The People’s Princess

This post is for anyone who has read Miss Willmott’s Ghosts up to the end of Chapter Seven and just can’t get enough backstory.

My editor very sensibly cut this section out of the book and I admit… it’s not absolutely necessary to know the following to make sense of Chapter Eight.

But it is a curious tale and it explains how Ellen – an admittedly wealthy, middle class woman whose father lived above the shop in Borough High Street – began to move in Royal circles. It also introduces us to someone who would become central to her life.

For today, I solicit your indulgence for a swift excursion, away from the slopes of Warley Place into the intriguing world of Queen Victoria’s least-favourite relative, to be played – in my fantasy movie of Ellen Willmott’s life – by Miriam Margoyles.

There is a point to this, honest.

Royal Collection Trust / (c) His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge had originally presented no challenge to Queen Victoria. She was 14 years younger than Her Majesty, without expectation of succession, generally alleged plain, comparatively poor, and single.

Image: Public Domain

            Like everything in life, Mary Adelaide enjoyed her food, earning her the unedifying nickname ‘Fat Mary’. Cruel as it seems today this wasn’t meant rudely. The public absolutely loved her. Mary was fun, cheery, empathetic – and interested in everything.

Victoria wasn’t even jealous of her cousin’s husband. The queen had already snared handsome Prince Albert, and she’d had to personally intervene for Mary Adelaide’s prospects. The princess had hit the great age of thirty without enough fortune, beauty or prospects to attract a royal suitor but she couldn’t marry outside royalty because of her rank.

Francis, Duke of Teck

Victoria paired her up with Francis, Prince of Teck, who, as the son of an unequal marriage (his mother was – horrors – a commoner) was an equally tough project. The match was ideal for Victoria. Two young royals, respectably married with zero threat to her.

The wedding of Princes Mary Adelaide and Francis, Duke of Teck.

Well, no constitutional threat, anyway. In every other respect the Tecks would become a major irritation to the queen.

The Duke and Duchess of Teck with their first-born, Princess Mary Image: Wikimedia Commons

            A pair of life-loving dragonflies, the happy couple lived well beyond the princess’s annual £5,000 parliamentary stipend. They partied their way through vast amounts of cash, entertaining, visiting, travelling and having fun. Mary Adelaide opened fetes, visited hospitals and generally met with a delighted populace, earning her a new nickname: ‘The People’s Princess’.

The Duchess visits Hastings 1895

The newspapers loved her: a royal with expensive, gossip-worthy tastes and a big heart, a princess that really cared. Some even began to suggest that this was the sort of thing Victoria herself should be doing, but, by the 1870s, the queen had withdrawn from the world, mourning for her lost Albert.

To Victoria’s fury, the People’s Princess filled the vacuum – and the headlines.

Royal Collection Trust / (c) His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Worse, Mary wasn’t even just partying, which might have at least have eventually made the regular British folk resentful. She was giving away money – that wasn’t hers – to any charity that appealed to her easily-touched heart.

There were no two ways about it: Mary Adelaide was making Victoria look bad.

It wasn’t long before the Tecks completely ran out of funds and applied to the Queen for more. She refused but, not wanting to look like the bad guy, grudgingly granted them somewhere to live: White Lodge, an old Royal hunting box nicely out of the way in Richmond.

White Lodge, RIchmond. Image: Creative Commons

Here, the couple continued to rack up debts until things got so bad they had to clear off to Europe to avoid bankruptcy.

Victoria was livid.

On their return the Tecks figured they’d better stay out of the queen’s way, so they settled back down at White Lodge, where one of the neighbours, Lady Giana Wolverton, was always good for a meal and entertainment.

Image: Royal Collection Trust / (c) His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Lord Wolverton had recently passed away, so Lady Giana rattled round nearby Warren House with her niece, Georgiana Mary ‘Gian’ Tufnell.

Image: Sandra Lawrence

Gian was about the same age as Mary Adelaide’s daughter, Princess Mary, affectionately known as ‘May’, and the pair became close.

Standing: Princess Mary Adelaided and her son Francis of Teck. Seated, L-R, Miss Gian Tufnell, Princess May, Lady Wolverton.
Image: Royal Collection Trust / (c) His Majesty King Charles III 2023

It’s a puzzle as to how the generally-serious and frugal Lady Wolverton got on with the generally-frivolous and spendthrift Mary Adelaide but it probably had something to do with the prodigious amounts of charitable work they both undertook.

The most famous was The Needlework Guild, where aristocratic ladies, rather than just giving cash to buy clothes for the needy, sat down and sewed garments with their own fair hands.

Mary Adelaide, by now the Duchess of Teck, was out of Victoria’s immediate way, but trouble loomed elsewhere for the Queen.

Prince Albert Victor, son of Edward, Prince of Wales. Image: Public Domain

Her oldest grandson, Prince Albert Victor, aka ‘Prince Eddy’, was a worry. Rumours about his mental capacities, dandyish ways and peccadillos, ranging from chorus girls to male brothels, were hushed up but even regular folk were beginning to worry about their future king.

Image: Public Domain

Why couldn’t he be more like his younger brother George?Steady, reliable, dependable, ever-so-slightly dull? 

