Recently I paid a visit to Kew Palace as part of a special event. The Palace comes under the care of Historic Royal Palaces, and is the smallest palace in the organisation’s collection. It’s very rare that it is possible to visit on a standalone trip – it is located in the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, and you can usually only see it as part of a visit there.
Kew Palace is the smallest of all the royal palaces. It was originally built as a fashionable mansion for wealthy London silk merchant, Samuel Fortrey, in 1631. The building is often known as the Dutch House, as it was built in a supposedly Dutch style of architecture. Kew and nearby Richmond, as well as the now-defunct White House (of which the kitchens still remain near Kew Palace), were loved by the Georgians, particularly George II and Queen Caroline, followed by George III and his family. Kew Palace, much more intimate and personal than most royal palaces, proved a useful retreat for the king when he suffered from illness.
My friend and I met with the other participants at the Elizabeth Gate of Kew Gardens, which is next to the common, and were taken to the Palace. Our first port of call was actually the nearby kitchens, originally a part of the White House.
We drank wine and wandered through the vegetable garden. There were a few interesting things to see in the kitchens, particularly George III’s bath, which was rediscovered a few years ago. George would come over to the kitchens to have his bath in order to save the servants from lugging hot water over to the palace, and I started to picture King George in Hamilton singing one of his songs in the bath.
Our tour of the palace itself began on the ground floor and encompassed the whole house. We learned about King George, his wife Queen Charlotte and their fifteen (!) children, all but two of whom grew to adulthood. George and Charlotte tried to set a moral example to their subjects, but their children rebelled, the sons gambling, drinking and taking mistresses and the daughters – trapped at home – embarking upon affairs with members of the Royal household.
The bedrooms of two of the daughters can be found on the top floor, dismantled now but still containing the ancient fireplace that was brought there from (it is believed) Richmond Palace. Charlotte was reluctant to allow her daughters to marry; her attitude is harsh but somewhat understandable given her husband suffered frequent bouts of illness and madness (probably porphyria) and she was often frightened of him. Charlotte eventually died in the Palace: en route to attend the double wedding of her sons William and Edward, she fell ill and the wedding took place within the Palace, where she died later in 1818.
As part of this ‘hidden’ tour we got to explore the attic, formerly the home of the servants and full of nooks and crannies, as well as graffiti left over from the palace’s use as changing rooms in the mid-twentieth century. We also saw the undercroft, originally built in Tudor times with excellent examples of stonework.
The Palace fell into disuse after the death of Queen Charlotte, and Queen Victoria gave it and the nearby Queen Charlotte’s Cottage to Kew Gardens in 1898, to mark her Diamond Jubilee. The Palace has been open to the public ever since, apart from a break in 1996-2006 for refurbishment and restoration.
Nowadays, the Palace is open to Kew Garden visitors during the warmer half of the year. It is also possible to visit on a special Curious Kew evening tour, as I did. The next is due to take place on 20 September 2018. I definitely recommend it as a small but perfectly-formed place to visit.
Address: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Richmond, TW9 3AE
Opening Hours: 10.30-7.30 during the summer months
Prices: £16 adults, £14 concessions, £4 children, under-4’s free (prices are for admission to Kew Gardens)