in Ramsgate to greet Victoria & Co.
In addition, the princess was no longer a minor royal. The rate of attrition among those further up the queue had left her next in line, behind the current incumbent, King William IV.
Victoria’s young life was not great, as a power struggle began developing around her for influence over the future queen.
Although it was a vacation, Victoria was still hard at work at her studies. She had a bedroom on the first floor but dutifully did her lessons in the room of her governess, Louise Lehzen.
The royal entourage also included Victoria’s mum, also Victoria, now twice-widowed, and her half-sister from her ma’s first marriage, Feodore, who was a dozen years older than Victoria.
Incidentally, if you’ve watched Victoria on the TV, and you’ve wondered why her sis calls her ‘Drina’, it’s because Victoria was christened ‘Alexandrina’, after the Russian Tsar (Alexander I).
Her second name, ‘Victoria’, was a bit of an afterthought but a name that would characterise an era. Uncle Leopold also turned up, to see how his dosh was being spent.
Ramsgate meanwhile was a ‘happening’ place. In the decade preceding the royal visit all kinds of facilities were sprouting up for residents and visitors: a gas supply, a theatre, a new church.
The place was blossoming after a previous royal visit in 1827 by George IV, another uncle of Victoria’s, had helped put it on the resort map.
Victoria’s own visits began four years before that, in August 1823, when she was a little sprat of four enjoying donkey rides on the beach and playing with other youngsters. The visit of a reigning monarch was of far greater significance, however.
Returning to Victoria’s 1835 stay, it soon became evident that the princess was not well.
Normally a hearty eater with a liking for spuds, she was off her food and had to be persuaded to partake. Something was up. Victoria collapsed (7 October) and took to her room. Her unfailingly regular diary entries ceased.
Early reactions were that there was nothing much amiss and that Victoria, who could be headstrong and brooding, was merely suffering an attack of the teenage sulks. Even Victoria’s own mother believed she was just being wilful.
The good people of Ramsgate, however, who’d been enjoying the presence of a royal ‘celebrity’ in their midst, had noticed Victoria’s unplanned absence and began speculating. They were given short shrift and just told she had a ‘slight cold.’
The truth, though, was quite different. Far from having a sniffle, Victoria appeared to have fallen prey to typhoid fever, a bacterial infection contracted from contaminated food or water, and one that would allegedly carry off her beloved Prince Albert over a quarter century later.
With the princess gravely ill and therefore too weak to argue, the debate around her regarding her guardianship intensified.
As Victoria’s illness entered a second week, it dawned on her mother that this could actually be serious. As the family’s regular physician, James Clark, had returned to London, a local doctor, Dr Plenderleath, was summoned from his home in Nelson Crescent. As far as Ramsgate’s citizens were concerned, the cat was now out of the bag. Victoria must be sick.
When Clark returned to Ramsgate the two medical men collaborated on treatment, which seems to have consisted of doses of quinine. This may have assisted the fever in relenting, plus a general air of confidence that she would recover.
Whatever the cause, Victoria turned a corner and, come 31 October, had resumed her scribblings. If the folk of Ramsgate were also writing their diaries, they would no doubt have rejoiced at the return to health of the princess, while also gossiping about the nature of the lost two dozen days when Victoria disappeared from view.
Victoria never forgave her mother’s lack of compassion and her attempts to manipulate her illness to her advantage, which would lead to an estrangement between the pair.
Victoria certainly left her mark on Ramsgate too. Albion House is still there, of course (today’s Albion House Hotel) to remind us of her near-fateful 1835 vacation.
As we perambulate around the resort, we’ll come across names such as Victoria Parade, the Victoria Gardens Kiosk and the Royal Victoria Pavilion. There’s much Victorian architecture, particularly along the front.
The parish church (St George’s), with its 137-foot tower, dates to 1827 the year of that visit of George IV, while early-Victorian Roman Catholic St Augustine’s was dedicated in 1851.
Ramsgate’s Royal Harbour, finally completed around 1850, is the only Royal-named harbour in the UK.
Of course, everything could have been so different. Had Victoria perished in Ramsgate, our subsequent royal history would have been very different.
In an intriguing ‘what if’, on the death of Victoria’s uncle, William IV in 1837, the throne would have passed to another uncle of Victoria’s, Ernest Duke of Cumberland, who was a younger brother to both George IV and William IV.
We would have had no Victorian or Edwardian era (Victoria had not yet married, so her eldest son, Albert Edward (‘Bertie’), the future Edward VII, was yet to come). It was a case of when Kent (and Ramsgate) nearly made history.
For Victoria herself, Ramsgate always remained close to her heart, thankfulness perhaps for her lucky deliverance.
She returned, with her mother, in 1836 and, following her marriage, with Prince Albert in 1842.
Victoria in Kent
- In 1824 the five-year-old Victoria and her mother stayed in Broadstairs for three months
- Victoria returned to Albion House with Prince Albert on a day trip in November 1842
- Margate clock tower was built in 1887 to mark Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee
- Broadstairs clock tower was built 10 years later to mark Victoria’s diamond jubilee
- Broadstairs bandstand was opened in 1892 by Princess Louise, Victoria’s sixth child
- The Royal Victoria Pavilion in Ramsgate is today the largest Wetherspoon’s in the UK
- Princess Victoria and Lehzen still participate in Ramsgate’s Costumed Walk (July/August)
- Victoria also visited Tunbridge Wells, staying at Calverley House, now the Hotel du Vin
- She also stayed at the Royal Wells Hotel, Tunbridge Wells, which displays her coat of arms
- You can stay in ‘Little Victoria’s Room’ at the Albion House Hotel, in Ramsgate