This article is an extended account of the 1866 avalanche on Mont Blanc in which Henry Arkwright, his guide and two porters were killed. In Champagne and Shambles, this dramatic episode had to be cut to just two pages (85-87).
The bodies of all those killed except for Henry were recovered and buried shortly afterwards. Henry’s remains were not found for 31 years, when they emerged from the glacier and were finally interred in the little Protestant church at Chamonix (today referred to on maps in the town as the ‘Temple’ and immediately opposite the railway station). For a full account of the gruesome discovery and Henry’s burial, see Avalanche II.
Johnny Arkwright had married Lucy Davenport in June 1866. The consequence for Johnny’s mother Tally was that she would have to leave her home at Hampton Court and settle elsewhere with her younger, unmarried daughters – a wrench for all of them. To ease the transition, it had been proposed that Tally take a tour of the Continent accompanied by Henry (the eldest unmarried son, who had just been promoted to Aide de Camp to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland) Fanny (aged 25) and Alice (aged 18).
Tally’s brother, Chandos Wren Hoskyns was already on an extended trip with his family through France and Italy. Chandos’ letter to Tally of 17th July 1866 found her at the Hotel de l’Aigle in Grindelwald. (i) Chandos hoped that she would get to ‘Wengen-Alp which you see so near you, to watch the fall of the avalanches, on Jungfrau one of which burst upon my bedroom window in the middle of the night, by its blast, last September.’ (ii)
On 3rd September, Henry wrote home saying, ‘We have ventured to try our luck higher up, as the weather is so warm and settled - as otherwise I should leave Switzerland without seeing a glacier.’ (iii) Exactly a month later, the Arkwrights set off for Chamonix, a destination gaining in popularity since the visit of Emperor Napoleon III in 1860. It was not a comfortable journey. Even the emperor had been moved, by the state of the roads, to promise improvements. The village itself, when finally gained, was far from spectacular. The little settlement was still rebuilding itself after a disastrous fire in 1855, its inhabitants disagreeing over whether it should be rebuilt as the pastoral, mountain village that it had always been, or as a ‘station’ for summer tourists.
The Arkwrights’ arrival in Chamonix, after the dusty ride in a diligence, past the picturesque lake at Gaillands and over innumerable fragile wooden bridges, revealed Mont Blanc to be all that they had imagined. The snow-dredged flanks of the mountain dominated the entire experience of the visitor to this isolated valley. At the village, the valley was dizzyingly narrow with the Col du Brévent on one side, and on the other the great ‘vieil ermite à caupuchon,’ as French historian Jules Michelet had described the mountain. The arme blanche of the steely Arve river sliced through the village. Mont Blanc influenced everything at Chamonix; the names of cafés, shops and hotels, the hours of sunlight and the professions of the inhabitants. The mountain’s presence was all-pervasive. Even when running errands to the shops or sending telegraphs from the post office, it was impossible to escape the sense of being watched, that the great bulk of the mountain was over the shoulder. On the faces of the Chamoniards were carved the ravages of the unforgiving environment in which they lived. (iv)
The Arkwright party decided to make camp at the Grand Hotel Royal (v) (left) which was set slightly apart from the main part of the town and symbolically on the same side of the river as the little Protestant church.
From the steps of their hotel, they could just see the Catholic Eglise St Michel. Their choice pleased them all. Fanny and Alice had the delight of crossing the dainty bridge with its ironwork railings over the rushing, icy Avre whenever they went into town.
For Tally, a degree of privacy and quiet and the proximity of the hotel to the church were distinct advantages. For Henry, the hotel was situated midway between the thrilling Mer de Glace and the rugged Glacier des Bossons, both of which were on his list of expeditions. The blinding brilliance that met his eyes and the clarity of the air that filled his lungs made him burst into renditions of his favourite poem, Longfellow’s Excelsior. The poem was Henry’s personal inspiration for ever-higher aspiration and achievement, but in this corner of the Alps, it took a more literal form.
