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June Sampson: Sad life of a women whose sweetness touched a town
Do any of the thousands of people who daily throng Clarence Street give a thought to – or have they even heard of – Princess Adelaide Amelia Laura Theresa Caroline of Saxe-Meiningen?
Probably not. Yet Kingston’s main shopping thoroughfare was named to honour this gentle soul who, despite a life filled with mourning, and health shattered by the demands of others, became one of the best-loved queen consorts in British history.
Born in 1792, the first child of Frederick, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, she was noted for her extraordinarily sweet nature.
And it was largely for this that she was picked as an ideal bride for William, Duke of Clarence, third son of the ailing King George III.
It was an unpromising union. She was 25. He was a well-worn 52, and for 20 years had led a life of unwedded bliss with Dorothy Jordan, the greatest comedy actress of the age.
The couple had lived in Bushy House, near Kingston, and produced 10 children before he abandoned her in 1811, when her earning power had waned, and his debts had soared.
Dorothy died in poverty five years later, while Clarence searched for rich heiressses, and indulged in numerous affairs.
His promiscuous joyride ended in 1817 with the death in childbirth of Princess Charlotte, only child of the Prince Regent, and the heir to the throne.
This tragedy caused a succession crisis that made it essential for Clarence and his brothers to try to sire some legitimate off-spring before the king died.
A few months later, Adelaide found herself engaged to a man she had never seen when the Duke of Cambridge arrived in Meiningen to propose marriage on Clarence’s behalf.
She accepted, came to London with her mother, and met her bridegroom for the first time at a hotel in Albemarle Street.
Against all the odds, the couple took to each other at once, and were married at Kew Palace a week later, on July 13, 1818.
They made their home in Bushy House, the 17th century mansion that now forms part of the national physical laboratory, and settled down to quiet domesticity.
If Adelaide felt resentful at starting married life in the house where her bridegroom and his mistress had produced 10 children, she showed no sign of it.
Indeed, she willingly became surrogate mother to the illegitimate children, plus numerous royal nieces and nephews.
But efforts to produce her own off-spring brought nothing but heartbreak.
Though Adelaide swiftly became pregnant, she developed pleurisy, and the bleeding brought on the premature birth of a daughter, who was hurriedly christened Charlotte before dying a few hours later.
Meanwhile, Adelaide remained so ill it was feared she would die.
However, she recovered and soon conceived again, only to suffer a miscarriage.
The couple’s third attempt to produce an heir seemed successful when Adelaide gave birth to a healthy girl, Elizabeth, in December, 1820. Tragically, the baby died from a bowel infection four months later, leaving her parents devastated.
But still the couple persevered. Adelaide suffered another recorded miscarriage of twin boys, and there were reports of several more pregnancies later.
But none came to fruition, and the Clarences sadly remained childless.
Living so close to Kingston, the Clarences were well known in the town, and when Kingston’s new bridge was opened in 1828, Adelaide was invited to open it. This she did on July 17, amid scenes of great pageantry.
The bridge had long been one of the most strategically important river crossings in the UK, and was the first bridge over the Thames in London.
It, therefore, seems incredible that, until the 1820s, it was a rickety thing, supported on wobbly wooden stilts, and so narrow it could only take traffic in single file.
The old bridge was about 50 yards downstream from the present one, and the heavily used coach road from London ran from London Road, down Wood Street into the Horsefair, then west down Old Bridge Street (later obliterated by the John Lewis development) and over the river.
There was no Clarence Street. Part of the route we know today was known as Norbiton Street.
The rest was added to provide a direct access to the new bridge, and the whole thoroughfare was re-named Clarence Street.
In 1830, the 65-year-old Duke of Clarence succeeded to the throne as King William IV and Adelaide became queen consort.
Seven years later she was urgently summoned to Germany to tend to her dying mother.
Returning home grief stricken, she was soon engaged in the day and night nursing of her husband, who died in her arms on June 1837.
Worn down by mourning and fatigue, she was forced to live as an invalid until her death 12 years later.
Nevertheless, her reputation for sweetness and generousity shone as brightly as ever. She gave no less than £20,000 a year to good causes – a truly colossal sum in those days.
No wonder Kingston was proud to name its principal street after such a woman.
And what a pity some reference sources state, erroneously, that it was named in honour of her husband.
Adelaide is virtually forgotten today. But in her lifetime she was so loved and admired that roads, rivers and inns throughout Britain were named after her. Perhaps the best example is the Australian city of Adelaide, named in her honour in 1836.
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