John Birkbeck (1817-1890) and John Birkbeck (1842-1892), mountaineers

Michael Slater
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

The Birkbeck family have contributed much to local and national developments in trade, banking and education. The name of John Birkbeck is to be found in the mountaineering museum in Zermatt, a village sitting under the shadow of the magnificent Matterhorn. It is recorded there that he along with companions was the first to set foot on the highest summit of Monte Rosa in Switzerland in 1855.

John Birkbeck (senior) was born in Settle in 1817 and died there in 1890. He was the eldest of five children whose family set up the Craven Bank with others in 1791. John was educated at Giggleswick School then went to Trinity College, Cambridge. But as a Quaker he was not eligible to take a degree. (He joined the Church of England in 1841). While at Cambridge he made friends with John Ball who became the first President of the Alpine Club. John entered the bank after leaving Cambridge and became a partner in 1844 when his father died. In 1880 he was a senior partner and later chairman until he died in 1890.

John Birkbeck’s climbing activity was typical of a man of means at the time with the money and leisure to indulge in exploration of the Swiss Alps, along with clergy and academics. In his youth he covered 60 miles a day in Scotland on several occasions so his stamina was typical of the climbing pioneers whose exploits can still amaze us. John explored local potholes and in 1848 a party of guests was lowered in a basket into ‘Hellen’ (Alum) pot. The Alpine Golden Age was ushered in with Alfred Wills’ ascent of the Wetterhorn in 1854. The Alpine Club was formed and John was one of the founder members. The following year John, with friends Charles Hudson, Grenville and Christopher Smythe, E. Stevenson and guides Lauener and the two zum Taugwald brothers, reached the highest peak of Monte Rosa, the Dufourspitze (Grenzgipfel) 15,150 ft (4618m). Monte Rosa is a massive mountain with several summits at the head of the Görner glacier, a short distance away from the Matterhorn. His English companions were all Reverend gentlemen and maybe like the Rev. John Robinson of Settle later in the century they did not have ‘the cure of souls’ by having a benefice and had independent means. The Rev. Charles Hudson is one of the authors of the book ‘The Ascent of Mont Blanc by a new route and without Guides and two ascents of Monte Rosa’ in one of which ascents John Birkbeck Esq., of Ingfield, formed one of the party. Hudson gave a talk in 1858 in Settle at the Mechanics’ Institute entitled ‘Alps and Glaciers of Switzerland and Savoy’ (see Brown, 1896).

John Birkbeck’s son John also enjoyed alpine adventures, detailed by Lyall (1997). John, senior, had persuaded Charles Hudson to introduce his son to the mysteries of mountaineering in 1861. A large very experienced party comprising Hudson, Leslie Stephen, Tuckett, Mather and guides Anderegg, Bennen and Perren were on the Col de Miage on Mont Blanc and sat down to eat. John took off the rope and retired a short distance; after a while the guides followed his tracks in the snow, only to find that John had slipped and fallen a near vertical distance of 1800 ft down a snow slope. He eventually recovered. Hudson recounts the story in detail in Peaks, Passes and Glaciers (1926).

John Birkbeck junior nearly found fame as one of the first ill-fated party to reach the top of the Matterhorn some years later, in 1865. John had engaged the much sought-after guide Michel Croz for the 1865 climbing season. Charles Hudson, a pioneer of guideless climbing, had proposed to John that they with Thomas Kennedy have ‘a shot at the Matterhorn’, 14,690 ft (4478m), a prize being sought by several parties. However, John fell ill in Geneva (or Chamonix) and returned home. The guides Croz and Perren continued with Hudson and they went off to Zermatt. Meanwhile Edward Whymper who had considered the Matterhorn to be ‘his’ mountain since 1861 was also in Zermatt looking desperately for support climbers because he suspected that Italian climbers with J-A. Carrel as guide were about to attempt the Italian ridge from Breuil. Whymper was surprised to see Croz outside the Hotel Monte Rosa in Zermatt but was delighted when Hudson with Croz agreed to join forces with him on the Hörnli ridge of the Matterhorn. Lord Francis Douglas (aged 18) and Douglas Hadow (aged 19, a former pupil of Hudson’s) were then rather casually recruited as further members of the expedition, together with the zum Taugwalders, father and son, as additional guides, and they all set off shortly afterwards.

On the return from the Matterhorn summit the ill-shod Hadow slipped on the upper steep slopes and knocked Croz over while the guide ‘Old Peter’ Taugwalder was securing a rope and four of the party fell to their deaths. To judge from the museum exhibits none of them was well-shod by today’s standards and the ropes used were weak.

Mrs Birkbeck later told that ‘when we walked up our small hill Penyghent on one side there is a small piece of rock which has to be descended with care, but most of our party could walk down it with ease. Poor Mr Hadow found it very difficult and had to be helped down. Later we were not surprised to hear he had slipped on the Matterhorn’.

In 1866 John attempted the Hörnli route on the Matterhorn with seven guides but turned back at the shoulder. He wrote: ‘The next morning when we started I noticed that the guides crossed themselves. This did not look to me a very healthy sign….’ In 1874 John succeeded in climbing the Matterhorn from Breuil then descended the Hörnli ridge and walked back to Breuil over the Petit Col Cervin (Théodule Pass) - about 20 miles, all in 19 hours.

Leslie Stephen of this climbing fraternity was variously tutor of Trinity Hall, clergyman, mathematician, journalist, alpinist and became father of Virginia (Woolf) and Vanessa (Bell) of the Bloomsbury Group of literati. He visited the Birkbecks in Settle and ‘once attended a committee meeting of which John senior was a principal member, constituted to investigate one of the strange caves in the neighbourhood where prehistoric savages apparently lunched upon hyaena bones’.

John (junior) became the second chairman of the Craven Bank Ltd.


  • Alpine Journal, vol. 15, 1891. p277.
  • Alpine Journal, vol. 30, 1916. p. 291.
  • Alpine Journal, vol. 32, 1918/19. p. 20.
  • Blakeney, E.H., (ed.), Peaks, Passes and Glaciers, publ. J.M.Dent, 1926.
  • Braham, T., Forbes, J.D., When the Alps cast their spell, publ. N. Wilson Publishing., 2004.
  • Brown, G.H., On foot round Settle, vol. IV p307, publ. Lambert, Settle,1896 (Copy with inserts in the Brayshaw Library, Giggleswick School, with acknowledgements to Mrs Gent)
  • Clark, R.W., The Alps, publ. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1973.
  • Engel, C.E., A history of mountaineering in the Alps, publ. Unwin, 1950.
  • Lyall, A., The first descent of the Matterhorn, publ. Gomer, 1997.
  • McCarthy, D., Memories, publ. MacGibbon and Kee, 1953.
  • Speight, H., The Craven and North West Yorkshire Highlands, publ. Elliot Stock, London, 1892.
  • Whymper, E., Scrambles amongst the Alps, publ. John Murray, 1900.
  • Whymper, E., The valley of Zermatt and the Matterhorn, publ. John Murray, 1908.

Monte Rosa and Görner glacier
From Alpine Journal, 1916
The Hörnli ridge

Monte Rosa and Görner glacier

From Alpine Journal, 1916

The Hörnli ridge