The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice,
A banner, with the strange device,
His brow was sad; his eye beneath
Flashed like a falchion from its sheath,
And like a silver clarion rung
The accents of that unknown tongue,
Over their first days at Chamonix, with the help of outings made to viewpoints along the valley and the experience of their guides, the Arkwright party became familiar with the directory of new names that each destination brought: the peaks of the Dôme and Aiguille du Goûter, the Tête Rousse, the Aiguille du Midi and the Mont Maudit, as well as the villages that were threaded up the valley: Argentières, Trélechamp, Le Lavancher, Le Praz, Les Bossons, Taconnaz, and les Houches. Between walks and expeditions on mule-back, the girls sketched and pressed alpine flowers, while Henry disappeared into town to seek out photographs of the glaciers and the company of the guides.
As his letter home had implied, glaciers were the ‘big game’ of the alpine holiday, and during the stay in Chamonix, Henry was determined to bag the Mer de Glace and the Glacier des Bossons. Having recovered from the responsibilities of Johnny’s wedding and looking forward to the demands of his new role in Ireland, Henry no doubt felt supremely well and invigorated, at the peak of his twenty-eight years. During his conversations with guides - men of mythical strength and endurance who related to him remarkable feats – he probably heard them tell of former expeditions to the summit of Mont Blanc. The exquisite views of the mountain, particularly at sunset from the square outside his hotel (below), combined with these tales to tempt Henry to try for the biggest prize of all. If they were going to cross the Glacier des Bossons in any case, with the weather holding out so well, why not move up from there, and try the ascent of Mont Blanc itself?
Mont Blanc had first been scaled by Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard on 8th August, 1786, just over seventy years before.
As recently as 1859, François Couttet, known as Baguette (and ‘King of the Guides’) had made the first climb to the summit by the Bosses ridge. Ascents had become quite frequent of late, but it was nevertheless a significant undertaking.
It would be folly to try the climb alone, or even to cross the Glacier des Bossons, so, as the English at Chamonix had been doing since 1741, Henry decided to find himself a guide and attempt the climb, as soon as the right conditions prevailed.
Henry approached the ‘Compagnie des Guides’ and was offered the services of Michel Simond. Simond was a guide of considerable experience. Being close to retirement from the service, he wished to make one last ascent. Two porters, Francois and Joseph Tournier, were engaged, and the departure from Chamonix was set for 12th October. Fanny, showing an adventurous streak, was determined to go some of the way, to sketch the valley from higher up. She persuaded her mother to let her go with her brother as far as the cabin at the Grand Mulets, where they would spend the night of 12th. Tally and Alice waved Henry and Fanny off and retired to the hotel to await the signal of their safe arrival at the cabin.
En route, the party was joined by Sylvain Couttet, a well-known and respected guide, and a friend of his, Nicholas Winhart, an employee of the Hotel Royal, whom Couttet had promised to take up the mountain when the occasion arose. The early part of the climb, though strenuous, was made over the scrub and scree of the lower slopes. The party then came to the edge of the crevassed part of their climb. They paused to rest, admire the view, and to slip over their boots the locally-knitted ‘chaussons,’ that would help them grip the icy surface. With the expert help of their guide and porters, Henry and Fanny successfully negotiated the crevassed Glacier des Bossons, and arrived safely at the Grand Mulets cabin by nightfall. There, the first task was to light the signal fires to let the inhabitants of Chamonix know of their arrival. The Chamoniards in turn acknowledged the signals from the mountain with the customary discharge of three small cannon. (vi)
Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan,
The morning of Saturday 13th October dawned bright and cloudless, and the party rose early to depart at 6.30am. From the cabin, the ascent should take about three hours. Dressing, Henry broke a bootlace, so Fanny gave him one of hers, and he took the broken one with him.
‘Try not the pass!’ the old man said;
‘Dark lowers the tempest overhead,
The roaring torrent is deep and wide!’
And loud the clarion voice replied,
‘O stay,’ the maiden said, ‘and rest
Thy weary head upon this breast!’
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,
‘Beware the pine-tree’s withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!’
This was the peasant’s last Good-night,
A voice replied far up the height,
Fanny saw them off, hearing Henry sing Excelsior as he set out.
