English mountaineer, traveller and collector

A biography by Raymond John Howgego

benhambook.jpg (1308247 bytes)The present article is a summary of  A 'very quiet and harmless traveller': Gertrude Emily Benham 1867-1938: a Biography by Raymond John Howgego. This 64-page book, complete with maps, illustrations, an annotated bibliography, and details of Benham's family background, was published by the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery on 8 June 2009 (ISBN 0 904788 24 5) and is available from the museum shop at a price of £7.50. Drawing on all known printed articles, surviving letters, ships' manifests and archival research, it is the only definitive account of Benham's life and travels.

Gertrude Benham was one of the most, possibly the most prolific traveller of all time, and of either sex. The present author is attempting to locate Benham's numerous paintings, sketches and photographs, which are not in any known archives. In a last letter to the Plymouth Museum, early 1935, shortly before the start of her ill-fated final journey, she states that she deposited them in a trunk in a warehouse in Bridport. Descendants of the Benham family believe they were destroyed in the Plymouth blitz of March 1941, but there is no evidence for this. If anybody out there can shed any light on their fate, or their present whereabouts, please contact the author:

Gertrude BenhamBorn in Marylebone, London, Gertrude Benham was the youngest of six children of Frederick Benham, a master ironmonger, and his wife Emily (née Lucas), a native of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. 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 at Eastbourne 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. In 1904 she sailed to Canada and in the spring arrived in Banff, Alberta, her intention being to climb as many Rocky Mountain peaks as time would permit. In June 1904 she moved to a chalet on Lake Louise and spent her first few weeks flower-hunting in company with other tourists. On 27 June, with a Mr Frost and taking the brothers Hans and Christian Kaufmann as guides, she made an ascent of Mount Lefroy. She followed this with ascents of several other major peaks - Mount Victoria, Mount Stephen, Mount Assiniboine and Mount Balfour - then transferred to the Selkirk Range where the Truda Peaks are named in her honour, ascending, among others, Mount Sir Donald. In July 1904, in the company of Christian Kaufmann, she reached the summit of Mount Hejee, narrowly beating Professor Charles Fay, after whom the mountain would subsequently be renamed.

From the Rockies Benham proceeded to Vancouver, and via Fiji arrived in 1905 in New Zealand where she walked alone across the South Island and climbed in the Southern Alps, complaining bitterly about local guides and the exorbitant fees they charged. After visiting Tasmania and Australia, she made her way back to England via Japan (where she made several ascents), India, Egypt and Corsica. In 1908 she set out on her second trip around the world, this time west to east and visiting Japan and California. Following the Pacific coast southward, she disembarked at Valparaíso then crossed the Andes and Pampas to arrive in Buenos Aires. 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 below). Nothing is known with certainty of her movements during the next three years except that she twice visited Kashmir, probably in 1910 and 1911, and that in 1912 she is recorded in a passenger list of a ship steaming from Tahiti to Great Britain via San Francisco. By October 1913 she was back in Africa, disembarking in the Niger delta and making her way to Kano in Nigeria. With seven porters and a cook boy, whih she replaced at regular intervals, she then set out to walk across the continent to Mozambique, a distance of some 5000 kilometres. Her route took her through Cameroon, down the Oubangui, up the Congo to Stanleyville [Kisangani], then through the Ituri forest to Mabarara in Uganda. Diverting west through Rwanda, she ascended Mount Nyiragongo (3470 metres) and reached the crater of an unnamed volcano that had erupted as recently as December 1912. She then continued on foot to Usumbura [Bujumbura] at the northern tip of Lake Tanganyika, boarded a steamer to Bismarckburg [Kasanga] at the southern end of the lake, and on foot followed the old Stevenson Road from Abercorn, via Kayambe [Kayambi] and Fife, to Karenga [Karonga] on Lake Nyasa. A steamer took her to Fort Johnston, from where she proceeded on foot to Zomba and Blantyre. On an excursion to the southeast, she climbed to the summit of Mount Mulanje. Her camp life finished at Mulanje Road, a station on the Nyasaland Railway where she boarded a train to Port Herald [Nsanje] on the Shire tributary of the Zambezi. A river steamer brought her to the coast at Chinde on 24 October 1913. The next year she proceeded to India and ventured for the third time into the Himalaya, starting this time at Simla and spending the summer of 1914 trekking across the mountains and passes to Srinagar in Kashmir.

