ON March 25, 1845, Queen Victoria wrote to her uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians: ‘You will I am sure be pleased to hear that we have succeeded in purchasing Osborne in the Isle of Wight… It sounds so snug and nice to have a place of one’s own, quiet and retired.’
The purchase was something of a dream fulfilled: married five years previously with a growing family, the Queen and Prince Albert had long been eager to find a place where they could escape from public attention, the pressures of official life and the unhealthy atmosphere of London.
The search for a private country retreat had begun in October 1843 and the royal couple visited Osborne for the first time the following year. Queen Victoria already knew the Isle of Wight slightly and, in 1833, had spent nearly two months at the neighboring estate of Norris Castle, a Regency house by James Wyatt superbly set above the Solent (today, in a depressing state of dereliction).
At this moment, the island was changing very quickly. The connection with the mainland began to be served by paddle steamers from the 1820s and, in 1840, the railway line between Southampton and London was completed. As a result, by the 1840s, the Isle of Wight was within about four hours’ travel of the capital. It offered, moreover, beautiful countryside, not to mention the pleasures of sea-bathing and sailing.
In a memorandum dated October 21, 1844, Prince Albert extolled the setting of the property, the privacy of the estate, its connection to the sea and its accessibility from both Windsor and London, as well as the quality of the air (which was also approved by the Queen’s physician). The poor condition of the estate additionally presented him with the prospect of an improvement project.
Initially, at least, there was no intention to transform the existing 1770s house on the site. Prince Albert described it as warm, small and comfortable, but requires ‘only the addition of a few rooms to make it a very suitable and comfortable residence for the Queen and the children and part of the suite’.
The purchase had to be made with money from the Privy Purse; in this case, effectively private funds saved by means of Prince Albert’s reforms to the Royal Household. To help plan the modest architectural changes that were intended, the reliable and experienced London builder Thomas Cubitt was asked to inspect the property.
Cubitt immediately warned that a new house was essential and would actually cost less in the long term than mere repair. In May 1845, therefore, immediately after the purchase of the property for the bargain price of £28,000 (Balmoral, which they bought in 1852 using money bequeathed to the Queen by an unknown admirer, cost £31,500), he discussed the future plans for the house with Prince Albert.
At this juncture, an architect might have been appointed. Working with a builder, however, Prince Albert saw the potential to realize the project himself. It must have helped that Queen Victoria also liked Cubitt, ‘than whom’ she said, ‘a better, kindhearted man never breathed’. The cumulative result of Cubitt’s discussion with Prince Albert was a phased rebuilding after initial repairs.
The entire family came to Osborne for the first time in the spring of 1845. Writing to Lord Melbourne, the Queen enthused: ‘It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot… we have a charming beach quite to ourselves. The sea was so blue and calm that the Prince said it was like Naples. And then we can walk about anywhere by ourselves without being followed and mobbed.’
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