Helena Frederica Augusta of Waldeck-Pyrmont
Life beyond Elmbridge
Princess Helena Frederica Augusta was the third daughter of Prince George Victor of Waldeck-Pyrmont and his wife Princess Helena of Nassau-Weiburg. She was born in Arolsen, the capital of her father's small German principality, on 17 February 1861. The young princess was well educated and was a studious pupil who particularly enjoyed Mathematics and Philosophy. Her father had so much faith in her ability that he appointed her superintendent of infant schools, in which role she helped to devise a scheme of elementary education. Under her mother's influence she was encouraged to take a practical interest in social and charitable work. As a child Princess Helena visited Britain more than once; she was the great great grandchild of Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751), father of George III, as was her future husband, Queen Victoria's youngest son, Prince Leopold (1853-1884) who was created Duke of Albany in 1881.
Prince Leopold had been diagnosed with haemophilia as a child. His activities were limited by his condition but he had studied at Oxford University between 1872 and 1876 and had acted as his mother's secretary. He was the most studious of Victoria's sons and some said the one most like his father, Prince Albert. Prince Leopold's illness complicated his search for a bride but Queen Victoria encouraged the meeting between Leopold and Princess Helena and was delighted when they became engaged in November 1881. Perhaps Victoria was trying to ensure peace by marrying her children into the royal houses of Europe. The couple married at St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle on 27 April, 1882. In the same month the Queen recorded her satisfaction with Princess Helena in her Journal, '.....a girl, so charming, ready to accept him, in spite of his ailments, I hope he will be happy and carefully looked after.' The marriage was a brief but happy one, producing two children, Princess Alice, later Countess of Athlone (1883-1981) and Prince Charles Edward, initially Duke of Albany and then Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1884-1954). Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany died suddenly in March 1884 after a fall whilst staying in Cannes. At the time of his death his wife was five months pregnant with their son.
Princess Helena, Duchess of Albany devoted her long widowhood to her children, her royal duties, social and charitable work. She established the Deptford Fund in 1894 to finance existing Deptford charities but the Duchess' Fund would soon provide services itself, some of which the Duchess described in a letter to the Times in March, 1920:
"1. Sick kitchen, for convalescents and nursing and expecting mothers, 1d each.
4. Coal club.
5. Savings bank.
8. School of domestic economy.......
10. Baby home for sick children."
The Duchess described twelve activities in all and explained that what was to be the social event of the year, the Devonshire House Ball on 14th April, was being organised to raise funds for her Deptford charity. A children's party would be held on 15th April for the same purpose. The Duchess hoped to raise £10,000 from the fancy dress ball. Dresses representing 1760-1790 were compulsory for ladies and if these were not readily available Harrods provided the solution with two specially designed costumes. Men could wear court dress, military uniforms, kilts or hunting regalia! The Duchess welcomed her guests at 10pm and stayed until the end of the ball at 3am. She was wearing an ivory and gold brocade gown, enhanced by the Honiton lace she had been given on her wedding day. The Times of 15th April described the Devonshire House Ball as, 'A Magnificent Spectacle.' The events of 14th and 15th April raised £3,711 5s 4d for the Deptford Fund. This cause was dear to the Duchess' heart - in 1916 she had even sold, in aid of the Fund, a rope of two hundred and fifty eight pearls given to her by Queen Victoria.
The First World War saw the Duchess as a regular worker at her sister-in-law Princess Beatrice's War Hospital Supply Depot in Cavendish Square. The Royal pair continued this work after the War in the League of Remembrance, supplying military, naval and civil hospitals. The Times of 3rd June 1920 recorded that, '...Already, one thousand two hundred members have joined the League and paid their subscriptions, which in turn will augment the pensions of the workers, either the widows or dependents of officers who have fallen or have been incapacitated in war......for it is on the officers' widows that the high expenditure of the day falls with such a grievous burden.' The Duchess also actively supported less well known causes; in June 1920 she attended a special matinee at the Whitehall Theatre to raise funds to take three hundred and fifty epileptic sufferers to the seaside. She had visited their home in Lingfield, Surrey in advance. The Waterloo Hospital for Children and Women also received the Duchess' support and she was a member of the International Bureau for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic.
Princess Helena, Duchess of Albany died of a heart attack on 1st September 1922, in Hinterriss, Austria while visiting her son.
Life in Elmbridge
Claremont House in Esher was bought for £60,000 by the British nation in 1816 as a wedding present for Princess Charlotte, daughter of and heir-presumptive to George IV and her husband Prince Leopold of Saxe - Coburg. Sadly, Princess Charlotte's tenure of Claremont was brief as she died giving birth to a still born son in November 1817. Her husband went on to become King of the Belgians in 1831 but retained ownership of the house until his death in 1865. As the fond uncle of Princess Victoria, later Queen Victoria (he was her mother's brother) he often welcomed his niece to Claremont and she had cherished memories of her visits. It was not surprising that she purchased the house for Prince Leopold and his bride Princess Helena, Duke and Duchess of Albany when they married in April 1882.
'........the royal couple drove on a triumphal processional route to their new home at Claremont. They travelled through Ascot, Chertsey and Weybridge and in all the villages along this route decorated floral arches were built to celebrate the occasion. There were three arches in Weybridge alone...' (A. L ansdell, Links along the Old Esher Road, Esher Local History News, Oct. 1971). In addition to local celebrations the marriage was marked by a gift of a five-stone half- hoop diamond ring and a diamond serpent bracelet from the citizens of Windsor and vicinity. The snake biting its tail is a metaphor for eternal love. The Queen, The Lady's Newspaper described the jewel as being, '...in the shape of a three-coil serpent, with ruby eyes and a large sapphire in its head, the body being formed by 320 brilliants, weighing 241/2 carats and sixty roses.....' Both pieces were crafted by Mr W. C. Seymour, goldsmith of Windsor.
