Sunday, 12 June 2016

Lizzie Le Blond and her Three Husbands; Elizabeth Alice Frances Hawkins-Whitshed (1860-1934) Brompton Cemetery

The family vault is on  large plot just behind the McDonald Mausoleum
Fred Burnaby was often described as bohemian. His official biographer wrote that he lived ‘entirely aloof, absolutely regardless of conventionalities.’....Burnaby had gone deep into Russia, across Asia Minor and the Middle East, up the Nile. He had crossed Fashoda country, where both sexes went naked and dyed their hair bright yellow. Stories that adhered to him often featured Circassian girls, gypsy dancers and pretty Kirghiz widows.

He claimed descent from Edward I, the king known as Longshanks, and displayed virtues of courage and truth speaking which the English imagine unique to themselves. Yet there was something unsettling about him. His father was said to be ‘melancholy as the padge-owl that hooted in his park’, and Fred, though vigorous and extrovert, inherited this trait. He was enormously strong, yet frequently ill, tormented by liver and stomach pain, ‘gastric catarrh’ once drove him to a foreign spa. And though ‘very popular in London and Paris’, and a member of the Prince of Wales circle, He was described by the Dictionary of National Biography as living ‘much alone’.
Julian Barnes ‘Levels of Life.’

It was while I was reading Julian Barnes book a week ago that I decided that my next subject for the London Dead would be Elizabeth Alice Frances Le Blond.  It may have been coincidence but I suspect that unconsciously I recognised that there was a connection between these two apparently unrelated individuals. Thrice married Lizze Le Blond had been on my list of potential subjects for a very long time and I wasn’t sure what had suddenly brought her to the forefront of my mind. I dug out the photographs I had taken of her grave in Brompton Cemetery back on a beautiful cloudless autumn day in 2013 and I started doing some basic research into her life.  She was a woman of many achievements, the least of which were her three marriages, but her first husband sounded like an interesting character. I looked him up in the DNB but it was only when I read the sentence “adventurous and excited by danger, Burnaby became an enthusiastic balloonist....” that the penny finally dropped. ‘Levels of Life’ makes much of the ballooning exploits of its characters and it was the aerial adventures of Frederick Gustavus Burnaby that finally made me realise that this madcap Victorian adventurer was Lizzie le Blond’s first husband. It is possible that was only a coincidence but I think not; I’m convinced that Burnaby’s name, exploits and wife were all stored somewhere in my brain but beyond the reach of conscious recall and that apparently forgotten information prompted me to recall Lizzie. I suspect my brains capacity to store information is still pretty good but my ability to retrieve it is starting to deteriorate – if you can’t dig it out of your memory it might as well not be in there in the first place. Anyway, I suspect this is already going to be a hideously long post and I shouldn’t be adding to it with these inconsequential rambles.

Frederick Gustavus Burnaby was born in Rutland in 1842, the eldest son of a wealthy, fox hunting parson who felt that two masters of foxhounds would make better godparents for his offspring than any clerical colleagues. In the time honoured traditions of the upper classes Fred spent most of his childhood at boarding schools in England before going to Dresden to study languages (he eventually spoke 7 fluently including Russian, Turkish and Arabic). At 16 his father purchased him his first commission in the Royal Horse Guards (the Blues); he became a cornet for a mere £1200. For his 18th birthday he was bought a lieutenancy and when he was 23 he became a captain. He was a young man of superior physical gifts, 6 feet 4 inches tall with a 46 inch chest, exceptional strength, striking good looks but let down by a thin and piercing voice. His obituaries describe a relatively short but exceptionally eventful life:

“Fred" Burnaby was in many ways a remarkable man. His personal appearance, as he sauntered down the street, or as he sat on horseback on parade, never failed to attract attention. He was six feet four in height and burly to boot, with a dark, finely cut, handsome face, and eyes ready enough to flash with the light of battle, but equally ready and even more accustomed to turn upon a friend with kindliest glance. In his youth he was passionately fond of gymnastics, in which he excelled above all his fellows. There used to be in one of his clubs a colossal dumb bell in a glass case, with the offer of a heavy wager that no man would hold it out at arm’s length for the space of sixty seconds. The wager was never won, though Burnaby made nothing of accomplishing the feat. Among the many stories of his physical prowess one relates to a period shortly after he joined the Blues. The regiment was down at Windsor, and a horse dealer who had come into possession of couple of very small ponies had taken them thither by command to exhibit them to the Queen. Before going to the Castle he showed them to the officers of the Blues, to whom a happy thought occurred. Burnaby, who was captain then, was in his own room on the first flight. With some trouble the ponies were got upstairs, and, the door quietly opening, they trotted in unannounced. This was a capital joke, and had great success. But, as presently appeared, it had a gloomy side. The ponies had gone upstairs quietly enough; but neither force nor entreaty could induce them to go down. The hour approached at which they were to be presented the Queen, and the owner was in despair. Burnaby settled the matter offhand.  Taking a pony up in either arm he walked down stairs and set them in the courtyard.

