George Everest's Intriguing Letter

Some people will be aware I have a keen interest in Mount Everest.

I've been to base camp twice, making this video during the second trip.

But it many ways it's the mountain's history which fascinates me most.

More recently I took an opportunity to visit the grave of George Everest, after whom the mountain is named.

It was an excuse to talk a little about the mountain's history.

And this brings me to my most recent foray into Everest-arama!

Since starting the video series Objectivity, I've been granted fantastic access to archives at the Royal Society.

(This does not make me special - anyone with a good reason or who asks politely can access items from the society's archives)

On a recent visit I flipped through the catalogues and found three index cards with references to George Everest.

We made a video about them.

Perhaps the least promising of the three cards was this one.

It says Everest had written a letter to the esteemed scientist John Herschel on 14 October, 1844.

Everest had apparently travelled to the city of York where he hoped to see Herschel at a meeting "but was disappointed to hear he was not there".

Everest assured Herschel of "his friendship and esteem for his work".

All sounds very polite, albeit dull.

But the letter itself made for more interesting reading.

It begins:

"My Dear Sir,
I went to the York Association buoyed up chiefly by the hope that I might have the pleasure of meeting you..."

Pretty much as expected so far.

"and to my infinite disappointment found my journey in so far undertaken in vain"

A little melodramtic, but okay.

But then things get interesting.


"I greatly longed to express to you my regret that there should ever have been the semblance of a cause for disagreement between us, and to offer my hand in token of reconciliation..."

And so begins what essentially is an attempt at a peace offering between two of the biggest names in science.

The letter continues in a manner very praiseworthy and apologetic to Herschel, calling him an "ornament of his country", etc

"... I shall be happy when I next have the pleasure of seeing you to meet you on terms of friendship."

It ends with Everest's signature - how I'd love one of those in my Mount Everest collection! ;)

The letter makes no reference to what caused the problem - and we have no indication if the matter was resolved.

Both men certainly lived long after the letter was written in 1844 (Everest died in 1866, Herschel in 1871).

John Herschel

John Herschel

A possible clue I found was in the book "Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843" by Matthew Edney.

It refers to a man named Thomas Jervis who hoped to succeed Everest as the Surveyor-General of India. It seems Jervis was sending letters and petitions that gave the impression that Everest had resigned.

This caused a "a very public squabble" between the pair, Edney writes.

In reaction to some of Jervis's actions, Everest published materials to air his grievances.

These letters - and the bad blood between Jervis and Everest - certainly came to the attention of London's top scientists, including Herschel.

It is not clear whose side Herschel took. And Edney described the incident as "quite minor in the bigger scheme of scientific politics".

George Everest

George Everest

And in 1848, four years after Everest's peace letter, it appears John Herschel may have presented Everest with a medal at the Royal Astronomical Society, so perhaps things were resolved?

Peak XV was later named after the Surveyor-General

Peak XV was later named after the Surveyor-General

Clearly this letter is a minor thing between two long-dead men. Something we would write in an email these days and perhaps disregard hours later.

But I still find it intriguing that these things are preserved and give us a tiny glimpse into the human stories behind some of the biggest names in history!