Cambridge, Alexander Augustus Frederick William Alfred George, Earl of Athlone 1874-1957, was born at Kensington Palace 14 April 1874, the third son of Princess Mary Adelaide and the Duke of Teck, and brother of the future Queen Mary [qv.], a notice of whom appears in this Supplement. Originally styled His Serene Highness, Prince Alexander of Teck, he was known to his family as Alge. In 1917 in accordance with policy he relinquished his titles and the name of Teck and took the family name of Cambridge and the title of Earl of Athlone. Although his new name and titles had hereditary associations he and many others regarded these changes as unnecessary and even undignified.
The Prince was educated at Eton and Sandhurst, was commissioned second lieutenant in the 7th Hussars in 1894, joined his regiment in India, and thereafter received his promotion in the normal way. He served in the Matabele war of 1896-7 and was mentioned in dispatches. He transferred to the Inniskilling Dragoons in order to be able to serve in the South African war during which he was mentioned again in dispatches and appointed to the D.S.O. He was spoken of as a capable and enterprising officer and a cheerful comrade, ever willing to endure and to share with his troopers the discomforts of a nomad campaign.
In 1904 the Prince married Princess Alice Mary Victoria Augusta Pauline, daughter of Queen Victoria's fourth son, the Duke of Albany [qv.]. On this occasion he was appointed G.C.V.O. Their first child, May Helen Emma, was born in 1906; in the following year they had a son, Rupert Alexander George Augustus, later Viscount Trematon. A second son, Maurice Francis George, died in 1910 before he was six months old.
The Prince joined the Royal Horse Guards in 1904. In 1911, at the request of King George V, he transferred to the 2nd Life Guards with the rank of major. At the coronation he was appointed G.C.B. In 1914 he was nominated governor-general of Canada but did not take up the appointment owing to the outbreak of war in which he served as lieutenant-colonel in the Life Guards. Later he joined the staff as G.S.O. 2 and was attached to the British military mission to the Belgian Army. He was promoted G.S.O. 1 with the rank of brigadier-general in 1915 and received Belgian, French, and Russian decorations. He was twice mentioned in dispatches and in 1918 he joined the general headquarters staff.
After the war Athlone retired from the army and took an active interest in national and social work. A man of compassion, he was especially attracted to the work of institutions connected with the relief of human suffering. He had been chairman of the Middlesex Hospital since 1910 and in 1921 the minister of health appointed him chairman of a committee composed of the foremost doctors and surgeons of the day to investigate the needs of medical practitioners. Under his enthusiastic guidance the Athlone committee produced a comprehensive report which recommended the appropriation of substantial sums from public funds to finance the establishment of a postgraduate medical school (to be associated with the university of London and existing medical institutions) to promote postgraduate instruction and medical research. The work thus initiated by the Athlone committee was carried on by committees presided over by Neville Chamberlain [qv.] and Arthur Greenwood [qv.]. The Postgraduate School, subsequently attached to the Hammersmith Hospital, became one of the most famous institutions of its kind. Athlone took a special interest and pride in the school which he frequently visited in later years.
Athlone was closely identified also with the promotion of education. He was chancellor of the university of London (1932-55), taking office at a difficult time in the development of the university under its new statutes. He was an honorary bencher of the Middle Temple, a fellow of the Royal Society, vice-president of the Royal Academy of Music, an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, and a knight grand cross of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.
In 1923 Athlone was appointed governor-general of the Union and high commissioner for South Africa, being appointed G.C.M.G. and promoted to the rank of major-general. He arrived in South Africa in time to open Parliament in January 1924. Shortly afterwards J. B. M. Hertzog [qv.] succeeded J. C. Smuts [qv.] as prime minister. A difficult period followed. Racial feeling between British and Afrikaners was inflamed by a Nationalist proposal to adopt a new flag for the Union omitting anything symbolic of the British connection. Athlone worked quietly behind the scenes to secure the inclusion of a Union Jack in the white central panel. His speech at the unveiling of this compromise flag in Cape Town did much to soothe and reconcile animosities. His frequent tours in the provinces enhanced his prestige and popularity among all sections of the community and did much to bring the two white races closer together. His patience, courtesy, and tact won the trust and esteem of the political leaders of all parties. He was appointed K.G. in 1928 in recognition of his services and his term of office was extended at the request of the Government. The death of their son, Viscount Trematon, as the result of a motor accident in France in April 1928 was a cruel and shattering blow to the Athlones. The expressions of sympathy they received from all over Southern Africa revealed a depth of affectionate sympathy and personal regard which must have robbed their sorrow of some of its bitterness.
