Royal doctor’s diaries reveal intimate details of Queen Victoria’s personal life and health

The current series of ITV’s drama, Victoria, is approaching its finale, but you won’t have to wait to find out what happens next.  The RCP archives include the diaries of Queen Victoria’s obstetrician, Robert Ferguson (1799–1865), who was present at the birth of all nine of Victoria’s children.  His diaries provide a unique glimpse into the private lives of the royal family and court, including his observations of Victoria’s mental and emotional wellbeing. 

Spoiler alert

Robert Ferguson was appointed physician-accoucheur to Queen Victoria in 1840, so his diaries pick up the story where the TV series finishes.  He states that he feels compelled to record his observations for posterity partly due to ‘a feeling of importance of the position I hold near the highest persons of the realm’ and, as befits a work of such significance, he claims that he will not report ‘the gossip of idle tattlers’.  Despite this assertion, he immediately proceeds to relate in detail the stories he has heard from members of court about the bitter rivalry between Victoria’s former governess, Baroness Lehzen, and her childhood nemesis, Sir John Conroy, both of whom appear as characters in the ITV drama.

Robert Ferguson (1799–1865). Albumen print by JJE Mayall, c1860.

Ferguson describes his attendance on 21 November 1840, along with several other medical professionals, at the birth of Victoria’s first child, also named Victoria:

At six in the morning I arrived and found my colleagues already there. We were ushered into the private apartments which is the north wing of the Palace, into a little room, heated by insufferably hot air and gas. There we staid until labour advanced, when we were called to a room adjoining that in which the Queen was … As the event took us by surprise we were left to make out our respective positions during the very brunt of attendance – a most unwise, and unsafe plan.

He then describes the disagreements between the doctors as to the best way to proceed, and who should be in the room at any particular time.  Ferguson notes:

Nothing could exceed the tender anxiety of the Prince to his wife. He sat by her bedside during the whole time, cheered and sustained her – and covered her face with kisses ‘in the acme’ of her sharpest throes. He was pale and obviously very anxious, but this tho’ apparent in his bloodshot eye, and haggard expression, did not render his conduct tumultuous and unsettled in the smallest degree.

Also present were several officers of state, whose traditional role was to verify the birth of a royal baby. Ferguson describes how the room was laid out to accommodate those present, and even sketches the bed, noting how a screen was erected to provide the Queen with some degree of privacy.  Ferguson seems to have disagreed with a decision that he and his colleagues should be kept away from the birth unless called for.  There is some tension as they wait for news:

I began to believe that if not assisted [the child] would be still born – however its cries were soon heard and in an instant it was declared that a Princess was ushered into the world. The very first words which I heard were from the Queen[:] ‘I fear it will create great disappointment’.

Robert Ferguson’s personal journal. 1840.

This poignant comment from Victoria presumably refers to the traditional desire of the establishment and wider society for monarchs to produce male heirs to secure a clear succession. 

Ferguson believes that traumas in the Queen’s own childhood have had an ongoing detrimental effect on her mental and emotional health.  He writes that she ‘had been reared midst fears and quarrels so that from her very infancy, her mind had ever been on the stretch, and had never known what was true repose’.  He describes an occasion when he was summoned to the palace, and told by a distraught Prince Albert:

‘[T]he Queen has heard that you have paid much attention to mental disease, and is afraid she is about to lose her mind! – she sees visions and hears sounds, and is much troubled as to what will become of her when she is dead. She thinks of worms eating her – and is weeping & wretched.’

Both Victoria and Albert are greatly reassured when Ferguson tells them that the fact that she is not experiencing disturbed nights is a good sign, and that her symptoms are probably connected with the ‘disorder of her digestive organs’ from which she is currently suffering.

The diaries can be viewed by appointment in the RCP library reading room.  Our archives contain thousands of other records relating to the lives and work of medical practitioners, and can be searched via The National Archives website.     

Felix Lancashire, assistant archivist

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