Gertrude Emily Benham (1867-1938) English mountaineer, traveller and collector

Howgego, Raymond John

2008

Book ID 959

See also

Howgego, Raymond John Gertrude Emily Benham (1867-1938) English mountaineer, traveller and collector, 2008
Page Number: 1
Extract Date: 1867-1938

Gertrude Benham

Born in Marylebone, London, Gertrude Benham was the youngest of six children of Frederick Benham, a master ironmonger, and his wife Emily. As a young girl she accompanied her father on summer holidays in the Alps, and by her twenties she was a skilled mountaineer, making more than 130 ascents and climbing both Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. At home she resided with her family at various addresses in London, her freedom increasingly restricted by the necessity to care for her aging parents. Her father died in 1891, while the death of her mother in 1903 left her with a small inheritance which, together with her own savings, allowed her the opportunity to embark on a life of wider travel and adventure.

Extract ID: 5447

See also

Howgego, Raymond John Gertrude Emily Benham (1867-1938) English mountaineer, traveller and collector, 2008
Page Number: 2
Extract Date: 1909

a successful assault on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

In 1909 she made her way to Central Africa and, after arrival in Broken Hill (now Kabwe in Zambia), walked 900 kilometres to Abercorn (= Mbala) near the southern tip of Lake Tanganyika. From here she proceeded to Uganda and Kenya and made a successful assault on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro (see Note, below).

Nothing is known with certainty of her movements during the next three years except that she twice visited Kashmir and that in 1912 she is recorded in a passenger list of a ship steaming from Tahiti to Great Britain via San Francisco.

By 1913 she was back in Africa and in that year she ‘walked’ across the continent from Nigeria, through Cameroon, French Congo and Belgian Congo to German and British East Africa (Tanzania and Kenya), a distance of some 5000 kilometres in eleven months. En route she climbed some 'volcanoes in German East Africa'.

Extract ID: 5448

See also

Howgego, Raymond John Gertrude Emily Benham (1867-1938) English mountaineer, traveller and collector, 2008
Page Number: 3

Benham travelled alone

Throughout her travels, Benham travelled alone, aided only by porters and carrying with her the Holy Bible, a pocket edition of Shakespeare’s plays, and copies of Kipling’s Kim and Blackmore’s Lorna Doone. She sketched, collected flowers, and sold her knitting and embroidery to pay for the numerous ethnological articles collected along the way, most of which were decorative items displaying particular craft skills. Her journeys were undertaken at 'an average cost of under £250 a year'. Details of Benham’s later travels remain fragmentary, often the only evidence of her movements being the appearance of her name in ships’ passenger lists. She was in northern Nigeria in 1916, where she was reported by Selwyn Grier, a colonial officer, to be setting out with seven porters towards Cameroon, the Congo and Nyasaland (= Malawi). In 1922 she was back in East Africa, exploring around Mount Kenya and twice ascending Mount Elgin.

Extract ID: 5449

See also

Howgego, Raymond John Gertrude Emily Benham (1867-1938) English mountaineer, traveller and collector, 2008
Page Number: 4
Extract Date: 1909

Benham’s ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro

Note: Benham’s ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro in 1909 should alone have written her into the record books, but none of the histories of Kilimanjaro mention her name. That she could have completed the ascent is beyond doubt, her skill as a mountaineer exceeding that of many of her male counterparts.

It is generally assumed that a certain Frau (Clara?) von Ruckteschell was the first woman to reach the summit in February 1914, in the company of Lieutenant Walter von Ruckteschell (1882-1941), the St Petersburg-born army officer and artist.

The first British woman to achieve this distinction, in 1927, is recorded as the twenty-two-year-old Londoner, Sheila Macdonald. Unfortunately, when Benham first saw the report of Macdonald's ascent in The Times, Benham was in the West Indies and the newspaper was already several weeks old. By that time Benham could not be troubled to contradict the report, leaving it to a friend to write to The Times regarding her ascent eighteen years earlier.

The first British male to complete the ascent, despite numerous earlier failed attempts, appears to have been the celebrated geographer Clement Gillman (1882-1946). Gillman possibly made his first assault on the mountain as early as 1909, the same date as Benham, but he is better known for his successful ascent of 1921.