The pious monks of Saint Bernard
Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,
A voice cried through the startled air,
She returned to the cabin, and began a sketch for Henry.
The six men set out early because the days were already short. For the same reason, it was decided to make the climb via the Ancien Passage. This was a route that had not been used for years since the more circuitous Corridor had become popular, but given the good state of the snow, when the moment for the decision arrived, the party opted for the steep slope of the Ancien Passage. Its ascent required the roped party to take a zigzag route up the snow. Couttet takes up the narrative. (vii)
‘I said to the porter, Joseph Tournier, who had thus far been making the tracks, ‘Let us pass on ahead; you have worked long enough. To each of us his share!’ It was to this kindly thought for my comrade that, without the slightest doubt, Winhart and I owe our salvation! We had been walking for about ten minutes near some very threatening séracs when a crack was heard above us a little to the right. Without reasoning, I instinctively cried, ‘Walk quickly!’ and I rushed forwards, while someone behind me exclaimed, ‘Not in that direction!’
‘I heard nothing more; the wind of the avalanche caught me and carried me away in its furious descent. ‘Lie down!’ I called, and at the same moment I desperately drove my stick into the harder snow beneath, and crouched down on hands and knees, my head bent and turned towards the hurricane. I felt the blocks of ice passing over my back, particles of snow were swept against my face, and I was deafened by a terrible cracking sound like thunder.
‘It was only after eight or ten minutes that the air began to clear, and then, always clinging to my axe, I perceived Winhard 6 feet below me, with the point of his stick firmly planted in the ice. The rope by which we were tied to each other was intact. I saw nothing beyond Winhard except the remains of the cloud of snow and a chaos of ice-blocks spread over an area of about 600 feet.
‘I called out at the top of my voice - no answer - I became like a madman, I burst out crying, I began to call out again - always the same silence - the silence of death.
‘I pulled out my axe, I untied the rope which joined us, and both of us, with what energy remained to us, with our brains on fire and our hearts oppressed with grief, commenced to explore in every direction the enormous mountain of shattered ice-blocks which lay below us. Finally, about 150 feet further down I saw a knapsack - then a man. It was Francois Tournier, his face terribly mutilated, and his skull smashed in by a piece of ice. The cord had been broken between Tournier and the man next to him. We continued our search in the neighbourhood of his body, but after two hours’ work could find nothing more. It was vain to make further efforts! Nothing was visible amongst the masses of débris, as big as houses, and we had no tools except my axe and Winhart’s stick. We drew the body of poor Tournier after us as far as the Grand Plateau, and with what strength remained to us we descended as fast as we could towards the hut at the Grands Mulets, where a terrible ordeal awaited me - the announcement of the catastrophe to Miss Arkwright.
‘The poor child was sitting quietly occupied with her sketching.
‘‘Well, Sylvain!’ she cried on seeing me, ‘All has gone well?’
‘‘Not altogether, Mademoiselle,’ I replied, not knowing how to begin.
‘Mademoiselle looked at me, noticed my bent head and my eyes full of tears - she rose, came towards me
-‘What is the matter? Tell me all!’
‘I could only answer, ‘Have courage, Mademoiselle.’
‘She understood me. The brave young girl knelt down and prayed for a few moments, and then got up pale, calm, dry-eyed. ‘Now you can tell me everything,’ she said, ‘I am ready.’
‘She insisted on accompanying me at once to Chamonix, where she, in her turn, would have to break the sad tidings to her mother and sister.
‘At the foot of the mountain the sister of Mademoiselle [Alice] met us, happy and smiling.
‘Do not ask me any more details of that awful day, I have not the strength to tell them to you.’