The Royal couple settled happily at Claremont and their first child, Princess Alice was born on 25th February 1883. They entertained college friends of the Duke including Max Muller, Bishop Crichton, Lewis Carroll and Lord Salisbury. John Ruskin recalled his impression of the Duchess from his visit to Claremont in October 1883 when writing to his cousin, Joan Severn, 'The Duchess is really pretty when she laughs - but rather severe and alarming when she doesn't.' Queen Victoria came to regard her daughter-in-law with respect and affection. However, the marriage ended with the sudden death of the Duke in March 1884. Their son Prince Charles Edward, Duke of Albany was born on 19 July 1884.
The widowed Duchess continued to live at Claremont where she was visited frequently by Queen Victoria who passed through Weybridge on her way to Esher. Albany Bridge, over the River Mole, was built at the foot of Lammas Hill to facilitate the Queen's journeys. The sojourn at Claremont was interrupted when the young Duke of Albany succeeded to the Dukedom of Saxe-Coburg in 1900 and his grandmother insisted that he adopt German nationality. Claremont was closed for three years while the Duchess accompanied her son to Germany and made a home for him until he went to the University of Bonn.
In their brief marriage she and her husband became very involved in local affairs, a practice maintained by the Duchess during her widowhood. Her husband had been instrumental in founding Esher Church of England School and the Duchess continued to be actively engaged in the life of the school. She visited at least once a term to inspect progress in writing, scripture and needlework and presented a needlework box each summer to the pupil who produced the best sewing. The pupils were often entertained in the gardens at Claremont. After the Duchess' death in 1922 the Head recorded the following tribute in the school Log Book, 'Her Royal Highness was a good friend to the school and her loss is irreparable.' Claremont was also the setting for an annual fete in support of the Duchess' beloved Deptford Fund and during the First World War became, for two years, an Officers' Convalescent Home of which the Duchess took charge. However, anti-German prejudice led to her leaving Claremont in 1916 and after the War she moved to a smaller house, Loseberry, in Claygate. On leaving Claremont she gave a beautiful Bible to St. George's Church, West End, Esher; a church she had attended often. The Duchess also found time to enjoy her surroundings; she took up sculling on the Thames and on one occasion rowed the thirteen miles from Staines to Molesey.
The sudden death of Princess Helena, Duchess of Albany on 1st September 1922 deprived the British Royal Family of one of its hardest working members. As her daughter recalled, she had a strong sense of duty and she undoubtedly served her adopted country loyally and well. To have won the respect of her formidable mother-in-law, Queen Victoria, is ample evidence of her qualities. She was a loving and supportive wife and mother whilst never neglecting her role on the wider stage. The Duchess was remembered with much affection in Esher, so much so, that in 1924 a memorial window to her was put up in the Parish Church. After her death, Mr.C. Llewelyn Davies, one of the friends made in the early days her marriage, sent the following fond remembrance to the Times (4th Sept. 1922):
'I was his guest [Prince Leopold], and after his death, that of the Princess, his widow, at Claremont. It was curious to see this gentle pair entertaining us in the great room carpeted with the sumptuous gift of an Indian prince......The Duchess was a charming hostess, and has remained a most kind and valued friend. As I write this I mentally kiss her hand.'
Claremont could not be passed to the Duchess' son as he was regarded as an enemy alien as he had fought in the German army in the First World War, and had been stripped of his British titles. It was sold to Sir William Corry, a director of the Cunard Steamship Company and so the Duchess of Albany's death saw the end of the British Royal Family's long connection with Claremont.
- Phyllis M. Cooper, The Story of Claremont, 5th Ed., London, 1972
- The Devonshire House Deptford Ball, 1920
- Lisa Hutchins, Esher & Claygate Past, London, 2001
- A.Lansdell, Links along the Old Esher Road, Esher Local History News, Oct. 1971
- F.E.Manning, April 27, April, The Marriage of the Duke & Duchess of Albany at Windsor & the drive to Claremont, Esher Local History Society, 1982 http://www.royal-magazin.de/england/albany-snake-bracelet.htm
- The Times Digital Archive, Surrey Libraries www.surreycc.gov.uk/libraries
- The Duchess of Albany's Ball at Devonshire House, The Times, 16 March, 1920; pg. 13; Issue 42360; Col.F
- Needs of Deptford Poor. The Duchess of Albany's Appeal, The Times, 19 March, 1920
- Devonshire House Ball. A Magnificent Spectacle, The Times, 15 April, 1920
- War Work Comrades in Peace. League of Remembrance, the Times, 3 June, 1920; pg. 13; Issue 42427; Col. C
- The Duchess of Albany. Sudden Death in Tirol., Monday, 4 Sept., 1922; pg.8; Issue 43127
- The Duchess of Albany. Charitable Work., The Times, Monday 4 Sept., 1922; pg.10; Issue 43127
- Points from Letters. The Duchess of Albany, Mr. C.Llewelyn Davies, The Times, Monday, 4 Sept., 1922
- Letters to the Editor. John Murray., The Times, 5 Sept., 1922; pg.6; Issue43128; Col. B