A Royal Farnborough Hill History

The School’s Jubilee celebrations in the week before half term and the excitement of the Jubilee weekend led me to reflect on our own Royal associations and the many famous visitors that have walked the same corridors as us during Empress Eugénie’s time at Farnborough Hill.

The outbreak of COVID-19 put paid to plans to commemorate the centenary of the Empress Eugénie’s death which fell on 11 July 2020.  This was a shame as we are incredibly proud of our association with this fascinating woman whose life spanned almost a century of remarkable change, rather like our own monarch.

As Head of History and Politics at Farnborough Hill, I genuinely love showing off our school and on Wednesday of this week we welcomed the Surrey Heath Museum Supporters Group.  We look forward to welcoming Year 2 pupils from North Farnborough Infant School later this term and whether our visitors are young or old, I always enjoy the surprise that so many people display on discovering the gem that is Farnborough Hill, somewhat hidden away in the trees.

Year 7 begin their History lessons at Farnborough Hill with a study of the School and building’s history.  One of my favourite activities to do with new Year 7 classes is a ‘history mystery’ centred around the question, ‘Why did the Empress have such a tragic life?’. Sadly, there are many answers to that question.

The Empress was Spanish by birth and, rather like the fictional Anne of Green Gables, was called ‘carrots’ by her school mates for her red hair; apparently she was so unhappy at school in Bristol that she planned to run away to India.  She caught the eye of Napoleon (later III) at a reception at the Élysée Palace, and they were married at Notre Dame Cathedral in 1853.  After the incredibly difficult birth of her only son and heir, the Prince Imperial, doctors advised against any further children.  Her husband’s philandering was notorious and drove her to jealous rages.  After the Battle of Sedan, Eugénie was exiled from the country that she had made her home. In 1870, she wrote to a friend ‘The events through which we are living have broken my heart.  I cannot get used to the idea of France being in ruins and miserable, even less to the idea that in her day of trial I am not there.’​  She arrived in England, uncertain about the reception that she would receive.  She was already an acquaintance of Queen Victoria but during the next phase of her life the relationship would develop into a warm friendship that would bring much comfort to them both.

Nothing that Eugénie had experienced so far would compare to the great tragedy of her life that was to come in 1879 and inadvertently, it was this great tragedy that would bring the Empress to Farnborough and ultimately alter the course of this school’s history.  When the Anglo-Zulu War broke out, the Prince Imperial’s regiment was stationed at Aldershot but he was determined to see active service at the front.  He pestered Queen Victoria and the Duke of Cambridge to let him travel to South Africa. ​ The Prince Imperial set sail for South Africa from Southampton in 1879; Eugénie travelled with him to the coast to wish him goodbye, not knowing that would be the last time she saw her son.

Franz-Xaver Winterhalter, The Empress Eugénie Surrounded by her Ladies-in-Waiting (1855)

It was whilst on a reconnaissance mission that the Prince was attacked and killed.  Queen Victoria received a telegram informing her of the death of the Prince Imperial.  She sent Lord Sydney to break the news to the Empress.  For over a month she sat in a darkened bedroom, refusing even to go into the garden and would wear black for the rest of her life.​  The Empress had been living in Chislehurst, Kent since the Imperial family came to England but the death of her son led her to Farnborough as she was unable to build a suitable mausoleum for her husband (who had died in 1873) and her son where she was currently living.  Queen Victoria noted in her diary on 28 September 1880 that the Empress is ‘buying for £50,000 the property of Farnborough Hill, quite close to the Farnborough station and Aldershot with a good new house, hot houses, stables etc – fine grounds 257 acres and a fine position, on high ground. I am so glad of this’.

There are many lessons we can learn from the life of the Empress, not least resilience in the face of what could seem like insurmountable tragedy.  It seems to me that Eugénie was able to find purpose in life by being active and busy and generally attempting to do good in the world.  She was a great benefactress visiting patients at Broadmoor Asylum and throwing parties for poor children from Farnborough Village and the Aldershot Camp.  During the First World War she gave liberally to the Red Cross, always stipulating that her gifts remain anonymous.

Her association with the School began almost as soon as the School was established in Farnborough in 1889.  Then located at Hillside on the Farnborough Road, Eugénie was the guest of honour at Hillside’s Prize Giving.  Having sat through many Farnborough Hill Prize Giving rehearsals myself and watched our own pupils worry about coordinating walking, shaking hands with the guest of honour and receiving their prize, I have often wondered what they would make of the need to add a curtsey and then kiss the Imperial hand.

One boarder recalled a Bank Holiday in 1895 when the girls had been invited to play in the park opposite the house when the Empress herself, whilst walking in the grounds, came across the group of girls rather worse for wear, ‘Now after a day spent in paddling and making mud-pies on the edge of a lake, our appearance can be better imagined than described!’.  I love this anecdote for several reasons, firstly because even in 1895, when we might imagine ‘Hillside’ to be a rather stuffy institution, Farnborough Hill girls were getting their hands dirty, and also, that the Empress was not phased by this one bit.  It seems that she loved to be surrounded by young people.  The same Old Girl quoted above added ‘If the gods had told us then, that in so many years this [ie Farnborough Hill] would be Hillside, who would have had faith to believe it?’.

With the outbreak of World War I, Eugénie was determined to do her bit for the war effort, and rather like the fictional Downton Abbey, Farnborough Hill would become a military hospital for British officers, presided over by Lady Haig, wife of General Sir Douglas Haig.  King George V and Queen Mary both came here to visit the Empress and her hospital and in 1919 the King sent his two eldest sons, Edward VIII and George VI to Farnborough Hill to invest the Empress with the insignia of a Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire.

Empress and Soldiers

By 1920 the Empress was a very old lady in her nineties and she died whilst on holiday in her native Spain.  Her body was brought back to Farnborough in great state and it must have seemed fantastical to the ordinary people of Farnborough to have crowned heads of Europe descend on the town for her funeral at St Michael’s Abbey.

I know that in the hustle and bustle of daily school life it is easy to forget what a privilege it is to work and learn in such a beautiful and special place.  Therefore, this week I was particularly delighted to read the dissertation written by Old Girl Emily Wright (2019) on the evolution of depictions of the Empress Eugénie.  Emily is in her final year reading History at the University of Southampton.  It is a pleasure to think that the Empress continues to inspire the School community to this day.

Mrs Katherine Bell