A Wendy house fit for a Queen: The secrets and history of the tiny Welsh cottage in the grounds of Windsor where generations of royals have played
By NIKKI MURFITT FOR MAILONLINE and POLLY DUNBAR FOR MAILONLINE
UPDATED: 08:25 GMT, 13 February 2012
The Diamond Queen, the BBC’s three-part series celebrating Elizabeth II’s 60 years on the throne, is perhaps the most intimate ever portrait of Britain’s monarch. Its presenter, Andrew Marr, was given unprecedented access to the Royal family, whose personal recollections offer a rare glimpse of the woman behind the role.
Among the most intriguing stories in last Monday’s first programme was that of The Little House, the miniature cottage in the grounds of Windsor’s Royal Lodge where the Queen played as a child. Long forgotten by the public, it was revealed that it has recently been refurbished by Princess Beatrice, who charmed Marr and viewers alike when she spoke of her love for the tiny property and gave him a tour.
Another tantalising scene showed the Queen - dubbed Reader Number One by Parliament for her insistence on poring over every official paper - sitting at her favourite writing desk in Buckingham Palace. It was described as having once belonged to the Bourbons of France prior to the Revolution, but with no further explanation.
Behind the fleeting insights into these aspects of her life are fascinating stories, which can now be revealed by the Mail on Sunday...
Tucked away from public view in the south side of the gardens of Windsor’s Royal Lodge stands a miniature thatched, white-washed cottage described by the Queen’s granddaughter Princess Beatrice as ‘the most glamorous wendy house ever.’ Called Y Bwthyn Bach, or The Little House, it has been a play den for the Queen and subsequent generations of her family for the past 80 years.
The two-thirds size cottage, which measures 24 feet long, eight feet deep and with five feet high rooms, was presented to Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret in March 1932 on behalf of ‘the people of Wales’ on the occasion of Elizabeth’s sixth birthday.
Designed by architect Edmund Willmott, who had earlier built a less grand little house for his own daughter to play in, it was intended as a symbol of the love and fascination of the Welsh people for the little princess who was, at that stage, never expected to become Queen.
The mining communities of the valleys had suffered more unemployment than any other part of Britain during the Depression, and the house, built exclusively by Welsh labour and from Welsh materials left over from the Llandough Hospital, was a poignant reminder of a workforce in despair.
It was also designed as a link between the two privileged little princesses and those who lived in genuine cottages. It gave the sisters the chance to play at keeping an ordinary house - although it was far more luxurious than the vast majority of family homes at the time.
The layout of a typical Welsh cottage was followed for the interior. The front door opens onto a small hallway with a kitchen to the right and the ‘siamber fach’, or Little Chamber, on the left. A staircase gives access to a bedroom and a bathroom, which, when it was first built, was very modern, with hot and cold running water, a heated towel rail and electricity.
The contents included a tiny radio, a little oak dresser and a miniature blue and gold china set. There was linen with the initial ‘E’ and a portrait of the Queen’s mother, the Duchess of York, hanging over the dining room mantelpiece. A bookcase filled with Beatrix Potter’s little books, including Jemima Puddleduck, ensured the girls never grew bored. Lattice windows, blue and white checked curtains, blue carpets and white walls finished off the decor.
The house also contained little books, pots and pans, food cans, brooms, a packet of Epsom salts and a radio licence, all made to order and to scale. In the kitchen, there was a gas cooker and a fridge which both worked. There was even a working, miniature-sized telephone. The house also had its own front garden with scaled down hedges and flower borders.
The presentation of the finished house was preceded by a narrowly averted disaster. When the house was in transit, first by low loader and then by a steam traction engine, the tarpaulin protecting it caught fire, destroying the thatched roof and many of the timbers. Luckily, the Sea Insurance Company had issued a miniature fire policy for £750 on the building and £500 on the contents.
