Memoirs of a Londoner: Anna and Ellen Pigeon

The idea of climbing a mountain already seems pretty challenging, right?

Imagine doing it with the added complication of a skirt, corset, and the patriarchy.

Yeah, maybe put on the kettle instead.

Today we’re in Clapham talking about Anna and Ellen Pigeon, two amazing mountain climbers of the nineteenth-century. Anna and Ellen were sisters, the 6th and 8th children of eight, so big family! They were both born in Clapham – on Clapham Common South Side, although I couldn’t find out exactly where – and while they lived in a few other places over the years, they both also died in Clapham. Ellen at 16 Clapham Common North Side in 1902 and Anna on South Side in 1917 (now demolished, I believe on the site of the modern Lambeth College).

Block of flats containing 16 Clapham Common North Side, where Ellen Pigeon died in 1902.

They were passionate about mountain climbing and from 1864 for over ten years, would travel to the Alps every summer to climb mountains. They would plan their expeditions meticulously and were no strangers to the tough conditions of the untamed mountains, spending the nights in hay huts or sometimes even out in the open. Right at the end of a letter in 1872, Ellen casually mentions, “You may remember that my sister was suffering with her foot at Alagna. It proved to be frostbite and not inflammation only as was first supposed.” Before moving on to say that at least Anna’s delayed departure to recover meant that Ellen had had time to climb another mountain! It was the 3,969m peak of Mount Grivola. Standard.

Mount Grivola (Photo: Franco56, Wikimedia Commons)

Their most famous expedition came in 1869, when they became the first people to traverse the Sesia Joch pass between Zermatt in Switzerland and Alagna in Italy. A pass which had only ever been ascended rather than descended because it was considered such a terrifying descent. When recounting the expedition in the Alpine Journal, Anna wrote that it was most likely because of the “intense cold that we were free from falling stones”. So yeah, they might have frozen to death but at least they weren’t going to be crushed by a rock. Funnily enough, they hadn’t even intended to make history – it was only when their guide made a navigational error that they ended up making the treacherous descent. To give you a sense of the toll this journey probably took on them, their guide was described shortly after the expedition: his “face was swollen and burnt by the sun, his lips were chapped, his eyes inflamed, in one word the look of that man showed a fatigue, an extreme pain”.

At this time, in the nineteenth-century, it was still very unusual for women to be mountain climbers and even more unusual for them to be taken seriously as climbers, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that they had their fair share of critics who did not believe they had made the descent. Especially as they had done it in a relatively quick 17 hours and 45 minutes! Their account was published in newspapers and periodicals all over Italy and Switzerland before it was believed in England! It took two years of back and forth with the Alpine Club, and it was only when Ellen was able to corroborate their story with fellow climber Giuseppe Farinetti (who had seen them shortly after their expedition and knew the local mountains exceedingly well), that the sisters’ story was accepted.

Their success at Sesia Joch – despite being a mistake and, in all likelihood, a tad hair-raising at points – only boosted the sisters’ confidence. In 1874, in the space of two weeks, they climbed eight mountains over 4,000m in height. A rate of climbing that even modern-day mountaineers would find challenging to maintain. In the seven years between 1869 and 1876, the Pigeon sisters made sixty-three significant ascents and crossed over seventy of the most important passes in the Alps, always together.

In 1910, Anna also became a vice president of the Ladies’ Alpine Club and an honorary member between 1911 and 1917. The club had been founded in 1907, the first organisation specifically for women mountaineers, a necessity largely because they weren’t being given access to the male-only Alpine Club. Ellen Pigeon even mentioned at one point that, “In days gone by, many A.C.s [Alpine Club members] refused to speak to us”, because they deemed the club inferior and the women’s activities as inappropriate. I should say, this belief wasn’t universal amongst men, there were those who supported their activities. Already in 1908, at the first annual dinner of the two clubs, Herman Woolley, the Alpine Club President, praised the new organisation and confirmed that women could make “ascents of the very first order”. Who knew??
It begs the question then… why weren’t women admitted to the club from day one?

By the time Anna became a vice-president, membership to the Ladies’ Alpine Club numbered 100 women.

The Ladies’ Alpine Club would arrange climbing expeditions, organise monthly lectures, an annual dinner, and meet for tea. How charming. These activities would often take place in the Hotel Great Central in Marylebone, now the Landmark London.

It was finally in 1975 that the two clubs merged.