Overtaxing even his splendid physique by his untiring devotion to pursuits entailing such muscular exertion, the late gallant officer had in early life to travel in foreign lands to win back again the health he had lost. Entering the Horse Guards Blue at eighteen, in the early years of his military career he had travelled through South America and in Central Africa, and in 1875 he started on his famous “Ride to Khiva,” which was attended with risks and difficulties which would have overcome any but he. His intention to continue his journey to Bokhara was frustrated by the Russian authorities at whose instigation the Duke of Cambridge ordered his return from Central Asia. In the following year Colonel Burnaby went on horseback through Asia Minor and Persia, and subsequently he was a non-combatant and newspaper correspondent with Don Carlos' army during the fighting in Spain. When the Soudan expedition from Souakim  against the Mahdi’s forces was undertaken last year, Colonel Burnaby served under General Graham, bring attached to the Intelligence Department, and be was present at the battle of El Teb, where, it will be remembered, was the first to mount the parapet, and deal destruction to the natives from his double-barrelled shotgun. Here a cannon ball severely wounded the colonel the face, and he bad scarcely recovered from the Injury sustained, when once again the restless voice of war called him out to the land of the Nile, where was doomed to die.

The 28 year old Frederick Burnaby, 1870 portrait by James Jacques Tissot in the National Portrait Gallery
In times of peace his restless spirit sought fresh fields of peril, and was always going up in a balloon. His last adventure In this direction was a little less than three years ago, when he crossed the “silver streak” In the car of the Eclipse, and after some vicissitudes In mid-air descended the Chateau  de Montigny, near Envermeu, in  Normandy. Colonel Burnaby took a keen interest In politics, and at the general election of 1880 he contested Birmingham in the Conservative interest, when, though unsuccessful, no fewer than 15,710 votes were given in his favour. He was an excellent public speaker, vigorous, concise, and pointed, with a rich fund of wit and humour, and had he been spared would have made a good figure in Parliament.

One other ambition he had beyond that of winning a seat at Birmingham. It was to visit Timbuctoo and make the personal acquaintance of the King. This was the “next trip” he had in his mind, and had he lived would probably have accomplished it, for under his winning manner there was a resolute will that would have stopped at nothing. But it has been finally stopped at Abu Klea.
Mid Sussex Times - Tuesday 27 January 1885

A late Burnaby masterpiece detailing his aerial adventures

Both Julian Barnes and the obituaries fail to mention the fact that Burnaby was married; in ‘Levels of Life’ Barnes ignores his genuine relationship with Lizzie and instead concentrates on a completely concocted affair between the explorer and the French actress Sarah Bernhardt. The newspapers had reported extensively on Burnaby’s wedding in June 1879 but apart from mentioning that the Queen had asked Sir Henry Fonsonby to telegraph her deep regrets to his widow, said very little about her at his death. She was rather characteristically staying at the Hotel Belvedere in Switzerland at the time and quite probably consoled herself by climbing a mountain or two.

Elizabeth Alice Frances Hawkins-Whitshed was the only daughter of a baronet and the heiress to a substantial fortune which included an estate in County Wicklow in Ireland. Her father died when she was eleven and even though her mother was still alive she became a ward of chancery. Her time was split between the family house in London and the Wicklow estate. Although there were no early indications that she would be anything other than a conventional upper class girl Frederick Burnaby presumably spotted something different about her when she came out at her first London season, he praised her ‘piquant beauty, charm of manner and intellectual gifts’. Lizzie was still 18 and technically a minor which meant Fred had to seek the approval of the Lord Chancellor if he wanted to marry her. In March 1879 the newspapers reported that the Chancellor “who is slightly indisposed, sat on Saturday at his own house in Merrion Square, Dublin, to approve of the heads of a settlement of an intended marriage between Captain Burnaby, of "Khiva" notoriety, and Miss Whitshed (a minor and ward court), the only child of the late Sir J. H, Whitshed, Bart.” The couple were married 3 months later, on Wednesday 25th June, at St Peter’s, Brompton. It was a glittering social affair with 400 guests, the Luton Times and Advertiser described the bride as being “dressed in white satin trimmed with Brussel’s point and fringes of orange blossoms, a wreath of orange blossoms, and large tulle veil. Her ornaments were a diamond tiara, the gift of the bridegroom, and a diamond bracelet and pendant, the gift of her mother.” The Leicester Journal went on to describe how:

