At the foot of Victoria Road in Broughty Ferry there is a plaque inserted into the wall which refers to the death in child birth of Princess Charlotte Augusta, the only child of George, Prince of Wales (later to become King George IV) and Caroline of Brunswick. Had she outlived both her grandfather, King George III and also her father, Prince Regent at the time of her death, Princess Charlotte she would have become Queen of the United Kingdom. Sadly, she died following childbirth at the age of 21.That incident changed the course of British history since it led to the accession to the throne of the young woman who was to be known as Queen Victoria.
There is a local legend, which still has some currency, which relates to the last few weeks of Charlotte's short life.This claims that she and her husband, Prince Leopold of Saxe Coburg, were visiting his homeland during the last month of her pregnancy. When the couple were sailing back to Britain, a fierce storm forced their ship to seek shelter in the Tay estuary. The Princess went into labour and was taken ashore at West Ferry where she was sheltered in a local cottage in the village of West Ferry. She subsequently gave birth to a still born child and she, herself, died there. the local people were sworn to secrecy and the bodies were smuggled back to London. Only after they had arrived at Claremont House was the devastating news made public.
The plaque on the wall placed on the wall at corner of Victoria Road and Dundee Road may be interpreted appears to endorse that story:
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF HER ROYAL HIGHNESS THE LATE PRINCESS CHARLOTTE AUGUSTA, DAUGHTER OF HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS THE PRINCE REGENT CONSORT OF HIS SERENE HIGHNESS PRINCE LEOPOLD OF SAXE-COBURG AND HEIRESS TO THE BRITISH THRONE. BEING JUST DELIVERED OF A STILL BORN SON, DIED ON 6TH NOVEMBER 1817, AGED 22 YEARS MUCH LAMENTED BY ALL THE NATION WHO HOP'D TO HAVE BEEN BLEST IN HER SUCCESSION. BUT DEATH'S STRONG HAND STRUCK SUCH A BLOW AS ALIKE HAS LAID THEIR BODIES LOW. WHICH STROKE COST MANY MOURNFUL SIGHS, BUT THEIR SOULS ARE HAPPY 'BOVE THE SKIES. GOD WILL IN TIME SUPPLY THElR PLACE.
This note considers the some of the historical fact which lie behind the legend that Princess Charlotte died in Broughty Ferry. It takes as its starting point the interesting and informative narrative incorporated within The Dundee Women’s Trail and moves on from there to add additional details which help to provide a further understanding of the plaque and the provenance of the inscription.
The Dundee Women’s Trail
The text of the Dundee Women’s Trail reads as follows: The only legitimate child of George, Prince of Wales, and Queen Caroline, Charlotte grew to be 5’8” tall, with auburn hair piled high, generally thought beautiful and loved by the populace. She was good at languages and music. She had a love affair with Captain Charles Hesse of the 7th Hussars, and wrote indiscreet letters to him which he refused to return until her father found out and applied pressure. George wanted her to marry the short and unattractive Prince William of Orange; she, however, fell in love with and married, in 1816, the handsome but penniless Prince Leopold of Saxe Coburg. In November 1817 she gave birth to a 9lb stillborn son; she died the next day and both are buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.
Charlotte and Leopold had travelled to visit Leopold’s parents, and she had wished the baby to be born there, where there were better medical facilities. The Regent and Parliament both insisted the child should be born in England. Their ship was caught in a storm and sheltered in the Tay estuary. The story has it that she was taken to a house in Broughty Ferry, where the baby was born and they both died, with the bodies being removed by coach to London prior to any official announcement.
In 1901 Mr Ogilvie, who owned Viewpark (later Burnbank) House, at the corner of Ferry Road and Victoria Road, demolished the 1881 cottage behind his house,found a headstone hidden in the cottage and built it into the boundary wall. An expert says the stone is shaped like a gravestone and is made of South Angus sandstone, probably from Carmyllie or Denfind quarries; he thinks it had stood in a cemetery at one time. It is well carved. Local expert Ken McConnell thinks the last word of the rhyming epitaph contains a clue. Possible confirmation for the story comes from the fact that a Montrose dominie at the time of Charlotte’s death gave his pupils a writing exercise mourning her.
