The eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Prince Albert Edward (1841-1910) – known from birth as Bertie – was an affable, amiable chap who seemed to disappoint his parents and was thus excluded from political power for the entirety of Queen Victoria’s reign. Underemployed, the Prince was essentially a playboy with a fondness for the turf, mistresses, fine cigars, rackety company, gambling and the fine tailoring of his friend Henry Poole.
The Prince was nineteen when he first visited Poole’s in 1860. As his grandson the Duke of Windsor wrote in his 1960 memoir A Family Album ‘from that day Poole became the Prince’s chief tailor’. Poole’s palatial showroom on Savile Row (the first tailors’ shop on that august street previously colonized by surgeons) became a de facto gentlemen’s club for the Prince and his ‘Marlborough House set’ who would meet on Savile Row en route to the theatre, White’s Club or the Café Royal to smoke Henry Poole’s cigars and drink his brandy.
The Queen blamed profligate Bertie for the Prince Consort’s death when Prince Albert was dispatched to Cambridge in 1861 to admonish his son about a dangerous liaison with actress Nellie Clifden. The chill Prince Albert caught allegedly speeded the typhoid fever that killed him. The Queen never recovered from ‘Bertie’s Fall’ and after the Prince Consort’s death she confided to her eldest daughter Vicky (Crown Princess Frederick of Prussia) that ‘I never can, or shall, look at him without a shudder’.
In 1863 the Prince married exquisite Danish princess Alexandra who would lead women’s fashion just as Bertie led men’s. The Prince’s sartorial innovations included the Prince of Wales check, the Homburg (adopted on his travels to the spa town Marienbad), the Norfolk jacket, black tie with evening tails and the lowest button of the waistcoat being left undone: a consequence of the corpulence that earned him the nickname ‘Tum-Tum’.
With the Prince of Wales’s Royal Warrant in 1863 came a royal flush of illustrious royal customers at Henry Poole & Co such as the Duke of Edinburgh (Wales’s brother), King Christian IX of Denmark (his father-in-law), King George I of Greece (his brother-in-law) and the future Emperor Alexander III of Russia (the Princess of Wales’s brother-in-law).
The story of Henry Poole cutting the prototype dinner jacket for the Prince of Wales to wear at private dinners at Sandringham in 1865 is well-documented. The short smoking jacket in blue silk – an informal alternative to the white tie tailcoat – was indeed the first mention of such a garment in the company’s records and the first dinner jacket tailored on Savile Row.
Though all of the tailors on Savile Row were at the mercy of extending credit to illustrious customers, Henry Poole was particularly vulnerable being a friend to princes. The company ledgers for the Prince of Wales record infrequent payments on account that accumulated over years. The last surviving letter from Henry Poole in the company archives is written in 1875 and rather pathetically reads ‘there will be nothing much to leave behind me. I have worked for a prince and for the public & must die a poor man – and less trouble to the Executor’.
As he predicted, Henry Poole left the firm in dire financial straits on his death in 1876. A bill was sent to the Prince of Wales at Marlborough House who paid the balance then withdrew his custom for over twenty-years until, on his accession in 1901, King Edward VII patronized Poole’s Livery Department.
The long-suffering Princess Alexandra bore the prince two sons – the princes Albert Victor and George – and three daughters. She turned a blind eye to his infidelities with married ladies Lillie Langtry, Daisy Countess of Warwick and Alice Keppel as well as Bertie’s penchant for courtesans whom he visited in the brothels of Paris. Bertie’s popularity was dented in 1870 when he became the first British royal to be called as a witness in an adultery case. His narrow escape from typhoid fever the following year did much to restore him to the affections of the public.
Scandal was never far from Marlborough House and the prince once again found himself in court when it emerged that he had played illegal card game Baccarat at the Tranby Croft house party. He only narrowly avoided his private affairs being made public by Sir Charles Beresford and Lord Randolph Churchill thanks to the machinations of his trusted household. The death of his eldest son Prince Albert Victor in 1892 once again directed waves of sympathy towards the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra.
When King Edward VII came to the throne in 1901, he proved a popular and stable monarch earning the title Uncle of Europe, brokering the Entente Cordiale with the French government and holding his pugnacious nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany at bay. Queen Alexandra remained faithful to her errant husband and even allowed Mrs Keppel to make her goodbyes on the King’s deathbed at Buckingham Palace in 1910. The King’s last words were ‘I am very glad’ on being told that his horse Witch of the Air had romped home at Kempton Park that afternoon.