The December issue of Climb features an interview with Sir Chris Boninington. There are a number of good questions to which Britain's most successful mountaineer provides, as always, some honest answers. In response to the inevitable observation that he was the first ever professional climber, Bonington replies:
"No, not all. Not many people will remember John Smith, who in the 1860s hired a theartre in London and put on a show about climbing Mont Blanc that ran for a whole month. Queen Victoria even came!"
I'm sure he means Albert Smith who in the autumn of 1851 made a guided ascent of Mont Blanc. On March 15 1852 at the Egyptian Hall, in London's Piccadilly, the former doctor produced 'The Ascent of Mont Blanc', a magic lantern show delivered in front of painted mountain scenes. Smith recounted the climb, interspersing it with humorous sketches of his fellow-travellers and topical songs. He even had St Bernard dogs carrying chocolate to the audience and employed showgirls dressed as Alpine handmaidens. Naturally the enthralled punters could purchase merchandise such as books, sheets of illustrations and even mountain-themed fans. The show was incredibly successful and was to run for a number of years. It also made Smith very wealthy. As the Manchester Guardian pointed out (below) Smith was making £6,000 a year, roughly quarter of million pounds in today's money.
Despite the razzmatazz, the Mont Blanc show gave impetus to the growing interest in mountain travel and exploration, that was to develop into the so-called Golden Age of Alpine climbing.
(Manchester Guardian, November 26 1856. Click to enlarge)