The original stone is now behind the boundary wall. Interbild put up a replica in 1986 when new houses were built on the site. 'Sacred to the memory of HRH Princess Charlotte Augusta, daughter of HRH the Prince Regent, consort of His Serene Highness Prince Leopold of Saxe Coburg and heiress of the British crown, being just delivered of a still-born son. Died 6/11/1817 aged 22 years. Much lamented by all the Nation who hoped to have been blessed in her succession.’ The rhyme concludes: ‘So therefore now our grief must cease, God will in time supply their place’. (i.e. not ‘peace’).
The Historical Facts
In establishing whether the legend is underpinned by verifiable facts there are at least three matters to be considered:
(1) what has been established beyond reasonable doubt about the deaths in childbirth of Charlotte and her still born son;
(2) what was the impact on the loyal British population of this Royal tragedy; and
(3) what can be said as a matter of fact about the discovery, in Broughty Ferry of the headstone-shaped piece of sandstone and its inscription?
As far as the first issue is concerned, there appear to be insurmountable difficulties about the legend.There is no dispute that Princess Charlotte was buried in the Royal Vault at St George’s Chapel, Windsor along with her still-born baby son. Moreover, of overwhelming importance, the circumstances of lengthy confinement and her death shortly after midnight on 6 November 1817, at Claremont House in Surrey, are thoroughly and authoritatively documented.
Charlotte had suffered two previous miscarriages, but by late 1817 she had carried a third pregnancy to full term and the future of the Royal succession seemed assured. Charlotte was attended throughout her pregnancy and confinement by Sir Richard Croft and two other medics who issued regular bulletins from which the details of Charlotte’s confinement can be traced. Interestingly, Croft was not an obstetrician but an ‘accoucheur’ or male midwife, a practice which had become fashionable at this time. Despite the fact that the baby was in a breech position, forceps were not used, and Charlotte laboured for some fifty hours before her dead son emerged. a few hours later, she herself died of a massive haemorrhage, Croft, apparently unable to bear the criticism which followed the death of the Princess, subsequently shot himself.
The London Gazette of 6 November 1817 announced the deaths in the following terms: Her Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte Augusta, daughter of his Royal Highness the Prince Regent, and Consort his Serene Highness the Prince Leopold of Saxe Cobourg, was delivered a Still-born Male Child at nine o'clock last night, and about half-past twelve her Royal Highness was seized with great difficulty breathing, restlessness, and exhaustion, which alarming symptoms increased till half-past two this morning when her Royal Highness expired, to the inexpressible grief of his Royal Highness the Prince Regent, of her Illustrious Consort the Prince Leopold, and all the Royal Family.
Moving on from there to the second issue, Princess Charlotte was considerably more popular than her parents. She was much admired and her death prompted a remarkable nationwide outpouring of grief recorded at length in the newspapers of the day. Thus, for instance, The Morning Chronicle of Saturday, 8 November 1817 noted: 'The public feeling on the national calamity by the sudden and unexpected death of the Princess and of the Infant who, in the process of time, might have succeeded to the Throne, suffered no abatement yesterday. The shops of the Metropolis continued generally shut and we have no doubt but that this testimony of respect will continue through the whole of this day also.'
A recognition of public respect was provided by the magnificent monument later placed in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle; and there is a further recognition of public grieving in the recently restored obelisk at Red House Park, West Bromwich. Grief at her death, provided opportunities for the production of an array of other attempts to recognise her worth and keep alive her memory.One such was advertised in the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser of Monday 29 December 1817: an “exquisite highly-finished Medal of her Royal Highness ....with appropriate allegorical Reverse." This was offered at prices of: bronze 12 shillings; silver two guineas; and gold 20 guineas.
