Obituary: Alice Hemming
Monday 11 April 1994
ALICE HEMMING was proud to be considered a Canadian, although she was born in London, in 1907, and moved to Canada as a small child. Her parents, who had no experience of agricultural life, found themselves on a small farm in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia and discovered that it was not an easy life; indeed Alice grew up in conditions of some hardship.
As Alice Weaver she graduated with honours from the University of British Columbia in 1928, and used her energy and her enquiring mind to become a journalist, on the Vancouver Sun. Two years later she interviewed a visiting fellow Canadian Harold Hemming, who was then in charge of a delegation of British headmasters; they fell in love and she joined him in London where they were married in 1931. She worked for the Marquess of Donegal, who wrote a gossip column on the Sunday Despatch, and a brief earlier acquaintance with Wallis Simpson got her an exclusive interview with the new Duchess of Windsor soon after the abdication. It was syndicated worldwide.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, while her husband served in the British Army Alice went back to Canada, to Vancouver, to join her two young children. She continued with her journalism, writing two regular columns in the Vancouver Province and giving daily broadcasts on her own radio show in support of the War effort. She was a good public speaker, and toured Canada and the United States extensively (including several successful lectures to the Hollywood stars) raising awareness and support for the Allied cause. She later worked in Ottawa and created the Information Department of the Canadian National Film Board under John Grierson.
Alice Hemming returned to England in 1944 with her two children and subsequently devoted herself to revitalising the women's movement. She knew many of the surviving suffragettes well, and with the help of Nancy Astor and Ellen Wilkinson in Parliament, worked with the 'Women in Westminster' group to push hard for more women MPs. And she kept close links with Canada. She was a founder member of the Canadian Women's Club in Britain, Vice-President of the International Alliance of Women, and for 40 years President of the Commonwealth Countries' League.
This was the focal point of the last 30 years of her life: the CCL was devoted to helping women from the Commonwealth, particularly from the emerging nations, get further education, and with help from diplomatic wives it became an important campaigning group and fund-raising organisation.
Their annual 'fair', which started in Alice Hemming's garden in Primrose Hill grew into an annual event at the Commonwealth Institute, and her warm and lively personality brought her lasting friendships with many of the women involved. Her unstinting generosity enveloped other visitors to Britain too: as a young broadcaster just arrived from South Africa in the late Sixties I was quickly embraced into the Hemming fold. Her large house where she lived for almost 60 years always had a room for visiting students.
She continued to support the feminists, and also population control: under her influence her son-in-law Alastair Service became involved in the movement to reform the abortion laws, and went on to be general secretary of the Family Planning Association.
Towards the end of her life as she grew frailer her public engagements had to be curtailed, but she still managed to enjoy a good party - including one given last autumn by the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, for the Commonwealth Countries' League, and a merry evening in honour of the wedding of her eldest grandson. She has left, besides her son and daughter and grandchildren, a large and devoted circle of friends, and a wider group of Commonwealth women whose involvement in public life - as doctors, lawyers, diplomats and politicians - has been in good measure due to her efforts and encouragement.
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