Carved into the limestone near the town of Weymouth in Dorset, some 300 feet above sea level , is a picture of a man on horseback, 280 feet long. Not just any man, but reputedly King George III, and for over two centuries he has been there, commemorating the fact that the monarch used to visit the town regularly over a fifteen-year period.
A photograph of the Osmington White Horse taken 80 years after the hillside was cut. It is little-changed over the centuries.
Horse and rider seen from the air.
George III started his visits in 1789, encouraged by tales about how beneficial the sea air (and indeed sea water) would be to his fragile health. Year after year he came back, his final visit being in 1805. The figure was carved three years afterwards, so George never saw it. That hasn’t stopped all manner of stories about the King being offended because it shows him riding away from his beloved Weymouth, rather than entering it.
The carving has been spruced up this year to coincide with the fact that Weymouth plays host to the Olympic Games sailing competition. Let us hope that the face-lift lasts longer than the ill-conceived ‘Ask Anneka’ challenge a few years back, when inadequate preparations and over-hurried workmanship resulted in good television, but bad restoration…
I thought it would be fun to look out the records of just one of His Majesty’s visits, to see exactly what he got up to. Fortunately the records in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1794 are really very detailed and give a fascinating picture of the Royal court ‘on tour’
The record starts by announcing that on August 15th “at an early hour in the morning, after a slight refreshment of tea, coffee &c the King, Queen Prince Ernest and the six Princesses left Windsor in two post chaises with the most loyal effusions of good wishes from the inhabitants for their safe return.”
Weymouth turned out to welcome the Royal party later that day: broadsides were fired by the sloops of war off the coast, while a cannon was fired on the Esplanade by way of a Royal salute. “A melancholy accident happened to the two men firing the cannon, owing to their not sponging the gun properly, the cartridge took fire, by which one of the men had his hand blown off, and the other lost one of his eyes and was otherwise most hurt. The cloaths of the latter were set on fire, and were with much difficulty torn off time enough to save him from being burnt to death.” Not the most auspicious of starts…
The next day, a Saturday, saw the King “take an airing on the Dorchester Road”, while Her Majesty and the Princesses walked on the Esplanade and regaled Mr Wild and his family, of Lulworth Castle, with a great share of her conversation.
Sunday 17th August saw the King make an early start – by seven o’clock he was walking to the Look-out, getting back for his breakfast two hours later. The Royal party went to Melcombe Church to hear a sermon by the Revd Groves- they always attended church there, much to the dismay of the Princesses who found the atmosphere inside horribly warm and stuffy, on account of the great press of onlookers. By the evening rain had set in and the King went for a damp walk, leaving his wife and children behind in their rooms.
The fun started in earnest the next day at seven – His Majesty had a quick dip in the briny “in his old machine” before taking an airing on the road to Wareham. A replica of the bathing machine has just been restored and on 1st June was put back on the sea front. Rumour has it that when the King went for a swim a small orchestra was concealed in the next-door bathing machine so that they could strike up “God Save the King” as His Majesty emerged, like King Neptune, from the tumultuous waves!
19th August saw Princess Augusta brave the sea while her father walked along the Esplanade. He then decided to ride out along the road to Dorchester while the Queen and five of her daughters “took an airing in the carriage” before returning to “the Dukes Lodge” for dinner. The Dukes Lodge was owned at that stage by the King’s brother the Duke of Gloucester. A year or two later the King purchased Gloucester Lodge and used it for all subsequent visits, Many years later saw it converted into a hotel. A disastrous fire in the 1920’s caused the Lodge to be altered with the addition of an extra storey and a huge porch – and it remains as luxury apartments with splendid sea views.
Things settled down to a routine of bathing, walking, riding out and trips to the theatre (apparently often to see the same play…). In the evening of 21st August the whole party traipsed up to see the Army Camp “and saw the men go through their exercises. His Majesty paid the Marquis of Buckingham many compliments on their different manoeuvres” and in return was rewarded with a “21 gun salute and the men gave three huzzas”.
The next day – a quick swim and then they assembled at the pier at ten to be taken on board the frigate Southampton for a trip round the bay. That was just the Dress Rehearsal, since the next day they repeated the exercise in order to review the fleet from on board the Southampton. The Prince of Wales turned up at half past three, and at seven the entire family and its entourage headed for the theatre “which was full and brilliant.”
Sunday saw a return to Melcombe church and in the afternoon the Queen and the Princesses ”took an airing in the Sociable on the sands.” Apparently they brought at least two of these open carriages with them since they all paraded in the Sociables over the next couple of days. The full title was a sociable barouche, and consisted of two double seats facing each other, usually drawn by one but sometimes two horses.
