Queen Victoria and the Royal Pavilion

In February 2015 it will be 170 years since Queen Victoria last visited the Royal Pavilion. Victoria became Queen in 1837, aged only 18 years, following her uncle William IV (who had added the North Gate to the Royal Pavilion in 1832). She visited Brighton as the new and unmarried Queen twice: once in October/November 1837 and again at the end of 1838, spending Christmas and New Year there.

On arriving for the first time, via carriage, she was delighted by the welcome she received, noting in her diary, “I was received in a most enthusiastic warm and friendly manner by an immense concourse of people. It was a beautiful reception and most gratifying and flattering. There were Triumphal Arches on all sides, and an amphitheatre was erected outside the gate of the Pavillion, filled with people.

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Image copyright Alexandra Loske

Popular prints showing the triumphal arches and the arrival were published and commemorative coins for struck. However, Victoria was clearly not impressed with the Pavilion itself, making these now famous comments: “The Pavilion is a strange, odd Chinese looking thing, both inside and outside; most rooms low, and I only see a little morsel of the sea from one of my sitting-room windows, which is strange, when one considers that one is quite close to the sea.”

In August 1839 Victoria recorded a conversation she had had with Lord Melbourne, which doesn’t paint the place or the palace in a better light: “Talked of Brighton, it’s [sic] being an odious place, the impossibility of sailing there, &c.; the burden the Pavilion was, and what to do with it.” She liked it better on her second visit, noting that this time the building “lighted up looked cheerful and felt warm, and my impression of it was not so cheerless as last year.” After a long dinner with guests she went up into the Saloon Bottle to watch fireworks, which she greatly enjoyed. “The whole Pavilion,” she continued, “has been done up and re-gilt and looks very fresh and pretty.”

Queen Victoria

Image produced on the occassion of her second visit

Victoria returned to Brighton three more times, in 1842, 1843 and 1845. Much had changed between the first two and the last three visits. In 1840 she had married the love of her life, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and by 1842 she had given birth to the Princess Royal and Prince Albert. During her first visit with Albert in 1842 she once again went up to the Saloon Bottle, this time with Albert, to watch the “really very pretty fireworks”.

In 1843 Victoria arrived from France by boat, landing at the Chain Pier, greeted by a fleet of smaller boats and crowds of onlookers on the beach and pier. A painting in the collection of Brighton Museum &  Art Gallery by Richard Henry Nibbs records the event. [see image below] However, around this time Victoria and Albert were already considering the Isle of Wight as a more suitable place for a holiday home.

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Richard Henry Nibbs c Royal Pavilion & Museums 

On the occasion of her last visit in February 1845 the Queen and her family (by then there were four children) took the train to Brighton and back. As is well known, the railways made the journey from London to Brighton both considerably faster and, crucially, much cheaper, resulting in an unprecedented increase in visitor numbers in Brighton from all levels of society. Victoria, who had already noted how crowded Brighton was in the pre-railway age, was not amused by this. However, she had positive things to say about her journey. On 7 February Victoria set off from New Cross Station in London, and noted in her diary “The railway is very well constructed & goes through tunnels & over bridges, passing through very pretty country. We only took an hour & ¼ going down! In former times it used to take us 5 hours & ½ getting down to Brighton.” She remarked that the return journey was “rather too fast, I think.”

Snow fell in Sussex during this visit, and on 11th and 12th February Victoria and Albert tried out their “pretty, smart sledge”, venturing as far as Patcham and Clayton. Victoria gushed in her diaries:The horses with their handsome red harness & many bells, had a charming effect. Albert drove from the seat. We went along the London road, a good way beyond Patcham, & the sledge went delightfully though the road was unfortunately very much broken up in places, but in others it was covered with snow. The bright blue sky & sunshine, together with the sound of the bells, had a very exhilarating effect.” A picturesque print illustrating the scene was quickly produced by The Illustrated London News [See Below]. It shows a snow-capped Royal Pavilion in the background, possibly alluding to the already well-established nickname ‘Kremlin of Brighton’. The sledge survives in the Royal Collection and was displayed for the first time in 2009 at Windsor Castle.

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Sadly, Victoria and Albert also had a less pleasant experience on this visit. The papers reported on 15 February 1845 that the Queen and Consort were “exposed to much annoyance” during a private walk on the Chain Pier on the Saturday morning. Despite having dressed incognito, with Victoria wearing a veil, the Royal couple was spotted and chased back to the gates of the Pavilion by some particularly rude boys, who peered under her bonnet. The Illustrated London News lamented this behaviour, noting that, while the residents of Brighton had not always enjoyed Royal presence (a stab at the unpopular George IV perhaps), “if the Queen cannot enjoy a walk without being subjected to annoyances from which the meanest of her subjects are free, it is not to be wondered that Brighton is so seldom selected as the Royal residence.” The paper was right. Victoria left Brighton by train soon after, never to return, and probably having come much closer to her decision to give up the Pavilion. She sold the entire estate to the town commissioners of Brighton in 1850, but began dismantling and removing the interior decorations and furnishings from 1846 onward.

Dr Alexandra Loske, Art Historian and Curator

A version of this article also appears in the current issue of Viva Brighton Magazine 

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