As well as the Pigeons, the Ladies’ Alpine Club had some very impressive members. The club’s first President, known variously as Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed, Mrs. Aubrey Le Blond, or her nickname Lizzie Le Blond, made over 100 mountain ascents in total, including, in 1884, the first ever ascent by a man or a woman of Pointe Burnaby, the eastern summit of the Bishorn mountain in Switzerland. A casual 4,134m.

Lizzie crossing a glacier by moonlight (Photo: Pearson’s Magazine)

Lizzie had a passion for photography and was one of the first people to venture into snow photography, capturing many of these Alpine views for the very first time.

Skating on Lake Sils, as photographed by Lizzie Le Blond (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that some women were making these astonishing climbs in corsets and skirts – as if life wasn’t already hard enough. That wasn’t exclusively the case, however. There are, for example, several photos of Lizzie setting off for climbs kitted out in her skirts, but this was just for propriety’s sake. Once out of the public eye, she would change into more appropriate clothing. Such was the anxiety of being discovered, however, that during one expedition Lizzie was almost at the end of a traverse of the Rothorn in Switzerland when she realised she’d left her skirt at the summit. She went back for it.

For those women who openly defied convention, life was more difficult. American climber, Annie Smith Peck, was regularly criticised for climbing in a long tunic and trousers. She countered her critics that it was “foolish in the extreme” for a woman “to waste her strength and endanger her life with a skirt”. She was also adamant that “no one should climb mountains or even hills in corsets”. Too right.

Lucy Walker, another climber, was the second President of the Ladies’ Alpine Club between 1913 and 1916, and, impressively, she did wear a skirt on all her climbs. Although, thankfully, she would remove the crinoline (the structured petticoat which made the skirt puff out) when she was far enough away from populated areas. In 1864, Lucy became the first woman to climb the Matterhorn on the Swiss-Italian border, one of the highest summits in the Alps. She also made at least sixteen other first female ascents in the process of her ninety-eight expeditions between 1858 and 1879. Well-known mountaineer Edward Whymper said of Lucy that, “it is probably correct to say that no candidate for election to the [male-only] Alpine Club has ever submitted a list of qualifications approaching the list of Miss Walker.”

Resourceful women also ensured that a skirt could be a benefit as well as a hindrance. After finding herself stranded on the side of a mountain, archaeologist and mountaineer Gertrude Bell used her skirt as a windbreak to light a fire. In addition, there were women who appreciated the privacy a skirt gave them when vacating their bladders. It’s unclear what Anna and Ellen Pigeon wore as they climbed. Some women would sew cords into the linings of their skirts, allowing it to be raised using a toggle at the waistband and others, later in the century, would button their skirts in the middle to make them more like trousers. It was only in the 1920s that knee-length breeches became the norm for women mountaineers in Europe.

Obviously, these mountainous endeavours were largely only available to women from pretty well-off backgrounds. Those who were able to find the time and funds to travel regularly to Europe and beyond, booking guides, porters, and accommodation, as well as transport. Lucy Walker was apparently known to get through several bottles of champagne on each expedition and I don’t know about you, but my tent rarely looks like this when I go camping:

Lizzie Le Blond’s bed (Photo: Bodleian Libraries)

Despite that, these were a phenomenal group of women – plus so many more I haven’t had a chance to mention. Mary Mummery who in 1887 made the first ascent of the Teufelsgrat in the middle of a thunderstorm. Lily Bristow who caused quite the scandal sharing tents with men on her expeditions. Katharine Richardson who made men uncomfortable with her dogged energy and determination: “She does not sleep, she doesn’t eat and she walks like the devil.” Margaret Jackson who made more first ascents (by a man or a woman) of peaks over 4,000m than any other woman of the nineteenth-century. Women who decided there was no glass ceiling when it came to climbing mountains.

Margaret Jackson (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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Published by Amber | Rambling London Tours

Hello, my name is Amber. A few things about me. I am a born and bred Londoner so I absolutely adore my home city, but I love travel too, which means I'm always excited about exploring new places as well as taking other travellers (like you) around the places I love. I have been working in tourism on and off since 2014, both in the UK and briefly in Australia, and in 2020 I qualified as a professional Blue Badge Tour Guide for London and the South East of England. I love history, I have a History degree, and I think tourism is the perfect way to make sure I always keep learning, meeting new people, while also giving me a career where the world is my office! Hopefully I will have the pleasure of meeting you too.

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