Follows is a synopsis of the paper given by Rosemary Raughter (Historian) at the 2011 La Touche Legacy Conference for the Jim Brennan Memorial Lecture. Our thanks to Rosemary for allowing us to include this on our site.
ELIZABETH HAWKINS WHITSHED: FROM KILLINCARRICK TO THE ROOF OF THE WORLD
Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed – also known as Mrs Fred Burnaby, Elizabeth Main and Mrs Aubrey (or Lizzie) Le Blond – was born on 26 June 1860, and was baptized shortly afterwards in ChristChurch, Delgany. Her parents were Captain St Vincent and his wife Anne Alicia Hawkins-Whitshed of Killincarrick House, Greystones, and from her father, who died when she was eleven, she inherited family estates amounting to nearly 2,000 acres in counties Wicklow, Dublin and Meath. At eighteent she entered London society, and shortly afterwards, on 25 June 1879, married Captain Fred Burnaby, soldier, intrepid adventurer, aspiring politician and best-selling author.
The Burnaby’s only child, a son, was born in May 1880. Some months later and reportedly in poor health, Elizabeth left London for Switzerland. ‘So’, she wrote, ‘I … saw for the first time those glacier-clad Alpine ranges which were to mean so much to me for the rest of my life.’ Her first significant ‘scramble’ was made almost by accident: having planned a leisurely excursion to the lower slopes of Mont Blanc, she and a woman friend, clad ‘in high-heeled buttoned boots and shady hats’, spontaneously decided to climb further. Having spent the night on the mountain, Elizabeth’s appetite for further adventure was whetted. During the following summer she completed several difficult ascents and scaled Mont Blanc twice. Over the next two decades she spent much of her time in Switzerland, climbing in both winter and summer and making more than one hundred ascents. She defied convention by occasionally climbing without a guide, and in 1900 took part in what is regarded as the first women-only expedition. Later in her climbing career, she abandoned Switzerland for the far north, and over six summers in the Norwegian Arctic notched up a total of thirty-three climbs, twenty-seven of them first ascents.
In 1883 Elizabethpublished her first book, The high Alps in winter, or mountaineering in search of health, the precursor to a series describing her mountaineering experiences. However, her greatest achievement was in the field of photography. Almost from the beginning of her climbing career she carried her camera with her, capturing views which had never been seen before, employing her delicate and cumbersome apparatus in often unfavourable weather conditions. Over the years she took thousands of photographs, about four hundred of which were included in various publications, while others were given as gifts, donated as prizes or sold in aid of charity. In 1994 some hundreds of her Alpine views came to light, lying forgotten in a suitcase in the hotel in St Moritz where she had stayed almost a century before, and were subsequently transferred to the Cultural Archive of the local Engadine region at Samedan. An exhibition was held at the Pontresina Alpine Museum in 2003 and a collection of her photographs published in a volume which the Greystones Historical Society presented to the local library during National Heritage Week 2011.
On 17 January 1886 Elizabeth was widowed when Burnaby was killed in battle in the Sudan. Her second husband, Dr John Frederic Main, died in Denver, Colorado in 1892, and in 1900 she married Aubrey Le Blond. By this time she had more or less retired from climbing, but she remained one of the sport’s best-known spokeswomen, and in 1907 founded and was elected president of the Ladies’ Alpine Club, the first climbing association for women in the world.
During the two decades following her first marriage, Elizabeth paid only short visits to Killincarrick House. In around 1907, however, the Le Blonds made a more prolonged stay in the area, which coincided with the significant development of Elizabeth’s Greystones lands. This had first been broached during her minority when her agent, Alfred Wynne, ‘suggested that the permission of the Court be obtained to lay out golf links and open up roads, etc.’ on a portion of the estate. By 1890 the project was underway, and land was leased out for the construction of a golf course. Later Elizabeth would donate ‘at a nominal rent’ the land on which the Carnegie Library was built. Construction of what she called ‘my building estate’ began around 1900, and two years later the builder Patrick Kinlen was reported to have ‘six very pretty villas’ currently underway. The houses were designed in the currently fashionable Domestic Revival style, the new occupants were largely middle-class, prosperous Protestant professionals, and strict leases forbade any form of commercial activity. The estate itself was named after her long-dead first husband, and many of the roads were given names which commemorated aspects of Hawkins-Whitshed and Burnaby family history.
The Le Blonds’ stay in Greystones ended in September 1909 with the sale of all the contents of Killincarrick House. Thereafter Elizabeth made her home in England, but continued to own property in the area. In 1928 she recorded that Killincarrick House ‘in these changed times … is an hotel and its name has been changed to Clydagh’ and that Greystones itself ‘is now well known as perhaps the chief of the quieter seaside resorts in the Free State, and … close to some of the most beautiful scenery of Co Wicklow and indeed of Ireland.’
Elizabeth had twenty-five more years to live when she vacated Killincarrick House. In the years before 1914 she and Aubrey travelled widely, and when war broke out she promptly enrolled for work, first as a nurse, later as an administrator and fundraiser. During the 1920s she paid several visits to the US where her son was now living. She also published her memoirs and maintained her involvement in the affairs of the Ladies’ Alpine Club, of which she was re-elected president in 1933. Active almost to the last, she died on 27 July 1934, and was buried at Brompton cemetery in London.
Although Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed is remembered in histories of mountaineering, photography and film-making, her achievements have to date received little recognition in Greystones. It is to be hoped that this omission will soon be rectified, and that this most remarkable local woman will be given the memorial which she deserves in her own home place.