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'. The war years kept her in England, where she established relationships with the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) and the Natural History Museum, but found neither willing to accede to her constant pleas for remuneration or official sponsorship. Although elected to the RGS on 5 June 1916, the normal subscription waved on account of the immense value of her topographical drawings, she resigned in acrimony six months later when the RGS refused to publish her paper on volcanoes in Africa, its content regarded as lacking in science. By 1919 she was back in India and in that year undertook a remarkable journey through the mountains from Naini Tal, near the western border of Nepal, to Leh in Ladakh. In 1921, after a two-month stopover in the Seychelles, she was back in East Africa, twice ascending Mount Elgon then proceeding the next year to South Africa, where she collected flowers in the Drakensberg and Zululand. By way of Australia and the South Pacific she returned to England in October 1923, completing her fifth trip around the world. Benham was back in India by March 1924, and over the next few years she would repeatedly pester the Anglo-Indian administration for permission to enter Tibet by the remote passes to the west of Nepal. When this was denied, she surreptitiously explored the northern borderlands in the region of Mount Kamet and Nanda Devi. In May 1925, approval having been granted for her to enter Tibet from Sikkim, she set out from Darjeeling and crossed the border to the trading centre at Gyantse (Gyangze). She returned after eight weeks, her valuable collection of flowers destroyed by torrential rain in the Himalayan foothills. Benham returned briefly to England in 1926, then embarked on her sixth trip around the world, visiting Natal, Zanzibar, Sudan, Egypt, Syria, India, Malaya and the East Indies, and arriving in Hong Kong in February 1927. From here she crossed the Pacific to California, explored Guatemala, British Honduras (Belize), the West Indies and Trinidad, and finally disembarked at Plymouth in January 1928. At an unknown date she visited Taiwan, Burma (= Myanmar), Celebes, Java and China.

On the rare occasions Benham was in England she took lodgings in London, and had a bungalow built at Lyme Regis where she intended to settle. In 1929 she was back in the Himalaya for a second attempt to gatecrash Tibet. In this she was unsuccessful, her confidential file now bearing the damning verdict: ‘She is a bad type of British traveller to be allowed to enter Tibet [sic]’. Having failed to enter Tibet by the more conventional route, she tried again in 1931, this time through the mountains of Kumaun beyond the western border of Nepal. There, at 11,000 feet (3350 metres), in June 1931 near the village of Niti, she was unexpectedly encountered by the mountaineer Frank Smythe and his party, on their way to make the first successful assault on Mount Kamet. Benham told Smythe that ‘she had already been several times round the world, and had chosen this quiet retreat to be alone and undisturbed while making some sketches of the country and the people; she hoped later to obtain permission to cross the Niti Pass into Tibet and visit the sacred peak of Kailas’. When Smythe returned to Niti a month later, she was still there. In 1933 Benham circumnavigated the globe a seventh time, sailing via Hong Kong and Los Angeles, and coasting South America with stops at Mollendo (in Peru) and Valparaíso (in Chile) in the early months of 1934. She returned to England later that year, by which time, according to an interview with the writer Marjorie Hessell Tiltman and reproduced in Tiltman's Women in Modern Adventure, Benham had 'visited every part of the British Empire, except Tristan da Cunha and a few other small islands', and had 'climbed more than three hundred peaks of ten thousand feet or over'. In 1935 she set out for the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) on what she intended to be her last journey. Her outward route took her back to New Zealand, and she returned via Hong Kong and India, possibly with another excursion into the Himalaya. By 1937 she was in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), boarding a ship for South Africa. From here she set out on another journey across Africa, arriving on the east coast. Sadly, she died early in 1938 aboard ship off the coast of East Africa, and was buried at sea. Much of her collection, consisting of many hundreds of items of jewellery, costume and accessories, metalwork, lacquer ware, ceramics, toys and religious articles, was presented by Benham in 1934 to the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. (Benham had landed on one occasion in Plymouth and was so taken by the neat arrangement of artefacts in the local museum that she decided that it would be the ideal resting place for her collection.)

Benham's ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro

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.

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.

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.


Howgego, Raymond John, A 'very quiet and harmless traveller': Gertrude Emily Benham 1867-1938, Plymouth, 2009.
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.
Howgego, Raymond John, 'Benham, Gertrude Emily', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2009.

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.