Adventure and Tragedy: The Life of Mrs Alec-Tweedie

In the years before the First World War, Ethel Brilliana Tweedie had established herself as a pioneering woman. Writing under the name Mrs. Alec-Tweedie, she was one of the world's first female travel writers, journeying from Scandinavia to America and the Middle East. She also claimed to be the first woman to learn to ski and to ride astride on a horse.

Ethel was the daughter of the acclaimed doctor George Harley (of Harley Street), born in 1862. In 1887 she married Alexander Leslie (Alec) Tweedie, a marine insurance broker. The marriage, however, does not appear to have been happy. She travelled largely solo controlled her own finances, with Alec losing much of his money through gambling. Such losses drove him to ruin and he died in 1896. 

At the time the couple had two young sons, Harley Alexander (Alec) and Leslie Kinloch. It was around this time that Ethel's writing career took off and she was able to support her family and rectify their financial situation through the book sales, sending her sons to Harrow School. Alongside her travel books she also published a biography of her father and histories of Hyde Park and Queen's College, London, alongside the intriguingly titled Danish versus English Butter-Making

When war broke out in 1914, it affected the Tweedie family almost immediately. Leslie, by this time a medical student at London Hospital, volunteered for the Red Cross and was mobilised to France within weeks. Yet, soon after he arrived he, along with his unit, were taken prisoner. Ethel heard nothing from him and so set about busying herself with war work. She later wrote in her memoir Me and Mine '"No news is good news", I repeated to myself a dozen times a day as I worked at my jobs for the YMCA and the Navy'.

One of Mrs Alec-Tweedie's autographed tablecloths

Ethel was a lady of vast social connections, which she showed off in her 1916 book My Table-Cloths, which explored the stories behind the signatures she got all of her guests to leave on her tablecloths whenever they visited her London home. Among them were Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, the explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton, and YMCA President Lord Arthur Kinnaird.

It was through this last name that she established her main wartime role as a YMCA fundraiser. Making use of her social standing, she ran 'Mrs Alec-Tweedie's Hut Scheme', raising the funds and materials for YMCA recreation huts to be sent to training bases across Britain. The success was immediate and by December 1914 she had already collected 25,000 books for the hut libraries.

By this time, Leslie had fortunately been released and he returned to England where he then enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery, returning to France in 1915.

Meanwhile, Ethel was looking for ways to more actively support the war effort and set about helping women contribute to munitions. She described in both Me and Mine and Women and Soldiers how she approached the Vickers Munitions Factory in Erith with a delegation from the YMCA - including its General Secretary Arthur Keysall Yapp and the missionary JJ Virgo - only to be told 'there was no use for women in munitions' as they were only suited to light work. Knowing women were capable of more, she arranged a loan of some lathes and had one hundred women trained in their operation at some empty YMCA premises, thereby proving the capability of the women. Months later, some of the women involved in the trial were employed in the munition works at Woolwich as women began to take on a much greater role in the production of war materiel.

However, 1916 would bring more heartache for Ethel. In January Leslie was killed in action near Ypres, less than a week after he returned from leave. She wrote of how she was 'one of a million and odd British mothers who bore sons and lost them. Cruel as was the blow to me I would rather have them dead for the Empire and honoured, than alive and despised as shirkers'.

In memory of Leslie, Ethel donated the Leslie Tweedie Memorial Lounge to the Shakespeare Hut in London, which was opened by Lord French in August 1916. This was a very fitting tribute, which indicated the personal connection Ethel felt in supporting YMCA comforts for soldiers.

By the end of the war, the hut scheme had established almost 40 recreation centres, as well as donating in excess of 125,000 books and 130 pianos to equip them. Ethel was one of the most notable fundraisers for the YMCA, with her appeals for support regularly appearing in the press. She reflected that despite her work (or maybe because of it), 'not until the Armistice did one realise in what a hell one had lived through the previous years, with two sons in the thick of it at the front'.

Yet, the hardships of war were not yet over. In 1919 she set off on a journey across the Western Front, recorded in her short book A Woman on Four Battle-Fronts. She travelled a reported 991 miles across France and Belgium, supported by staff officers. The journey was hard-going, with 'the hand of death, suffering, and struggle had left its indelible mark'. It also required special permissions to even be possible. Ethel made use of her connections and her war work to have Sir Yapp write a letter endorsing the need for her journey, which would include a solemn visit to her son Leslie's grave in Vermelles. This specific journey is not included in her published book.

Meanwhile, Ethel's elder son Harley was still in service with the Australian Flying Corps. He worked his way up to the rank of Squadron Leader and was awarded an OBE in recognition of his service. In 1926 he was deployed to Amman, Jordan where he was killed in a flying accident. He was later buried in Ramleh Military Cemetery. Unusually for a parent, Ethel would have been able to picture this landscape and the conditions of her son's death. In 1919 she had journeyed across the Middle East, itself in the aftermath of war, for her book Mainly East. She had felt the 'vapour bath' of the heat and seen the 'sand [that] has blown for thousands, aye, millions of years until it forms mountains'. 

It was in the years following Harley's death that Ethel wrote her memoir Me and Mine, dedicated to the memory of both her sons. This 'medley of thoughts and memories' recounted many of the hardships, as well of the adventures, of her life, including the difficult period after losing both her sons. 'To keep sane one had to find something new', she wrote, 'that will divert one's mind from recurring tragic recollections'. Her new passion was horticulture, taking great delight in flowers and plant-life. Her new greenhouse was 'filled by kind friends and is, in fact, a wonderful bower of remembrance'. 

She also continued to travel, writing throughout the 1930s about journeys across Russia, Japan and China, in addition to publishing further volumes of memoirs. In 1940 she died aged 78 shortly after the publication of her final book. Hers was a life of great adventure, seeing far more of the world than most women of the time could ever dream of, but it was also one punctuated by tragedy at all too regular intervals.



1 comment:

  1. We are publishing a book that includes a section on the Harley family of Walton and the author would like to include your account of the life of Ethel Tweedie as an endnote. Are you comfortable with that? Naturally we will credit the source.