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Noels Early Life

1. Noel's Early Life

John Baptist Lucius Noel was born in 1890, a grandson of the 2nd Earl of Gainsborough. He received his early education in Switzerland, where he fell in love with the mountains and made guideless ascents of such high peaks as the Matterhorn.

When the time came to make a decision about a career, he reluctantly decided that he would follow his father, Edward and his brother Edward into the Indian Army; sadly, when he applied for a place for the crack Indian Army at Sandhurst, he failed every subject but French. After a hastily arranged spell with a crammer, he managed much better, but still not high enough for the Indian Army. The thinking behind the young man's action was to get to India, and then somehow approach Mount Everest, which lay in the forbidden land of Tibet. When he was called before the panel to discuss his choice of regiment, the Army Generals looked quizzically at the young, pink-faced cadet, wondering why he had chosen one of the hottest stations in northern India. Little did they understand why he wanted to be posted to a station where the intense heat meant long periods of inactivity from mid-morning until late afternoon, and where months were spent in hillstations, so Noel would have time aplenty to study the few existing maps of the region, and learn enough of the language to be able to cross the border into Tibet, trying to find a way to the great mountain.

Noels Army Career

2. Noel's Army Career

Noel was commissioned from Sandhurst to into the East Yorkshire Regiment in 1908 and soon found himself in India, where he spent the next five years.

In 1914, within weeks of beginning his first home leave, Noel was posted to the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, his own regiment being still in India. In the heavy fighting during the retreat from Mons his regiment was almost annihilated at Le Cateau; their ammunition spent, he and 22 survivors were taken prisoner.

But Noel managed to escape and, after much privation, to make his way back to the British lines; after a period in hospital in England he rejoined his regiment at Ypres early in 1915. During the latter part of the war he was in charge of revolver training for the newly formed Machine Gun Corps.

The War Office would not allow him extended leave so Noel was forced, with regret, to resign his commission - a celebrated revolver shot, at the time of his death he was one of the last surviving officers of the British Expeditionary Force of 1914.

After the war, when the Small Arms School was established at Hythe in 1919, Noel was a natural choice as revolver instructor under Major (later Maj-gen) D G Johnson, VC; but his other interests were soon to claim him.

During the Second World War Noel served at home as a staff officer in the Intelligence Corps, where his main contribution was to deduce from air photographs the best supply route from India to the Allied armies in Burma; to his chagrin he was not allowed to go and check it on the ground. His exact route was later chosen, though it was rather unfairly given the name "Stilwell Road".

Noels approach to Mount Everest in 1913

3. Noel's approach to Mount Everest in 1913, and his suggestion that an attempt should be made to climb the mountain

On local leave in 1913, disguised as "a Mohammedan from India" and guided by three frontier hillsmen, he explored the passes leading to Mount Everest. He equipped himself with instruments for mapping and drawing, a boiling-point thermometer for recording altitudes, a rifle, his revolver and automatic pistols for the men.
He tried a number of times, but, eventually, in 1913, he succeeded in reaching within 40 miles of the mountain. Noel wrote at the time:
Presently, while watching the panorama, the shifting of the distant clouds revealed high mountain masses in the distance; and directly over the crest appeared a glittering spire top of rock fluted with snow, which, according to its magnetic bearing by my compass, could be none other than Mount Everest. Some 1000 to 1500 feet of the summit was visible.

In 1919, in the course of a seminal paper to the Royal Geographical Society about the expedition he made into Tibet, Noel made the first public suggestion that Mount Everest should be climbed.

Everest 1922 and 1924

4. Everest 1922 and 1924. 'Through Tibet to Everest', republished by Hodder and Stoughton 1989

Meticulous in his preparations, he ordered an improved model of the movie camera used by his friend and mentor, Herbert Ponting, the photographer on Scott's fated Antarctic expedition. It was constructed of duralumin for lightness and had special point bearings requiring no oil at all. Fully loaded, with 400 feet of film, the camera weighed less than 20 pounds. In 1924, he took a total of 14 cameras, including small cine cameras, to give to each pair of climbers attempting the summit, enabling them to take 2 minutes of moving footage. He describes the hardships of operating in such extreme temperatures in his book, "Through Tibet to Everest" published in 1927 and republished by Hodder and Stoughton in 1989.

