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The Climber by JP Taylor


Memorial on Helvelyn by Herbert Bell

Memorial on Helvelyn by Herbert Bell

The Mountaineering Collection at the Armitt

Men cannot exist without a philosophy of some kind… the philosophy of the hills is a simple one, on them we approach a little nearer to the ends of the earth and the beginnings of heaven’

F. S. Smythe 1931

The English Lake District was one of three key locations, the others being the Elbe sandstone mountains in Saxony & the Dolomites in Italy,  in which rock-climbing developed as a distinct sport (i.e. separate from Alpine mountaineering) in the 1880s & 1890s.  While Alpine mountaineering remained largely the preserve of the English upper class, the coming of the railways in the later part of the 19th century gave many, particularly from the northern industrial cities, access to areas such as the Lake District.

Some of the earliest recorded climbs were made by W P Haskett-Smith on Pillar with the first ascent of Napes Needle on Napes Crag, Great Gable in June 1886, where he left his handkerchief on the top fluttering in the wind.

The first ever rock climbing group in the Lake District, the Fell & Rock Climbing Club, were formed in 1907 and held their first ever meeting at the Sun Inn, Coniston. Ashley Abraham of Keswick was elected as its first president. The chief objective of the club was:

“To encourage and foster under the safest and most helpful of conditions the exhilarating exercise and sport of Fell Rambling and Rock Climbing in the Lake District.”

Safety was an issue at the time, since several fatal accidents had occurred recently. Alluding to these, Abraham commented at the first annual dinner:

“Lack of discretion is a great evil in rock climbing, but there is another evil equally as great, and that is competitive climbing. This has been the fundamental cause of most of our home accidents.”

The club now has well over a thousand members, owns huts and cottages in the Lake District and Scotland and produces widely-used rock climbing guides such as Lake District Rock

The Armitt Library’s collections of books and photographs cover the history of rock climbing during this and subsequent periods. In addition, there is also substantial material on fell walking in the Lake District and also Alpinism and mountaineering more generally.


Library: Mountaineering Collection

Visitors to the library can read accounts of early benchmarks in the history of rock climbing in the Lake District, such as the following:

– W.P. Haskett-Smith’s first ascent of Napes Needle, climbing free solo (without a rope) in 1886.

– Owen Glynne Jones’ climb of Kern Knotts Crack, (Great Gable) in 1897.

– The climb led by Siegfried Herford of Flake Pitch on Central Buttress (Scafell) in 1914.

“We did not find our friend but in descending I dreamed of the Golden Age.”

The scope of library’s mountaineering book collection extends much further than this. It contains works dating from the 1890s to the 1990s, many now out of print. As well as books on the history of rock climbing, it contains histories and accounts of mountaineering from across the world. The collection also covers geology, botany, biography and travelogues where they relate to mountaineering in some aspect. Also in the collection are the journals of the Fell & Rock Climbing Club 1907-2004.


Highlight’s from the Mountaineering Library Collection:

‘Matterhorn’, Guido Rey (1897)

‘Rock Climbing in the English Lake District’   O.G. Jones, 2nd edn. (1900)

‘The Complete Mountaineer‘ George Abraham (1907) – [Incl. photographs]

‘Englishmen in the Alps’, A. Lunn ed. (1913)

The Fight for Everest 1924’, E.F. Norton (1925)

‘South Col’,  Wilfred Noyce (1954)

‘Climbing Days’,  Dorothy Pilley (1935) –   [Prominent female mountaineer who climbed in the Lake District , the Alps & North America]

‘Night Climbing in Cambridge’,  Whipplenaith (1952) – [Author is NH Symington]

‘Conquistadors of the Useless; From the Alps to Annapurna—and beyond’, L Terry (1963)


 The Photographic Archive

The Lake District can be thought of as a ‘territory of the imagination’, a creation of culture mediated through the printed word and illustration. In the latter half of the 19th century, the invention of photography revolutionized this process of cultural representation and, in addition, would help to establish a strong link between the new sport of rock climbing (as well as fell walking) and the cultural identity of the Lake District.

The most important practitioners in this respect were the Keswick-based photographic entrepreneurs and accomplished rock climbers, George and Ashley Abraham. At the turn of the 20th century, the Abraham brothers’ iconic photographs, such as the striking scene of climbers on Napes Needle (overleaf), were sold as inexpensive postcards and served to popularise the Lake District as a tourist destination for fell walking and rock climbing enthusiasts.

“There in the upper world where the emptiest air meets earth at its most ironbound, most structural, they danced their solemn dance.”  

The Armitt’s photographic archive contains many early photographs and lantern slides showing rock climbing and fell walking scenes; including a selection of the Abraham brothers  photographs and the equally interesting, but rarely seen, JP Taylor lantern slides take in the 1930s (see above and on the right in this section).

Many of the photographs have been digitised and are available to view or, where copyright allows, to purchase as prints.


The Alfred Wainwright Collection

The Armitt Library has a First Edition set of Wainwright’s seven-volume ‘Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells’.  The Pictorial Guides, which were first published between 1955 and 1966, consist entirely of reproductions of Wainwright’s handwritten manuscripts and are a guide to 214 of the English Lake District Fells.

Wainwright was born in Blackburn, Lancashire in 1907. He took his first holiday to the Lake District at the age of 23 and was eventually able to move to his beloved Lake District in 1941 after securing a position in the Borough Treasures Office in Kendal. He lived and worked in the town for the rest of his life.

“I was totally transfixed, unable to believe my eyes; I had never seen anything like this.”

Wainwright started work on his first Pictorial Guide in 1952, finally completing the series 13 years later.  He started the project for his own interest and the books were published using his own handwritten manuscripts and drawings. Wainwright died in 1991 and his ashes were scattered beside Innominate Tarn near the summit of his favourite mountain, Haystacks. There is also a memorial to Wainwright in the church at Buttermere.


Oral History Collections

The Ambleside Oral History Group Archive contains over 300 recordings of local people.

The transcripts available to search at the Armitt Library and Ambleside Library contain a wealth of information and memories dating back as far as the 1890’s.  The subjects are many and varied but there is a great deal of information available on mountaineering and fell sports.

Many people in the local area were concerned with the creation and development of mountain rescue services and many of the transcripts discuss memories  of the Langdale Mountain Rescue Service and the St. John’s Air Ambulance. There is also information on search and rescue dogs.

Other topics discussed include rock climbing, fell walking, fell- running and skiing.

‘Such, after all, are the only possessions of which no fate, no cosmic catastrophe can deprive us; nothing can alter the fact if for one moment in eternity we have really lived.’

Eric Shipton 1944