The Princess of Wales

Before there was Diana, there was Alexandra.

As a child I had a wild adoration for Queen Alexandra (then, of course, Princess of Wales), whom I thought the most beautiful person I had ever seen in my life, and I dare say that I was not far wrong. When I was taken to Marlborough House, I remembered and treasured up every single word she said to me.

Alexandra_of_Denmark02SMany years after, in 1885, [Prince] Edward and [Princess] Alexandra paid us a visit at Barons’ Court. During that visit a little episode occurred which is worth recording. On the Sunday, the Princess ….. inspected the Sunday School children before Morning Service. At luncheon the Rector of the parish told us that one of the Sunday scholars, a little girl, had been taken ill with congestion of the lungs a few days earlier. The child’s disappointment at having missed seeing the Princess was terrible. Desperately ill as she was, she kept on harping on her lost opportunity.

After luncheon the Princess drew my sister-in-law …. on one side, and inquired where the sick child lived. Upon being told that it was about four miles off, the Princess asked whether it would not be possible to get a pony-cart from the stables and drive there, as she would like to see the little girl. I myself brought a pony-cart round to the door, and the Princess and my sister-in-law having got in, we three started off alone, the Princess driving. When we reached the cottage where the child lived, H.R.H. went straight up to the little girl’s room, and stayed talking to her for an hour, to the child’s immense joy. Two days later the little girl died, but she had been made very happy meanwhile.

A little thing perhaps; but there are not many people in Queen Alexandra’s position who would have taken an eight-mile drive in an open cart on a stormy and rainy April afternoon in order to avoid disappointing a dying child, of whose very existence she had been unaware that morning.
‘The Days Before Yesterday’, Lord Frederic Hamilton, Hodder and Stoughton, London. 1920.

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Adventures in Dublin Castle

Upon returning from school for my first holidays, I learnt that my father [James Hamilton] had been appointed Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland [1866], and that we were in consequence to live now for the greater portion of the year in Dublin. …… It was the custom then for the Lord-Lieutenant to live for three months of the winter at the Castle, where a ceaseless round of entertainments went on.

J. Valentine postcard of Dublin Castle c. 1896.

Dublin Castle c. 1896

The Castle would have made the most ideal place for playing hide-and-seek, with its vast extent and endless staircases had it not been that there were people everywhere; uniformed police, messengers, footmen, and a peculiarly officious breed of uniformed busybodies, who lived in little glass hutches, and pounced down upon little boys at unexpected moments with superfluous inquiries as to what they wanted there…….

Dublin_throne

The Throne Room

My brother and I were not allowed in the throne-room on ordinary days, but it offered such wonderful opportunities for processions and investitures, with the sword of state and the mace lying ready to one’s hand in their red velvet cradles, that we soon discovered a back way into it. Should any of the staff of Mr. Healy, the present Governor-General, care to examine the sword of state and the mace, they will find them both heavily dented. This is due to two small boys having frequently dropped them when they proved too heavy for their strength, during strictly private processions fifty-eight years ago. We had seen our father conferring knighthoods, and were quite familiar with the

Dublin_Hamilton

James Hamilton

procedure. My brother and I must have mutually knighted each other dozens of times before the “Rise, Sir Frederic,” or “Rise, Sir Ernest” had lost the charm of novelty. I often wonder what a deputation from the Corporation of Belfast must have thought when they were ushered into the throne-room, and found it already in the occupation of two small brats, one of whom, with a star cut out of silver paper pinned to his jacket to counterfeit an order, was lolling back on the throne in a lordly manner, while the other was feigning to read a long statement from a piece of paper. The small boys, after the manner of their kind, quickly vanished through a bolt-hole……

…..a battlemented terrace, probably a modern addition, runs the full length of the back of the Castle. We called this “the ramparts,” and my brother, a child of the most fertile imagination, suggested that if only we could borrow some of the old armour which hung on the grand staircase, we might hold the most splendid tournament on these ramparts. There were, however, always two uniformed policemen on the grand staircase who were unsympathetically inquisitive when we tried to unhook the armour. We gradually realized that for us the Castle was to be a place alike of endless opportunities, and of thwarted ambitions.
‘The Days Before Yesterday’, Lord Frederic Hamilton (1856-1928), Hodder and Stoughton, London.

The Maharajah of Cooch Behar

India, 1891. Lord Frederic Hamilton, while on the staff of his brother-in-law, the Viceroy, was invited to take part in a five-week big game hunt organized by the Maharajah of Cooch Behar. It gave him the chance to escape the heat and humidity of Calcutta which, he thought, “could never be a really healthy place”.

A vintage postcard of the wharves on the Hooghly river at Calcutta, India.

The late Maharajah of Cooch Behar had had a long minority, the soil of his principality was very fertile and well-cultivated, and so efficiently was the little state administered by the British Resident that the Maharajah found himself at his majority the fortunate possessor of vast sums of ready money. The Government of India had erected him out of his surplus revenues a gigantic palace of red-brick, a singularly infelicitous building material for that burning climate. Nor can it be said that the English architect had been very successful in his elevation. He had apparently anticipated the design of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and had managed to produce a building even less satisfactory to the eye than that vast pile at the corner of Cromwell Road. He had also crowned his edifice with a great dome. The one practical feature of the building was that it was only one room thick, and that every room was protected by a broad double verandah on both sides. The direct rays of the sun were, therefore, powerless to penetrate to the interior, and with the double verandahs the faintest breath of air sent a draught through every room in the house.

We reached Cooch Behar after dark, and it was somewhat of a surprise to find the Maharajah and his entire family roller-skating in the great central domed hall of the palace, to the strains of a really excellent string band. The Maharajah having a great liking for European music, had a private orchestra of thirty-five natives who, under the skilled tuition of a Viennese conductor, had learned to play with all the fire and vim of one of those unapproachable Austrian bands, which were formerly (I emphasize the were) the delight of every foreigner in Vienna…… The whole scene was rather unexpected in the home of a native prince in the wilds of East Bengal.

The Maharajah had fixed on a great tract of jungle in Assam, over the frontier of India proper, as the field of operations for his big-game shoot of 1891, on account of the rhinoceros and buffaloes that frequented the swamps there. As he did not do things by halves, he had had a rough road made connecting Cooch Behar with his great camp, and had caused temporary bridges to be built over all the streams on the way. Owing to the convenient bamboo, this is fairly easy of achievement, for the bamboo is at the same time tough and pliable, and bamboo bridges, in spite of their flimsy appearance, can carry great weights, and can be run up in no time, and kindly nature furnishes in Bengal an endless supply of this adaptable building material……

It so happened that the Census of 1891 was taken whilst we were in camp, so I can give the exact number of retainers whom the Maharajah brought with him. It totalled 473, including mahouts and elephant-tenders, grooms, armourers, taxidermists, tailors, shoemakers, a native doctor and a dispenser, and boatmen, not to mention the Viennese conductor and the thirty-five members of the orchestra, cooks, bakers, and table-waiters. The Maharajah certainly did things on a grand scale.

Here, There and Everywhere, Lord Frederic Hamilton, Hodder and Stoughton, 1921.

Hamilton is such an entertaining writer on aspects of 19th century life that you can expect to see him back here from time to time.