In February, 1940 the King’s representative in Canada, Lord Tweedsmuir, died suddenly following surgery. This left the post of Governor-General vacant at a particularly important time, for German military successes in Europe now required the strengthening of relationships between the United Kingdom and the Dominions, each of whom would provide military and non-military assistance to the ‘mother’ country. King George VI decided to appoint his Uncle Alge, the sixty-five-year-old Earl of Athlone to the post. The official announcement was made from Buckingham Palace on 3 April. The appointment was a God-send to the Earl (a younger brother of Queen Mary), who although too old for active military service, was anxious to be of use in the war effort.
There was no one more surprised at this sudden turn of events than Lord Athlone’s wife, the fifty-seven year-old Princess Alice. She was the spirited daughter of Queen Victoria’s youngest son, Leopold, Duke of Albany. Given Lord Athlone’s age, she had probably envisaged seeing out the war undertaking a series of minor official engagements or providing succour to evacuees from London’s East End who were currently quartered at the family’s country home, Brantridge Park, in rural Sussex. Alice was kind, candid, enthusiastic and fun; she was also often praised for her ‘band box’ elegance.
Yet, the King had actually made a wise choice for Alge and Alice were already well-versed in the nuances of Vice-Regal life: The Earl of Athlone had served as Governor-General of the Union of South Africa from 1924-1931 at a time when Afrikaner nationalism was on the ascendency, leading to tensions with those of British descent. Although Princess Alice had left the politics largely to her husband, she had proved to be an indefatigable hostess at the Government Houses of Pretoria and Cape Town, as well as forging strong links with both the ‘pro-British’ politician Jan Smuts and the Nationalist Afrikanner leader and Prime Minister, General James Hertzog. When not occupied entertaining official guests and politicians, the down-to-earth Princess could be found visiting Girl Guide groups, presiding over Rose Day festivities in Johannesburg or fund-raising for the King Edward VII District Nursing Association.
Although Canada differed enormously from its fellow Dominion in the south, the two countries shared a deep political and cultural divide. Whereas in South Africa these divisions had been between the more reactionary, republican Afrikaans-speaking people of mainly Dutch descent and the liberal-leaning (and monarchist) English-speaking population, in Canada the disconnect was between the principally royalist English-speakers of English and Scottish descent (who formed a majority in most areas of Canada) and their French-speaking counterparts (who were dominant only in the province of Quebec). It would be fair to say that the latter viewed the Crown (of whom Lord Athlone was now the official representative) with indifference at best, and sometimes open hostility.
After zig-zagging their way across the Atlantic to avoid enemy U-boats, on 21 June, the Vice-Regal couple steamed into Ottawa’s Union Station where they were greeted by the Administrator (Sir Lyman Duff) and the Prime Minister, Mr Mackenzie King. The Earl of Athlone and Princess Alice then processed to the imposing Parliament Buildings where the Earl immediately took the Oath of Office as sixteenth Governor-General in the Senate chamber. From there, the couple travelled to their official residence, Rideau Hall. Princess Alice quickly made a tour of this 175-room edifice, which she found to be an unsatisfactory hotchpotch of rooms in varying architectural styles, for the building had been much extended over the years. Nonetheless, within weeks, the highly-organised Alice had rearranged much of the furniture in the public rooms and mastered every detail of the domestic side of life at the Hall, some say down to the point of knowing the exact number of dusters in the housemaid’s cupboard.
Again leaving the political side of matters to her husband and his Private Secretary, Sir (Arthur) Shuldham Redfern, the Princess first focused on welcoming various relations who sought refuge at Rideau Hall. These included her daughter, Lady May Abel Smith (whose husband Henry was currently serving in Palestine) and her three children Anne, Richard and Elizabeth. Also arriving in Ottawa was Princess Juliana of the Netherlands and her daughters Beatrix and Irene. Juliana was the daughter of Princess Alice’s first cousin Queen Wihelmina. Although the Abel Smith family would remain at Rideau Hall for several years, the Dutch royals soon relocated to a charming house in nearby Rockcliffe Park.
In October the Earl and Princess Alice spent the weekend at the country home of President Roosevelt at Hyde Park on the Hudson River. The Princess was much taken with Eleanor Roosevelt, especially her energy and positivity. Although Lord Athlone had to rush back to Ottawa, Alice then took the opportunity to visit New York where she visited the British Pavilion at the World’s Fair. The Vice-Regal couple later paid a visit to Montreal, where Lord Athlone received an Honorary degree from McGill University. As both the Princess and her husband spoke excellent French, they were able to converse quite freely with the Québécois.
With the approach of her first Canadian Christmas in Ottawa, Princess Alice pulled out all the stops to make it a festive occasion. In addition to her own daughter and grandchildren, she also invited, as guests, Juliana and her daughters, as well as the Canadian Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, who was a bachelor. Not only was this a thoughtful gesture, it was also a prudent one. ‘WLMK’ as many called him, could be prickly and was often difficult to get along with on official matters. Some say he even resented the presence of the Athlone’s, feeling that he played second fiddle to them. In a sense this was true, as technically they had precedence over him. This was perhaps Alice’s tactful way of smoothing his sometimes ruffled feathers. Sadly, all of the Princess’ Christmas presents and cards to family and friends in England went to the bottom of the sea, when the ship carrying them there (the Western Prince) was sunk by a German U-boat.
