Her Majesty the Queen turns 91 on 21 April and so to mark this event I am looking back to a day in her younger life when she visited Preston Manor. When I give guided tours of the house people are always surprised by this fact, royalty being more associated with the Royal Pavilion.
The official visit to Brighton by Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth, as she was then titled, took place on Tuesday 4 December 1945. This was just a few months after the end of the Second World War, and Preston Manor had only just reopened as a museum having been used as a base for Civil Defence Volunteers since the autumn of 1939. The date has long faded into history but what can we know of the events of the day?
At Preston Manor the archive contains some fascinating paper ephemera concerning the arrangements for the visit, and what jumps out straight away is the modest paperwork involved. Procedures for a royal visit today are much more lengthy and complex.
First, a letter dated 30 November arrived from the Mayor’s Parlour at Brighton Town Hall informing the curator, Mr Henry Roberts, of the impending royal visit – a mere four days away.
Alderman Walter Clout, Brighton’s Mayor, writes, ‘Her Royal Highness has graciously consented to take tea with the Mayoress and myself at Preston Manor.’
He then goes on to invite Henry Roberts to be there on the occasion, clearly unaware that the Roberts family had their home in the house — in those days historic house curators and their families often resided on-site. ‘Please arrive at Preston Manor no later than 3.45pm.’ the Mayor writes.
Interestingly, the tea was not prepared in the house but brought in by Forfars, the well-known Brighton bakery firm which traded from 1818 until 2015.
On receipt of the Mayor’s letter Henry quickly drew up a hand-written schedule, his usual neat handwriting becoming a hasty scrawl as he thinks fast: ‘M takes P to retiring room before and after,’ he writes, referring to his daughter Margery, who was tasked with taking the Princess to the room given over for her private use.
‘Autograph book to sign,’ he notes and ‘some souvenirs’. We don’t know what items the Princess took away but records show the manor was stocked with guidebooks and postcards, so these souvenirs were most likely the ones given.
Fortunately Margery, then aged 37, kept a diary which she later used as reference for her 1998 memoir, A Time Remembered, telling of her years living both at the Royal Pavilion and Preston Manor.
‘The 4th December was a Red Letter Day for Preston Manor,’ she writes, explaining that the Princess had been to review troops at the King Alfred in Hove. At this time the King Alfred leisure centre was used by the Royal Navy as a training site, having been requisitioned at the start of the war.
Following her visit to the King Alfred, the princess had visited the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Sick Children in Dyke Road, where she opened the Gillespie Wing. She also attended a concert at the Dome in aid of hospital funds. With the creation of the National Health Service still two years away such fundraising events were regular activities.
‘It was a grey December day, rather cold, not a gleam of sun,’ Margery writes. ‘Princess Elizabeth arrived at 3.50pm wearing a sage green coat, a brown velvet hat with sage green feathers and a green dress with a lace collar. She looked charming, but a little shy and her outfit was rather young for her age’.
This last comment of Margery’s is interesting and show how perceptions of age and fashions have changed. Photographs exist of Princess Elizabeth taken at the hospital and although only 19 years old her outfit strikes modern eyes as more suited to a middle-aged woman of the period than a young woman in her teens.
Margery’s report of the day is filled with incident and detail of a domestic and personal kind.
‘On arrival, after presentation, which included my parents and myself, they (the Princess and her lady-in-waiting) retired to Lady Thomas-Stanford’s sitting room which mother and I had arranged especially as a rest room.’
Today visitors to the manor can go to the room set aside for the Princess’s private use and ponder on which chair our future Queen sat, as nothing has changed in that room since 1945.
In the entrance hall Henry Roberts showed the Princess ‘a few pieces of silver and the furniture’ and ‘asked, “Are you as interested in antiques, Ma’am, as your grandmother is?” And Princess Elizabeth said, ‘well, not quite as much.’ Margery notes that, ‘at least she was honest.’
A modest scandal?
Visitors to the manor can also see the exact spot in the house where a small breach of protocol took place, reported by a scandalised Margery who takes up the story as the party were headed towards the drawing room for tea:
‘…where guests, important Brighton people, were seated at little tables around the room. As we walked along the corridor the Mayor went to put his arm round the Princess’s waist. She made no comment, but obviously stiffened.’