The Hon. Oliver Montagu, son the Earl of Sandwich, officiated as best man. Mr. Arthur Bentinck gave the bride away. The eight bridesmaids were Lady Madeleine Keith-Falconer, Lady Blanche Keith-Falconer, Miss Felicia Bentinck, Miss Ottoline Bentinck, Miss Renira Pollard, Miss May, Miss Erskine, and Miss Rita Handcock. The Hon and' Rev. Arthur Byng, Chaplain to the House of Commons performed the ceremony, in which was assisted by the Rev. Dr. Teignmouth Shore and the Rev. J. H. Handcock, uncle of the bride. The register been duly inscribed, the wedding party drove to Bailey's Hotel, Gloucester-road, where a sumptuous déjeuner à la fourchette had been provided, and where Captain and Mrs. Burnaby subsequently held reception... The company were received by Captain and Mrs. Burnaby in the drawing room of the hotel—a very fine apartment, furnished in blue and gold, and tastefully decorated with flowers from the establishment of Mr. Aldous, F.R.H.S, the florist of' Gloucester-road. Both here and in the coffee-room, where the déjeuner was spread, flowers were profusely used in the decorations, the walls bearing medallions of flowers at regular intervals; and a floral wedding bell depended from the centre-piece of the ceiling. On the staircases of the hotel were also placed choice flowers and evergreens, which loaded the air with perfume and added to the brilliancy of the scene. After the reception Captain and Mrs. Burnaby left for the Continent, where they are going to spend their honeymoon. Among a large number of valuable presents which were displayed in the drawing room of Bailey's Hotel, were a smoking room service, Japanese manufacture, in blue and gold enamel, given by the Prince of Wales.....

Although we know, courtesy of the newspapers, exactly what Lizzie was wearing when she set off on honeymoon (‘The bride’s travelling dress was stone-coloured cashmere, trimmed with satin to match, a white chip bonnet, and long white feather’), the only thing we know about the honeymoon itself is that Lizzie came back pregnant and the couple were barely on speaking terms. They lived in London, together, until the birth of their only child, a boy, but before they could celebrate their first wedding anniversary Lizzie had moved to Switzerland ‘for the sake of her health.’ The presumptive consumptive startled everyone by taking up mountain climbing, something almost unheard for a woman in the dying years of the Victorian age. The cosseted ward of the Chancellor discovered unimagined freedom in the mountains, including the hitherto novel experience of putting “on my own boots, and I was none too sure on which foot should go which boot. It is difficult for me to realize now that for several years longer it did not occur to me that I could do without a maid … I owe a supreme debt of gratitude to the mountains for knocking from me the shackles of conventionality, but I had to struggle hard for my freedom. My mother faced the music on my behalf when my grand-aunt, Lady Bentinck, sent out a frantic S.O.S. ‘Stop her climbing mountains! She is scandalizing all London and looks like a Red Indian.’”  As well as being sunburnt Lizzie climbed in pragmatic short skirts which barely came down to her knees, to her scandalised contemporaries, practically naked in other words. Perhaps in competition with Fred who had turned out a couple of bestsellers about his travels and his ballooning,  within a couple of years she had written her first book “The High Alps in Winter or Mountaineering in Search of Health.” She went on to write many more.

Lizzie and companion in formal mountaineering attire c1890
In his wife’s absence Fred took up politics, running unsuccessfully for Birmingham as an MP in 1880, and hot air ballooning, making his first aerial channel crossing in 1882. The onset of middle age and the more sedentary lifestyle began to take a toll on his legendary strength and stamina and his good looks spoiled as he gained weight. He was keen to see active service and was disappointed when his services were declined for the 1882 Egyptian Campaign. He had better luck in 1884 when he persuaded his friend General Baker to take him to the Sudan as an intelligence officer. He courted disapproval at the second battle of El Teb in February by using a double barrelled shotgun to fight the Mahdists but was wounded and invalided back to London. In England he had fallen out of favour with the Prince of Wales and quarrelled with his superior officers. He was desperate to join the Gordon Relief Expedition and return to the Sudan but permission was refused. Unluckily he knew General Wolseley the leader of the expedition, who thought him ‘clever and as brave as a lion’ and allowed him to join as a volunteer. He left for Eygpt in November 1884 and died at the battle of Abu Klea on 17 January 1885. Some say his orders led to the breaking of the British Square at the battle, only the second time this had happened during Victoria’s reign. If this is true he paid a heavy price; surrounded by Mahdists and fighting them off with his sabre he was speared in the throat and then hacked down by their swords. A private who went to his rescue received a DCM but Burnaby received nothing – Wolseley wrote cruelly ‘how delighted the Prince of Wales & the Duke of Cambridge will be that poor Burnaby is killed.’ Queen Victoria is said to have fainted when she heard the news. Lizzie simply said ‘he died as he would have wished, facing the foe’ and left it at that. Fred was buried on the battle field along with the other British dead, “Fred Burnaby sleeps in a soldier’s grave in the continent whose inmost recesses he had quietly arranged with himself would someday explore,” as the Mid Sussex Times put it.