Extract ID: 5450

external link

See also

Howgego, Raymond John Gertrude Emily Benham (1867-1938) English mountaineer, traveller and collector, 2008
Page Number: 5


I was delighted to see that you have made use of material from my article on Gertrude Benham for your nTZinfo website. You might be interested to know that I have recently written a small book about Benham, and I have now copied information about her ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro to my article at http://www.howgego.co.uk/explorers/Gertrude_emily_Benham.htm

You are welcome to reproduce this information in full.

Congratulations on a most superb website; one to which I frequently return during my research.

Extract ID: 5485

See also

Howgego, Raymond John Gertrude Emily Benham (1867-1938) English mountaineer, traveller and collector, 2008
Page Number: 6
Extract Date: 1909

Benham's ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro (1)

From Nairobi in October 1909, Benham took the train to Voi, and at the mission house at Dabida waited three days while collecting porters for the westward trek across the Serengeti. After two day’s march, in intense heat and red dust, the porters drinking all their water by midday and becoming so exhausted that Benham had to walk behind to chivvy them along, they reached Boma and entered German territory.

From here Benham could see the two great peaks of the mountain – Kibo, the higher at 5895 metres, glistening with snow. She stopped the night at the Moravian mission at Mamba, where she was advised to proceed to the German-occupied hill town of Moshi where she would find a guide capable of leading her up the slopes of Kilimanjaro. Climbing through dense forest intersected by deep ravines, she arrived the next evening at Moshi, where the officer in charge of a small contingent of German soldiers confirmed that Kilimanjaro ‘had never been climbed by any Britisher, man or woman, and very seldom by anyone else’.

Benham started out from Moshi at 6.30 the next morning with five porters, two guides and a cook boy, hacking a path through dense forest. No precise dates are provided in the various accounts of the journey, which must have taken place October or early November 1909. The first camp was pitched at 10,000 feet (3050 metres), just beyond the limit of the forest, and provided splendid views across the plains below. Leaving most of the luggage in a single tent, the party headed up the mountain, the porters carrying firewood and blankets, until two hours later they came across two skeletons of members of a previous expedition who had died from cold and exposure.

This discovery seriously unnerved the porters, who regarded it as confirmation for their belief that the mountain was the dwelling place of evil spirits. When no amount of arguing, threatening and bribing would convince the porters to go a step further, Benham shouldered the bags herself and started out alone. This action immediately shamed the cook boy and two of the more intrepid porters into following her, the remainder electing to stay behind and guard the camp. The snow line was reached 1200 metres below the summit, and an ice cave discovered where a previous expedition had made its camp. One of the boys collected some drifting snow, intending to take it home to show his friends and family, but when the snow began to melt in the heat of the camp fire, the guides thought it bewitched and resolutely refused to go any further.

Extract ID: 5486

See also

Howgego, Raymond John Gertrude Emily Benham (1867-1938) English mountaineer, traveller and collector, 2008
Page Number: 7

Benham's ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro (2)

Overnight camp was established in the ice cave, then on the next day, after one of the guides had pointed out the best route to the summit, Benham pressed on alone, passing 16,000 feet (4880 metres) and a short time later coming to glacier ice covered with drifting snow. Apparently immune from mountain sickness, and climbing alternately on rock and snow, she reached the rim of the crater at 2 pm, looking inside and taking care to step on rocks rather than snow that might be overhanging the cavity.

She reported: ‘My first feeling up there was that of being absolutely on top of the world’. The highest point seemed to be some distance ‘to the left’, but as there was ‘not much difference in height’, and ‘since the snow slope was steep’, she decided not to make for the higher peak but instead begin her descent. Navigating by compass through thick mist, and following the marks made by her ice axe on the way up, she managed to locate the camp in the ice cave, although only after glimpsing the bright red garments worn by the cook boy.

By now her men had burned all the wood they had brought up, so a chilly night was spent in the ice cave. The early morning brought a fall of snow but conditions soon became beautifully clear, affording glorious views of mounts Kibo and Meru, Lake Jipe to the southeast, and beyond it the Ugweno Range. The descent brought the party back to the first camp at 11 am, and on the next day Benham’s porters arrived with food and provisions from the Moravian mission, together with a note of congratulation from the missionaries themselves.

