A trailblazer in the very literal sense of the word, Lizzie Le Blond was one of the first generations of women to take part in the sport of mountaineering, breaking societal rules to do so.
Born Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed, the only child of Captain and Mrs Hawkins-Whitshed of Killincarrick House in Greystones, County Wicklow, she inherited the family estate at the age of 11 after her father’s death in 1871.
She married Colonel Frederick Burnaby, a soldier, adventurer and author, in 1879. Shortly after the wedding, she was reported to be in poor health, but recovered and gave birth to a son in May 1880. Within just a few months, however, she and her husband had embarked on largely separate lives, Fred returning to his bachelor quarters and Lizzie spending much of her time abroad in search of a cure for the lung trouble which continued to plague her.
This search brought her to Switzerland in 1881 and, shortly after, she began her mountaineering career with a climb two thirds up Mont Blanc. She would spend most of the following twenty years in Switzerland, making over 100 ascents.
At the time, mountaineering was not seen as an appropriate activity for women. The Alpine Club formed in 1857, for example, did not allow female members. To avoid causing offence, the Co Wicklow woman initially climbed wearing a skirt and would only change when out of public sight.
Along with mountaineering, she also took up photography and was an early adopter of snow photography. Her photographs also served as illustrations in her many publications – her first book ‘The High Alps in Winter’ was published in 1883 and many more works on mountaineering, as well as travelogues, would follow.
After her husband Fred Burnaby was killed in battle in Sudan in 1885, she stayed in St Moritz, where she played an active role in the English community. In addition to climbing, she also took up other sports such as cycling and skating. She became the first woman to pass the men’s test for the St Moritz Skating Association.
To promote mountain climbing for women, the Ladies Alpine Club was founded in 1907 and she was appointed foundation president of the club. Her fellow mountaineers knew her for her physical courage and sure judgement, which no doubt provided inspiration to future generations of female mountaineers and paved the way for women in a sport seen as unsuitable for them.
A second marriage to mathematician Dr John Frederic Main in 1886 was short-lived when Main died in 1892, leaving the avid climber a widow once again. Her third marriage to Frances Bernard Aubrey Le Blond in 1900 – who was ten years her junior – lasted until her death more than 30 years later. Together the couple travelled the world extensively, visiting Egypt, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Korea and Russia between 1912 and 1913.
During the First World War Le Blond worked as a volunteer in a French military hospital in Dieppe. She also managed the appeal department of the British Ambulance Committee. In her later life she published her memoirs Day in, day out and also made frequent visits to Canada and the US - where her son lived.
Active almost to the end, Lizzie Le Blond died on 27 July 1934, and was buried in Brompton cemetery in London.
Thanks to Herstorian Dr. Anne Rosenbusch for this week’s biography. For more visit HerStory.ie