The life and climbs of Edgar Williams

I first became interested in Edgar Williams when I was part of the Pictures Online digitisation project in 2011. My role was creating descriptive records from viewing the images taken by both Edgar Williams and his father, William Williams. The negative registers, inventories of the individual negatives, had scant information with only some general entries. Because so little information was readily available on Edgar Williams, the other people in the photographs, or their climbing expeditions, I decided to do some research to discover more about Edgar’s life.

Studio portrait of photographer William Williams holding small child on his knee [Owen Williams?] ca 1895 Ref: 1/2-140243-GStudio portrait of photographer William Williams holding small child on his knee [Owen Williams?] ca 1895 Ref: 1/2-140243-G

Edgar Williams with Owen playing in snow at the Williams' home, Kew, Dunedin.  William Williams Ref: 1/4-055557-GEdgar Williams with Owen playing in snow at the Williams' home, Kew, Dunedin. William Williams Ref: 1/4-055557-G

Edgar Williams

Edgar was born in 1891 in Dunedin to William and Lydia Williams, and in 1893 saw the arrival of his brother Owen. William, an amateur photographer, took numerous photographs of the boys growing up at the family home in Royal Terrace, Kew, Dunedin, including the family outings, their holidays and travels across New Zealand.

In 1993 the Turnbull Library held an exhibition of William's black and white photographs of Lydia, covering 1884-1906. This coincided with the centenary of the 1893 suffrage petition, which Lydia had signed. The information accompanying this exhibition contained some early family history and this was a useful resource.

Lydia Williams, with her two sons, Edgar Richard and Owen Williams, 5 March 1900.  Reference No. 1/4-054948-GLydia Williams, with her two sons, Edgar Richard and Owen Williams, 5 March 1900. Ref: 1/4-054948-G

Edgar developed a love of the outdoors from an early age – camping, tramping, and mountaineering – as well as an interest in photography. Edgar’s father William was reputably the first Pākehā explorer to canoe up Lake Manapouri, Te Anau, and the Clinton River. He took Edgar and Owen on frequent excursions into the bush from their holiday home at Pounawea in the Catlins.

On long trips into the bush William took his photography equipment, which was no mean feat in the early 1900s. He regularly carried his camera, gelatin dry glass plates, a dark tent, and chemicals. A portable dark room (tent) was used for putting the glass plates into a dark slide which went into the camera. The glass plate, once exposed, could last a few days before needing to be developed and fixed.

Stereographic image of Edgar Williams, aged 14 years, standing beside a small hut in the bush at Pounawea on the Catlins River. Williams built the hut and there are a number of dead rabbits hanging from it. Photographed January 1906 by William Williams. Ref: 1/2-140370-GStereographic image of Edgar Williams, aged 14 years, standing beside a small hut in the bush at Pounawea on the Catlins River. Williams built the hut and there are a number of dead rabbits hanging from it. Photographed January 1906 by William Williams. Ref: 1/2-140370-G

I explored the family history resources available in the reading room, including electoral rolls and the biographies index, which gave me obituaries and newspaper articles, as well as probates at Archives New Zealand for further biographical information.

Although I was unable to confidently identify members of the extended Williams family in the photographs, I was able to identify Edgar’s wife, Alice. Using Papers Past, the New Zealand Alpine Journal and the Canterbury Mountaineer proved invaluable for information on Edgar’s climbing career.

Mountaineering

By the time Edgar was 18 the family had moved to Christchurch. His climbing record begins in his early 20s, when according to a friend “he was a gentleman of leisure with a passion for mountain climbing.” He was free to go climbing whenever companions were available and he often went solo, climbing Mt Taranaki (previously Egmont) on Christmas Day 1914 and Mt Ruapehu New Year’s Day 1915.

During these years he accomplished some significant mountaineering climbs, including a second ascent with Jack Murrell in 1913 on Mt Balloon (from Jervois Saddle) and a 2nd ascent on Mitre Peak in 1914.

[Jack Murrell] sitting on a mountain, with Mitre Peak behind during Edgar Williams and Jack Murrell's climbing expedition in the Southern Alps, Fiordland National Park. Williams, Edgar. 1914 Ref: 1/4-094489-G[Jack Murrell] sitting on a mountain, with Mitre Peak behind during Edgar Williams and Jack Murrell's climbing expedition in the Southern Alps, Fiordland National Park. Williams, Edgar. 1914 Ref: 1/4-094489-G

As reported in the Otago Daily Times (2 May 1914) Edgar and Jack Murrell reached the summit of Mitre Peak on the second day of climbing. During their overnight campsite at 2,000ft Jack talks about the kakapo “coming out of their holes with catlike noises” and “squawked and bumped round in the scrub”. He made a prediction (given the absence of kiwi in the area) that the kiwi would “be extinct long before the kakapo”.