Benham dismissed her porters so as to remain alone at the camp for a further four days, sketching the magnificent views before descending to Moshi. After settling her accounts and paying off the guides, Benham returned via Taveta, from where the resident German commander, recorded only as ‘Captain L.’ took her on a tour to Lake Chala, a crater lake surrounded by sheer cliffs. Making her way back across the Serengeti, she arrived at Mwatate, packed her tent and such things she did not require, then walked to the railway station at Voi, from where a train brought her to Mombasa in November 1909.

On 27 November she despatched a brief letter to The Times, recording her travels and her ascent of Kilimanjaro, then at Mombasa boarded a cargo steamer which would take her to Madagascar and Mauritius.

Extract ID: 5487

See also

Howgego, Raymond John Gertrude Emily Benham (1867-1938) English mountaineer, traveller and collector, 2008
Page Number: 8
Extract Date: 1909

Benham's ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro (3)

Benham’s ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro should alone have written her into the record books, but few of the histories of the mountain even mention her name.

Attempts to climb the mountain by all-male parties had started back in the 1860s, but it was not until 6 October 1889 that a team under the direction of Hans Meyer reached the summit of what was called ‘Kaiser-Wilhelm-Spitze’, now known as Kibo.

Climate change has rendered the mountain far more accessible to modern climbers than it was in the early 1900s, when snow lay thickly on its peaks and climbers could quite easily sacrifice their lives to the sudden blizzards that could sweep without warning across the notorious higher slopes.

It is generally assumed that a certain Frau (Clara?) von Ruckteschell was the first woman on the mountain when, in February 1914, she accompanied the St Petersburg-born army officer and artist, Lieutenant Walter von Ruckteschell (1882-1941). It appears that the Von Rukteschells failed to reach the Kibo summit.

The first British woman generally recognised as having achieved this distinction was the twenty-two-year-old Londoner, Sheila Macdonald (later Mrs Sheila Combe), who on 31 July 1927 reached the summit of Kibo in the company of William C. West, a member of the Alpine Club.

The first British male to complete the ascent, despite numerous earlier failed attempts, appears to have been the celebrated geographer Clement Gillman (1882-1946). Gillman possibly made his first assault on the mountain as early as 1909, about the same time as Benham, but apparently did not reach the summit until 1921.

Unfortunately, when Benham first saw the report of Macdonald’s ascent in The Times, she was in the West Indies and the newspaper was already several weeks old. By that time she could hardly be troubled to contradict the report, leaving it to a friend to inform the newspaper of her ascent eighteen years earlier.

This friend, whom Benham had met in Nigeria in 1913 and was possibly the colonial officer Selwyn Grier, wrote to The Times under the pseudonym ‘West African’, reporting Benham’s ascent and commenting briefly on her 1913 crossing of Africa. A somewhat belated account of Benham’s ascent of Kilimanjaro was carried by a brief article in the Daily Mail in February 1928.

However, in 1931 a certain Colonel E.L. Strutt wrote to The Times supporting Sheila Macdonald’s claim to have been the first woman to conquer the peak, stating: ‘Miss Gertrude Benham, about 1911 [sic], reached the rim of the crater – some two-three hours below the summit – and never claimed to have gone any higher’. In fact Strutt was perfectly justified in passing the accolade to Macdonald.

Benham had reached the edge of the crater now known as Mawenzi (5149 metres or 16,890 feet), which is the second highest of Kilimanjaro’s three peaks. Rather than being, as Benham put it, ‘not much difference in height’, the higher peak, Kibo, stands at 5895 metres or 19,340 feet, and nowadays involves a challenging ascent over lose open scree. Benham might have accomplished this, given another day, but modern climbers prefer to make the final assault at night or in the early morning when the scree is frozen together.

Extract ID: 5488

See also

Howgego, Raymond John Gertrude Emily Benham (1867-1938) English mountaineer, traveller and collector, 2008
Page Number: 9
Extract Date: 1909

Bibliography

Howgego, Raymond John, Gertrude Emily Benham: a ‘very quiet and harmless traveller’, 2007, 30-page typescript ms. in the Royal Geographical Society Library, pamphlets collection.

