Queen Victoria visits Brompton

​In 1855, when the first batch of wounded men returned from the Crimean War (1853-56), Queen Victoria invited a small group of them to Buckingham Palace.

The sight of these ‘mutilated’ men so affected her that the speech of welcome she had prepared “all stuck in my throat” and she had to excuse herself from it for fear of breaking down. Though such encounters were distressing, the Queen met as many of the wounded as possible and showed a personal interest in their recovery. Her frequent visits with Prince Albert to the military hospitals at Chatham and Brompton were immediately followed up by detailed reports from the medical staff on the health of the men they had seen. Also photographers were commissioned to take portraits of individuals or groups that had been of particular interest, and later sent the men handkerchiefs and comforters. 

Such were the numbers of wounded that in addition to the main Military Hospital at Fort Pitt and the Brompton Hospital (a temporary hospital which seems to have been set up within Brompton Barracks, not to be confused with the Garrison Hospital in Military [Maxwell] Road) the Casemate Barracks on St. Mary’s Island were also used to house convalescents.

In an 1856 painting, now in the National Portrait Gallery, Jerry Barrett shows her visiting disabled soldiers at the Brompton Hospital, Chatham on 3 March 1855. She is accompanied by her husband, Prince Albert, and their two eldest sons, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and Prince Alfred, (later Duke of Edinburgh). Seated on the bed talking to the Queen and her family is Sergeant Leny, who had fought at the battles of the Alma, Balaclava, and Inkerman, while the figure lying in bed behind him is the badly injured James Higgins, whose ‘appearance caused much painful emotion to her Majesty’

George Russell Dartnell (1799-1878), an army surgeon who was, at that time, Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals, wrote a manuscript entitled “A few brief Anecdotes connected with Her Majesty’s visit to the Hospitals at Chatham, 1855-6, written by G. R. Dartnell, D.I.G.H.” from which the following extracts are taken.

The first visit was on 3rd March 1855, and after visiting the hospital at Fort Pitt they went to Brompton Barracks. It was there that Queen Victoria met the men she later sketched, probably from memory. She described in her journal how Sergeant Scarff of the 17th Lancers “told us how he had received his sabre cuts, one on his head, and one on his two hands, which he had put up to save his head”. Following her visit to Fort Pitt Hospital, Dartnell tells us:

Her Majesty now entered her carriage and drove to the temporary Hospital in Brompton Barracks, where the Commandant and I, riding on a head, were again ready to receive her as she alighted.

I took place by Her Majesty’s right hand as before, and I introduced Staff Surgeon Reade in charge of the Hospital.

The patients here also were all brought down to the lower ward, every one of which Her Majesty visited, expressing the greatest sympathy for the wounded, enquiring into all their cases, greatly interested in the histories of their several exploits, but distressed apparently beyond measure at the vast number of maimed and disabled men.

In one of the wards she took much notice of a fine looking young soldier, who was far advanced in Phthisis. [TB or consumption] After leaving the ward, she sent Colonel Phipps back to tell the man that, if he wished, she would get him into the Consumption Hospital in London. Colonel Phipps on his return said, “the young man desires me to say that he is extremely grateful for your Majesty’s kindness, but that he would prefer remaining where he is, as he is as comfortable as he could be anywhere.”   “I hope,” I added, “that your Majesty will look on this as another proof of the care taken of your Majesty’s soldiers in our Military Hospitals.” “It is very gratifying indeed Mr. Dartnell.”

The convalescents, from the Invalid Depot at St. Mary’s, were paraded for the Queen in the Officer’s Mess House of the Brompton Barracks, which was then unoccupied. The wounded were classified in the different rooms according to the battles in which they had been wounded, and on each door was tacked a card with the word “Alma,” “Balaclava,” or “Inkerman,” printed in large letters.

The whole inspection occupied Her Majesty upwards of three hours, and she was pleased to express herself highly satisfied and interested in all the arrangements, and in all that she had seen.

Before stepping into her carriage the Queen said to me, “Mr. Dartnell, I wish you to send me time to time the names of any badly maimed men of good character who, you think, would derive comfort from the use of artificial limbs or other mechanical appliances of a more complete or expensive nature than those furnished by the Government; and I wish you also to send me, as soon as you can, a return of all the men I have seen today.”

“Your Majesty, I presume, means a nominal Return giving the name, age, and service of every man with a description of his wound and when received.” “Precisely.”

The Queen’s second visit was in June 1855. She started with a visit to Fort Pitt Hospital, after which:

Her Majesty again entered her carriage and drove rapidly to Brompton Hospital, where the convalescents were drawn up on a long range of barrack forms, along the whole length of the front of the building. Amongst these men too she recognised several she had seen before, displaying considerable power of memory. On reaching one of these men she said – “I have seen this man before.” “I hardly think so, your Majesty,” I replied (feeling quite certain in my own mind that in this instance at least she was mistaken) “Oh yes,” she said, “I am quite sure I did,” “Did I not see you (to the man) the first time I was here?” “Yes your Majesty! You did, I arrived here the day before.” The Queen immediately turned round, with rather an arch look at me, as much as to say – “you see I’m right and you are wrong” – “Indeed your Majesty,” I remarked, “has a wonderful memory, I wish mine were half as good.” Some of the cases of these poor fellows excited Her Majesty’s interest and sympathy very much.

