Tales from the Seashore - when Freddie met the Queen



27th January 2020
The story - and it is a true story that I stumbled upon while researching a novel - is as follows.

One day in the year 1852 a young lad by the name of Freddie Attrill was busy at work gathering shellfish from the beach below Osborne House, the home of Queen Victoria and Albert on the Isle of Wight. It was a common form of employment for children who lived by the sea in Victorian times. They could make a few pennies from what was basically hard labour. And it also provided food.
scene of bay by sea, with stormy sky
From a painting by John Constable - Weymouth Bay
But this was not to be Freddie’s lucky day. Along came another lad - an aggressive little fellow who not only told Freddie to ‘clear off!’ but also kicked his bucket of shells and sent it flying. Freddie, as you can imagine, was not amused, and punched the intruder.
detail from a relief sculpture showing an altercation between two boys
Wham - take that! (detail from sculpture by Glyn Roberts)
Unfortunately, the intruder, as Freddie was promptly informed by some officious-looking gentlemen who rushed to the scene, was none other than Albert Edward, Prince of Wales: the Queen's eldest son and heir to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland.

Oh dear!
The Queen's little cherubs - Albert Edward, and brother 'Affie' photographed in 1855.
(PS. it might be Albert on the right - sources differ)
Meanwhile the young Prince had been hurried home up the hill to the security and splendour of Osborne House, whereupon learning of the news, the Queen summoned the pugnacious Freddie to appear before her.
Queen Victoria staring at the viewer, stern of countenance
The Queen! Portrait by Julia Abercromby, after Heinrich von Angeli,1883.

Transportation to Australia at the very least


One can only speculate on the horror this prospect must have held for poor little Freddie. Would it be a whipping? Imprisonment for his parents? Deportation on an old creaking hulk to Australia? But no … to Freddie’s astonishment, none of these terrors came to pass. The Queen was not cross. In fact, she told Freddie that her son’s behaviour had been ‘quite wrong.’ It is even said that she gave him a sum of several guineas by way of compensation for his trouble.
old painting showing grand Italianate style house in park landscape
Osborne House by A. Heaton Cooper c1908

A local celebrity



Freddie became somewhat of a local celebrity thereafter. In adulthood, he went from working as a merchant seaman to taking up labouring work in the area and gardening for a living. In  later life he also developed a special skill that would enhance his reputation still further – namely that of decorating the exterior of his home with sea shells.

Over the period of a decade before his death, he produced lavish sculptured murals of thousands of coloured shells; he laid pathways of shells; built walls of shells; shell ornaments were donated from far and wide – until the exterior of his house was entirely festooned with elaborate shell pictures. It became quite an attraction.
elderly gentleman seated amid elaborate sculptures of shells
Freddie in old age at work at his home in East Cowes.
old black and white photo of gentleman standing outside a terraced house
Freddie outside his home.
linking banner with red text on black background

Memorial


Unfortunately, much of his shell work was dismantled by subsequent owners of his house. But in recent times the story of his encounter with the then-future king has been commemorated by the people of Cowes with the completion of a plaque and sculpture in the walls of the old Victoria Barracks close to the shore.

Here it is:  The relief sculpture, by local artist Glyn Roberts, shows a rather dapper Prince of Wales on his backside, reeling from Freddie’s blow – while the adjacent plaque tells the story itself. 
relief sculpture showing two boys brawling
"News of the fight soon reached the Queen" - the scene cleverly depicted by sculptor Glyn Roberts, complete with upset bucket. If you look closely, upper right, you can even detect the distraught Queen herself standing outside the Italianate towers of Osborne House.
metal plaque mounted on wall containing small lines of text, green in colour
Mounted on the wall of the Victoria Barracks, a memorial plaque incorporates shell motives and tells the story itself.

Two men and the sea



There is a certain parallelism in the lives of the two men in this little story. While Freddie, as a young man, joined the Merchant Navy and subsequently returned home to live by the sea, the Prince of Wales became a great yachtsman and spent much of his leisure time on the sea. As Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes, he could be found regularly racing his magnificent boat Britannia against those of the German Kaiser in the waters off the beach at Osborne.

No doubt Freddie from his home nearby would have looked on with interest.
old photograph of racing yacht upon an open sea
The Royal racing yacht Britannia in full sail.
royal personage - king Edward VII with medalion, head and shoulder portrait
Albert Edward as king. From a portrait by Samuel Luke Fildes, 1905.
The Prince of Wales became king in 1901 upon the passing of Victoria, ushering in that all-too-brief and extraordinarily elegant period of English history known as the Edwardian Era, which lasted until his death in 1910. Freddie outlived him, however – continuing to enjoy his celebrity status at his home of shells, which by this time had become a tourist attraction and a popular subject for picture postcards from the Island. He passed away in 1926 at the ripe old age 88.

What remains


I believe it is still possible to see just a small remnant of Freddie's work - a shell picture of a ship at sea - where he once lived. This will probably join the rest of his transient creations and vanish soon with age. But the plaque on the wall of the Barracks will be more permanent, and the story, I’m glad to say, will therefore live on: testimony to Queen Victoria’s kindness and sagacity (and Freddie’s good fortune – because it really could have turned out a lot, lot worse).
old victorian drawing shows collection of seashells
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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