The death of Colonel Burnaby - the moment just before a Mahdist buries his spear in Fred's neck

Lizzie continued to spend most of her time in Switzerland, climbing, taking an active interest in winter sports (she was the first woman to pass the men’s ice skating test), taking bicycle trips through the Alps and raced motor cars in hill climbing contests. She also trained herself to become an accomplished photographer (she was a medalist of the Royal Photographic Society). She became one of the first women to take up film making, a 1902 catalogue lists 10 of her short films, all shot in Switzerland. Despite her disillusioning experiences of marriage and the tragic death of her husband, Lizzie apparently remained an optimist about matrimony. In Switzerland she met John Frederic Main, a professor of engineering at Bristol University, who was staying in Davos to recuperate from a severe pulmonary attack. Following what must have been a whirlwind romance she married him in 1886. Her lucky husband became the recipient of a £1000 a year marriage settlement from his wife’s Irish estates but it wasn’t enough to make him stay with her. After just a year of conjugal cohabitation Main left Lizzie in Switzerland and took off for the United States where he lived in Denver, on Lizzie’s money, until his death in 1892. Once shy, twice bitten Lizzie did not marry again until 1900; her last husband was Francis Aubrey Le Blond of Aldeburgh in Suffolk, nine years her junior. The wedding was rather less lavish than her first to Fred but still made the society pages of the newspapers, as this extract from the Morning Post of 14 June 1900 shows:   

The marriage of Francis Bernard Aubrey Le Blond, eldest son of Francis Aubrey Le Blond, of Norbiton, Surrey, to Elizabeth Alice Frances Main, only child of the late Sir St. Vincent Bentinck Hawkins Whitshed, Bart., of Killincarrick, County Wicklow, Ireland, took place at St. Mary Abbot's, Kensington, on Tuesday. The wedding was very quiet, only the nearest relatives of the bride and bridegroom being present. The officiating clergymen were the vicar, the Rev. Canon Pennefather, and the Rev. W. Pace Rigg, M.A., uncle of the bridegroom. At the conclusion of the ceremony Mr. and Mrs. Aubrey Le Blond left town, en route for Norway.

Norway was where Lizzie now preferred to do her climbing following a fatal accident in the Alps that killed the son of her guide. Aubrey seemed content to let his wife carry on climbing; he was more interested in collecting oriental pottery (his Korean collection was eventually donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum) In comparison to her previous marriages this final trip to the altar was followed by wedded bliss. She continued to lead an independent life but often travelled with her husband, going with him to China, Korea and Japan in 1912, and riding the Tran-Siberian railway to Russia back in 1913. She wrote more books, took more photographs and climbed more mountains. In the First World War she volunteered at a hospital in Dieppe, raised funds for ambulances and after the Armistice founded a fund for the restoration of war damaged Rheims Cathedral. After the war she travelled to Morocco and the United States and was awarded the Légion d'honneur for her efforts in getting a statue of Marshall Foch erected in London. She died on 27 July 1934.whilst recovering from a major operation at Mangalore, the home of her brother-in-law, Dr George Worthington, in Llandrindod Wells, Radnorshire. She was buried with her mother in Brompton Cemetery in the family vault, which occupies a large plot next to the McDonald Mausoleum. For such a large and expensive plot the family memorial is relatively modest and unobtrusive.  


  1. Superb! Endlessly fascinating and written so well.

    1. Thank you. Lizzie was definitely not your usual example of Anglo-Irish gentry. She really deserves to be better known and remembered.

  2. Hi! Love this post, excellently written, I was wondering if you had a source for Aubrey and Elizabeth's trip to China, Korea and Japan in 1912 at all? I'm doing some research in the field

    1. Thank you. I've checked my notes and my source for the trip to China, Korea and Japan was the article on Lizzie in the Dictionary of National Biography. The articles often have source information in them so that might point you in the direction of the primary source.