How Royal Family’s Solent trip ended in tragedy

Author PAUL KENDALL – an Honorary Midshipman with the University of London Royal Naval Unit when he served on the Gunwarf-based P2000 patrol craft HMS Puncher in the early 1990s  and who has fond memories of Portsmouth and Gosport – provides a riveting extract from his new book, Queen Victoria: Her Life & Legacy… 

THE illustrated biography tells the story of Queen Victoria’s life and legacy, through locations and objects, including a chapter on the day the Royal Steam Yacht Alberta collided with the yacht Mistletoe.

On August 18, 1875, Victoria, accompanied by Princess Beatrice and Prince Leopold, began their journey to Balmoral when they boarded the Alberta at Osborne House around 6pm and steamed towards Clarence Victualling Yard at Gosport, escorted by the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert.

The Queen’s nephew, Ernst Leopold, Prince of Leiningen, commanded the Alberta. The routine 40-minute crossing was interrupted when the Alberta collided with the Mistletoe owned by Manchester banker Edward Heywood.

Some of the yachts in the Solent sailed close to the Alberta in the hope that those on board could get a glimpse of the Queen. A seaman named Brown was just about to dip the ensign on the Mistletoe to salute the Queen when the Alberta, steaming at 14 knots, struck the Mistletoe along the starboard side abreast the mainmast, close to Stokes Bay.

A number of the crew from the Alberta and Victoria and Albert leapt into the Solent to rescue the occupants of the Mistletoe that were thrown overboard by the collision.

The Alberta had cut the Mistletoe in two and she sank within three minutes. In total, three lives were lost, including the master, Thomas Stokes, and Annie Peel (Heywood’s sister-in-law), as a result of the collision. The owner of the Mistletoe, Mr Heywood, was recovered from the sea. Despite being shaken and traumatised by the experience, Victoria and her entourage continued their journey to Balmoral.

Outcry

The incident caused consternation amongst the yachting community in the Solent, who believed that the Prince of Leiningen had been responsible for this catastrophic accident, however, the Admiralty refused to try the prince by court martial. Instead, his navigating officer was found to be responsible, which caused a public outcry.

It was further inflamed when General Sir Henry Ponsonby, the Queen’s Private Secretary, on behalf of the Queen, sent a letter to the Marquis of Exeter, president of the Cowes Yacht Club, instructing all its members not to approach the Royal Yacht too closely when the sovereign was aboard.

The yachtsmen interpreted this letter as the Queen trying to exonerate her officers and demonstrating that the officers commanding the royal yachts disregarded the navigational rules of the road.

Two coroners’ inquests were held regarding the collision. The first jury could not reach a conclusion,while the second jury brought a verdict of accidental death, condemning the officers aboard Alberta for steaming too fast and for not maintaining a proper lookout. However, the officers aboard Alberta received no punishment.

Funeral

The Alberta played a prominent role in the funeral of Victoria when her body was transferred from Osborne House to the mainland. Her coffin was placed aboard the yacht on February 1, 1901, beneath a canopy upon the aft deck. The Alberta led a procession through the Solent where the Royal Naval Fleet lay anchored and she received a gun salute as she passed each ship.

All available warships from the Channel Squadron were ordered to assemble at Spithead so that the transporting of the Queen’s coffin across the Solent would make the occasion into an imposing naval display. The British fleet was joined by a squadron of German warships commanded by Prince Henry of Prussia. They formed two lines in the Solent as Alberta steamed between these lines of warships, which fired guns while her body was conveyed across.

The Queen’s coffin remained aboard Alberta for the night at Gosport’s Royal Clarence Yard, where the Royal Marines Light Infantry provided a vigil.

After a short service on February 2, 1901, the coffin was transferred to a train waiting at the private station in Royal Clarence Yard, which was frequently used by Victoria during her lifetime when travelling between London and Osborne House. The train transported the coffin and the Royal Family, including Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm II, to Victoria Station, arriving at 10.51 am.

The coffin remained aboard Alberta at Gosport overnight before it was conveyed to London for the funeral service the following day.

Edward VII continued to use the Alberta until she was broken up in 1913. The deckhouse was retained and brought to Osborne House for display in the 1970s.

Queen Victoria: her Life & Legacy will be published in harback by Frontline Books on February 28, 2022, at a recommended retail price of £25. A £5 discount is available if the book is ordered in advance, using the link https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Queen-Victoria-Hardback/p/20533

PICTURED: An illustration of Royal Steam Yacht Alberta carrying the coffin of Queen Victoria into Portsmouth Harbour. Image courtesy of the author, Paul Kendall