The following day the Mayor cheerily told Margery and her mother: ‘you know I treated her like one of my daughters.’ To which Margery replied, ‘so I noticed’, and with enough acid in her tone for her mother to chide: ‘you shouldn’t speak to the Mayor like that.’
Modes and manners have changed much since 1945 and we live in a less formal age. However, matters of etiquette surrounding royal persons are largely unchanged. Today, as in 1945, it is not permissible to touch royalty unless returning a formal hand-shake. Walter Clout clearly got carried away with the moment, perhaps a little star-struck by the attractive young princess or, as he admits, overcome by fatherly concern. After her long cold day reviewing the troops and opening a hospital wing, Princess Elizabeth was in no doubt in need of the tea and warmth awaiting her in the Manor drawing room.
In recent times similar incidents made international news. In 1992 the Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, put his arm around the Queen causing much uproar. In 2012 Michelle Obama lightly embraced the Queen on a visit to Buckingham Palace, a gesture which was gently returned. On this occasion a Palace spokesman described the incident as ‘a mutual and spontaneous display of affection and appreciation.’
Margery Roberts died in 2000 aged 92 but nevertheless one can sense her astonishment at such familiarity.
Princess Elizabeth stayed exactly 65 minutes at Preston Manor, a detail provided by Margery who wrote of the short visit, ‘it was a wonderful occasion and one I shall always remember.’
On Her Royal Highness’s departure the Forfar’s staff presented an iced cake in the shape of a rose for her sister who, as Margery points out, was known as Princess Margaret Rose in those days. Wartime rationing was still in place at this time, and the sugar ration was 8oz (227g) per household per week. As an iced cake is a high sugar product this was a significant gift, and may well have been the result of each staff member donating a small quantity of sugar from their ration.
Queen Mary & Margery Roberts
Margery’s father was familiar with entertaining royalty whilst employed as Director of the Royal Pavilion and Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. In this role he became on friendly terms with Queen Mary who returned original decorative items and furniture to the Royal Pavilion.
Margery writes of a visit to the Pavilion by Queen Mary in 1927 noting Her Majesty’s remark, ‘I don’t want Mayors with their chains of office who know nothing about things I’m interested in. I just want to come and see Mr Roberts and talk to him’. This explains Henry’s query to Princess Elizabeth as to whether she shared her grandmother’s interest in antiques.
Although I never knew Margery Roberts I am fortunate to be in touch with her nephew and niece who have both provided me with information about their Aunt Margery, who by all accounts was a formidable character with an imposing personality. She lived at Preston Manor until 1969 undertaking the role of Honorary Curator after her father’s death in 1951. With the theme of royalty in mind this snippet from Margery’s nephew is fitting.
‘My aunt was a tall, upright and imposing, even regal figure. She was always impeccably dressed. She loved wearing red or deep pink (known in my family as ‘Auntie Margery pink’) and was very fond of hats. Indeed, my eldest son tells me that he thought she was a member of the Royal family when he was small!’
Queen Victoria’s daughters
Preston Manor was no stranger to royalty because, as the visitor book shows, three daughters of Queen Victoria — the Princesses Helena, Louise and Beatrice — were periodic guests in the years before and just after the First World War. Sadly, there was no diary writing Margery Roberts in the house as these royal visits occurred when Preston Manor was still in private ownership. Today we can only guess at how days were spent by such illustrious house-guests. Princess Beatrice (1857-1944) visited most regularly and in 1914 she stayed from 17 to 22 December. The princess and her lady’s maid would have been given rooms in the west wing, the part of Preston Manor not generally open to the public but viewable on special Behind the Scenes tours.
The west wing was added in 1905 as part of a general enlargement and improvement to the house, and was specifically created to provide facilities for guests at those sumptuous weekend house parties so beloved of the Edwardians. Some of the former bedrooms in the west wing are now used as offices including the room in which this blog post was written. With its attractive view south towards the lawns and trees of Preston Park I would think my office must have been the principal guest bedroom. Knowing that a daughter of Queen Victoria very likely enjoyed the self-same view on waking in the morning adds another brush of colour to the story of this surprising house.
Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer, Preston Manor