Primary sources:

The confidential file recording Benham’s movements on the Indo-Tibetan border (1923-27) is in the British Library’s Oriental and India Office Collection (ref: L/P & S/10/1014-2 File P.3971/1921 Pt 8 53ff). Letters from Benham can also be found in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society and Natural History Museum. The Archives New Zealand, Te Rua Mahara o te Kawanatagana, has letters from Benham regarding her confrontations with South Island guides, their responses, newspaper clippings, etc.

Benham, Gertrude, ‘Lefroy and Victoria: first ascents of the season’, Crag and Canyon, 5 (11), Banff, 16 July 1904. (Original in the Whyte Museum of the Rockies, Banff.)

Benham, Gertrude E., ‘The Canadian Rockies’, Alpine Journal, 166, Nov. 1904

Benham, Gertrude E., ‘The ascent of Mt. Assiniboine’, Canadian Alpine Journal, 1, 1907.

Benham, Miss G.E., ‘[Letter]’, New Zealand Herald, 20 March 1905.

Benham, Miss E. [sic], ‘An Englishwoman in Central Africa’, The Times, 20 Dec. 1909 [18 column lines].

Benham, Gertrude M. [sic], ‘On foot across Africa’, The Times, 29 Nov. 1913 [35 column lines]. It appears that a similar article, illustrated with a photograph, was printed about the same time in the Daily Telegraph.

Benham, Gertrude E., ‘[Letter]’, Natal Times, 19 April 1927.

Benham, Gertrude, ‘[Ascent of Kilimanjaro]’, Daily Mail, 13 Feb. 1928; reprinted in Cyndi Smith, Off the beaten track: women adventurers and mountaineers in western Canada, Jasper 1989, pp. 131-2.

Benham, Gertrude E., ‘A woman on Kamet: the adventure of an artist’, The Times, 17 Feb. 1932 [120 column lines].

Benham, Gertrude E., ‘My tramps in the Himalayas’, Journal of the Madras Geographical Association 8, 1933, pp. 9-13.

Benham, Gertrude E, ‘[Letter]’, The Times (Johannesburg), 21 March 1937 [sent from Bulawayo].

Secondary sources:

Anon., ‘Miss G.E. Benham’, The Times, 16 Dec. 1938 [obituary].

[Benham, Gertrude], ‘[Interview]’, Daily News, 20 Jan. 1928.

[Benham, Gertrude], [Interview titled ‘Woman in the wilds: unarmed among savage animals’], Daily Mail, 30 Jan. 1928.

Graham, P., Peter Graham: mountain guide, Wellington 1965 [for Benham in the Southern Alps].

Hessell Tiltman, Marjorie, Women in modern adventure (London 1935).

Hoyle, B.S., ‘Gillman of Tanganyika, 1882-1946: pioneer geographer’, Geographical Journal 152, 3, Nov. 1986.

Kaufmann, Hans & Christian, ‘The Führerbücher of Hans and Christian Kaufmann’, The American Alpine Journal, 5 (1) 1943, pp. 111-125 [includes a photocopy of a signed letter by Benham, also reproduced in Smith, op. cit.].

Langton, Graham, ‘Mountain climbing: a sporting connection between Britain and New Zealand’ (Palmerston North; Internet resource).

Light, Richard U., ‘Obituary: Clement Gillman’, Geographical Review 37, 1, Jan. 1947.

Newton, Revd Henry, Diary of the climber Revd Henry Newton, 1905, in the Hocken Library, Dunedin, NZ (unpublished mss.).

Ruckteschell, Walter von, ‘Der Feldzug in Ostafrica’ in G.F. von Lettow-Vorbeck, Um Vaterland und Kolonie (1919).

Smith, Cyndi, Off the beaten track (Jasper 1989 [include’s Benham’s ‘The ascent of Mount Assiniboine’]).

Smythe, Frank S., Kamet conquered (London 1932).

Strutt, Colonel E.L., ‘Ascents of Kilimanjaro’, The Times, 13 June 1931 [in ‘Points from Letters’].

Stuart-Mogg, David, ‘Miss Gertrude Benham’, Society of Malawi Journal 58, 1, 2005.

Unger-Richter, Birgitta, Walter von Ruckteschell, 1882-1941 (Dachau 1993).

‘West African’, ‘A woman mountaineer’, The Times, 29 Aug. 1927.

This article was written by Raymond John Howgego. It is here placed in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission provided that acknowledgment is made to the author.

Extract ID: 5489
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