Earl of Athlone (1874-1957)
Governor-General of South Africa
Major-General Sir Alexander Augustus Frederick William Alfred George Cambridge, 1st Earl of Athlone, KG, GCB, GCMG, GCVO, DSO, ADC
The younger brother of Queen Mary (to whom he remains close all his life), Prince Alexander of Teck, known to his family and friends as ‘Alge’, was born and brought up in England, despite being of German origin. Educated at Eton and Sandhurst, he joined the British Army as a cavalry officer and saw service in India, Matabeleland and South Africa, where he won the DSO. A fine soldier, during the Great War he served on the staff, reaching the rank of brigadier-general. In 1917, he was persuaded, somewhat reluctantly, to relinquish his German titles, and became simple Alexander Cambridge. His brother-in-law, George V, immediately created him Earl of Athlone in compensation.
After the war, Athlone retires from the army and takes a number of roles. He has been chairman of Middlesex Hospital since 1910, and in 1921 is appointed to chair a committee to investigate the needs of doctors. The Athlone Committee, as it is called, recommends the establishment of a postgraduate medical school to foster higher medical education and research, funded by public money. The Postgraduate School, attached to Hammersmith Hospital, rapidly achieves a world-class reputation. In 1923, Athlone is appointed governor-general of the Union of South Africa, being at the same time promoted, despite his retirement, to major-general. He arrives in South Africa just in time to open the new Parliament in Pretoria in January 1924. It is a difficult time for British-South African relations, with Afrikaaner nationalism on the increase, but Athlone proves himself a sympathetic, tactful and popular governor-general, and even manages to get the British Union Flag included in the new South African flag, a move which has been opposed by many Afrikaaners. He makes frequent tours of all areas of South Africa, enhancing his prestige and popularity with South African s of all races. He remains in this post until 1931.
Since 1904, Athlone has been married to HRH Princess Alice of Albany, granddaughter of Queen Victoria. They have two children, May (b.1906) and Rupert, Viscount Trematon (b.1907), whose death in a car accident in France in April 1928 devastates his parents. Athlone is a patient, cautious and tactful man, who engenders great trust and respect in those he meets. Capable of great kindness, he has a quick, but rapidly deflated, temper. Perceptive and meticulous (he may frequently be seen adjusting pictures and ornaments), he is blessed with an incredible memory and never forgets a face. He is an excellent judge of character, tolerant and modest, and his staff are devoted to him. Already GCB and GCVO, he is appointed GCMG in 1923 (having already been made CMG in 1917 for his war service) and KG in 1928.