The Ruskin Museum, Coniston, Cumbria

The Ruskin Museum

Telling the Story of Coniston Since 1901

Tel: 01539 441164

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Coniston and Lake District Climbing

The Coniston Tigers

Happy, adventurous days on the fells and crags around Coniston

In 1931, shortly after the first ascent of Tiger Traverse, on B Buttress on Dow Crags, by Harry Griffin, Dick Mackereth and Bryan Tyson, a group of keen climbers, who spent their spare weekends climbing on Dow Crags and Gimmer Crag, formed themselves into, not a club, but, as Harry Griffin describes, in The Coniston Tigers, ‘a group of Crag Rats’ or ‘Tigers’.

The original members were Harry Griffin himself from Barrow, who became a distinguished journalist and author, and who once took Leo Villa’s observer’s seat in Bluebird K4; Tommy Tyson, an Ulverston motor engineer, and Jack Diamond from Barrow, later a schoolmaster at Coniston. Jim Porter, from Eskdale, was regarded as the best climber in the group, having led Black Wall in Easter Gully, Dow Crag, considered at that time to be an extremely severe route. Other Tigers included Jim Phillips from Dalton, and George Anderson, Jack Atkinson, Len Brown and Dave Birch from Barrow, where all held responsible positions at Vickers Ship Yards.

By early 1932, the Coniston Tigers had bought a former garage at Coniston Hall Farm, and converted it into a very basic ‘hut’, the second such base in the Lake District: the Wayfarers Club’s Robertson Lamb Hut in Langdale having been opened in 1931.

Later Coniston Tigers include: the ironmonger Jack Blackshaw, who also became a prominent member of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club; Sid Cross, landlord of the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, Leader of the Langdale Mountain Rescue Team, and President of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club.

Alan  Bennet  [A B]  Hargreaves, 1902 - 1996

The tweed jacket, ice axe, mitts and boots belonged to the man known simply to his friends as ‘A B’.

He was a rock-climbing pioneer in the Lake District and Wales,in partnership with the best climbers of the period, including Colin Kirkus, Jack Longland, Ted Hicks and Menlove Edwards.

The blood stains are believed to date from Good Friday 1930, when A B saved the life of Colin Kirkus in a serious fall from the notorious overhanging South America Crack on Dow Crag’s Great Central Route. Hurtling through the air past the tiny stance on which AB was belayed, Kirkus bounced on a ledge 50ft below, and finally came to rest in a crack just above the scree. He had fallen 70ft, and his sole injury was a broken toe. Hargreaves, climbing second, with the hemp rope held diagonally across his back and shoulder and wrapped around each wrist, was not so lucky. The rope with which he had arrested Kirkus’s fall had torn and burnt his hands to the bone; his nose was broken, the shock of the fall having pulled him into the crag. Few other climbers of the time could have saved Kirkus from serious injury.

In his book, Let’s Go Climbing, Kirkus paid tribute: ‘To AB , a belay is an engineering problem, not to be used until it is as perfect as possible. He delights in constructing safe anchorages in the most appalling situations.’

A B’s climbing career began  in 1927 with the Wayfarers Club. His first Alpine season was in 1928. He was President of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club from 1952 to 1954, and of the Climbers Club from 1960 to 1963.

A B was a keen conservationist, a founder member of the Friends of the Lake District in 1934, and founder and director of The Lake District Farm Estates, a not-for-profit company which bought Lakeland farms to let to tenants to farm and maintain in the traditional way.

He served on the Lake District National Park Special Planning Board; he was awarded the Queen’s Silver Medal for his services to the Lake District in 1977.

Coniston and the Matterhorn

Those who know Wainwright’s Guides will know that he likened the topography of Coniston and The Old Man of  Coniston to Zermatt and the Matterhorn.

Those who know the adventures of Arthur Ransome’s  Swallows and Amazons will know that, in their youth, Mrs Blackett and Captain Flint’s  private name  for The Old Man was ‘the Matterhorn.’

There is a connection between Coniston and the Matterhorn.

Prior to Ruskin’s purchase of Brantwood, previous occupants included the Hudson family.
Their son, Charles Hudson, 1828 - 1865, was killed on the way down from the first ascent of the Matterhorn.

Charles Hudson was one of the most important climbers of the golden age of alpinism.
He is considered a pioneer of guide-less and winter climbing in the western Alps, having made the first guide-less ascent of Mont Blanc in 1855, the first official ascent of Mont Blanc du Tacul in 1855, a guide-less ascent of the Breithorn, and a near ascent of Ruskin’s admired Aiguille du Gouter, solo in winter.

Ten years later, in 1865, Hudson and Michael Croz  were planning to attempt the summit of Mont Blanc. This was also the objective of Edward Whymper [1840 - 1911], who had failed to climb the mountain nine times before, and his friend Lord Francis Douglas.The two parties agreed to combine.

On 14 July 1865, Whymper, Douglas, Croz, Hudson, his friend Douglas Robert Hadow,
and two father and son Zermatt guides both named Peter Taugwalder, made the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn. Tragedy struck on the way down. Hadow slipped, not far from the summit, pulling Croz, Hudson, and Douglas down the north face of the mountain. The rope between these four and the other three - Whymper and the Taugwalders - snapped, saving them from the same fate. Controversy soon followed, with allegations the rope had been cut, but a formal investigation found no proof.

Hudson’s body was recovered from the Matterhorn glacier; he is buried at Zermatt.

