Wight Life

Osborne House

The Biggest Matrimonial Bureau in the South

by Shelia White

Picture of Osborne House

0SBORNE HOUSE - beloved by Queen Victoria and designed by Prince Albert with the help and advice of Thomas Cubitt became after her death and by the wish of King Edward VII a convalescent home for officers and in the early nineteen-thirties when I first came to know and love it, it was affectionately known in the Island as the biggest matrimonial bureau in the south!

This was, of course, because every pretty girl in the Island, it seemed, married an 'inmate' from Osborne; I, and one of my greatest friends also from St Helens, decided that we would be `different' and never let it happen. to us, with the result that we both travelled extensively and romped our respective ways joyously through the Golden Thirties, each returning eventually to do exactly the same as everybody else!

,p>The governor of Osborne at this time was a General Tate. He and his wife were the most hospitable people under the sun and a born host and hostess. Of the two unmarried daughters who accompanied them to Osborne, the elder soon became a close friend and, needless to say, after a time she married one of the convalescent officers under her father's care! I am sure that it is true to say that never, before or since, has Osborne achieved such heights of gaiety and glory as during the Thirties when the Tates were in command!

Another outstanding personality, and one who had been so long at Osborne that she used to jokingly tell everyone that she was now included in the inventory, was the matron, Miss Ormsby-Gore. A close friend of Queen Mary's, she was a tremendous character, sailing through the corridors of Osborne like a galleon in full sail, striking terror into the timid souls who feared her, adored by the majority who did not! Although certainly finding her extremely awe-inspiring, I was very fond of her and remember how, before one particular dance at Osborne, I received a note from her which said 'Please bring as many young men with you as possible; all mine are in plaster'!

This resulted in my setting forth in a taxi with a young subaltern in the DCLI on my left and a wild medical-student on my right holding a hand of each under cover of the rug and hoping that neither realized my duplicity!

It was at this dance too that an amusing incident took place; the medical student, having never seen the State apartments, was most anxious to do so and repeatedly asked me to take him along and show him where they were. Over and over again I told him that they would be firmly locked-up and were only open when on view to the public. He would not listen so, in the end, I took him along the corridors leading to the Durbar Room and its companions.

They were, as I knew they would be, securely locked so we returned sadly the way we had come until suddenly I stopped by one particular door and said `It's a pity you can't see this room; its known as the Horn Room because all the furniture is made from horns and antlers. It's a quaint little room and one of my favourites.'

Before I could stop him, my companion had seized the handle of the door which, to my amazement, opened; 'Quickly,' he cried, pushing me in ahead of him, 'I've got my tonsil-torch, we'll be able to see quite well with that,' and he followed me in closing the door firmly behind him. I was delighted to think that our expedition had not been in vain and that he was at least to see one of the State apartments, if only the smallest and least significant of them but, when the beam from the tonsil-torch shone out through the darkness, we found ourselves shut tightly into a minute housemaid's pantry surrounded by brushes and brooms, mops and dust-pans. I never lived down the Horn Room! On New Year's Eve there was always a big fancy-dress dance at Osborne, a splendid affair ending in the small hours of the morning with bacon and eggs and, as we filed out into the cold of the winter's night, hot rum punch to launch us on our way.

Another ball was given in Cowes Week when Osborne filled up to capacity with ancient admirals and colonels with binoculars and yachting-caps cunningly concealed amongst their luggage. During the Tates' reign, dances were given every month, and every fortnight there was an entertainment of some sort or another with a magnificent buffet supper. To all of these I was bidden, frequently going over by day as well for tennis or picnics on the beach or just to tea with either the Tates or one or other of the inmates, all whom could ask anyone over to tea whenever they wanted to. It was not in the least surprising that in that lovely setting, romances flourished, for no place could, in my opinion, be lovlier, with its beautiful terraced gardens with statues and fountains in the manner of the Renaissance, its velvety lawns and glorious trees, many of which were introduced from the Continent by Prince Albert who found, here at Osborne, the chance to plan the gardens and grounds and live the life of a country gentleman with his family which was what he most loved to do.

Talking — or rather — writing of fountains reminds me of one other eventful dance to which I took a hot-tempered young Irishman, at matron's request. He became enraged because he considered that I was dancing too often with another man and so seized my luckless partner by the scruff of the neck and threw him into one of Queen Victoria's ornamental fishponds! Queen Victoria — I feel certain — would not have been amused, nor indeed, was I!

In those days Queen Victoria's suite of rooms upstairs which consisted of her bedroom, two dressing-rooms, two bath-rooms and her private sitting room were kept locked and no one except, of course, visiting royalty or the current governor of Osborne was ever allowed to enter them.