Mallory's last message from the highest camp was addressed to Noel, instructing him where to look for his party on the morning of the climb. In the event the view from Noel's position, on the North Col at 24,000 feet, was obscured by cloud; but he held an unshakeable, almost mystical, belief that Mallory and Irvine had reached the summit.

In his photographic work he combined artistic flair with great skill and a resourcefulness approaching genius. He was equally adventurous and open minded in his approach to the techniques of mountaineering and, to the dismay of his more traditionally minded colleagues, was in favour of all technical aids for climbing.

Noel forecast the time when a man would land from the air on the summit to make his way down; and when the climb would become routine for active tourists, after well-stocked cabins has been established along the route.

After Everest

5. After Everest

As a lecturer in the 1930s Noel made no fewer than eight coast-to-coast tours of America and Canada, and took particular pride in having introduced to his agent the name of Winston Churchill, who was then out of office; as a result of two successful lecture tours the great man was well known there by the time the 1939-1945 War broke out.

After the war he specialised in the restoration of old Kentish houses, establishing himself as a expert craftsman.

Noel had an inventive and visionary mind and was often out of step with his contemporaries. In extreme old age he retained detailed memoirs of the past but remained forward-looking, firm in the belief that:"This world is owned by man. Man has infinite capacity within himself".

Excerpts taken from "The Daily Telegraph, Monday, March 13, 1989".

Synopsis: John Noel 1890 - 1989
Synopsis: John Noel 1890 - 1989
Synopsis: John Noel 1890 - 1989

6. Synopsis: John Noel 1890 - 1989

John Noel was the third son of an Army Officer, who often accompanied his parents on overseas postings, which inspired in him his love of travel, and an aptitude to master foreign languages.

His mother was an accomplished artist, and he spent some time with her in Italy and Switzerland, there developing his love of mountains, and a keen interest in photography.

After Military Academy, he was posted to India in 1908; on leave in 1913, accompanied by a few trusted Tibetan hillsmen, and with a good command of the Tibetan language, he set off, in an attempt to cross into Tibet. He had studied a few available maps, and chose an unguarded pass to approach Mount Everest. Inevitably, food ran out, and the party was obliged to seek assistance from the local Governor of the area, who swiftly escorted them back to the border, with a few rations. Noel would have normally expected to be punished for this offence - crossing into forbidden territory - but his kindly Commanding Officer sent him back to the U.K for his first scheduled Home Leave. The First World War broke out, and the Court Martial was forgotten. Noel's war record showed outstanding courage and fortitude, which were to stand him in great stead later.

In 1919, he presented a paper to the Royal Geographical Society of London, suggesting that an attempt on Mount Everest was now a viable proposition. The idea was taken up by the then President, Sir Francis Younghusband, and preparations started to send out a reconnaissance party in 1921. This was followed, in 1922, by a full team of climbers, and Noel as the Official Photographer. The attempt was unsuccessful, but so much had been learnt that the Mount Everest Committee decided to organise another expedition in 1924. Funds were insufficient, so Noel formed a company, which bought all photographic rights from the RGS, thus providing much needed cash.

Meticulous in his preparation, Noel ordered an improved version of the movie camera used by his friend and mentor, Herbert Ponting, the photographer on Scott's expedition to the South Pole. It was vital that equipment was lightweight, yet would withstand the humidity of the forests, the dry air of the Tibetan plateau, and the extreme low temperatures on the mountain. He did much of the developing on the mountain, using Yak dung to provide heat to dry the film.

During the 1924 expedition, Noel took his specially adapted cine camera to 23,000ft to immortalise the efforts of the climbers, and anticipated the moment when he would be able to focus his 20-inch telephoto lens on the pyramid of Mount Everest, to film the successful summit attempt. Noel had received a note setting out the proposed timetable for an attempt by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, but the weather was bad, and cloud obscured the summit; later, Noel spotted the signal in the snow, which meant the two climbers had vanished.

In addition to the film, he took thousands of still images - of the Tibetan countryside, the people, their costumes, hair styles, villages, temples and monasteries, many now sadly destroyed. At the time, colour photography was in its infancy, so Noel later hand painted the glass plates.

This unique record of the amazing climb - in both film and now still images - now forms 'The John Noel Photographic Collection', administered by Noel's daughter in England

Copyright © 2021 The John Noel Photographic Collection