A Real Royal Visit: Princess Mary at Hillsborough Castle, 1928

With the new Downton Abbey film now in cinemas, fans of the show are being treated to more time with their favourite characters as well as (spoiler alert) some important royal visitors. Among them are Princess Mary, played by Kate Phillips of Wolf Hall and Peaky Blinders fame. Princess Mary was the only daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, and visited Hillsborough Castle as a royal guest in 1928.

Beatrice Meecham from the Curators team explores this important royal visit.

Princess Mary, c. 1915 © Historic Royal Palaces

Princess Mary, Viscountess Lascelles, was the first royal visitor to Hillsborough after it was purchased by the British Government to become the residence of the Governor of Northern Ireland, the Duke of Abercorn, in 1925. To celebrate Mary’s visit, the Government declared a school holiday for the day of her arrival. There appears to have been considerable excitement: according to one local newspaper, ‘dense crowds to the number, it is estimated of from 10,000 to 12,000 assembled in Hillsborough and the picturesquely situated town was profusely decorated’.

Prior to her arrival, Princess Mary and her husband Viscount Lascelles, had spent time in Dublin before travelling to Armagh where they joined the Belfast train, alighting at Portadown. There they were met by the Duchess of Abercorn and together the party drove to Hillsborough. On the outskirts of the town, they were welcomed by Orange Drummers who escorted them according to the ‘lambeg’ tradition to the gates of the castle. (The ‘lambeg’ is a large Irish drum, said to be the loudest folk instrument in the world!)

During her three-day visit, Princess Mary opened the new wing of the Samaritans Hospital in Belfast, enabling the hospital to become a free hospital for women (this being prior to the days of the National Health Service). Also on her itinerary was a visit to the linen factory of John Brown & Sons at Shaw’s Bridge near Belfast; a Girl Guide event; and lunch with the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Lord Craigavon, at Stormont Castle. There was also time to inspect a guard of honour formed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary outside Hillsborough Castle, at which the Princess presented British Legion medals to two officers, pinning them on their tunics.

On the evening of 12 October, the Governor and his wife hosted a dinner party at Hillsborough Castle at which Princess Mary was guest of honour. It is reported that Princess Mary wore a frock of woodland green, which was softened with frills of accordion pleating and a matching Petersham hat with a diamond ornament.

The State Dining Room, Hillsborough Castle in 1926 © Historic Royal Palaces

There was some confusion over precedence which was dealt with by Princess Mary’s Lady In Waiting having a discreet walk in the gardens with the Governor’s Private Secretary. As the King’s Representative in Northern Ireland, everyone was expected to bow to the Duke of Abercorn, but as a Princess of the Royal Blood and daughter of the King, was Princess Mary expected to bow to the Duke of Abercorn? This was something that had never happened before, and no one was quite sure! However, clearly a stickler for etiquette, the Princess did bow to the Governor as she left his presence after dinner on the first evening.

Following dinner on the 12th, an evening party was held in the Throne Room to which over a hundred guests were invited. The band of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers provided music for dancing, with sandwiches and gateau served later in the evening. The evening was finished off with a fireworks display (spoiler alert!) just like the Ball scene in the Downton Abbey film. The next day the local newsletter reported: ‘Thousands of people climbed the hill to Hillsborough last night and watched for two hours a firework display reminiscent of Crystal Palace … even the heavy rain which fell did not damp the patriotic fervour!’

The Throne Room, Hillsborough Castle in 1926 © Historic Royal Palaces

On the last morning, Princess Mary and her husband said farewell to Hillsborough, and sailed from Larne to Stranraer by steamer. They then took the train back to London to report to the King, her father, on their thoroughly successful visit.

Of course, today you don’t need to be a Princess to visit Hillsborough Castle and Gardens! Come and enjoy a day exploring the Castle and its 100 acres of stunning gardens.

Hillsborough Castle and Gardens © Historic Royal Palaces

Beatrice Meecham, 
Curators Team Administrator
Christopher Warleigh-Lack, Curator
Hillsborough Castle and Gardens

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