THE speaker at the January meeting of the Ashbourne Heritage Society was Mr Harvey Murray – Smith and his subject was “Kew Palace Revealed”.
Mr Murray-Smith was the house manager for the last six years of his service with the Royal Palaces. He was previously at Hampton Court. In 1995 a ten year programme of restoration was started at Kew at a cost of £6.8 million. The building was in a terrible state having been unoccupied since the death of George III in 1820. Mr Murray-Smith started by giving a brief history of the palace (the smallest of the Royal Palaces) whose earliest part, the undercroft, dates from the 1550’s. In 1631 it was a rich merchant’s house. In 1727, after the death of George I, George II succeeded to the throne and with his wife, Caroline of Ansbach, leased the palace as a residence for the Queen and their daughters.
George III is the monarch most associated with Kew. He spent a lot of his childhood there. His father, Frederick Prince of Wales, died when George was 12 and he was raised by his mother, Augusta. He inherited the throne in 1760 and in 1761 married Charlotte of Mecklenburg Strelitz. He was a devoted father to their fifteen children though he did restrict their personal lives, particularly their marital choices. By 1771 Kew had become the school for George (IV to be) and his brother Frederick.
We have all heard of ‘the madness of King George’ which has now been diagnosed as porphysia. His first attack was in 1765 with the first really serious one in 1788. By 1811 he was completely incapable and spent time apart from his family in a wing of the palace (now demolished), especially converted for his use. By now the Queen and the princesses were afraid of the king during these attacks. The Prince of Wales (later George IV) became Prince Regent in 1811.
Until the onset of the later attacks George III had been an exemplary husband and father with many interests outside his constitutional duties – art, architecture, music, astronomy, and of course, farming. His was known as ‘Farmer George’.
After his death in 1820, the palace was unused. So we come to 1995 when the decision was taken to bring Kew Palace back to life. It was largely due to the vision of Prince Charles, our Prince of Wales, that this happened and much of the £6.8 million was raised thanks to his efforts.
Mr Murray-Smith then showed us several short extracts from the DVD made to celebrate the restoration of the palace. His paid tribute to Lee Prosser and Susan Groom who helped with the film and who acted as on-screen guides to parts of the film. One fascinating anecdote he told us was about the colour of the doors. Any brown door servants could enter but no other colours, why? Most servants were illiterate so colours, rather than labels indicated the servants’ access.
These film extracts were fascinating and, I for one, would love to have seen the whole film. The palace is open for six months of the year. There are no guided tours but “visitors’ assistants” are in every room and all in their costume (what Mr Murray-Smith described as Jane Austen styles) representing land agents, equerries, house servants etc. When these posts were advertised 2000 people applied for the 60 available jobs. The chosen few then had two weeks training.
Another little story – the new carpets made for the palace were made by the same company that made the originals. The 200 year old patterns were still in the store and were used to recreate the carpets for 2005.
There are 64 pictures on view at Kew and all are micro-chipped with a history of each picture. The pictures are hung in such a way that they can be easily removed in case of fire and all are colour-coded. Red marked ones to be rescued first!
In 2006, after the completion of the restoration, Prince Charles hosted a dinner at the Palace to celebrate its restoration and the Queen’s 80th Birthday. We saw snippets from that, particularly the beautiful table setting and the party of 26 senior members of the Royal family who gathered after dinner to watch the firework display. The “Who’s who red book” was signed by all the party.
A second dinner party for the Royal family was held a few years later, this time hosted by the Sultan of Omar who paid for the restoration of the kitchen block. This was last used in 1805 and when work started, the kitchen proved to be a “time capsule” and many of the old features have been retained.
As well as the film clips and slide that we saw Mr Murray-Smith had put on a tremendous display of books, pictures and souvenirs of his time at Kew – including the hand painted menu for the Queen’s 80th Birthday dinner.
This really was a memorable evening and our grateful thanks to Mr Murray-Smith and “his technical friend at the computer” were expressed by our chairman, John Titterton.
A group visit to Kew Palace by the Ashbourne Heritage Society is being organised for Tuesday 3rd June 2014.