Picture of a Sociable from Ackermann’s Depository, 1816
More visits to the theatre followed in the next few days, to see ‘The Chapter of Accidents’ and ‘The Romp’. If it wasn’t the theatre, they stayed in and played cards, but if ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ was on, they invariably went to see that; or “Animal Magnetism” starring Tony Lumpkin as ‘the Doctor’…
30th August saw Farmer George (as the King was irreverently called) go off “with Lord Walsingham and General Goldsworthy to see the stock and grounds of Farmer Bridges of Elverton” while the others bathed, took the airs, and prepared for that night’s trip …. to the theatre.
The days dragged by into September with little alteration to the routine. On 8th September Princess Augusta bathed while her father walked the esplanade prior to an airing on horseback upon the Dorchester road. It was their Majesties’ Wedding Anniversary so the guns of the frigates and sloops in the bay thundered out their salute, answered by a salvo from the shore battery. There was a ball and supper that night ‘in honour of the day’.
On the 9th September His Majesty bathed (no longer in his old machine: the new one had been brought into commission). “This afternoon his Majesty held a Privy Council at Gloucester Lodge.” The meeting broke up at half past four leaving the King time for a an afternoon stroll. That evening the Queen had a concert and a card party, and the next day looked to be a repeat of all that had gone before – bathing, promenading, taking the air, and “the Royal Family intended to honour the theatre with their presence; but were prevented by the arrival of an express with news of the death of Her Majesty’s sister.”
The Prince of Wales, who loathed these family gatherings (and anyway far preferred the more fashionable company to be found in Brighton) was able to escape on 12th September, going on “a shooting party to Mr Churchill’s seat near Blandford.” Those remaining went to see the Sencible Cavalry, where Farmer Enfield had generously “donated an ox roasted whole. The spectators were numerous”. The Sencibles appear to have been a sort of Home Guard, intended to protect the country as opposed to being sent overseas. General Tarleton stated in Parliament that “he could not see the least public utility – he never saw a corps of sencibles that answered his idea of military excellence: they were well enough adapted for young gentlemen to display their equestrian graces and military prowess in country villages but the expense (half a million pounds in 1796 ) was enormous.” And so they strutted around, doing their stuff, and munching on roast ox…
Another day, more swimming, more games of cards, more airings in the Sociable. I was interested to see that at this stage the Queen had not actually gone in to mourning for her sister – official mourning started on 14th September, four days after the death, when it was reported that “This day the Royal Family and the nobility here went into mourning for the Queens sister”. That didn’t preclude His Majesty and Prince Ernest going bathing, nor going on board the Southampton for a spot of dinner, nor indeed going to the theatre.
The 16th was a trifle unfortunate for some: the royal party went to watch the Buckinghamshire Militia be put through their paces – “ His Majesty paid the Marquis a very high compliment on the men being so well disciplined” before sitting down ”to a cold collation in the Lord Chancellor’s marquee. On leaving the camp a royal salute was fired; when a melancholy accident took place – one of the gunners belonging to the artillery had his arm shot off, and expired soon after.”
A trip to Maiden Castle to view the Sencible Cavalry took place the following day, and no doubt His Majesty, taking dinner at Gloucester Lodge, was able to observe the commotion as “Mr Farrow and his two daughters, in the company of two naval officers, were coming on shore at the pier when the boat ran foul of a post buried under the water and was overset.”
John Constable’s view of Weymouth sea front in 1819.
On the 18th September “ Princesses Mary and Elizabeth bathed in the Floating Machine” – Prince Ernest and the Duke of Gloucester also had a quick dip before a huge thunderstorm occurred and a gale swept across Weymouth Bay. “About nine the Sunflower, being driven from her anchor, fired two guns of distress…the longboat from the Southampton with great difficulty saved then form going upon the rocks.” The Royals stayed indoors until the storm abated, and then went out in the evening to the theatre. It stayed rough and wet for the next few days but the twenty-second was the anniversary of the Kings coronation so “the troops fired a feu de joie, which was answered from the batteries. At one the ships fired a royal salute, and were all dressed on that occasion.” In the coming days there were hunting parties and much drinking of tea at Lady Powlet’s as well as more trips to the theatre. But all good things must come to an end, and I dare say that the Royal Princesses were well pleased when the sixteenth September came and they could all spend the entire day packing and preparing for departure; no swimming, no riding, no promenading, and no theatricals…
An early start on the day of departure (18th September) saw everyone set off at five in the morning. They paused for an hour at Salisbury, came through Hartford-bridge, and reached Windsor at half past six. “A general illumination took place in the evening, bells ringing and guns firing, amid the acclamation of the whole town.”
So there you have it – five weeks by the seaside, very much en famille. It certainly helped put Weymouth on the map!