At 4 a.m. we were astir, and at 5 a.m. were ready to start. There was a heavy fog, but that is often a forerunner of a fine day in the Sounds, so we set off with only a few pounds in our rucsacs, and made our way through the wet scrub and grass until we reached the bush level (3000 ft). By this time the sun had struggled through the fog, and Milford Sound could be seen below: calm as a pond and of a wonderful blue colour. Away to the north-east towered Tutoko (9042 ft), with his beautiful snowcap, and immediately north of us Pembroke Peak and Glacier seemed within a stone's throw, so clear was the atmosphere. After making good use of our cameras we turned our faces to Mitre Peak, and worked our way on to the almost level rock-ridge which leads to the main face of the peak. All the way to the main face was plain sailing; but there our work began, and we soon had plenty to occupy ourselves with in climbing an almost perpendicular rock face, with very few hand or foot holds; but what there was were good, so we soon worked our way up to the next spur, where we were amply rewarded with magnificent views to the north-east and south. From this point to the summit it is all good rock climbing, with an occasional difficult corner and some bad slabby rocks (which we avoided by working round to the left and making use of a "chimney" which gave us some interesting work and views into space). We reached the summit, and found J. R. Dennistoun's cairn and handkerchief, to which we added a small glass pot containing two coins and a bronze token, and then built the cairn up to a height of about 4ft. We rolled some huge rocks (which were just on the balance) down into the sea, an almost clear drop of 5560 ft, and the splash was almost as good as the Wairoa Geyser in eruption.

Otago Daily Times (2 May 1914)

Between 1914-1918 Edgar and Jack Murrell achieved a number of 1st ascents near Milford Sound including Mt Wilmur and Mt Elliot.

Their second attempt of Mt Elliot in 1917 was successfully achieved when they took the only likely route which involved an almost perpendicular gully filled with ice, a rock chimney with unstable rocks and finally a difficult “tummy wriggle” to arrive at the 6,000 ft summit. Mt Elliot Milford Sound. Feb 1917 Ref: 1/4-120564-FTheir second attempt of Mt Elliot in 1917 was successfully achieved when they took the only likely route which involved an almost perpendicular gully filled with ice, a rock chimney with unstable rocks and finally a difficult “tummy wriggle” to arrive at the 6,000 ft summit. Mt Elliot Milford Sound. Feb 1917 Ref: 1/4-120564-F

View from the summit ridge of Mount Elliot, Southland, at the head of the Jervois Glacier, showing peak of Mount Balloon at centre, and the Clinton River valley filled with fog. Date: 21 Feb 1917 Ref: 1/4-120571-FView from the summit ridge of Mount Elliot, Southland, at the head of the Jervois Glacier, showing peak of Mount Balloon at centre, and the Clinton River valley filled with fog. Date: 21 Feb 1917 Ref: 1/4-120571-F

Edgar’s four cylinder Talbot and the Goldley Glacier trip

In December 1917 Edgar, accompanied by Will Kennedy and Tom Fletcher, went on a five week expedition in the Godley Glacier region. The journey to the mountains was an eventful trip in itself. Edgar’s four cylinder Talbot car carried camping and climbing equipment, a camera, 16 gallons of petrol in suitcases and even a person perched on all the luggage.

They travelled by car over rough roads and water courses, then crossed rivers and farmland with horses carrying their gear and five weeks’ worth of supplies to a base camp near the Godley glacier. The area fascinated Edgar with its extensive glacier system that supplied Lake Tekapo.

Edgar’s Talbot motorcar had a crank handle, carbide lamps and brakes that didn’t work in the wet. Edgar Williams, W A Kennedy and T A Fletcher, Godley Trip 1917-1918 Ref: 1/4-120755-FEdgar’s Talbot motorcar had a crank handle, carbide lamps and brakes that didn’t work in the wet. Edgar Williams, W A Kennedy and T A Fletcher, Godley Trip 1917-1918 Ref: 1/4-120755-F

Battling bad weather, an alpine storm with high winds, an unsuccessful climb of the Maud Glacier, they all eventually climbed an unnamed peak off a divide between the Maud and Grey glaciers. It was Tom Fletcher’s first ascent so he had the honour of naming the peak Mt Gordon (after his wife). Edgar and Will Kennedy continued on to make a 1st ascent on Mt Sibbald (9161ft) the second highest peak in the district.

As Fletcher had sore feet he stayed behind and instead prepared a “4 course hot dinner” for their return “having found an old cracked camp oven in the tussock”. This was a welcome sight after their 7,000 feet up and down Mt Sibbald that day.

During this period Edgar covered all the major peaks in both the South Island and North Island. While following in his father’s footsteps as an amateur photographer, he also had other interests such as cars and trains.

