The wandering years

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It would be reassuring to think that having arrived at last in Cannes, the sisters and their young charges would have settled down to a peaceful existence and established roots in their country of choice, but this was not to be.

Throughout the winter of 1864, Will’s health remained poor, and he continued to be weak and lethargic as he slowly convalesced with his mother and Lil in attendance.  Meta, however, took the opportunity to undertake some hillwalking, reaching the summit of a minor local peak, and leading her to consider the possibilities of interesting her nephew in undertaking some physical activity to help improve his health and hopefully motivate him[i] out of his apathy and self-absorption.

The following spring, Will’s mother Elisabeth – encouraged by Meta no doubt – decided that the family should move on to Switzerland, where the sisters had spent their summers as children.  They packed their few belongings and left Cannes on 31 May 1865, travelling by horse drawn coach from Nice to Genoa before crossing the Mont Cenis Pass and eventually reaching Geneva in Switzerland ten days later[ii].  They travelled on a further 200km by rail around Lake Geneva, through Fribourg and onto Bern, before settling for the summer in the small town of Thun, on the edge of the Bernese Alps, with views of the Niederhorn, Niesen, Stockhorn and Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau peaks.   This must have been a spectacularly beautiful journey but thoroughly exhausting and uncomfortable for the travellers, and mind-numbingly tedious for Lil who had not yet reached her eighth birthday.

General Map of the Alps annotated to show the location of Cannes, Genoa, Mt Cenis, Geneva and Thun
General Map of the Alps in 1908 (click on the image to open a full size in a new tab) [iii]

Elisabeth rented a villa on the outskirts of Thun[iv], where Lil helped care for her mother who, in turn, took care of Lil’s education.  It was now nearly a year that Lil had been without any place to call home, formal schooling, nor the chance to make meaningful relationships with children of her own age.  Certainly, as the youngest of the party, her interests and welfare seem to have been largely passed over.  In the meantime, however, her brother’s health had improved and, together with their aunt, was becoming increasingly captivated by the contemporary sport of climbing mountains to reach the top rather than for scientific observation.

For centuries, in Europe, mountains were hated and avoided as places of spirits and ghosts but by the mid-19th century, a group of predominantly English mountaineers had begun to take interest in the challenge of reaching the summit of great mountains.  The period between 1859 and 1865 became known as the “Golden Age of Mountaineering”[v] as peak after peak was claimed by visiting climbers during the short summer season.

However, the summer of 1865 saw the deadliest mountaineering catastrophes of the 19th century, including that of three English climbers and their Swiss guide who fell to their deaths shortly after being part of the first team to reach the coveted summit of the Matterhorn.  This disaster only seemed to inspire Will and Meta, and so their list of ascents and traverses grew, along with their appetite for greater challenges and more ambitious climbs.  

Neither Will, not yet 16 and still considered somewhat delicate, nor his aunt Meta, a comparatively middle-aged Victorian woman of 40 who still rode side-saddle,[vii] were known for their endurance nor athleticism, and one can only imagine how concerned Elisabeth and Lil must have been for their safety.  The American Civil War was now over and Will’s health had improved exponentially, but any thoughts Elisabeth may have had that they might return to the United States would have been met with strong reproach from Meta and Will.  As a compromise perhaps, Elisabeth took a villa in Florence to which the four of them retired for the winter. 

Somehow, the following summer, Elisabeth was persuaded to take up residence with Lil in the town of Bex, about 20km south of the easternmost end of Lake Geneva, whilst Meta and Will embarked upon more and more extreme expeditions, sometimes lasting several days at a time, and sleeping in rustic shepherds’ huts on the mountainside – or not resting at all. 

Whilst researching the history of the Golden Age of Alpinism I came across a short video heralding the 150th anniversary of 1865, with some incredible images and footage of Victorian mountaineers and their guides:

The Golden Age of Alpinism video [viii]

Unsurprisingly, given the dangers her sister and son were exposing themselves to, Elisabeth’s patience seems to have run out.  Perhaps she was becoming concerned for her son’s education – after all he had not received any formal schooling for two years – or maybe she hoped that, once he had boys of his own age for companions, he would give up his foolish and dangerous mountaineering obsession.  Elisabeth knew some English friends in New York whose nephew had once attended Elizabeth College, an independent boys’ school founded in 1563 in Guernsey, the second largest of the Channel Islands.   At the time, Elizabeth College was a small school, with less than 60 boys, and a reputation for catering for many students whose parents were employed by the British government in far-flung outposts of the British Empire[ix].  Although they had no tangible connection Guernsey, nor had ever visited the Channel Islands before, no doubt thanks to Elisabeth’s determined powers of persuasion, the four wanderers set off once again.

