WHEN it comes to high achieving residents, Southend has had its fair share, but perhaps none more so than Edward Whymper, the famous British mountaineer.

Whymper was the first man to lead an ascent to the summit of the Matterhorn and was hailed as the “Robespierre of mountaineering”. He was also a renowned illustrator and wood engraver.

Although he was born in Lambeth, south London, in 1840, it would be in Southend-on-Sea that the adventurer would one day come to find a more grounded chapter in his life.

Whymper first fell in love with mountaineering - then regarded as an extreme and dangerous pursuit - when he was first sent to Switzerland in 1860 to sketch Alpine scenes for a publisher.

In July of 1865 - after eight failed attempts to conquer the mountain - he finally reached the summit of the Matterhorn, which straddles the border between Switzerland and Italy.

‘Mountain of mountains’ - The Matterhorn was unconquered until Whymper’s ascent in 1865‘Mountain of mountains’ - The Matterhorn was unconquered until Whymper’s ascent in 1865 (Image: Archive photo)

The feat would see him become one of the foremost climbers of the golden age of British mountaineering. The race to the top of the Matterhorn – also known as Mt Cervino – was fierce. With its four faces and distinct jagged ‘tooth’ shape, the Matterhorn, by this time, was the only famous 4,000 metre peak to remain unconquered.

Known as the ‘mountain of mountains’ it soars 4,478m into the sky. Whymper and his expedition only just beat a team of Italian climbers to the summit.

The Italians were 1,250 ft below the top when Whymper and co-climber Michel Croz made it.

To crow over his rivals Whymper is said to have, rather unsportingly, shouted at the Italian team from the top and hurled rocks to make a clatter.

“The Italians turned and fled,” Whymper later wrote.

Tragedy overshadowed Whymper’s 1865 expedition, however. On the way down to their base at Zermatt, the most inexperienced climber, Douglas Hadow, lost his footing and he and three other men fell to their deaths after a climbing rope snapped.

The disaster hit the headlines in the press amid rumours of sabotage and rope-cutting.

Although an inquest found no truth in the rumours, Whymper faced criticism over the tragedy. It was said he never got over the pain of losing his team-mates on the fateful climb.

Although he still spent time in the Alps, Whymper rarely climbed there again.

Tragedy - a depiction of Whymper’s 1865 Matterhorn expedition which led to the deaths of four menTragedy - a depiction of Whymper’s 1865 Matterhorn expedition which led to the deaths of four men (Image: Archive image)

In 1871 he published a book documenting his Matterhorn climbs called ‘Scrambles Amongst the Alps’. He later embarked on scientific expeditions to the Rockies and the Andes.

He made the first recorded ascents of the Ecuadorian peaks Chimborazo and Cotopaxi.

Whymper soon wanted a rest from travelling and he found it in the fresh sea air of Southend.

He rented a lodging house at 4 Clifftown Parade. Seeking solitude Whymper’s landlady Louisa Wright and her family lived in the basement of the property, while Whymper lived on the top floor.

He insisted the intervening floors were kept vacant and it was said he maintained a meagre existence here, with hardly a scrap of furniture and using a mat kept rolled up on the floor as his bed.

The only homely decorations were paintings created by Whymper, which hung on the wall, as well as a few photographs from his travels.

One visitor to Whymper’s rooms recounted how the mountaineer once pointed to the mat on the floor and said: “That is my bed. The rugs and pillow are inside. At night I unroll the thing and there I am. What could be simpler?”.

Whymper, it seems, liked to keep under the radar during his years in south Essex, but he did appreciate the attention of fans.

After his death in 1911, one of Whymper’s friends said: “Whymper did not know many people in Southend because he was of a very retiring disposition. Some few, however, enjoyed his acquaintance and would occasionally hear him tell of his wonderful achievements and sensational experiences.

“To others he was known as a constant traveller by train between Southend and London and in the winter it was remarked that as soon as he took his seat in the train he would wrap his legs and feet in a sort of bag.

“He greatly appreciated the attention he received in his rooms at Southend, evident by his long residence, and upon the walls used to hang some of his beautiful drawings of mountains scenery.”

Census - the 1891 census shows Louise Wright, Whymper’s landlady listed as head of the household and Whymper listed as a lodgerCensus - the 1891 census shows Louise Wright, Whymper’s landlady listed as head of the household and Whymper listed as a lodger (Image: Archive photo)

When Edith Lewin, the niece of Whymper’s landlady, visited from London, the pair fell in love.

They married in Forest Gate two days before Whymper’s 66th birthday. It was said at the time that he looked and acted like a man of 40.

Their month-long honeymoon was spent sightseeing in the Alps and according to reports, Whymper taught his new bride how to use an ice-axe.

When they returned to England the couple settled in Teddington where they welcomed a daughter, Ethel, who also became a mountaineer. Edward and Edith divorced in 1910.

Whymper, said to have been distraught at the end of his marriage, died a year later on September 16, 1911, in Chamonix, France, having fallen ill there on a visit.

He spent his final days locked in his room at the Grand Hotel Couttet, and refused all medical treatment.

He was buried at the English cemetery in Chamonix.

Today a green plaque honouring Whymper is attached to the building where he once lived in Clifftown Parade, Southend.