Obituary: Dorothy Middleton

W. R. Mead
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:07

IN THE mid-1950s Dorothy Middleton was introduced by the publisher John Murray to some letters written by the 19th-century globe-trotter Isabella Bird. Out of them grew Middleton's passionate interest in women travellers. The result was the book Victorian Lady Travellers (1965), a series of supplementary articles, related contributions for the New Dictionary of National Biography and a large number of lectures to audiences in Britain.

In 1959, jointly with A.A. Thomson, she published Lugard in Africa and her authoritative standing in Africa was reflected in the chapter on "Exploration in Africa" in the Royal Geographical Society's History of World Exploration (1991). She also edited a centennial reprint of Sir Francis Galton's The Art of Travel (1971). Her "well-qualified ladies", as they became known, naturally led her to the Royal Geographical Society, where she became a Fellow on the nomination of her brother the politician R.A. Butler. The association with the RGS marked a change in the course of her life.

Even before becoming a Fellow Dorothy Middleton was invited by the then Secretary and Director, Sir Lawrence Kirwan, to become assistant editor of The Geographical Journal, a position she held for 20 years. She was soon appointed to the society's Library and Maps Committee and became one of its longest-serving members. She served on the Council (1973-76), was made an honorary Fellow (1971) and, eventually, an Honorary Vice-President (1987). Middleton was one of the first women elected to the Geographical Dining Club when (nearly 150 years after its foundation) it ceased to be a male preserve. She was also the RGS's representative on the Council of the Hakluyt Society.

Dorothy Middleton was born in 1909 in Lahore, where her father, Sir Montagu Butler, was deputy commissioner. Subsequently, he held many senior appointments in India, finally as Governor of Central Provinces. Together with her two brothers and sister, Dorothy therefore saw much of life under the old Raj. Something of the family's experiences are recorded in Rab, Anthony Howard's 1987 biography of R.A. Butler. Dorothy was educated at boarding school in England and went on to live in Cambridge where, on his retirement, her father became Master of Pembroke College.

She retained a strong affection for India, the land of her upbringing. During the war years, she worked in the Central Office of Information. In 1938 she married Lawrence Middleton, senior partner in a family firm of solicitors. At their hospitable home in Sidney Street, Chelsea, Dorothy welcomed many "adopted" as well as actual nephews and nieces.

Dorothy Middleton had a deep concern for the traditions of the RGS and its valuable collections. When she spoke at committee meetings, it was evident that members were going to benefit from her common sense and wisdom. As with Mary Kingsley (perhaps her favourite among the lady travellers), "her judgements were always informed": her opinions, "her own and little influenced by current fashion". Her enthusiasm was infectious and she added a sparkle to any function that she attended.

She also had a great sense of fun. It pleased her to unearth a piece of doggerel from Punch when admission to admit women to the Fellowship of the society was being debated in 1893:

A lady an explorer? A traveller in skirts?

The notion's just a trifle too seraphic:

Let them stay and mind the babies, or

hem our ragged shirts.

But they mustn't, can't and shan't be geographic.

The Victorian lady travellers achieved their objective. How they would have relished the way in which, through giving new life to their adventurings, Dorothy Middleton found herself a greatly admired senior officer of a society which sought to deny their entry.

Dorothy Butler, writer: born Lahore, India 9 November 1909; married 1938 Lawrence Middleton (died 1983); died London 3 February 1999.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments