Early Life and Family
Alice was born at Windsor Castle, the daughter of Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, youngest son of Queen Victoria, and Princess Helen of Waldeck and Pyrmont. She was named for her father’s elder sister, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse-Darmstadt, who had died of diphtheria in 1878. Alice’s godparents included Queen Victoria, King Willem III of the Netherlands and the German Empress Augusta.
Alice grew up at Claremont House in Surrey, England, which Queen Victoria had bought as a wedding present for Leopold and Helen in 1882. Leopold suffered from hemophilia and died at the age of thirty in 1884. His son, Prince Charles Edward, was born later that year. In 1899, Charles became Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Alice travelled with her mother and brother to Germany, where she lived until 1903.
Marriage and Children
In 1904, Alice married Prince Alexander of Teck in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. Alexander was the younger brother of the Princess of Wales (later Queen Mary, consort of King George V). One of the guests, Lady Violet Greville observed, “Unlike most royal brides, this bride looked the picture of happiness.”
In 1917, George V abolished German titles within the royal family, which became the House of Windsor. Alexander and Alice adopted the surname Cambridge after Alexander’s maternal grandfather, Prince George, Duke of Cambridge. On 7 November 1917, George gave Alexander the titles Earl of Athlone and Viscount Trematon. Alice was henceforth known as Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone.
The Athlones had three children, May Helen Emma, later Lady May Abel Smith (1906–94); Rupert, Viscount Trematon (1907–28); and Maurice (1910). Like her cousins, Empress Alexandra of Russia and Queen Victoria Eugenie of Spain, Alice was a carrier of hemophilia and passed the condition to her sons. Maurice died in infancy and Rupert died of a cerebral hemorrhage following a car accident. Alice was in South Africa at the time of Rupert’s death and was unable to attend his funeral.
Alice was involved in a number of charities and philanthropic activities. As she explained in her memoirs, “I had my own charitable work to occupy me. First and foremost was the National Children’s Adoption Association, which I had joined after its foundation in 1917.” Alice also chaired the finance committee and case committee of The Athlone Trust, which provides financial assistance for adopted children and their families. She was also the first member of the royal family to publicly support access to contraceptives and family planning. In 1933, she was the patron of the Malthusian Ball organized by the International Birth Control Movement to raise funds for disseminating information about family planning methods. The organization was concerned that wealthier families had the best access to birth control and that population growth was highest among the poor, who were unable to give their children "the necessaries of a civilized life." Alice was also involved in the Deptford Fund (now the Albany performing arts centre in London) and the Royal School of Needlework, “besides many times attending functions for good works.”
Athlone was governor general of South Africa from 1924 until 1930. He and Alice were popular there and noted for treating South Africans of all backgrounds with courtesy and respect. Alice encouraged royal visits to South Africa, writing that a visit from the King and Queen, “would have done so much to eliminate the absurd racial differences” which she believed “were entirely due to political rivalries and party expediency.”
Canada and the Second World War
In February 1940, less than six months after the outbreak of the Second World War, the governor general of Canada, Lord Tweedsmuir, died after sustaining a severe head injury following a stroke. Prime Minister Mackenzie King recommended Athlone’s appointment as governor general . Following a circuitous journey across the Atlantic Ocean to avoid German U-Boats (see also Battle of the Atlantic), the Athlones arrived in Halifax on 20 June and Ottawa on 21 June. The viceregal couple’s three grandchildren, Richard, Anne and Elizabeth Abel Smith, resided with them in Canada for the duration of the war. Alice recalled, “While he was with us in Canada, we sent my grandson Richard to a well-known school at Port Hope, Ontario…. Anne also went to a good girl’s school, King’s, in Quebec Province, beautifully situated….”
Athlone’s term as governor general was dominated by the Second World War. In 1941, the couple undertook cross-country tours in support of the Canadian war effort, visiting Western Canada in the spring and the Maritimes in the summer. Alice later recalled, “The war factories started and that was our chief preoccupation — visiting endless, endless war factories…. Suggestions I had made which had at first been pooh-poohed were adopted…. The whole country threw itself into the war work and it was very inspiring to be there at that time. Then they decided that they would need women in the services.” Alice became 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 divisions of the St. John Ambulance Brigade.
In 1943 and 1944, the Athlones hosted the Quebec conferences between the Allied Leaders at La Citadelle in Quebec City. Alice recalled, “It was wonderful to meet all the leading men directing the war effort, and the President [Franklin Roosevelt] and Winston [Churchill] and their ladies were delightful guests when we were just en famille, and we enjoyed many thrilling conversations, off the record, as they say.” In contrast, Alice remembered that “Prime Minister Mackenzie King was not always easy to get along with.”
Athlone’s term as governor general came to an end in 1946. As a parting gift to Canadians, Alice established the Princess Alice Foundation Fund to promote youth leadership with funds presented to her by Canadian women. The fund’s president was Canada’s first female senator, Cairine Wilson, who launched a campaign to raise $50,000 for scholarships for promising youth leaders. Both Athlone and Alice received honorary Doctor of Laws degrees from Queen’s University.
The Dutch Royal Family in Canada
Alice was related to the Dutch royal family, and invited them to take refuge in Canada during the Second World War. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was Alice’s first cousin (their mothers were sisters) and Alice was godmother to Wilhelmina’s granddaughter, the future Queen Beatrix. The Dutch royal family had fled the Netherlands during the Nazi invasion of 1940 and travelled to London. They accepted the invitation to Canada, and Crown Princess Juliana and her daughters, Beatrix and Irene, lived in Ottawa from 1940 to 1945; a third daughter, Margriet, was born at the Ottawa Civic Hospital in 1943. Alice recalled in her memoirs that at Rideau Hall, “We had plenty of room for them all and the children afforded us great amusement and pleasure.”
Canadian Arts and Culture
Following in the tradition of her aunt Princess Louise and cousin Princess Patricia, Alice supported the arts and Canadian culture. The Athlones sponsored wartime benefit concerts and performances. According to R. H. Hubbard, “[Alice] showed her serious concern for the arts by attending literally every concert and exhibition in Ottawa and receiving all the artists.” Alice’s close interest in the arts was noted by Canadian actors, musicians and artists. Amelia Hall recalled in her memoir, Life Before Stratford, “The first three-act play I ever directed was J.B. Priestley’s When We Are Married, for the [Ottawa Drama League] in 1944. My mother, Elizabeth, made the 1908 hats for that production and they were much admired by Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, wife of Canada’s wartime governor general, when she came backstage. (It had been a benefit for the Women’s Naval Auxiliary).”
Alice continued to have a close relationship with Canada after the end of Athlone’s term. In 1947, Alice advised Mackenzie King concerning the selection of antique silver as a wedding gift for the future Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
In 1959, Alice spent nearly two months in Canada, travelling across the country by train, visiting friends and fishing near Kamloops. In Ottawa, she visited Rideau Hall as a guest of Governor General Georges Vanier and Pauline Vanier. In Montreal, Alice spoke in support of the Princess Alice Foundation Fund, which had been established in 1945 by Cairine Wilson and awarded scholarships to youth leaders. In 1963, Alice visited Ottawa to present regimental colours to the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards in her capacity as honorary colonel.
Alice was the chancellor of the University of the West Indies from 1950 to 1971 and frequently visited Jamaica, fundraising for the university. She travelled extensively until the end of her life, spending her 95th birthday in South Africa. At the time of her death, she was the longest-lived member of the royal family. An obituary in the New York Times observed, “She rode in the carriage procession for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and in the Silver Jubilee procession of Queen Elizabeth in 1977.”