Steephill, Isle of Wight
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When the King and Queen of Naples were deposed by Garibaldi in 1861 they travelled widely in Britain and Europe and met many families through their extensive web of relations and not least with the Acton family who had been influential contacts for the monarchy of the Two Sicilies. When Sir John F E Acton, 6th Baronet became commander of the Neapolitan fleet and a favourite of the Queen, Maria Carolina, with her influence he rose to become their Prime Minister. His son, Sir Ferdinand R. E. Acton was educated at Oscott College in Warwickshire and married a German heiress. His widowed mother married Lord Leveson, the future Lord Grenville which brought Sir John into close contact with the leading Whigs of the British parliament.
In the memoirs of the Catholic Lord Bishop of Northampton, Francis Kerrill Amhurst, he tells of being sent to Oscott School in Warwickshire and being introduced to an Edward Acton, a first cousin of Cardinal Acton and his sister, Lady Throckmorton. He also mentions meeting the Rev George Spencer, a brother of Lord Spencer, a Rector of Brington, who had converted to Catholicism.
Much later, in January 1870, whilst he was in Rome for a Council of the Vatican, he wrote that it had rained so much that the Tiber overflowed and they were using boats in the streets. But, he also adds:
“There was a great meet of the fox-hounds today at the tomb of Cecilia Metella, and a lunch with the Empress of Austria. They are asking 50 francs for a horse, merely to go to the meet; but half of Rome is gone”
On the 2nd of August 1874 the Empress of Austria with her sister the ex-Queen of Naples went to the Isle of Wight where the latter had told her sister that one could live in peace and that royal privacy would be respected.
The fact that Queen Victoria’s house, Osborne, would not be far away might have been a factor against the decision given her dislike of formality and boring conversations. But her doctors had told her that vigorous sea bathing would be beneficial for her daughter Valerie and so Steephill Castle was rented. An advertisement of the day when promoting Steephill Cove says:
… A few houses near the sea and a stretch of sand
that will appeal to the bather.
Use of huts 6d.
Macintosh bathing from the beach 3d.
Undressing on the beach is not permitted.
Steephill was a castellated mansion built in 1831 by John Hambrough who also built the parish church, a parsonage and the National School. But by 1860 he was not holding the patronage of the church and had gone to live on the mainland and it was apparently available for rental.
On 2 August 1874 this huge foreign party descended on Ventnor, creating great astonishment among the islanders who had not seen such colourful visitors. Elizabeth rarely travelled without a huge entourage of ladies in waiting, chaplains, governesses, doctors, nurses, hairdressers, French and Hungarian chefs and countless maids and grooms. The Austrian ambassador had rented Steephill for them; a castle in the Gothic style a mile west of Ventnor with superb views south over the sea.
Before the main party arrived workmen had to make considerable alterations by fitting out the billiard room as a gymnasium and installing new bathrooms. However, it all met with her approval as she loved the gothic style of the castle and its beautiful grounds.
Queen Victoria had a home called Osborne on the Isle of Wight and not long after they had settled in she drove over to visit but just a few pleasantries were exchanged. The Empress refused two invitations to dinner as she said it bored her and she thought the Queen’s people stuffy. This caused the Queen to say that the Empress might be beautiful but lacked any sense of royal duty. Valerie was terrified when she first saw the Queen, who was still in widow’s clothes, as she had never seen such a stout lady. Her mother regularly dieted and followed strict fitness regimes to keep her slim figure.
They did visit the German Crown Princess at Sandown whom she considered a friend. However, the latter thought Elizabeth’s life style strange as she...”slept in the afternoon, dined at 4.00pm and rode in the evening…….but I like her and she is kind to me. Elizabeth also visited Alexandra, the Princess of Wales whom she described as…”very kind, nice looking and deaf.”
The Empress went to London to walk around incognito and ride in Rotten Row with the Austrian Ambassador. Then on to Melton to look for hunters and to stay at Belvoir Castle as guest of the Duke of Rutland. She experienced her first day hunting on 24 August with a cub hunt and the ex-Queen introduced her to Lord Spencer who implored them to return when the fox hunting season was under way in Northamptonshire.
When they returned to Steephill the Castle Club had organized a race meeting for them. The Empress had heard about it and sent off to a London jeweller to design a cup for the winner of the main race. There were three races: the Imperial cup, a consolation race and a scratch race. Mr Weeks, an Isle of Wight farmer, rode the winner, on ‘Beauty’, owned by Mr Bungay who won the trophy. This was a large lidded silver gilt cup 17” high, with two handles and weighing 64ozs, with the following inscription:
Ventnor Steeplechase Cup
Presented by Her Imperial and Royal Majesty
The Empress of Austria
Won by ‘Beauty’ the property of Mr Bungay of Ventnor
Ridden by Mr Weeks of Fairfields
On September 29th 1874
The horse had originally been owned by Mr Hambrough of Steephill Castle and he had sold it to Mr Bungay thinking that the mare was not fast enough!
A Mr William Judd had said that he could never remember seeing such a numerous crowd as appeared on the course that day. He was a local hotelier and businessman and a fine rider who had met the Empress and her party whilst out riding on the downs; she sent an equerry over to say she would like to talk to him and then suggested that he ride with them. When they rode back to Ventnor she said to him:
I have been pleased with my visit to Ventnor.
I like the people and it is possible I may return.”