Grenfell Project

  Photo: Sea ice at St. Lunaire – Griquet, Northern Peninsula, Newfoundland. May 2017

On a visit to Newfoundland from England in May 2017, I got to hear of “Grenfell of Labrador” – Wilfred Thomason Grenfell, medical doctor, Christian missionary, local hero for his lifetime of service to the 30,000 fishing people of northern Newfoundland and southern Labrador. He achieved great fame during his life, wrote 25 books, was knighted in 1927 and left behind a legacy of hospitals, orphanages and other community facilities.

My own town of Maidenhead, England has a famous Grenfell too.


William Henry Grenfell achieved fame as a sportsman, sports organiser and politician, and was made 1st Baron Desborough in 1905. An Olympic fencer himself, he delivered the London Olympics of 1908 as its president, launched numerous sporting associations and was a popular mayor and benefactor to Maidenhead.  His son Julian Grenfell, a war poet, was killed in 1915 and is commemorated in Westminster Abbey.



Their lives overlapped.

William was born in 1855, ten years before Wilfred, and died in 1945, five years after him.

But were they related?  Did they meet, or would they at least have known of each other?

It would be interesting to uncover any connections between two contemporary men.  They both had derring-do characters and, in different ways, were major drivers of change. William was a pillar of the establishment, served on hundreds of committees and had a baronetcy created for him.  Wilfred was a great publicist and earned the love and respect of ordinary people through his personal deeds.

Why just these two men? The Grenfell family tree turns out to have many interesting branches that take us to the US civil war, to Grenfell, New South Wales, into the arts and so on.  But my aim is to tell a simpler story that is inevitably selective.

I have no family connection with the Grenfells that has been uncovered yet.  My interest is in what two Victorian gentlemen, one connected with my home town, did with their talents and opportunities. It is hoped that telling their story together will help to create new connections between the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and my small part of England.

The project

Early findings: A few hours research has shown that William Henry and Wilfred Thomason were related.  They shared the same great-great-grandfather Pascoe Grenfell – a Cornishman living 1729 – 1810.

This page is not, however, about results. It is to describe how I envisage progressing the project.  The results will be a collection of web pages, maybe available as a sub-domain of The writing should be straightforward and not too detailed, with plenty of maps and photographs to provide context and colour. The story may also become an online lecture on YouTube, or a speech radio show.  But not a book.

As an online project, it is possible for multiple people and organisations to take part, contributing from anywhere in the world.  Unlike a book, an online story can continue to evolve after initial publication, and a global audience of readers can ask questions, contribute further insights and additional media. The pages can include interactive features, such as zoomable maps, voting buttons, events and other news items, links to other sites for more detail.

Through Wilfred’s own writings and via his biographer Ronald Rompkey (Grenfell of Labrador: A Biography), there is probably little new to be uncovered.  It is possible to visit the Grenfell Historical Properties in St Anthony, Newfoundland, where the story of Wilfred’s mission is well presented and thoroughly illustrated.  But St Anthony is a long drive (1,000km) from Newfoundland’s capital, St John’s.

William has no comprehensive biographer.  Much of William’s life is on public record and his domestic life is covered indirectly in Richard Davenport-Hines’ 2008 biography of wife Ethel – Ettie: The Intimate Life And Dauntless Spirit Of Lady Desborough.

Analysis and interpretation of how their lives intersect and how the information is conveyed is the new part.

Subject structure

The thinking will probably change, but here are some early thoughts about which pages to develop.

Overview Overall summary
Page navigation
Public achievements Sport and the 1908 Olympics
Medical & mission
Charity & community
Public lives (writings, entertaining)
Domestic life Wives, children, homes
War Their experiences in WW1
William’s time as a war correspondent in Sudan
On the water Both as Oxford rowers
Wilfred’s hospital boats
William and the Thames
Honours National, academic  and sporting
Significant places England (Maidenhead, Cornwall)
Newfoundland & Labrador
Family tree How they are related
Other branches and interesting characters
Timeline Main events

Useful links

Photo: On the Thames at Maidenhead: ‘Boulter’s Lock, Sunday Afternoon’, Edward John Gregory 1897

I’ll set up a Links and Credits page in due course.  Here are some key sites that have already proved useful.




Lord Desborough Exhibition 2012