Hart, Alice (1848–1931), philanthropist, artist, and businesswoman, was born Alice Maria Rowland , daughter of Alex William Rowland (d. 1869), a merchant with a family fortune derived from the Rowland Macassar oil company, and his wife Henrietta Maria Margeretta (née Ditges; d. 1851). The family lived at Lower Sydenham, London. Alice matriculated at the Apothecaries Society, London, and also studied medicine in Paris, probably before her marriage in 1872 to Ernest Hart (1835–98), surgeon and editor (1866–98) of the British Medical Journal. He wrote numerous books on medical and sanitary reform and had a strong philanthropic bent, as did his wife, who assisted her sister, Dame Henrietta Rowland Barnett (1851–1936) in giving classes to the poor at Toynbee Hall (established by Henrietta's husband, Canon Samuel Barnett, to combat poverty in the East End). Another sister, Fanny, was badly brain-damaged.
In summer 1883 the Harts, concerned by reports of famine, paid a visit to north-west Donegal. They encountered such deprivation that Alice Hart made a public appeal for money. The immediate need met, she turned her attention to the lack of employment in the area, and determined to revive cottage industries. Weaving had once flourished in the region, so she secured a London market for hand-knits and by December 1883 the Donegal Industrial Fund was in business, with a starting capital of just £50. The fund's tweeds were shown at the International Health exhibition in London in 1884 and proved so successful that Alice Hart then opened a small shop at 31 New Cavendish St., London. She set about improving the quality and variety of cloths by sending specimens of Scottish tweed for the Donegal workers to copy, and personally undertook experiments to assess the dyeing properties of wild Donegal plants. The resulting shades from heathers, mosses, and bog-ore were awarded a Sanitary Institute of Great Britain medal. She had found an outlet for her varied talents and entrepreneurial energy.
Her sister wrote of her: ‘She narrates brilliantly but dislikes discussion, the best of her mind being assertively scientific and her interests those of chemistry applied to industrial enterprises. She reads voraciously, sketches dramatically, has a sunny temper and is a trained doctor and an observant nurse’ (Barnett, 149). She soon extended the fund's activities. In 1885 a letter to thirty Irish newspapers, appealing to the ladies of Ireland for assistance in organising embroidery for the peasantry, resulted in the ‘Kells embroidery’ schools. At these classes, held all over Ireland, other than in Donegal, women taught village girls to embroider flax on linen after designs taken chiefly from ancient Irish manuscripts. Other motifs came from Japanese art. The Harts were members of the Japan Society in London, had travelled widely in the country, and had an important collection of Japanese art. It is likely that Alice Hart created the Japanese designs herself; she was a noted watercolourist who showed in the Dowdeswell galleries and Dudley gallery, and was commended by the Magazine of Art (1895) for her pastel landscapes of the far east. The Kells embroidery schools produced curtains, tablecloths, book-covers, and other household items. Their work was introduced at the 1885 International Inventions Exhibition in London, where it won a gold medal.
By 1886 the Donegal Industrial Fund had moved to a larger premises at 43 Wigmore St., London, which became known as ‘Donegal House’, and the next year Alice Hart was given a government grant of £1,000 to enable her to open schools for instruction in weaving and embroidery. She also invested £5,000 of her own money and £1,500 of her friends’. Her work was showcased triumphantly at the Olympia exhibition in London (1888), where she reproduced, as the most extensive exhibit, a ‘Donegal industrial village’, consisting of an Irish cross, a ruined tower, and twelve thatched cottages in an irregular street, where spinners, embroiderers, and lace-makers showed their trades.
Her next plan, in summer 1888, was the revival of carpentry and woodcarving, and to this end she brought Donegal farm labourers to train at the Regent St. Polytechnic, London, prior to opening a workshop in Gweedore in October 1891. As well as the usual orders for carts, barrows, and cradles, they received commissions for carved artistic work. Lady Aberdeen (qv), wife of the viceroy of Ireland and patron of the ‘Irish industries association’, commissioned twenty-four carved owls to be mounted on the oriel windows of her house. After the success of the Donegal industrial village at the Olympia exhibition, Hart suggested to Lady Aberdeen the creation of a similar village for the World's Fair in Chicago (1893). They intended a joint effort but differences arose, and in the end there were two Irish villages at Chicago. In 1896 Hart ceased managing the Donegal Industrial Fund, possibly due to the ill health of her husband, who died in January 1898. She continued to paint – Home Art Work commended her on an exhibition in April 1902 – and in 1904 was editor of House Beautiful. She died, childless, in 1931.
The Donegal Industrial Fund was among the most widely supported enterprises of its kind, and was enthusiastically reviewed in popular women's magazines such as Queen, the Lady's World, and Woman's World as well as more serious papers such as the British Architect and the Irish Textile Journal, but it failed to survive without Alice Hart's energy, enterprise, and purse.