Henry’s brother, Arthur, though not present at the time, wrote later. ‘A veil may be drawn over the sorrow at Chamonix at the news of the catastrophe - husband, son, father, brother, or friend, almost all had lost one or more. Search parties were at once organized, and next morning the body of Joseph Tournier was found.’ (viii)
With their mother devastated by the news, and Fanny completely crushed by a feeling of guilt that, as the last member of the family to have seen him, she might have stopped Henry from setting out, it fell to Alice to see to many of the practical matters. She immediately telegraphed Johnny. At Hampton Court, the newly-weds had been settling in after a shooting trip to Scotland, when the frightful telegraph reached them from the Leominster Office, on 15th October:
Having dispatched telegraphs to each of his siblings, Johnny took the saddest leave of his new wife, and set off for London to meet up with whichever of the family might be free to go with him to Chamonix. Lucy was left at Hampton Court where those of her new siblings who were unable to go to France, instinctively gathered. Lucy’s experience of grief at her own brother John Davenport’s death in 1858 now served her painfully well. Henry and John had been almost the same age when they died.
Lucy’s first letter to Johnny was written on the day he left. In it, she thought of the grief of his mother, and the wretchedness of Fanny (whom Johnny often called ‘Banny’). ‘I am thinking of you the whole time and wondering what I can do to comfort you... I am so anxious to know how she bears the shock... what a comfort you will be to Banny.’ (x) By the next day, the family was arriving at Hampton Court. Arthur and Charlie were already home, and Carey and Mary were expected to join them. By 19th, when Lucy wrote, George had also been over from Pencombe, as had the Arkwright cousins, Henry and his wife Ellen, from Bodenham.
Johnny was in Chamonix within days, where Tally must have fallen upon him in grief and relief. After the recovery of Joseph Tournier’s remains only the bodies of Henry and his guide Michel Simond were still missing. As soon as she could turn her mind to practical matters, Tally asked Johnny to draft two notices for her. First, there were instructions to the Chief Guide regarding a reward of 2500 Francs that the family would offer for the return of either Henry’s body or that of the guide, or of 5,000F for both. However, Johnny stressed at Tally’s insistance that, ‘c’est le désir expres de la famille Arkwright que toutes les precautions possibles soient prises contre le danger, et que l’on ne s’expose pas a des risques inutiles. La direction de ces precautions sera confié au Chef des Guides.’ (xi)
In addition, Tally wanted Johnny to draft a note of her thanks in French to the community that had paid so dearly by their visit.
Tally’s thoughts, after the initial shock of her own loss, had turned to those of the other mothers and wives who had lost their sons and husbands. She visited them and considered how best she might help to support them and their families. A few days later, the remains of the guide, Michel Simond, were found. This left just Henry’s body to be recovered. Cruelly, the weather, which in being so unseasonably good had in part tempted Henry to make the ascent, now turned rough, and thwarted all hopes of an expedition.
From Johnny’s letters, it was obvious that Fanny was still blaming herself for having let Henry go out that morning. Lucy wrote, ‘I have read over Fanny’s long sad letter so often, poor darling... Oh I hope you will find him darling. George seemed so comforted to remember all he and the others have thought about Henry lately - that something was going on in his mind, and that many very serious thoughts were passing thro’ it. Ellen was much struck by a letter from him to her husband a short time since - such a thoughtful serious letter she said - everyone seems to have had the same impression and I cannot fancy a greater comfort now.’ (xiii)
In the only surviving letter of Johnny’s home to Lucy during the long days just waiting, uselessly, he wrote numbly, ‘I am very sad but think of you for comfort.’ (xiv) Lucy continued to pass him news of home. By 20th October, Tally’s brother Leigh Hoskyns had gone with Edwyn to Chamonix. Arthur was sorting out Henry’s things, and went ‘off to Dublin last night as they had telegraphed to say they did not understand from your telegraph where the things were to be sent - and he seemed to think he shd like to go himself to attend to it all - poor boy.’ (xv)
The effect of Henry’s death on Arthur was particularly profound. He had hero-worshipped his older brother; there were five years three months between them. Henry had been the widely-feted cricket hero at Lord’s, when Arthur was feeling very insignificant as he started at Eton. Then, Arthur had emulated Henry by joining the same regiment, although he had since transferred to the Life Guards. With his understanding of the army, Arthur was the ideal person to go to Dublin to carry out the wretched formalities of packing up and bringing Henry’s things home.