Nor was mourning restricted to England. Thus, for instance, the Inverness Courier of Thursday 11 December 1817 noted that addresses of condolences had been sent to the Prince Regent and to Prince Leopold.That to the Prince Regent reads as follows in flowery but nonetheless obviously sincere tones:
“May it please your Royal Highness, we, the Provost, Magistrates, and Town Council of the ancient royal burgh of Inverness, deeply lamenting the irreparable loss recently sustained by your Royal Highness and the British Empire; sincerely alive to the suffering sorrow of the parent, and participating the universal regret of His Majesty's loyal people, Humbly approach your Royal Highness with sentiments unfeigned grief, on the unexpected calamity with which Almighty God hath seen fit visit these realms, depriving your royal Highness of beloved and only child, and the nation of fondest hopes, circumstances peculiarly mournful and interesting. would ill become us to dwell subject which admits of no consolation but that which Heaven affords; yet as participation in sorrow often alleviates its bitterness, beg to assure your Royal Highness, that no class of his Majesty's subjects more highly appreciated the many excellencies which distinguished the character of her Royal Highness, the late Princess Charlotte Augusta, and more deeply deplore her premature death...”
Turning now to the third issue and details of the discovery of the headstone-shaped piece of sandstone in Broughty Ferry, research confirms the essence of the narrative as set out in the Women’s Trail. Taking that as given, and adding to it, the ascertainable facts appear to be as follows. The plaque now to be seen at the foot of Victoria Road near the corner of Dundee Road was inserted into the former entrance to a mansion built for Andrew Ogilvie who lived between 1814 and 1898. In the Dundee Directories he is noted as a stockbroker and recorded in 1853 as living at “Seafield”; by 1871 he is found at “Viewpark”,West Ferry. When the small cottage in the grounds of “Viewpark” was demolished in 1901 the Dundee Courier of Friday 6 December noted that: "...workmen yesterday came across a curious stone tablet...The stone is in a good state of preservation the lettering being quite distinct. As to the reason for the stone's location where found there is only conjecture to fall back upon. It surmised to be the handiwork of a former occupant.”
After the Second World War the extended mansion, by then renamed “Burnbank”, was in use as a maternity home. On 22 September 1983, The Glasgow Herald advertised the property as containing 3 acres of ground laid out as ornamental and vegetable garden with planning permission for residential development including sheltered housing. Interbuild named Regent Place in memory of George, the Prince Regent and Charlotte’s father when they built the retirement apartments for McCarthy and Stone, along with the 8 villas to the south of that. It seems, that the sandstone “headstone” was still on site but by the time “Burnbank” was demolished in 1986 it was weathered beyond conservation.The company arranged for the plaque to be sited in its current location.
Drawing together the strands of evidence summarised above, my conclusion is that the “legend” that Princess Charlotte died in Broughty Ferry is a mixture of fact and fiction which makes a good story. Unfortunately, the notion does not stand up to scrutiny. It appears to be indisputable that Princess Charlotte and her still born son died in London, at Clermont House after a lengthy confinement and before witnesses. That the grieving of a nation extended to Scotland is likewise indisputable, and it is confirmed in the text of the Dundee Women’s Trail by the reference to the school master in Montrose who set his pupils a writing exercise mourning her death. It would not be surprising, therefore, to find further tangible evidence of public grieving. Building on these facts, I speculate that a likely explanation of the sandstone “headstone” and its inscription found on the site of the former mansion, Viewpark, is that it was a private commemoration produced at the request of a patriotic, grief stricken resident of Broughty Ferry at the time of the death of Princess Charlotte Augusta in London in 1817. It was made by a stone mason in local stone, perhaps as an “apprentice work”, reminiscent of the “apprentice pillar” at Rosslyn Chapel. Further research may prove otherwise.