Queen Victoria and an end to Brighton’s royal connection

Prince Albert drove the sledge as far as Clayton Tunnel
Prince Albert drove the sledge as far as Clayton Tunnel

So far as I can make out, Queen Victoria paid just five visits to Brighton.

So far as I can make out, Queen Victoria paid just five visits to Brighton, a town towards which she harboured ambivalent feelings.

She first visited Brighton just a few months after her accession, aged 18. Arriving on October 4, 1837, dressed in a green silk dress and pink bonnet, she drove beneath a huge celebratory arch covered with evergreens, with her name and coat of arms picked out in dahlias, that was erected near what is now Preston Circus. She stayed six weeks at the Pavilion, which she thought “a strange, odd, Chinese-looking thing, most rooms low”. While here, she sat for portraits, and sang operatic arias at soirées in the Music Room.

She returned for Christmas 1838, but then not again until February 1842, when she spent a month here with Albert and their first two children, the future Edward VII and the Princess Royal. Even though her visits were likened to “angel’s visits, few and far between”, a full staff was maintained at the Pavilion.

In September 1843, returning from a visit to King Louis-Philippe of France, the queen landed from the Royal Yacht at the Chain Pier. The Prince of Wales and his two sisters, staying at the Pavilion, awaited her, the pier was decked with flags, and boatloads of supporters cheered her arrival. Nearly 100 people lodged at the pavilion on this occasion. A week later, she sailed again, this time to visit King Leopold of the Belgians.

Although the children visited Brighton in 1844, the queen was to visit only once more, in February 1845, with Albert and their now four offspring. They rode out daily on promenades and excursions. During heavy snow, according to the local paper, “a special messenger was dispatched from the Pavilion to Windsor with Her Majesty’s command for the royal sledge and ponies to be forwarded to Brighton without delay”. As soon as these arrived, the queen, “accompanied by the dowager Lady Lyttleton, who had the Princess Royal in her arms, rode out in the sledge as far as Clayton Tunnel. The sledge was driven by Prince Albert.” Made by Hooper, a London coachmaker, the sledge was painted “a rich ruby colour, picked out in gold,” was lined with crimson plush, and was adorned with a “plume of splendid feathers”.

The royal family returned to London by the new steam railway, and that was the last Brighton would see of them. Apparently irritated by the constant attentions of crowds of onlookers - “the people here are very indiscreet and troublesome” - Victoria soon acquired a more secluded estate at Osborne on the Isle of Wight. Despite the rebuff, Brighton remained loyal, putting up the Victoria Fountain in 1846, and the queen’s statue in Grand Avenue in 1901.

When, in August 1846, it was announced that the Pavilion was to be sold, Punch magazine jibed, under the caption “Rubbish for Sale”, that only a tea merchant would be interested in such an acquisition. “We know of no other purpose it could be turned to; and with a few paper lanterns and a real native at the door, we feel confident a deal of business in selling tea, or exhibiting curiosities, might be done.”

The fine furniture was removed to Buckingham Palace or Windsor, along with hundreds of cartloads of clocks, china, chandeliers, wall-hangings, looking-glasses, gilt ornaments, hearths, skirting-boards - anything moveable or removeable, in fact. It was a mere shell of a building that the municipal authorities managed to purchase in 1850, for £53,000. According to one witness, the place looked as if it had been plundered by Cossacks or French revolutionaries, or “a host of Californian goldseekers”.