Less exacting travellers, especially those who are young and vigorous, may dispense with the expensive luxury of a courier and content themselves with the services of an Agogiates … or ordinary horse-boy."
- Baedeker's Greece: handbook for travellers (4th edn. 1909)
Her life in London is particularly fascinating; the number of (professional) working women in the city was increasing, and this fact is reflected in the society she kept. When based in London she occasionally lived in Chelsea and shared a flat with the writer and literary editor of the Westminster Gazette, Naomi Royde-Smith. I think the two of them had a comfortable quasi-Bohemian existence.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time reading Agnes’s diaries and letters, which are spread out across different collections in Britain, as well as her early published work. This includes the book in which she chronicled her Balkan adventures – A Ride Through the Balkans, On Classic Ground with a Camera (1917).
It begins with an introduction written by her father, Sir (William) Martin Conway, who had by then authored several guidebooks to the Swiss Alps - he was an experienced mountaineer. His words expressed a longing for a past time when the Alps had not been “definitely engulfed in Touristdom, and threatened if not conquered by dress clothes.” They set the tone for the kind of journey Agnes and Evelyn undertook: the antithesis of middle-class Baedeker-bound travel. In the pages of A Ride, Agnes refers several times to the pleasures of travelling third-class and staying in out of the way locations. (For those Room With a View lovers out there, remember Miss Eleanor Lavish and her penchant for the “dear dirty back way” over more familiar tourist trails.)
As Agnes and Evelyn made their way across Greece and north as far as Montenegro, the ramifications of the recent Balkan Wars on the people they encountered became more and more apparent. In the chapter on Tempe, in Thessaly, is a poignant reference to the refugees’ lot.
The whole Balkan population at that time seemed on the move. Our boat was crammed with Greeks removing all their household goods to some new home in those parts which had not been devastated by the war.”
But it’s really when they arrive at Albanian Scutari (now Shkodër) that the narrative takes a more focused look at the political situation in the Balkans. Scutari had been a battleground between Ottoman and Montenegrin forces during the Balkan Wars; Montenegro captured the city in April 1913 but it was ultimately ceded to Albania.
When Agnes and Evelyn arrived in Scutari in spring 1914 an international force of 2,000 French, German, Austrian, Italian and English troops was occupying the city to keep the peace, with a British officer, Colonel George Fraser Phillips, in command. Colonel Phillips clearly made a striking impression on Agnes – the frontispiece illustration of A Ride shows him standing with an unidentified officer and a woman outside Scutari Castle.
Agnes praised Phillips’ relationships both with his Italian and Austrian colleagues and the local communities within and outside Scutari. She was fascinated by his work diffusing what she observed to be the local propensity for "blood feuds", painting a picture of Phillips as a benevolent leader whose combination of rationality and paternalism charmed the rough Albanian mountain-dwellers into more civilised behaviour.
When she returned to Britain, Agnes published “A Glimpse of Scutari”, an article on Phillips and the people of Scutari, in the Westminster Gazette where her Chelsea flatmate Naomi Royde-Smith worked. It appeared on 23 July 1914, just under a month after the assassination of Emperor Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, prefacing Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia by five days.
During the First World War, Agnes was involved in fundraising for Belgian soldiers, and, more significantly for women’s history, collecting objects to represent the role of women during the war for the new Imperial War Museum, of which her father, Martin Conway, was the first Director.*
A Ride was published before the end of the war, and in it Agnes was recording a fast-changing world. She began her chapter on Scutari with the words:
The outbreak of European war put an end to the international occupation of Scutari early in August, 1914. The state of things I am describing is, therefore, a chapter in the past…”
Conway, A. E. 1914. A Glimpse of Scutari. Westminster Gazette, 23 July, p. 3.
Conway, A. E. 1917. A Ride through the Balkans: On Classic Ground with a Camera. London: R. Scott.
Evans, J. 1966. The Conways: A History of Three Generations. London: Museum Press.
Thornton, A. 2011. The Allure of Archaeology: Agnes Conway and Jane Harrison at Newnham College, 1903-1907. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology.
*For more on this part of her life, read here and here.
** A much more recent example of this is chronicled in a new book, Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble. And on a related note, a blogpost published this month from the National Archives presents an array of material relating to archaeologists working in intelligence during the First World War. Among the archaeologists highlighted is former BSA student and Director David George Hogarth, who was also Director of the Arab Bureau, a wartime intelligence agency based in Cairo.