Having been reported in the national press, the news of Henry’s death had swept through Dublin too. On 20th October, Lady E L Desart wrote to Lord Abercorn, ‘I am so shocked at seeing by the Paper that it was your ADC who perished under the avalanche on Mont Blanc. I could not believe it - for I saw him so short a time ago playing with [unclear] and he did not talk of going to Switzerland! - It is very dreadful -...If you want an ADC, I have one to recommend to you...’ A similar reaction came from J W Macdonald on 22nd October, ‘The death of poor Captain Arkwright will I suppose make a vacancy on your staff...’ (xvi)
Arthur returned from Dublin on the evening of 21st October, bringing some things, ‘and the ferns he has brought them so carefully.’ (xvii) He doubtless was surrounded, while in Dublin, by the genuine grief of Henry’s brother-officers, testament to his huge popularity among his peers, and this cannot but have affected Arthur deeply. At home he had all Henry’s things put in room number 14, creating a space sacred to his brother. Arthur then set out himself for Chamonix, on 26th October.
With the frustration of the poor weather in Chamonix, the Arkwright party there was beginning to moot the possibility of never finding Henry’s body, and having to return unsuccessfully. Johnny was concerned that the family at home might think that not all was being done that could be done to find Henry. On 21st, Lucy wrote to reassure him, ‘I thought you would after all think it best to let him lie in peace on that beautiful mountain after the first impulse to find him... George has been reading the service to us and the servants etc in the chapel this morning.’ (xviii) The next day, she continued, ‘they are all here prepared I think to hear that the search has been unsuccessful and are beginning to think it wd be better, as you say, to leave him in peace where he lies - at any rate I am sure George thinks so... George suggested our singing Henry’s favourite Hymn last night - so we did so, and many others - and he said he thought perhaps you were doing the same thing at Chamonix.’ (xix)
Much concern was still being expressed for Fanny. On 23rd October, Lucy wrote, ‘yr account of Banny grieved but did not surprise us - we have all thought of that long weary descent from the Grands Mulets with that terrible secret, and been very anxious for the effect upon her. Time can only efface the impression and God grant that her health may not give way under it.’ (xx) On 27th, Lucy returned to the theme. ‘She said she could not get rid of the thought that she was last with him and might have prevented him going - and she felt that the others would think so too - I am so glad she has not mentioned it to you, for that rather proves she has got over that feeling.’ In contrast, the one bright result of the situation was the change in Alice, the youngest of the siblings, when faced with the circumstances. She was a source of unexpected strength in their midst. Lucy commented, ‘we all said this would change Alice into a woman.’ (xxi)
Charlie, meanwhile, was having to run to and fro’ London, where he was trying to sit exams for the Colonial Office. He returned to Hampton Court on 24th October. ‘He says he was 2d in the examination and Lord Caernarvon is going to let him try again very soon so he brings his lesson books with him.’ (xxii) He returned to London again the following week for another exam. By the 25th, there was still no telegram with news of finding Henry, so they began to despair at home. By 27th, to the family’s dismay, people were beginning to call at Hampton Court, ‘Mr Evans, Mr Grane [the vicar of Hope] etc. Courthope was sacrificed to them.’ (xxiii)
In spite of the evident dislike of the intrusion, life was beginning to have to return to some sort of normality, and on Sunday 28th October, all those at Hampton Court went to church at Hope. However, Mary became upset during the service, and they were obliged to leave early. This was something of a blessing, as they thus avoided having to meet people afterwards. The same day, Courthope telegrammed to Chamonix to tell them not to go on searching on account of those at home. (xxiv)
Finally, there was a break in the weather on October 30th. By now, Arthur had joined Leigh and Edwyn and the rest of the family at Chamonix. It was decided to make the ascent to the point where the avalanche had struck. Despite the despair of the past days, hopes were once again high that, as the other bodies had been found, there must be some possibiliy of finding Henry’s remains. Tally’s feelings at seeing several of her sons set off up the mountain can only be imagined. Arthur resumes the narrative:
Nevertheless, to have at least visited the place where Henry had been lost was a comfort to those who went. There being now no point in making any further attempts, Johnny returned home. He had developed a good relationship with the Chief Guide at Chamonix, who had assured him that their efforts would be sustained. It is likely that he also warned Johnny that it was not unknown for bodies to be recovered at a later date. As recently as 1860, the remains of the party of a Russian, Doctor Hamel, which had been lost in 1820, had been found at the foot of the Glacier des Bossons.
