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  • Writer's pictureVictoria Regina

Royal winter pastimes

Updated: Jan 12

How have you been celebrating the festivities? Snow sports and other outdoor winter activities have long been a fashionable past time for Royals, Victoria and Albert were no exception. Prince Albert was an accomplished and enthusiastic skater who ‘skates so beautifully’ on the other hand Queen Victoria could skate but much preferred to be pushed around in a sledge. Prince Albert was a keen skater and enjoyed playing games of hockey on the ice, as well as driving the Queen in sledge.

In her Journals, Queen Victoria recounted the first time she ventured onto the ice at Frogmore with Prince Albert -

"We drove down to Frogmore & Albert pushed me in a sledge chair on the ice, which was delightful, & it went with such rapidity. I had never been on the ice before. I then walked up & down, whilst Albert & the others skated; & I watched them playing hockey. He had a fall but got up directly again."

(Queen Victoria's Journals, Wednesday 30th December 1840)

In the 1840's Queen Victoria commissioned a pair of ice skates from Messrs Marsden Brothers ( now John Wilson Skates) for both herself and Prince Albert. The Queen gave her husband the pair of ice skates, knowing his love of the sport. That February, the couple went for a private walk around the grounds of Buckingham Palace, it being the day before their first wedding anniversary. The only other person with them was a single Maid of Honour. Albert took the opportunity to try out his new skates, but the ice he was on cracked and he plunged into the water below.

Victoria recounted what happened in her diary -

“In my agony of fright & despair, I screamed, & stretched out my arm, Miss Murray pulling me. My dearest Albert managed to catch my arm, & reached the ground in safety. Oh! how thankful I felt to see him at my side again & that God should have mercifully preserved him from such a great danger!

“He cut his chin a little, & was of course dripping with water, so that he ran home as fast as he could. It was a horrid experience, & I never felt anything so dreadful, as seeing my beloved one in the water, & thinking, as I did, that I should lose him before my very eyes unable to rescue him!” - (Queen Victoria's Journals, Tuesday 9th February 1841)

In a letter to Duchess Caroline of Saxe-Goth-Altenburg on the 12 February 1841 Prince Albert recalls the incident -

'Buckingham Palace, 12 Feb. 1841. — The cold has been intense. . . . Nevertheless, I managed, in skating, three days ago, to break through the ice in Buckingham Palace gardens. I was making my way to Victoria, who was standing on the bank with one of her ladies, and when within some few yards of the bank I fell plump into the water, and had to swim for two or three minutes in order to get out. Victoria was the only person who had the presence of mind to lend me assistance, her lady being more occupied in screaming for help. The shock from the cold was extremely painful, and I cannot thank Heaven enough, that I escaped with nothing more than a severe cold. They had, it seems, broken the ice recently at that particular spot, and it had frozen over again, so that it was impossible to distinguish the place'

© John Wilson Blades

Like many things Prince Albert also designed a sledge for Her Majesty, painted red and gold with a lining of crimson velvet. The royal children were also enthusiastic participants in Wintersports, enjoying skating and sledging with their parents. Prince Albert continued this tradition with his children as it was a popular pastime for adults and children in Germany.

The Queen’s sledge was constructed by Hooper & Co, who were coach-builders to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. One of the designs for Queen Victoria’s sledge survives at the Science Museum in London; as done by J. Gilfroy as a watercolour on board, c. 1844. There is a ‘sleigh’ as part of a series of six designs by Hooper & Co., also held at the Science Museum, which also includes sketches for two phaetons and a travelling carriage. (The stamp on the design reads in red ink ‘Please to return the drawing’). Though similar, the latter sleigh (illustrated) is, however, not the one by Gilfroy, listed as the ‘Design for Queen Victoria’s sledge’. Hooper & Co. were, most appropriately, based in London’s Victoria Street.

Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Newspaper accounts of the time recorded that Prince Albert drove the Queen’s sledge. It was particularly sumptuous in its design, lined with red velvet and painted red and gold. It was pulled by two horses whose harnesses rang with gold bells, whilst the harnesses themselves were resplendent with rich ostrich plumes. The grooms and outriders wore scarlet livery and bright golden buttons. The royal children often travelled in their own smaller sleigh pulled by a pony.

'Another sharp frost, & a fine day. — Albert drove Clém & me out in the sledge, going on the Maidenhead side, by Clewer & St. Leonards & with the exception of 2 or 3 little places, we went beautifully & as smoothly as though we were on ice. The sun bright, & the sky so blue. We were out for an hour.' (Queen Victoria's Journals, Monday 12th February 1855)

This specific sleigh is still in the royal collection which was last displayed at Windsor castle in 2008. Brighton Pavilion commissioned an 1845 replica of the sleigh back in 2018, it is still sometimes displayed around the festive period.

© Brighton Period Project

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