Craftsmen worked day and night to repair the damage, with the final bill for all the work coming to an estimated £1,100. When it was finally ready, it was displayed at the Daily Mail’s Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia for the masses to see. It was then reconstructed in Windsor Great Park for Elizabeth and became a favourite pastime.
The princesses spent many hours cleaning and tidying their tiny home, with Elizabeth in particular developing a reputation for being exceptionally neat. This was the children’s domain, and adults, who had to crounch to fit through the door, were admitted only by invitation.
Over the years, the Queen’s children have also played in the house and latterly, her grandchildren. It holds a special place in the hearts of all the royal children, but Beatrice was especially captivated it, adding, as a child, a selection of her own teddy-bears to the living room sofa.
She has recently overseen its complete refurbishment over the course of a year, believed to have been paid for by her father, the Duke of York, who has resided at Royal Lodge since 2004. In the first episode of The Diamond Queen, the princess was seen showing presenter Andrew Marr the results.
Under Beatrice’s guidance, new curtains and upholstery were put in, the paintwork was refreshed, the roof was rethatched and the cottage was rewired. The original blue colour scheme was replaced by pale green sofa coverings and cream curtains with tiny dark pink flowers.
‘Granny was very clear that for all the fabric she wanted very little designs. It’s such a little house that she wanted little flowers and patterns,’ she said.
‘It’s beautiful. I’ve been lucky enough to play here and now Granny’s a great-granny, so now Savannah [Peter and Autumn Phillips’s daughter] can enjoy it too.’
My father put in the plumbing... and I played in the house before Elizabeth
The honour of presenting the keys of Y Bwthyn Bach to Princess Elizabeth’s parents, then the Duke and Duchess of York, was bestowed Welsh schoolgirl Jean Blake.
On March 16 1932, the seven-year-old dressed in Welsh national costume and accompanied her father William, a plumber and engineer, to Cardiff’s Drill Hall. There, Jean was allowed to explore the little house before greeting the future King and Queen and proudly posing with them.
The Mail on Sunday has tracked down Jean, now 86 and living in Ontario, Canada. Eight decades on, she still recalls the excitement of the day she spent with Royalty.
‘It was luck that I was chosen really,’ she says. ‘I was a similar age Princess Elizabeth and my dad had installed all the plumbing and electricity in the cottage and knew the architect who designed it.
‘My first thought when I saw the house was that it was absolutely beautiful, unbelievable because everything was so life-like but in miniature. The tea sets, the pictures, a fridge and a cooker, all perfect for a child to use.
‘I remember sitting down at the kitchen table and pouring myself a cup of tea in the little cups. Everything worked just like in a normal house, yet it was a toy.’
Jean, a retired secretary who moved to Canada with her husband Frank Sharman, 90, in 1968, presented a bouquet of flowers to the Duchess of York. The princesses themselves were unable to attend, but their parents were thrilled with the little house.
Jean Sharman on the day she handed over the keys in 1932
‘It was really difficult for adults, especially men, to get into the house easily but the Duke of York ducked down and had a look around. I can’t remember what I said to them, but I do remember they were impressed with the cottage. It would be hard not to fall in love with it.
‘The highlight for me was peddling round in a toy car that was also being given to Princess Elizabeth. It had a little space in the back with a small puppy sitting in it that was another gift from the people of Wales. I’ve always loved dogs and if I’d had the chance I would have taken him home with me rather than hand him over,’ she adds, laughing.
Jean and her husband, who have six great grandchildren, still come back to Britain every year to visit family and friends.
‘A couple of years ago we went to Windsor Castle and asked about The Little House but we were told that it was tucked far back in the gardens of Royal Lodge away from public view and no-one except the Royal Family are given access, which is a great shame.
‘We are coming back to Britain next month and it would be lovely to see it again. At the age of six I didn’t really think about the part I was playing in this historic event, but now I feel very privileged to have been one of the few people outside the Royal Family to have played in the house - even more so knowing I got to go inside it before the Queen herself.’