Reliance gear change

Initially training as a fitter, then a motor engineer, Edgar worked at the Addington railway workshops and started a small engineering business, a repair shop in Addington, Christchurch.

Nui Robins, who knew Edgar at this time, said the business “was a model shop in every way but Edgar was such a perfectionist that he could never recover his costs.” However with his mechanical mind and Kiwi ingenuity he started inventing car gear boxes. One in particular was called the “reliance gear change”. After much persuasion from his friends he eventually patented this design which was considered revolutionary. It was successfully taken up by car manufacturers and was still being used well into the 1980s.

Car parts [gearbox invented by Edgar Williams?]. Ref: 1/4-056054-GCar parts [gearbox invented by Edgar Williams?]. Ref: 1/4-056054-G

Miniature engines [made by Edgar William Williams?] powered by electricity. Ref: 1/2-140931-GMiniature engines [made by Edgar William Williams?] powered by electricity. Ref: 1/2-140931-G

Edgar married Alice Williams (nee Hazlehurst) in 1925 and he moved to the West Coast where he taught engineering at Westport Technical High School in 1930s. There are photographs of Edgar and Alice accompanying school groups on various trips, tramping in the hills around Westport, Haast Pass and Wanaka in the South Island. Edgar and Alice Williams with a group of school children on a mountain, West Coast Region. Ref: 1/4-055909-FEdgar married Alice Williams (nee Hazlehurst) in 1925 and he moved to the West Coast where he taught engineering at Westport Technical High School in 1930s. There are photographs of Edgar and Alice accompanying school groups on various trips, tramping in the hills around Westport, Haast Pass and Wanaka in the South Island. Edgar and Alice Williams with a group of school children on a mountain, West Coast Region. Ref: 1/4-055909-F

Another prolific climbing period for Edgar was from 1927 through to 1936. While Edgar owned a car he found cycling to the mountains more reliable. He completed another round of first ascents on mountains near the Godley Glacier, in the Sibbald Range overlooking the Rangitata Valley, Canterbury and the Lady of the Snows, near the Milford Track.

Godley Glacier, Southern Alps. Williams, Edgar Richard Ref: 1/4-120772-FGodley Glacier, Southern Alps. Williams, Edgar Richard. Ref: 1/4-120772-F

His climbing career continued in spite of his age. In 1955 aged 62 he accomplished more first ascents, including Terror and Lawrenny Peaks in Milford Sound. His favourites were the Tutoko valley and Mitre Peak areas, making his third ascent on Mitre Peak in his 70s, the only climber to have achieved this at that time.

Mt Torlesse was always one of his favourite mountains, and he again climbed it aged 85, although "he lamented the solo climb took him 13 hours when it usually took only 6”. He unsuccessfully attempted it again on his 91st birthday, camping out overnight but abandoned the climb because of snow. When he died in 1983 he held the longest climbing record in New Zealand. (Press, 1 November 1983)

I have included a summary of his first ascents as it’s not possible to do justice to his remarkable climbing achievements in the limited space of this blog.

First ascents:

  • 1914 Mt Wilmur (with Jack Murrell)
  • 1917 Mt Elliott, 6260ft (Jack Murrell)
  • Jan 1918 Mt Gordon (Fletcher, Kennedy)
  • Jan 1918 Mt Sibbald, 9180ft (Kennedy)
  • Jan 1918 Panorama Peak, (Fletcher, Kennedy)
  • Jan 1928 Maude Peak, (CAV Stewart)
  • Jan 1930 Mt Daniel (J K Martin)
  • Dec 1931 Mt Commander (A J Scott, R H Booth)
  • Jan 1932 Mt Forbes (solo)
  • Jan 1932 A J (Scott, R H Booth)
  • Jan 1932 Mt Coates (Scott, R H Booth)
  • Jan 1932 Mt Kennedy (Scott, R H Booth)
  • Jan 1934 Mt Ward (S A Grave, E A Hogg)
  • Jan 1934 Lady of the Snows ( J K Martin)
  • Dec 1953 Mt Lion (A Deans, R Taylor)
  • Dec 1954 Lawrenny Peak and Mt Terror (Austin Deans, Marty Bassett, Ray Copp)

Edgar Williams with a push bike outside house with front brick entrance, [Christchurch, circa 1950s]Edgar Williams with a push bike outside house with front brick entrance, [Christchurch, circa 1950s]. Ref: 1/4-095568-F

Cycling

By the 1950s Edgar had retired from teaching and having sold his car, went on some long distance cycling trips across New Zealand. He covered 1,400km on a round trip from Christchurch to the Haast Pass, via the Lindis Pass especially for the opening of the Haast Pass road in 1966. He cycled the North Island in 1968, from Hastings to Cape Reinga then south through Kawhia to New Plymouth, to Wellington then back to Hastings covering well over 3,000 km. Almost always he carried dozens of slides, a projector, screen and camera on his trips and gave talks to schools on route. (Taranaki Herald 1 Aug 1968)

In his later years he was famous for his slideshow evenings, always done to a meticulous pattern. Glass lantern slides were shown first, a gelatin silver positive image on a glass plate that was projected onto a screen with a slide projector. These were followed by the ‘modern’ 35mm images, accompanied by his lively commentary and equally famous baking.