Canada, of course, was a huge country and tremendous distances would require to be covered. Each individual province was more akin to the size of one of the larger countries in Europe. Fortunately, the Vice-Regal couple were given the use of carriages from the Royal Train which had transported the King and Queen during their tour of Canada in 1939. Thus, as winter turned to spring, the Athlones set out on a tour of the western provinces, travelling as far west as Victoria on Vancouver Island. On the way out, they made stopovers in Winnipeg and Edmonton to visit air force training units and those involved in war charity work; while the return journey saw them visit Calgary (where they inspected members of the Royal Canadian Volunteer Reserve) and Regina (to attend a patriotic display by 12,000 schoolchildren).
In June 1941, it was the turn of the east of Canada, with a visit to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Alice was particularly taken by the Province House in Halifax, the home of the oldest legislature in Canada, and she also joined her husband on a visit to the naval dockyard to inspect a group of navy ratings, stepping gingerly along muddy paths in her best finery. However, when the occasion required it, she happily wore uniform. There was quite a selection as Alice was, inter alia, Honorary Commandant of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service, Honorary Air Commandant of the Royal Canadian Air Force (Women’s Division) and President of the Nursing Division of the St. John Ambulance Brigade.
In late July, Alice’s nephew, Prince George, the Duke of Kent paid a visit to Canada to inspect the operations of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and other matters relating to the war effort. He stayed at Rideau Hall and brought the Princess up-to-date with news from England. Not welcome were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who were travelling to their ranch in Pekisko, Alberta. Alice commented tartly that ‘there was much feeling against’ the Duchess in Canada and must have been glad that the couple tactfully avoided Ottawa. Other royal visitors included the widowed (and somewhat other-worldly) Empress Zita of Austria who always dressed in black and Queen Wilhelmina, who visited in 1942 and 1943, and kept the staff at Rideau Hall on their toes by alternating between insisting on ‘giving no trouble’ but then suddenly becoming imperious if her royal wishes were thwarted in any way.
With the first year under their belt, Princess Alice and her husband carried on with the ‘official round’ in a similar fashion throughout the rest of the war, with visits stretching from Newfoundland in the east to British Columbia in the west; from the Great Lakes of the south to the Yukon Territory in the north. On one occasion, they paid a call on the native Ojibwe tribe. The Earl was created ‘Chief Rainbow’, while Alice was presented with a squaw’s head-dress. The duo also visited Alaska at the invitation of President Roosevelt to view American tanks and aircraft being ferried across the Bering Straits to the Soviet allies. Back in Canada, endless factories and munition works were inspected, along with hospitals and military establishments. Also part of the annual Vice-Regal schedule were levees and official dinners at Rideau Hall, as well as the State Opening of Parliament. If Alice was required to make a speech, she invariably wrote it herself.
Each July, the Princess and her husband would escape the heat of Ottawa for the cooler climes of Quebec City and their other official residence, La Citadelle, with its wonderful views over the St Lawrence River. This residence was also the location for the famous Quebec Conferences, held in August 1943 and September 1944 (to discuss strategies for the invasion of France and the subsequent advance on Germany). Although the Vice-Regal couple were happy to act as hosts to Winston Churchill, President Roosevelt and Mackenzie King, apart from posing for official photographs and attending some official dinners, they otherwise tried to remain firmly in the background.
However, there was also still time for fun. In the winter the couple would skate on an ersatz ice rink at Rideau Hall (formed by simply flooding the tennis court) or go tobogganing in the nearby Gatineau Hills. Alice and her husband also regularly spent time at a fishing lodge at Kamloops in British Columbia; while another favourite destination was the Jasper National Park where they lived unobtrusively on board their private railway carriage which was shunted into a siding.
Princess Alice and the Earl of Athlone departed Ottawa in March 1946. The final period of their Vice-Regal term was mercifully busy with a ball at Rideau Hall in honour of General Dwight Eisenhower and a stream of farewell dinners. It is typical of Alice that instead of accepting the traditional gift to the wife of a departing Governor-General of jewellery or a warm fur coat, instead asked that a Fund be established to support the young people of the Dominion. Furthermore, in a final speech as Honorary President of the Imperial Order Daughters of Empire, she emphasised the need for the citizens of Canada to adopt a national outlook, rather than one focused on the needs of the individual provinces.
The author of this blog takes a keen interest on the fate of royalty during World War II. He narrates the wartime adventures of a Greek-born princess in Africa (and much else besides) in the new biography Princess Olga of Yugoslavia: Her Life and Times published on 1 April 2021 by Grosvenor House Publishing. This is now available to purchase on Amazon in hardback or e-book.