From Brompton she drove to St. Mary’s, where she inspected upwards of six hundred convalescents drawn up in line. The answers of some of the men to her questions, and their mode of address often amused her, as for instance, one, in replying would say – “Oh, yes ma’am!” another would say “Oh no, miss, Your Majesty, I mean,” or “Your Highness,” the poor fellows were so confused that they said, as often as not saying no for yes or vice versa. One man, asked a question by Lord Hardinge, and in the confusion of his thoughts addressed him as “Your Majesty!” The Queen heard this, turned to his Lordship and laughed.

After inspecting the men on the ground the Queen and party walked across to see the Casemate Barracks, about which so much has been said and written of late. She went into one or two of the upper rooms and was quite horrified at them. “Are these really the barrack rooms of these Invalids?” she said to me: I said, “Yes indeed they are your Majesty” And Prince Albert, looking over towards the splendid Convict Prison recently built in view of the Casemate Barracks, said “Well it seems very extraordinary that there should be no difficulty in obtaining money to erect a magnificent building like this for convicts, and that it should be impossible to find the means of building a commonly comfortable Barrack for convalescent soldiers.”

The Queen’s third visit was on 28th November 1855.

At Brompton Hospital the men were all inspected in the Wards and seeing a Medical Officer in nearly every one of them, the Queen remarked to me that she was glad to see I had so many Surgeons.

The History of one of the wounded men in this Hospital – an Irishman – interested and amused her very much. He had been badly wounded when retreating after the Cavalry Charge at Balaclava, and was carried a prisoner off the field by the Russians, and detained for upwards of seven months at Simferopol.

Queen. “And how were you treated by the Russians, my poor fellow, did they behave well to you?” “Troth they didn’t your worship – your Majesty I mean.”

Queen. “I suppose they gave you plenty to eat and drink, at all events while you were in the Hospital?”

Soldier. “Sure ’tis in the Hospital I was all the time your Majesty; and not a ha’porth they gave me to ate only sour black bread.”

Queen. (Drawing him out) “Well, but you were better off, I hope in the way of drink.”

Soldier. “Oh, but your Highness – your Majesty I mane, that was the worst of all. Sorra a drop I had at all but one glass of nasty sour wine and all manner of hardships and bad treatment.”

Queen. “It was lucky after all, that you got so well out of their hands at last.”

Prince Albert. “How did you get away from Simferopol?” “’Tis carried away I was, myself an’ a parcel more prisoners of us to Odessa.”

Prince. “How far is it from Simferopol to Odessa?”

Soldier. “About 700 miles it is your Royal Highness.”

Prince. “And how did you travel? Did you march?”

Soldier. “Och! No Sir, your Royal Highness, I mane, ’tis upon Araba they took us, about 100 miles a day, an’ ’tis the life was a’most jolted out of us.”

On quitting Brompton Hospital I said to the Queen – “If your Majesty is not fatigued the Convalescents from St. Mary’s are paraded for your inspection in the old Garrison Chapel on the opposite side of the Barrack Square.” “I am not in the least fatigued,” she replied, “and should be very glad to see them.”

The Invalids were ranged in concentric Circles round the interior of the Chapel, and the galleries filled with Spectators and as Her Majesty and the Suite and Staff entered, the scene was very imposing.

The Queen’s fourth and last visit to Brompton was on 16th April 1856. Although hundreds of soldiers were assembled to meet the Queen, the experiences of Private Jesse Lockhurst, 31st Regiment, and Thomas O’Brien, 1st Royals, particularly impressed her. Lockhurst received a shot in his right eye which destroyed its sight, as well as his upper jawbone. O’Brien had his left eye destroyed and his jawbone fractured. In the photograph the Queen commissioned (now in the Royal Collection) both men hold the shot which caused their injuries and which they had given to the Queen to hold in her own hand. Once again Dartnell describes the visit.

She drove direct to Brompton Barracks, and more than an hour earlier than the time fixed for her arrival, in consequence of which there was no-one in time to meet her at the Railway Station, and the arrangements for her reception at the Barracks were but barely completed when she drove up. She first inspected the Convalescents from St. Mary’s, of whom there were above 700, all drawn up in a single line along the south front of the Engineer Barracks. Here they were completely under the shelter of the range of buildings which fronted the south. Her Majesty was pleased to remark to me – “this place has been well chosen Mr. Dartnell for parading the invalids – it seems like a different climate under shelter of this Barrack; the sun is quite hot.”

The inspection of this time occupied Her Majesty about three quarters of an hour. Many of the cases deeply attracted her attention and sympathy, especially those of two men who had been very severely wounded by grape shot in the face and head; two of these iron balls weighed 20ozs, each, another 13ozs. Photographic portraits were taken of these men, and some others, by an artist sent down by Her Majesty a day or two after.

After completing her inspection of the Barrack Convalescents, Her Majesty crossed over to the Hospital on the opposite side of the square, first taking the Medical Cases in the Eastern wing of the building. Here she found some soldiers of the British German Legion.

The descriptions in Dartnell’s writings suggest that Brompton Hospital was set up in the range of buildings on the north side of the parade square, which are still there today.

 
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