Growing up the Kensington Way – the Young Victoria.
Kensington Palace is perhaps best known for its connection with Diana, Princess of Wales. She lived there through her marriage and even after her divorce from Prince Charles. William and Harry grew up there and knew it very much as their home. But, this year marks a very special anniversary for another, older Royal. Two hundred years ago, on 24 May 1819, Princess Victoria was born in Kensington Palace.
The story about Victoria’s life at Kensington Palace, about her childhood right the way up to her accession to the throne, is told out in a fascinating and intimate new exhibition at the Palace, ‘Victoria: A Royal Childhood’. I went along for a rather special guided tour, led by curator Claudia Williams who is responsible for the eclectic collection.
What makes this exhibition so special is that, thanks to careful restoration, including recreating everything from wallpaper and carpets through to displaying the collection of thirty or so peg dolls Victoria herself made as a child, you do get a real insight into the life of the future Queen of England.
Victoria’s childhood was not entirely happy and certainly not the lavish experience I had imagined. While she may have lived in a rather grand Palace in one of London’s loveliest parks, her father, Edward, Duke of Kent died less than a year after her birth. Even before her father’s death, the family were already debt-ridden but her mother settled back in Kensington Palace.
The exhibition takes you through her life quite literally from birth. The room where her mother gave birth to her was apparently picked for ease of access to the kitchens (and hot water).
It’s an opportunity to learn more about what was known as the ‘Kensington System’, the method used to educate Victoria. When it became apparent that Victoria might actually accede to the Crown, her mother started a rigorous and isolated education programme which involved a much wider range of subjects than a normal upper-class English girl might expect to receive. She was educated in part by Baroness Louise Lehzen who started as her governess when Victoria was just 5. Apparently strong-willed and tempestuous, the young Victoria initially tried to rebel, but eventually became very close to her governess, ultimately describing her as the ‘ most affectionate and devoted friend I had’.
Her childhood, apart from visits to the ballet and opera, was relatively frugal. She ate a simple diet, studied hard and enjoyed the company of Dash the Dog, a King Charles Spaniel given to her mother in 1833 and quickly adopted by Victoria.
I was surprised to learn that she was crowned Queen of England just two weeks after her eighteenth birthday. Born fifth in line to the throne, her own father and each of his three brothers died in the years leading up to her coronation. Her mother was anxious to be Regent, something which would have happened if King William had died before Victoria was eighteen. The exhibition takes visitors through the tale of how her mother and Lord Conroy, her mother’s lover controlled the young Victoria, supposedly to help her when she did accede to the throne, but widely believed to be in an effort to ensure that they themselves took the driving seat. Suffice to say that once Victoria was Queen, she banned Conroy from her presence.
Victoria met her future husband, Albert at Kensington Palace when she was just 17 – and they quickly formed a strong friendship. However, their courtship and how they came to marry is a story for later. The first meeting of the young Princess seems just like a glimpse into the future.
Apart from the permanent exhibition, throughout the summer you can enjoy an evening screening of ‘The Young Victoria’ in the shadow of the palace. with the stunning East Front acting as the backdrop for the film. Or, if you encounter the same ‘English Summer’ evening that I did, why not head to the Milestone Hotel and Residences, just opposite the Palace entrance for drinks. It’s the kind of place that will make you feel like a princess for an evening.
Tickets for Kensington Palace cost £17.50 for an adult if bought online. There are various concessions available and it’s always cheaper to buy your ticket from the Historic Royal Palaces website. All tickets include entry to the two new exhibitions about the life of Queen Victoria.
Kensington Palace is open daily except for 24-26 December.
Summer (01 March – 31 October)
Last admission: 17:00
Winter (01 November – 28 February)
Last admission: 15:00
London W8 4PX
The nearest tubes are High Street Kensington and Queensway. There are regular buses serving the area.
The Milestone Hotel and Residences
1 Kensington Court,
London, W8 5DL
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7917 1000
I was a guest of the Milestone Hotel and of Historic Royal Palaces for this event.