John Ruskin and his Aide-de-Camp, W. G. Collingwood, were members of The Alpine Club, based in London. Collingwood was a member of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the Lake District, as was his friend, the Arts & Crafts artist-craftsman furniture designer and maker, Arthur Simpson.

Coniston suffered a second Alpine tragedy in 1874.

In 1835 James Garth Marshall, 1820 - 1873, purchased the Monk Coniston Estate, later inherited by his elder son, Victor Alexander Ernest Garth Marshall, 1841 - 1928.

James Garth Marshall’s younger son, James Aubrey Garth Marshall, 1844 - 1874, was a keen and competent Alpine climber. On 26 August 1874, accompanied by his guides, Johann Fischer and Ulrich Almer, [son of the famous Alpine guide, Christian Almer], Marshall made the first successful ascent of the Aiguille de Triolet, a peak in the Mont Blanc massif.

On 31 August 1874, the same three men attempted a potential southerly ascent of Mont Blanc de Courmayeur, almost certainly becoming the first to climb Pic Eccles, [4,041m], at the foot of the Arete de l’Innominata, in the process. On the descent from Pic Eccles, the roped party fell into a crevasse on the Glacier du Brouillard.

Marshall and Fischer were killed, but Ulrich Almer survived; he managed to climb out, and raised the alarm in Courmayeur. Marshall’s body was recovered; he is buried at Courmayeur.

The Abraham Brothers

The Abrahams are the best known of all the Lake District photographers of the Victorian period.

George Perry Ashley Abraham was born in Devizes in 1844, and began his photographic career in London with Elliott and Fry of Baker Street, famous for their carte-de-visite. One of their most celebrated sitters was John Ruskin.

Abraham moved to Keswick in 1862, as an apprentice to Alfred Pettitt, who had just opened a new art gallery on Ambleside Road. Four years later, in 1866, Abraham established his own business on Lake Road, where he concentrated on portraits, but also indulged in landscapes, his main passion. In due course he became a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.

Two of his five children, George Dixon Abraham, 1870 - 1965, and Ashley Perry Abraham,1876 - 1951, joined the business and became world famous as ‘The Abraham Brothers’, sometimes ‘The Keswick Brothers’, pioneers of British rock and mountain climbing, and famous alpinists, who associated with such great climbers as Owen Glynne Jones, and contributed a great deal to the development of this sport. They were Founder Members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the Lake District, attending - and photographing - the first meet at The Sun , in Coniston, which became the venue for the Annual Dinner. Ashley served as the FRCC’s  Founder President in 1907.

The Abraham Brothers were amongst the first to photograph the action on the crags, venturing, heavily laden with bulky plate cameras and tripods and spare glass plates, to rocky perches and ledges inaccessible to their competitors, in order to capture dramatic shots of climbers attempting new routes.

During their illustrious photographic careers, they claimed many ‘firsts’ - aerial photography from a Tiger Moth before the First World War; some of the first colour transparencies published by the National Geographic; the first postcards of the Lakes, inspired by Swiss examples; writing one of the first motoring books, [often making the first motorised ascents of the passes]; illustrating numerous climbing books, notably the classic Rock Climbing in the English Lake District by O.G. Jones, the first ‘Tiger’. 

The Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the English Lake District

Often shortened to ‘The Fell & Rock’ or FRCC, is the premier rock-climbing and mountaineering club in the Lake District.

The idea of founding a climbing club was first proposed by John Wilson Robinson about 1887, when the sport of rock climbing was being pioneered in England. Robinson climbed with Walter Parry Haskett Smith, generally acknowledged as the father of rock climbing in Great Britain. In 1885, Robinson introduced the use of the alpine rope on the Lakeland crags.

The FRCC dates from a meeting held at tea-time on 11 November 1906, at the Sun Hotel , Coniston, after a day on Dow Crags, often described as the Opening Meet, though the first formal Meet was held at the Wastwater Hotel on 30 March 1907.

The impetus came from Edward Scantlebury ; his friends A.Craig and C.Grayson, who had spent the day with him on Dow Crags, [later recorded as the Opening Meet], and one other, were the founder members of this new climbing club. After some debate, [‘The Coniston Climbers’ was considered too localised, but the ‘Lake District Climbing Club’ excluded fell walkers],they decided that its name would be ‘The Fell and Rock Climbing Club’, as this ‘so well expressed’ their ‘objects, viz:- the encouragement of Fell Rambling & Rock Climbing & as we intended that the club should be for the Lake District only - we added to the title the words “of the English Lake District”.’

Resolutions were made in order to justify an annual subscription of half a crown, [2/6 in old money or 12 ½ pence in new money], and forwarded to Mr Ashley Abraham, inviting him to join. He offered to present a copy of Rock Climbing in the English Lake District by O.G.Jones. This was accepted, and Abraham was invited to be President. Other members were then recruited, the first to join being George Seatree, who, on 16 January 1907, was made a Vice-President, as was John Wilson Robinson.

The Sun Hotel became the venue for the FRCC’s Annual Dinner.

The FRCC bought a large area of the Lake District above the 1500ft contour and then gifted it to The National Trust as a memorial to those FRCC members killed in the First World War. There is a commemorative plaque on the summit of Great Gable, where an Act of Remembrance is held every November. Armistice Day, 11 November, is, of course, co-incidentally, the FRCC’s own anniversary.

The FRCC has published the definitive series of climbing guides to the Lakes since 1922.