Will was admitted to Elizabeth College in September 1866 but there is no record of Lil having attended school in Guernsey, and the Ladies’ College on the island would not open until 1872, so it is likely that she remained at home under the tutelage of her mother and aunt.  

Elisabeth and Lil settled down to a quiet and uneventful life in Guernsey, whilst Meta and Will revisited the Alps every summer to continue their exploits in the mountains.    During term time, Will dutifully applied himself to his studies at Elizabeth College and, at the age of seventeen, sat his matriculation examination to enter Oxford university.    

As soon as place for Will at Exeter College had been confirmed, his mother and sister headed off to Oxford to find somewhere for the family to live and, by the autumn of 1869, the wanderers, who now numbered five since the acquisition of a small dog named Tschingel, had settled at 6 Museum Terrace, a house in the St Giles district less than half a mile from the college. 

Carte de Visite photographs of the members of the Brevoort and Coolidge household in the 1870s
The Brevoort/Coolidge household in the 1870s

For the first time since they had left New York six years earlier, the members of this strange ménage began to find structure to their lives and started to adapt to life in Oxford.  Lil may even have entered formal schooling and perhaps started to develop friendships with girls of her own age. 

The second half of the 19th century was still a time when most young women aspired to marry and tend to a home.  The average school curriculum for girls still offered traditionally feminine skills such as sewing, cooking, housewifery, and infant care, with less emphasis on “harder” subjects such as science, mathematics, and languages.  Despite Lil’s mother and aunt seeming to manage quite well without being socially or financially dependent upon any man (or at least one who was still living, as of course their late father had left them quite well provided for) I think it likely that Lil embraced her Victorian femininity and looked forwards to one day becoming a good wife and mother, with a virtuous life that would revolve around a husband, home, motherhood, and of course respectability.

Her brother Will, although a doing very well in college, had developed a reputation for being ‘reserved, studious and aloof from the rest of the world’[xi], and he and Meta tended to avoid social contact where possible, preferring to spend their time planning their next Alpine campaign. 

By now, Will, Meta, and Tschingel the dog, were going back and forth at least twice a year to Switzerland, undertaking both summer and winter expeditions, and their exploits began to appear in the Alpine Journal, which solidified their reputation as ‘the most famous trio in the Alps’[xii].  Will was duly invited to join the prestigious – male only – Alpine Club, which for one so young, was a great honour indeed.

Image of Tschingel the mountaineering dog and the printed list of her peaks and passes
Tschingel the mountaineering dog and her achievements [xiii]

Tschingel’s fame was growing too, and she wore a collar with little silver medallions recording the peaks that she had climbed and she too elected as an Honorary Member of Alpine Club .  Meta proudly wrote to her sister that Tschingel had become “the first lady ever admitted into that exclusive body”[xiv].  Nearly one hundred years later, in the early 1970s, my grandmother kept Tschingel’s collar in a bureau in her sitting room.

By contrast, Lil and her mother favoured spending peaceful summers relaxing in their favourite hotel surrounded by wildflower meadows above the Aletsch Glacier, near Valais, where they could observe with interest ‘the curious cross-section of Victorian society which was displayed at the Bel Alp during the summer months’[xv]

Late 19th C image of the Hotel Bel Alp above D'aletsch Glacier
Hotel Bel Alp above D’Aletsch Glacier c1890[xvi]

At last, after ten years of wandering around Europe, the four expatriate Americans had each found their own ‘new normal’ (albeit somewhat unorthodox) way of life.

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[i] An Eccentric in the Alps the Story of the Rev. W.A.B. Coolidge the Great Victorian Mountaineer by Ronald W. Clark | Published by Museum Press, 1959

[ii]   Ibid

[iii] The Alps in Nature and History by W.A.B. Coolidge | Published by Methuen 1908

[iv] An Eccentric in the Alps the Story of the Rev. W.A.B. Coolidge the Great Victorian Mountaineer by Ronald W. Clark | Published by Museum Press, 1959

[v] The Alps in Nature and History  by W.A.B. Coolidge | published by Methuen 1908

[vi] An Eccentric in the Alps the Story of the Rev. W.A.B. Coolidge the Great Victorian Mountaineer by Ronald W. Clark | Published by Museum Press, 1959

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Last accessed 06 Feb 2022


[x] An Eccentric in the Alps the Story of the Rev. W.A.B. Coolidge the Great Victorian Mountaineer by Ronald W. Clark | Published by Museum Press, 1959

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Alpinist Magazine Issue 59 – Autumn 2017

[xiii] The Victorian Mountaineers by Ronald W Clark | Published by Jarrold & Sons 1953

[xiv] An Eccentric in the Alps the Story of the Rev. W.A.B. Coolidge the Great Victorian Mountaineer by Ronald W. Clark | Published by Museum Press, 1959

[xv] Ibid

[xvi] Photochrom Print Collection, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons