Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed, 1860-1934: Our Lady of the Alps

Last time it was Victorian hero Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, as much a man as ever was.  Died a picturesque if not wholly surprising death while fighting the Fuzzy Wuzzies.  The nation mourned. I mentioned he had been married.

What sort of woman would marry such a man?

Elizabeth nee Hawkins-Whitshed, who, daughter of Captain Sir St. Vincent Hawkins-Whitshed (an  English baronet with a large estate in County Wicklow, Ireland,) was more than up to snuff.

Not at first, however.  She was one of those frail and sickly children, all croup and consumption, that you read about in Victorian writings. But like Teddy Roosevelt, she determined that this was no way to go through life.  If England and Ireland were unhealthy, how about Algiers?  No? Italy perhaps? Better.  The Tyrol?  Better still.  Finally, to Switzerland, where she found her life’s inspiration in mountains.

“On a fall day in 1881 Elizabeth Burnaby (later Elizabeth Le Blond) and a party of other young people set out from the Chamonix valley for a hike up a mountain to Pierce Pointue. Most of the hikers were satisfied upon reaching their destination early in the day, but Burnaby and another woman decided to continue to the Grand Mulets. When darkness fell they were forced to spend the night with their guides in a cabin, and the next morning, lacking the help of a maid, Burnaby had to put on her boots without assistance for the first time in her life. Returning to Chamonix, they were greeted by anxious friends and reproachful relatives. Burnaby, however, had discovered a new experience on the borders of Victorian society and was to become one of the leading alpinists of her time.”

Indeed, her greatest claim to fame was that she climbed mountains. Rather large mountains.  In an age when women generally didn’t do such things.  In 1880, she moved from Ireland to Switzerland to be near them.  She was the first to climb any number of them. No surprise that she was named the first president of the Ladies Alpine Club.

She also made motion pictures of them (and this prior to 1900, be it noted).

Well, winter sports, mostly – tobogganing, skating, that sort of thing.  She makes no mention of these novelties, and so we can assume they were of entertainment value only and she didn’t seem to think they were worth more than that.

Her pictures were another matter.  Next to mountains, he chief passion was for photography, at which she was quite good.  E.F. Benson, whose book  Winter Sports in Switzerland she illustrated, thought her work “quite unrivaled”*.  She illustrated several of her own books, other peoples’ books, various magazines.  All of this self taught, of course, and much of it pioneering- she wrote a short treatise on how to photograph snow (those mountains again).  The stuff was of a quality to get her into the Royal Photographic Society.

Nor was it just mountains.  She also photographed Spanish and Italian gardens.  She traveled to Russia, China, Japan, America and Canada. In Norway, she went above the Arctic Circle to see the sites and visit the Lapps. The Norwegians recall her fondly.

She survived three husbands after Burnaby: John Frederick Main (1854-1892)** and  Francis Bernard Aubrey Le Blond (1869–1951), a Cambridge alum and eldest son of a successful businessman. (This can make tracking down her work a challenge: these days, she is mostly referred to as Mrs Aubrey Le Blond.)

The war years and after she did a good deal of fundraising (British Ambulance Committee, British Empire Fund) and travel, much of the latter in the United States (we do a nice line in mountains).

In 1933, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her services to France during the war (Dieppe, Red Cross) and presumably for her work in establishing and overseeing the Rheims Cathedral Restoration Fund, and perhaps Anglo-French Luncheon Club.  Just in time. She died the next year.

Basically, one of those people who just got on with things and didn’t make a big thing out of them.  An industrious, vigorous life of a sort all too likely to fall through the cracks. Worth your time to read her books if you can track them down.

The High Alps in Winter: Or, Mountaineering in Search of Health (1883)
High Life and Towers of Silence (1886)
My Home in the Alps (1892)
Hints on Snow Photography (1894)
Cities and Sights of Spain (1900, 1904)
True Tales of Mountain Adventure, for Non-climbers Young and Old (1902, 1915)
Adventures on the Roof of the World (1904, 1907, 1916)
The Art of Garden Design in Italy (1906)
The Story of an Alpine Winter (1907; Novel)
Mountaineering in the land of the Charlotte Sophie Countess Bentinck, Her Life and Times, 1715–1800, (1912, 1926)
The Old Gardens of Italy, How to Visit Them (1912, 1926; 92 illustrations)
Day In, Day Out (1928; Autobiography)

* For rivals, see the works of Vittorio Sella

**A University of Bristol lecturer on engineering, he departed for Colorado for the last years of his life on a remittance of a thousand pounds a year.  He worked there as a banker. Probably best not to ask why.


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