History

Secrets of the Swiss Cottage at Osborne

How the Swiss Cottage at Osborne, designed for the children of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, borrows from continental tradition, and is only now revealing some of its secrets.

The Swiss Cottage, built in 1853–4 for the royal children at Osborne, on the Isle of Wight
The Swiss Cottage, built in 1853–4 for the royal children at Osborne, on the Isle of Wight

A WORLD IN MINIATURE

Designed as a private home for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight played an important role in the upbringing of their children. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than Osborne’s Swiss Cottage, a miniature world set apart for the entertainment and informal education of the royal children.

Located well away from the main house, the Swiss Cottage is an Alpine-style chalet constructed in 1853–4 from timber baulks, embellished with rustic carvings and German proverbs. It is topped with a timber roof, which was originally weighted down with stones in authentic Alpine fashion. It was probably not imported from Switzerland, however, as was once thought; instead it was prefabricated in England and re-erected at Osborne by local carpenters.

‘The children at Osborne’, a watercolour by Queen Victoria of some of the royal children
‘The children at Osborne’, a watercolour by Queen Victoria of some of the royal children © Royal Collection Trust/Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

SWISS TRADITION

In choosing to emulate a Swiss design, Victoria and Albert were following a tradition established in Britain, Germany and France in the early 19th century. Swiss cottages had been built to bring an alpine aesthetic to Picturesque gardens. They were usually positioned around the focal point of vistas, or themselves offered views over attractive prospects.

But the Swiss Cottage at Osborne had an altogether different purpose. It provided no significant views of the estate and was hidden behind a belt of trees. This was not a building designed to be a prominent feature in the landscape; rather, it was built to provide a private space for the royal children to learn about the world around them, and to play at being adults and learn housekeeping and cookery.

The newly revealed dairy, with the previously blocked doorway on the left
The newly revealed dairy, with the previously blocked doorway on the left

PLAY HOUSE

The Swiss Cottage was at the centre of the royal children’s world when they stayed at Osborne. They grew fruit and vegetables in the gardens around the cottage, played on the miniature fort just outside it, and collected natural curiosities to display in a museum originally housed in the cottage.

Today, it is perhaps the kitchen and sitting room that give the clearest sense of how the Swiss Cottage was used. These rooms contain a full set of the cooking equipment that would have been found in a small mid-19th-century house – but with one key difference: everything is built at three-quarter scale, specifically for the children’s use. Here they prepared teas and luncheons for family and occasional visitors, making pies, tarts, pastries, scones and cakes.

The kitchen at the Swiss Cottage, lined with blue and white tiles
The kitchen at the Swiss Cottage, lined with blue and white tiles

SECRET DAIRY

One aspect of the children’s culinary activities has, however, only recently come to light.

Looking at historic plans from the 1850s, English Heritage researchers noticed that they showed a doorway leading from the kitchen sitting room to a small room beyond. Documents from the 1890s referred to this room as a larder. But apparently no trace of the doorway remained.

A little investigation soon revealed that it had been blocked in the early 20th century – probably before the Swiss Cottage was first opened to visitors in 1916 – and plastered over. Once it had been reopened and the room was revealed, a tiled scheme was uncovered on the walls of the ‘larder’ beneath layers of wallpaper. These tiles, and the room’s cornice, match those used in the kitchen.

There are opaque historical references to the royal children enjoying the use of a dairy at the Swiss Cottage, but until now its whereabouts were unknown. It now looks as though this dairy has been found, and that this little room, with its tiled interior, stone floor and drainage system, was where the royal children learned to make butter, cream and cheese. 

The restoration of the Osborne Swiss Cottage – which reopened in spring 2014 – offers visitors the chance to see the dairy for the first time since 1916, stepping into this previously hidden world of Victoria and Albert’s royal children.

By Roy Porter

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