Back to News button arrow icon

When the Watch Stopped on Mont Blanc – The Tragic Tale of Paul Wand and John Hoyland

by community archaeologist Alexis Haslam

During my first three years at secondary school we were made to go on week long trips known as ‘outdoor pursuits’. As fun as these may have seemed on paper, they were actually fairly miserable experiences designed to be ‘character building’. Centred in the Lake District, Wales and Scotland, organised activities involved rock climbing, abseiling, gorge walking and sleeping outside in ‘bivvy bags’, usually in the pouring rain. As someone who had grown up going on long camping holidays and had generally been happy to partake in outdoor activities, these challenges were actually not much fun. Descending on an abseil into an unlit slate mine in Dolgellau wasn’t my idea of a good time and I’ve never really had a head for heights (funny seeing as I now regularly have to go on the roof – although Rob will tell you I still don’t enjoy it much). I remember climbing up a rock face as fast as I could so that I wouldn’t have to look down – only to find that I had achieved a good time and was therefore placed in a group which would take on more challenging ascents. I’m not sure that my character was ever really shaped by these ‘pursuits’, although I’m sure some of my fellow pupils may have enjoyed them. The next time I was informed something was character building was by an archaeological monitor during the excavation of a very ripe cess pit in Shadwell. I informed said monitor that archaeology had built my character so many times that I was developing a multi-personality disorder.

Anyway, I digress. The point of this article is to take a look at an individual who has a presence in two rooms but who never actually visited the Palace itself. A portrait of Paul Wand hangs in the Porteus Library, whilst his image is enshrined in the apex of the eastern window of the chapel where he is depicted as an angel. Paul Wand was of course the only son of John William Charles Wand who served as Bishop of London between 1945 and 1956. Unlike myself Paul was very keen on climbing and other ‘extreme’ activities, and upon attending Oxford University he joined the Oxford University Mountaineering Club (OUMC). It was at Oxford that he met the slightly younger John Hoyland who was also an incredibly keen climber and the nephew of Howard Somervell. Somervell had partaken in both the 1922 and 1924 Everest Expeditions and had formed a close friendship with George Mallory. Apparently they liked to read Shakespeare to one another in their tent at night.

Paul Wand memorialised as a stained glass angel in the Fulham Palace chapel

Back to the OUMC, and regular trips were made to Wales to take on challenging rock faces. Hoyland excelled himself to such a degree that Jack Longland, who had participated in the British Mount Everest Expedition in 1933, described him as potentially the best mountaineer of his generation. This was during a period of intense mountain exploration; an age of climbing that was all about romance, risk and achievement.

High-jinx were conducted in Oxford itself, with the Mountaineering Club often daring one another to traverse the rooftops of the City. On one occasion Paul and John decided it would be a challenge to remove the bronze elephant shaped weathervane from the roof of the Indian Institute on the corner of Holywell Street and Catte Street. This plan had initially been dreamt up with another member of the OUMC, David Cox, who would go on to be president of the society and later on editor of the Alpine Journal. After the initial failed attempt by David and John when they were nearly caught by a caretaker, David had an accident at Pontesford and couldn’t partake in another effort. John therefore called upon Paul to liberate the elephant with him, and the two of them ascended the rooftop at about 2 in the morning. Although they got the elephant off the spike they were caught again and had to abseil to safety below. These night time traverses are believed to have formed the origins of the Night Climbers of Oxford, a secret society dedicated to scaling Oxford’s buildings. David Cox is suspected of being one of the founders of this group and he famously removed and replaced the weather vane from the Christopher Wren sundial in All Souls College.

John and Paul certainly seem to have embraced the danger and thrill of both climbing rock faces and partaking in pranks on the rooftops of Oxford, and they made the decision to head to the Alps in August of 1934. When bad weather arrived they moved to Chamonix and then Montenvers before moving on to Courmayeur and arriving at the Gamba Hut on the 22nd of August (The Gamba Hut no longer exists but it was incredibly close to what is now the Monzino Hut). They left the next morning at 9am informing the guardian of the hut that they were going to bivouac that night on the Col Eccles after climbing the Innominata Ridge on the south side of Mont Blanc. They were last seen setting off along the Brouillard Glacier. The next day the weather broke and they did not return.

A month later Hoyland’s father and Wand’s guardian arrived in Courmayeur. At the time Paul’s father was Archbishop of Brisbane and hence thousands of miles away from the Alps. With them was Frank Smythe who had also participated in the 1933 Everest Expedition and made further attempts in 1936 and 1938. Famously he had identified George Mallory’s body in the 1936 Expedition, although he was far away and it would take until 1999 when Conrad Anker finally reached Mallory’s remains.

Smythe recruited two guides and they began to trace the route of Hoyland and Wand from the Gamba Hut up the Brouillard Glacier. Upon reaching the Col du Fresnay they discovered an ice axe. This led them to descend onto the Fresnay Glacier where they found forks and spoons, gloves, clothing and food tins along with a bivouac. Just 50 yards beyond the detritus were the two bodies. A watch worn by one of them had stopped at precisely 3.52, suggesting that they had fallen and died some 7 hours after leaving the Gamba Hut.

The route Paul Wand and John Hoyland took at Mont Blanc

Their bodies were brought down and they were buried side by side in the Courmayeur Cemetery. Paul was 23 and John just 19 years old. The route they took was foolhardy and naïve, but as stated in Jim Perrin’s book, The Climbing Essays, this was the age of courage and daring do and Hoyland and Wand clearly fell into this adventurous bracket. Bishop Wand was of course devastated by this accident and never really got over the loss of Paul. He had him commemorated in Ninian Comper’s window in the Fulham Palace chapel, but interestingly there is another image many miles away. In 1938 the artist William Bustard was commissioned to create a triptych of the nativity at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at St Francis College, Brisbane. To the rear of the central panel is a shepherd with a face that visitors to the Palace will be most aware of.

The altar and triptych at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, St Francis College