The greatest year in the history of St. Leonards was undoubtedly 1834, when the Duchess of Kent and her little 15 year old daughter, Princess Victoria, came to stay during the winter. This established the town firmly as a fashionable resort.
It seems from a letter written by Decimus Burton to members of his family in St. Leonards, asking for confidential details of local tradesmen, charities and other domestic information, that he was largely concerned in bringing it about. Among other items he was anxious that No. 56 Marina should be connected with No. 57 in the rear so that the royal servants could have easy access.
When news of the impending visit was made public, a special request was made by Hastings that the royal party might pass through it on the way to St. Leonards. This was graciously granted though it meant a detour of over four miles.
A crowded public meeting was held to discuss arrangements, and it was proposed by Frederick North, and seconded by James Burton, that the loyal address of welcome should be presented by both towns jointly. This was agreed and a committee set to work.
A triumphal arch, sixty feet high, was erected across the roadway at the Hastings boundary near the Hare and Hounds public house at Ore. There on the late afternoon of November 4th, the royal party was formally greeted by the mayor and corporation.
A procession was then formed and escorted by the gentleman of the neighbourhood on horseback carrying white wands and wearing knots of blue ribbon, the carriages moved off down the Old London Road, the band and members of the Hastings Friendly Society having a place of honour. On entering High Street a salute of 21 guns was fired from the East Hill and the bells of both the ancient churches were rung until the procession had passed the Priory Bridge (now the site of the Memorial).
Unfortunately the usual way over the White Rock was then impassable owing to the action of the sea, so the column had to mount Cuckoo Hill (now Cambridge Road) and descend on the far side behind where the White Rock Pavilion stands today. A great crowd was waiting at St. Leonards and the Coastguard formed a guard of honour outside No. 57 Marina. The National Anthem was played and the visitors came out on to the balcony. Both Hastings and St. Leonards celebrated the arrival of their distinguished visitors by big banquets at the Swan and the St. Leonards Hotels.
On the following day the deputation presented the address, expressing their loyalty and hoping that the genial climate of the neighbourhood might induce them to make a lengthened stay and that they might have the honour of welcoming them again on some future occasion.
Her Royal Highness replied, thanking them, and saying:
“The Princess and myself feel most grateful for such marks of interest and regard, which your loyalty to the King leads you to evince towards us, as Members of his Family.
I must also express our sense of our reception yesterday, distinguished as it was by a hearty cordiality from all Classes, which we know how to appreciate.
My maternal feelings, and those I owe the Country warmly respond to the interest you express for the Princess: Providence seems to have destined her to fill a great Station (you will believe how anxiously I pray it may be at a very distant day) and if She should do so, I am confident that She will always feel and act as a Constitutional Sovereign, called to preside over the destinies of a free and loyal People”.
On November 17th, James Burton together with the Mayor, Frederick North, W. Lucas Shadwell and Dr. Wilmot had the honour of being invited to dinner at 57 Marina.
The Royal visitors spent their time quietly, walking and driving in the district, and many local tradesmen received their patronage. Among these were C. H. Southall the librarian, Newton Parks the butcher, and Thomas Price the fishmonger.
There were a number of notable accidents during the visit, the fust of these occurring during the official salute from the guns of Hastings. One of the gunners lost his hand and the Duchess generously arranged for him to have a pension.
But the event which might have changed the course of our history happened on November 11 th, when the ladies were returning from a drive through Hastings. As they were passing Verulam Place, the horses bolted and raced along the road completely out of the postillion’s control. One of the horses fell and there was a risk of the carriage being overturned. Happily a man was passing, who came to the rescue and secured the animal. This was Thomas Ranger, shoemaker by trade, publican in practice and a noted smuggler sub raso. A gentleman, Mr. Peckham Micklethwaite, came up and gallantly assisted the ladies to alight. Brett says that Ranger was warmly thanked and departed, but Micklethwaite pressed his claims for recognition on the Prime Minister by letter and was rewarded with a baronetcy. He later became High Sheriff for Sussex.
The royal party regularly attended Divine Service in Burton’s chapel as well as special concerts at the Assembly Rooms. They also became ‘Patronesses’ of the St. Leonards Archers, which had been founded the previous year. There were no meetings during their visit, it being winter, but they presented two prizes, the Royal Victoria prizes, to be competed for annually as well as a banner, designed by the little princess herself. After her accession, the Queen gave permission for the Society to be renamed the Queen’s Royal St. Leonards Archers. The Prince Consort later also became a patron of the society.
The Archery Grounds had originally been leased from the Eversfleld Estate by James Burton, the actual purchase being completed by his son, Alfred, in 1847. Brett has the interesting suggestion that they were once the site of a military encampment and that during the Napoleonic wars a greater number of tents than necessary were erected there to deceive enemy cruisers in the Channel, but gives no authority for this.
A final royal dinner party was given on January 14th and on the 29th the royal party departed. Brett, who was living in St. Leonards at the time as a young lad, says they were “highly spoken of for their friendly bearing towards the gentry, and for the absence of all ostentation when having to converse with persons of inferior grade.”
The visit had been an outstanding success and afterwards No. 57 Marina became known as Victoria House, and in more recent days Crown House. Hopes have long been nourished that one day it may become a local museum to help this restless century recapture some of the grace, charm and respect for craftmanship of those more leisurely days.
Note: These stories are based on Burton’s St. Leonards, by J. Manwaring Baines F.S.A., published by Hastings Museum in 1956.