Elizabeth (Lizzie) Le Blond

Mountaineer / Photographer / Author / WWI Volunteer

Wicklow / St Moritz

1860 – 1934

 A trailblazer in the very literal sense of the word, Lizzie Le Blond was one of the first generation of women to practise mountaineering, breaking societal rules to do so.  

Born Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed and the only child of Captain and Mrs Hawkins-Whitshed of Killincarrick House in Greystones, County Wicklow, Lizzie 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 and had a son the following year. The couple largely lived apart since Lizzie, reportedly suffering from a lung problem, travelled abroad in the search of a cure for her ill health.

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 offense, Lizzie 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 the battle of Abu Klea in Sudan in 1885, Lizzie 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 Lizzie was appointed foundation president of the club. Lizzie’s 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 Lizzie a widow once again. Her third marriage to Frances Bernard Aubrey Le Blond in 1900, however, lasted until her death. Together the couple travelled the world extensively, visiting Egypt, Ceylon, China, Japan, Korea and Russia between 1912 and 1913.

During the First World War Lizzie 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 (1928) and also made frequent visits to Canada and the US (where her son lived).

Thanks to herstorian Dr. Anne Rosenbusch for writing this week’s biography.