By 7th November, the rest of the Chamonix party was heading back, and the sad homecoming was achieved without further event. Lucy insisted that Tally come to Hampton Court to be with them, rather than moving to Harewood. Outwardly at least, life began to resume some normality. Johnny made trips to London on Royal Agricultural Society of England business, and showed a heifer in Gloucester in December, though he wrote to Lucy from there, ‘May you ever be what you are now to me - the profoundest comfort and happiness that mortal ever possessed.’ (xxvi)
Christmas 1866 was one of the saddest that Hampton Court had known. At every turn, thoughts went back to Henry - even the Christmas tree must have reminded them of the woods at Chamonix. Tally, leaving Johnny and Lucy to their first Christmas together, went to Byford Rectory near Garnons, where Berkeley now had the living. She wrote home on Christmas Eve, of the morrow, ‘the holy day that brings back so many thoughts as well as looks forward... How many thoughts will be in every heart as to whether the dear one departed can still look down upon us.’ (xxvii)
In the New Year, more practical matters arose out of Henry’s death. On 7th January, William Herbert of Powis Castle, wrote to Tally on behalf of Henry’s regiment, now in Malta. The Officers wished to erect a memorial in whatever form and location the family saw fit. Herbert wrote:
A window, by William Wailes, was indeed settled upon and finally installed in the east side of the north transept of the Cathedral at Hereford, where it remains today. The design chosen was of St Michael (the patron saint of soldiers) slaying a dragon. Beneath it, a brass tablet was inscribed,
‘In Memory of Henry Arkwright Fourth son of John Arkwright Esq. of Hampton Court, Herefordshire Captain of the 84th Regt who was lost in an avalanche on Mont Blanc on 13th October 1866 in the 29th year of his age. This window was erected by his brother Officers serving and who had served with him in affectionate Remembrance of the many qualities which endeared him to them all.’ (xxix) Another memorial was erected at Harrow School. Henry’s old school friend from the 1858 cricket XI, Captain William Clayton Clayton of the 9th Royal Lancers, oversaw the dedication of six of the marble columns in the new Chapel to Henry’s memory. (xxx)
Johnny wrote to Chamonix to ensure that he and Tally had covered sufficiently the costs of recovering the body should it be found. In confirming that they had, the Chief Guide added that he gathered from Mr MacKenzie, the British Consul in Geneva, that the Arkwrights were proposing to pay 65F a month or 195F a quarter to the three widows. He concluded, ‘Je ne saurais terminer sans vous témoigner ma vive reconnaissance de votre magnanime générosité à l’égard des trois veuves et de leurs familles, et je vous prie d’agréer l’assurance de mon respect et dévouement.’ (xxxi)
In time, a memorial was also erected in the Protestant church at Chamonix (left). However, no marble or brass could be a more impressive token to Henry’s memory than the great slumbering mountain itself. As a friend of Arthur’s remarked in awe when he saw the pristine slopes, ‘He has a magnificent monument.’ (xxxii)
All photographs are the copyright of the descendants of Mary Arkwright and of the author.
Text © Catherine Beale 2008
vii.Sylvain Couttet was 25 years old at this time. A Le Blonde True Tales of Mountain Adventure (Fisher Unwin, London 1906) pp98-105. I am very grateful to the author Gillian Linscott for her help in directing me to Le Blonde’s account.
xxx. Three are at the Chancel crossing, close to the Headmaster’s seat and three opposite. A Arkwright, The Harrovian magazine20th November 1897 p102 A brass still records their dedication to Henry. Clayton was himself to meet an untimely death while playing polo at Delhi on Christmas Day 1876.
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