Aloha Wanderwell: The Border-Smashing, Record-Setting Life of the World’s Youngest Explorer;
By Christian Fink-Jensen and Randolph Eustace-Walden; Goose Lane, 421 pp., $24.95
She was a young adventurer, ready to take on the world without fear. She had a fascinating name that perfectly captured her way of life. She was also one of us.
Aloha Wanderwell spent a bit of time as a child in Qualicum Beach, and she went to school in Victoria. As a 10-year-old in 1916, she also earned a mention in the Daily Colonist — but that was before her name was Aloha Wanderwell.
She was Idris Hall then, and she took part in the St. John’s Sunday school concert in the IOOF Hall in Duncan. Along with five other girls, she sang about the delights of sewing on Wednesdays.
That might have been the closest she ever came to the domestic life that was expected for girls in those days. She went on to thrills, intrigue, and travels that are hard to comprehend today.
The story of her early years is not clear. Manitoba birth records say she was born in Winnipeg on Oct. 13, 1906, to Robert Welsh — or maybe it was Welch — and his wife (maybe) Margaret Hedley, whose maiden name, if it can be called that, might also have been Hadley.
Were Robert and Margaret married? No record of a marriage has been found. And we don’t know what happened to Robert, whether he died or divorced or just moved on. There is no definitive record to say what happened to him.
We can say, however, that on Oct. 16, 1909, in Salmon Arm, 31-year-old Margaret Hedley married 22-year-old Herbert Cecil Victor Hall.
With her mother’s marriage, three-year-old Idris Welsh became known as Idris Hall.
The Halls moved to North Vancouver, and then to 40 acres in Qualicum Beach. There they welcomed another daughter, named Margaret after her mother. Idris stayed in North Vancouver with her maternal grandparents while the Halls were building their home at Qualicum.
The 1911 census shows Idris living with her grandparents in North Vancouver, along with a sister, Mabel — but Mabel was born before her mother’s marriage to Hall, and was too old to be confused with the child Margaret. Mabel is not mentioned in the book, so that mystery, like so many others here, is not resolved.
The Great War started in 1914. Herbert Hall signed up in 1915. He was seriously injured in 1916. After she heard the news, his wife Margaret packed up her youngest daughter and headed to England, leaving Idris in a boarding school in Victoria.
Herbert Hall was killed in action in 1917, and his will gave Idris the first hint that she had not been his daughter. She was not mentioned, even though her sister was, and that meant her mother had to tell her that Hall had been her stepfather.
That revelation helped to set the stage for the rest of Idris Hall’s life. She felt there was no place where she belonged.
In 1919, 12-year-old Idris travelled alone from Victoria to England, and saw her mother and sister for the first time in three years. She ended up in a boarding school in Belgium, and her mother returned to Qualicum Beach to deal with her properties on Vancouver Island.
When her mother returned to Europe, she took her daughters to Nice, where Idris ended up in yet another boarding school.
When she was 16, Idris read that adventurer Walter Wanderwell would be giving a presentation at a local theatre, so she skipped out of school to hear him. Soon she agreed to join his travelling band of adventurers as a travelling secretary, and changed her name to Aloha.
As part of the Wanderwell expedition, Aloha travelled the world in a modified Ford Model T. Her goal was to be the first woman to drive around the world, and she proved she could drive as well as the men in the expedition.
They travelled through Europe, into Egypt, China, India and many other countries. The attractive, youthful Aloha became a star of the Wanderwell cast, which made its money by recounting the expedition’s exploits in front of any crowd willing to pay.
By 1929, Aloha was being billed as the first girl to travel around the world. By that time, she had visited 43 countries on four continents.
She had also changed her name again, thanks to her marriage to Walter Wanderwell when she was 19. Her husband had his own mysterious past; he was really a Polish immigrant named Walter Pieczynski, and he was possibly married when he met Aloha, and possibly divorced when he married her.
The day before the expedition was due to leave California in December 1932, Walter Wanderwell was shot in the back. (At the time, Aloha’s mother was back on the Island, living on Government Street in Victoria.)
The killing ended the Wanderwell expeditions, but Aloha continued her wandering ways for many years. She died in Newport Beach, California, in 1996. Her younger sister, Margaret, had died in Comox the previous year.
Hall Road in Qualicum Beach was named after Aloha’s step-father, but the Vancouver Island connections to her life have been all but forgotten.
Aloha Wanderwell, the book, is a fascinating look at her travels and her other exploits. She may have slipped from our collective memory for a few decades, but she is back.
The reviewer is the editor-in-chief of the Times Colonist.