Stereographic photographs

Many of his photographs are from stereoscopic glass and film negatives taken with a camera that had two lenses. Stereoscopy was a common photographic technique of the time for creating the effect of a three dimensional image. The two images placed side by side and mounted on a card (stereograph) were viewed with a stereoscope. Images from the left and right eye combine in the brain to give the perception of depth.

Lydia Williams sitting on a verandah holding a stereoscope and stereographic cards, [190?]. Ref: 1/2-141216-G. Detail from: Lydia Williams sitting on a verandah holding a stereoscope and stereographic cards, [190?]. Ref: 1/2-141216-G

Edgar Williams’ collection

The Edgar Richard Williams collection came to the Library as a bequest when Edgar died in 1983. Although the photographs include both William and Edgar’s photographs, provenance is one collection under the name E.R. Williams.

We also hold selected prints from the negatives of William Williams (1859-1948) on shipping and railway topics that were made by Edgar between May 1950 and August 1951. A further donation arrived from Mr John Wilson, Christchurch, in 1998 of mountaineering photographs and John Williams, son of Owen Williams, also donated material in 2013.

In some respects it is hard to separate the collections as it’s not always known who took the actual photographs. The collection includes single negatives, film and glass stereoscopic negatives, prints, lantern slides, panorama prints, and photographic equipment.

Over 9,000 black & white original negatives were digitised as part of the Pictures Online digitisation project and are now viewable on the National Library website: PA-Group-00076.

William’s photographs have an emphasis on Wellington (1880s), Napier (late 1880s-1890s), Dunedin & Catlins (1890s-1900s), railways, shipping, and a trip William and Lydia made to Europe during the 1920s.

Edgar’s photographs cover his mountaineering expeditions, engine inventions, trips in his car from 1920s to 1930s, school tramping trips (1930s – 1940s), and Stewart Island (1940s). We hold only a few photographs from 1950s and almost nothing from 1960s onwards.

While Edgar made several cycling tours and continued to climb right through to the 1980s, this period is absent from his collection.

I will leave you with a short slideshow featuring a selection of Edgar's photographs from some of his many mountaineering and outdoors adventures.


Teaser image: Tukoko 1922 & the Track etc; "Valley & Climb", 1922. Ref: 1/4-085985-F

By Diana McRae

Diana is a Librarian in the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Post a Comment

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Michael Colonna February 10th at 9:54PM

What a fantastic bio Diana. And what an incredible amount of work and love you have put into this story. Well written and the photos are amazing. Keep it up.

Paul Capewell February 11th at 2:56AM

Wow! Thanks a lot for this. Pretty sure it was this blog that first showed me William Williams' photographs. What a treasure trove. And this wonderful biography just continues the story. Thanks for illustrating it so well.

Michael Brown February 13th at 2:44PM

Thanks for the blog Diana -

Just out of interest, in his classic book 'Great Days in New Zealand Moutaineering' (1958), John Pascoe describes Edgar Williams' 1942 attempt on Mt Hooker and adds:

"I have been privileged to see stereo photographs taken by Williams on his trip, and I had to hold the arms of my chair to prevent myself falling from the ridge or out of the chair. I had seen the reality of the views... only a few months before, and I found the photographs more evocative than any I have ever seen".

Jocelyn Chalmers February 14th at 9:13AM

Thanks Diana. What an amazing life and great photographs documenting it.

Helen Smith February 14th at 1:37PM

I've enjoyed reading this well-written biography, thanks. Amazing that he was still climbing mountains in his eighties and nineties.

John McLellan February 15th at 3:54PM

Thank you for an interested read and great photos. My father was one of Edgar's pupils at Westport Technical High School and accompanied him on his 600 mile bicycle ride down the West Coast and across the Haast to Otago in 1936. I met Edgar a couple of times when I was little, he gave me raisin and comfrey sandwiches.

Peter Ireland February 17th at 10:20AM

Terrific, Diana, thanks. Excellent from start to finish. Favourite illustration is Mr Williams and his wonderful bicycle.

Caroline Christian February 20th at 9:14AM

Great writing, a wonderful read. I'm so impressed by Edgar and co., the ways they captured their adventures in photographs. Interesting to me that as photo technology developed, 50's 60's, loads of 'snapshots' commonplace, there are only a very few from this period in the collection. Its a perceived gap in this wonderful visual story, makes the pattern of your writing Diana, of immense value.