Wikimedia Commons

Since Eddy was lacking in all three qualities, Victoria decided he must marry someone who did have them. Her eye alighted on Princess Mary Adelaide’s steady, reliable, dependable, ever-so-slightly dull daughter Princess May.

Royal Collection Trust / (c) His Majesty King Charles III 2023

May, unaware of Eddy’s extra-curricular activities, instantly fell in love. The feeling was mutual.

Royal Collection Trust / (c) His Majesty King Charles III 2023

This was turning out better than the Duchess’s wildest dreams. Her daughter was going to be queen! It might just turn the key to some extra funds, too. The Tecks were, once again, living beyond their means.

The palace announced the engagement on 3rd December, 1891. The young couple were infatuated with each other and the nation, ready for a kneesup after months of the mysterious ‘Russian Flu’ pandemic, was almost as overjoyed as the bride’s mother. 

Pandemic, 1889-90 style. Image: Creative Commons

Given the excitement over the forthcoming royal wedding it is, initially, surprising that virtually no memorabilia exists to celebrate it.

The only souvenir I have ever found, is a locket. A simple circle of metal, decorated with small silver balls to imply a ship’s wheel, double-sided, it has an image of Prince Eddy one side, Princess May on the reverse. It is held, appropriately, in the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you want to see it, it is in Case 81 on the mezzanine of the Jewellery Gallery, Drawer 6, object number 13.

Victoria and Albert Museum

There is one, sad, simple reason for this. Just over a month later, on 14th January, 1892, Prince Albert Victor died. Another victim of the pandemic, Eddy’s death was both sudden and shocking.

Shops shut. Flags flew at half-mast. Crowds wept as Princess May solemnly lay her orange-blossom bridal bouquet on the prince’s coffin.

Royal Collection Trust / (c) His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Shattered, Princess Mary Adelaide retreated to White Lodge, the sympathy of Lady Wolverton and her niece.

Where she got to thinking.

There was another Royal son – who was now directly in line to the throne. George wasn’t married yet…

Edward, Prince of Wales, had taken his family to the South of France in an attempt to deal with his oldest son’s death. Mary Adelaide persuaded Lady Wolverton to rent a villa down the road, in Cannes.

The Prince tried to keep the Duchess at a distance, but there was no arguing with Mary Adelaide.

The longsuffering Lady Wolverton was beginning to twig that she had bailed out her ‘friend’ rather a lot by now, and stayed out of the way.

She eventually went home in disgust at the spectacle, leaving the larger-than-life duchess to throw her daughter at Prince George. Her niece, Miss Tufnell, stayed on to witness the the spectacle of Prince George and Princess May being shoved together.

The Royal family in Cannes, 1892. Princess Mary Adelaide (back, far left and her daughter Princess May, back, right) are in mourning for Prince Albert Victor. Miss Gian Tufnell is seated, wearing a straw boater.

It must have been excruciating for the two young people. Both shy, both hurt, both lost, they were deeply embarrassed by the constant newspaper speculation and the all-too-obvious wishes of their families, but weirdly, this did seem to bring them together.

Royal Collection Trust / (c) His Majesty King Charles III 2023

The future King George V and Queen Mary were married in St James’s Palace, 6th July, 1893. At last the nation could celebrate something and the crowds turned out in force for the first public Royal wedding in 32 years.

This time, the commemorative mugs, souvenir biscuit barrels, die-stamped medallions and collectable tea caddies flew from the factories as fast as they were churned out. Even Queen Victoria made a rare appearance, on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, alongside a triumphant Duchess of Teck.

Royal Collection Trust / (c) His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Lady Wolverton attended the ceremony but, after the Cannes incident, even the gossip columns noted she’d lost interest in continuing her friendship with the Duchess.

On 10th January 1894, Lady Giana Wolverton died. Royal and aristocratic friends supported her devastated niece at the funeral; notably the duchess did not attend – she was going on holiday that day, and did not hang around for the ceremony.

Two mourners that were present, however, were Lord and Lady Henry Grosvenor, and at last, here is where Ellen Willmott comes in. The Grosvenors had been in the middle of gearing up to visit Ellen Willmott at Tresserve when their friend died.

Another image from that Cannes visit. Left to right, Princess May, Miss Gian Tufnell (smoking) and Prince Alexander of Teck. Royal Collection Trust / (c) His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Miss Gian Tufnell, Lady W’s niece, was inconsolable. After a lifetime of luxury, thanks to a historical mistake in her uncle’s will entailing the entire, vast estate to a distant relative, her home was to be sold.

She was now not only broken by the loss of her aunt, she was also (comparatively) poor. Until Warren House was actually sold, however, it was, at least, hers; somewhere to grieve in peace. She withdrew from social events and locked herself away. Her friends began to worry about her mental health.

Image: Sandra Lawrence

After poring over many, many documents, including letters from Gian Tufnell and others, and local newspaper gossip columns, I am absolutely certain that the Grosvenors decided to cheer up sad Miss Tufnell by taking her with them to the Alps, to visit another friend – also grieving, for her infant niece – Miss Willmott.

Neither of the two women’s lives would be the same again.

At which point Chapter Eight of Miss Willmott’s Ghosts kicks in and my editor allows me to get back to the bloomin’ point…


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