Picture of the Dunbar Room
The Dunbar Room. Crown Copyright

This area, roped off as it was by heavy crimson woollen ropes, and being quite close to the governor's private apartments, always intrigued me enormously, especially as I was told that, by the orders of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert's rooms were exactly as he had left them. Hint as I would, and long as I did to see them, I was, naturally, never allowed to do so. Some years ago, however, it was decided that these rooms too might at last be opened to the public and it was with great excitement that I went over to see them. I was not disappointed. Here were rooms looking exactly as they looked all those years ago when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert could gaze out of those windows across the formal gardens and smooth, sloping lawns to the sparkling sea beyond. How lucky we are today to be able to see exactly the same view, unchanged and heart-stirring in its peace and beauty. How fascinating too to see all the small, intimate things; Prince Albert's walking-sticks and umbrella exactly where he left them, his writing desk and writing materials, pictures painted by the Queen and himself, favourite little pieces of china, framed photographs of relatives and friends, relics of the children, the books they read, the musical-boxes they played. Even with the summer crowds pushing around, the atmosphere of these rooms remains tranquil and calm, rooms well-loved, well-used, the happiest home ever shared by these two people who loved each other so much that surely their love-story must go down in history as one of the most famous of them all.

To me, the Queen's bedroom is almost unbearably touching. I like to visit it alone if I can; then I can go back and imagine it as it was. One of the most pathetic exhibits is, I think, the little watch-case hanging at the head of the bed in which she kept her watch overnight. The numerous photographs and reminders of the Prince Consort in this room bring to mind forcibly the terrible grief and loneliness of this woman after his death.

In the grounds of Osborne, some way from the house, stands Swiss Cottage. This enchanting chalet was actually brought from Switzerland in 1853 for the royal children and it was here that they could play at keeping house, even cooking in the charming little tiled kitchen with its real stove and shining copper pots and pans and entertaining their parents to tea in springtime when the grass was full of daffodils, and the cherry trees a mass of blossom. It is an entrancing cottage containing many of their toys, my favourite being a small grocer's shop stocked with everything that a grocer's shop of that period provided including a conical sugar-loaf. Over the door are the words Spratt, Grocer to Her Majesty.

Outside, in a thatched out-house are the children's gardening- tools, each bearing the initials of its owner, showing that not only were they busy inside the house but outside tending their gardens as well.

In 1939, with war becoming ever more certain and travel abroad too risky, my father decided to go to Osborne for treatment for a leg wound, a relic from the 1914-18 war. My mother and I stayed at the hostel in the grounds for the wives and families of officers. It was there, on the beach, not far from Queen Victoria's bathing-hut that I met my husband-to-be, a slim, bronzed young god who was a subaltern in the Royal Scots. He had been invalided home from Hong Kong with a tropical bug and was convalescing at Osborne.

What a lovely summer that was, day after day, week after week of hot, almost tropical sunshine but, as we battled on the tennis-courts, or swam, or picnicked on the beach, everyone was waiting for what we knew must surely come. As we strolled in the evenings through the dark, warm, sweet-scented woodland paths of Osborne, where the fire-flies glowed in the mossy banks, we wondered if Victoria and Albert had also walked those ways. We somehow felt they had.

On a bitterly cold January morning in 1940 he left Osborne in company with the then-governor Admiral Pickering-Pick and drove his car — soon to be put-up for the 'duration' — to the small Catholic Church in East Cowes where we were married by Father Arkel who, so often during the previous lovely summer, had joined us on the tennis-courts of Osborne.

Picture of the Swiss CottagePicture right: The Swiss Cottage brought for the royal children

And so the Golden Thirties closed and a way of life ended. The war was to cut a great slice out of all our lives, and things would never be the same again.

Now, as I board the ferry for home after visits to friends on the mainland and see the outline of the Island across the Solent, one of the first things I look for are the twin towers of Osborne rising above the trees. Their very solidarity and tranquility in an unstable world give me a great feeling of peace and thankfulness that I am returning to a part of England where the pace of life is slower than on the mainland, where people still have time to stop and talk on village-greens and gossip at village doorways, where still people care about each other and a certain old-world courtesy remains.

Osborne — where countless officers, old and young, have been restored to health and happiness; where thousands of holiday- makers each year enjoy the grandeur of the State apartments; the beauty of the gardens and the enchantment of Swiss Cottage; where a great Queen and her beloved Consort found happiness and love; and where many young people, like myself, in the Thirties met their Prince Charming and married and lived happily ever after.

Osborne — once the biggest matrimonial bureau in the south - thank you for everything!