At the conclusion of his very successful term of office, Athlone was sworn of the Privy Council in 1931 and appointed governor and constable of Windsor Castle. He and Princess Alice took up residence at Brantridge Park and afterwards transferred to Kensington Palace which they decorated with trophies of their big-game hunting expeditions and paintings of African landscapes by local artists whom they had patronized and encouraged during their tour of duty. They continued their interest in South African affairs and personalities and resumed their social activities in England. Queen Mary and her brother had always been close companions and regular correspondents. After the King recovered from his serious illness he expressed the wish that Lord Athlone should, for family reasons, remain in England.
In 1940, King George VI showed his uncle a telegram from W. L. Mackenzie King [qv.] asking if he might submit Athlone's name for the governor-generalship of Canada. Greatly as he appreciated the compliment, Athlone thought a younger man should be appointed, but the King persuaded him to accept for a period of two years. In the event he served the full term of five years. He entered upon his new duties with his usual enthusiasm and took a keen interest in efforts to establish in the dominion various military training schemes and factories for the production of war materials. He travelled extensively at all seasons of the year to attend troop reviews and encourage munition workers. In addition he and Princess Alice were always ready to entertain members of official missions, including those of President Roosevelt and (Sir) Winston Churchill, and they offered open hospitality to royalties and other distinguished exiles from allied countries under German occupation. Although Athlone had occasional differences with Mackenzie King, he had a natural gift for getting on with people and their personal relations always remained very friendly. His unsuccessful efforts to reconcile differences between the prime minister and his defence minister, J. L. Ralston [qv.], were a disappointment to him.
In August 1944, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his leadership of his party, Mackenzie King wrote to the governor-general that he was particularly happy that the last four years, the most eventful of all, should have been shared with Your Excellency in the administration of Canada's war effort, and that throughout every day of that time I should have had the constant and helpful co-operation of Your Excellency and Princess Alice. Later the prime minister wrote: Your years here, as Representative of the King, have strengthened the country's attachment to the Crown. I doubt if that attachment were ever stronger than it is today.
Those who knew Athlone intimately and worked with him would agree that kindness was his outstanding characteristic. Yet, like many kind people, he had a quick temper which subsided as rapidly as it flared up. His military training had endowed him with an eye for detail and a keen perception of the manners and peculiarities of others upon which he liked to exercise his quizzical sense of humour. He gave the impression that he modelled his conduct on the precepts of Polonius—especially those relating to manners and deportment. His dress was meticulous but never expressed in fancy. He had an exact sense of symmetry and tidiness and would often adjust ornaments and pictures. His memory for names and faces was quite extraordinary and he was a good judge of character. In public affairs he was tolerant and strove to induce others to modify fixed or extreme opinions before giving expression to his own. His natural tact and intellectual modesty enabled him to impress his counsel upon ministers without provoking opposition or appearing to intrude upon their constitutional prerogatives. His command over the loyalty and affection of his staff was exceptional and he delighted in renewing friendships with them in after years. At the conclusion of his term of office in Canada in 1946 he and Princess Alice made time to stay in Trinidad with their former secretary in South Africa. On his return to England Athlone resumed his interest in national affairs. In 1936 he had been appointed grand master of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, an order associated especially with the dominions, colonial, and foreign services. In that office he presided over the last tributes paid to many of Britain's most distinguished sons. On his death at Kensington Palace, 16 January 1957, he received in his turn the homage of members of the order who, like himself, had faithfully and diligently served their country. The peerage became extinct.
At Kensington Palace there is a portrait of Athlone by H. de T. Glazebrook and a conversation piece with Princess Alice by Norman Hepple. At Government House, Ottawa, there is a portrait by Henry Carr; the university of London has a portrait by Augustus John and the Middlesex Hospital (at Athlone House, Kenwood, Hampstead Lane) one by Francis Hodge. At the Vintners' Hall there is a portrait by (Sir) James Gunn.
For My Grandchildren, Some reminiscences of Her Royal Highness Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, 1966.
Contributor: Bede Clifford.