My father: A physician, explorer and naturalist, was years ahead of his time...

Major Richard Hingston lived a remarkable and adventurous life, including an ill-fated expedition up Mount Everest almost a century ago. His daughter, Jill, tells CHRIS DUNNE about her memories of growing up with him in Passage West
My father: A physician, explorer and naturalist, was years ahead of his time...
Jill Hingston, Passage, Co, Cork. Picture Denis Scannell

LOOKING out to sea at the azure blue horizon from her front garden terrace, Jill Hingston often thinks about her late twin brother, Richard, and their late father, also Richard.

Her father was an Irish physician, explorer and naturalist, who spent most of his early life in the family home at Passage West. Richard famously was on the 1924 expedition to climb Everest.

“My father was really before his time,” says Jill, aged 89, who, like her twin brother practised medicine. Their late sister, Maureen was four years older.

“Nobody really knew about him. He had a very adventurous life. After he graduated from UCC, dad almost immediately obtained a position in the Indian Medical Service.”

Jill recalls idyllic childhood days in Passage West. An avid gardener, she points out her blooming begonias to me that are dancing in the mid-day sun.

“Those begonias are 120 years old,” she says. “They came from my childhood home, Horsehead House.”

Major Richard Hingston came late to the British Everest adventure of 1921-24, but he was without doubt one of the most compelling characters in that epic mountaineering saga that resulted in the deaths of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine

A seasoned explorer, he was a brilliant naturalist, a highly decorated soldier and a gifted surgeon whose service in the Indian army included four years of fighting from East Africa to the Northwest Frontier to the deserts of Mesopotamia.

Jill, whose mother was Mary Siggins Hingston, is very active in the local church and wider community in Passage West since she retired.

And is that a badminton racquet I spy inside the hall door?

“I always loved playing badminton,” says Jill. “I had trouble with my eyes and I was advised not to play badminton anymore. I like walking and gardening to keep active.”

But no doubt she still can still give the shuttlecock a fair whack?

“Indeed I can!” she says, smiling.

Jill, like her dad, led a varied and interesting life too.

“I was born in London in 1931 and christened Sheelagh,” she says. “I acquired the nickname Jill in infancy and have been known by that name since. The family moved to Passage West in 1934 so my early childhood memories are of life in Horsehead where I had a really happy childhood.”

Jill had a great relationship with her dad.

“I was very fond of my father, who was a very kind, understanding man. He had a lovely way with people. I never remember arguments or raised voices; my memories are of only happiness and fun,” says Jill.

“My father was a great reader and he loved books. The English Times came by post on the day of the issue and he usually finished the crossword and continued to do so until a fortnight before he died.”

Richard was a man of letters too.

“He had kept his childhood story books, which we three children thoroughly enjoyed. We had great fun with dad’s old rowing boat moored in the camber between the field and the Cork, Blackrock and Passage railway line.

“Dad was a very strong swimmer in his youth, and as children we swam regularly at the ‘girders’ — the steel girders carrying the railway tracks over the cambers at Abbots, Toureen and Zack Shea’s bridges.”

Jill, Richard, and their older sister missed their father when he travelled abroad. Being in the Indian Army Reserves of Officers, Major Hingston was recalled to military service in India in 1939 and remained there until the end of World War II in 1945, leaving his wife and children in Horsehead without him for six years.

“He didn’t get home at all during those war years,” says Jill.

“My mother was a very capable person, she had a lot to do with our upbringing as my father was away for so many years. She taught Richard and me at home for three years before we went to school at eight. She was a great cook, dressmaker and knitter. My sister, Maureen, trained as a teacher, and she cared for my parents at the end of their lives. They both died at home.”

Major Richard Hingston.
Major Richard Hingston.

Mrs Hingston kept the home-fires burning at Horsehead House while her husband was travelling.

“My father experienced tremendous danger in the war,” says Jill. “On his return he had increasing difficulty in walking owing to osteoarthritis so his outside activities were limited.

“From one of his travels, he came back to Horsehead with a monkey, quarantine regulations were not too strictly enforced at that time. The monkey was a great novelty and a source of fun for us,” says Jill.

“However, when he took a liking to our chickens, and used to chase them, he got his marching orders!”

Jill went to school in Rochelle in Cork and studied at UCC in 1949, when few women went to university.

“My first job was as House Surgeon at the Victoria Hospital,” says Jill.

“I then did various jobs in the north of England for four years and I got a Diploma in Child Health. I went into general practice and became a partner in a dispensing practice in Yorkshire, where I stayed for 14 years. I made life-long friends there.”

She told her UK friends about life in Horsehead.

“It amused my English friends whenever I mentioned that we lived in ‘Horsehead’. They assumed it was a pub as many of their pubs were called names such as ‘Lion’s Head’, White Horse,’ ‘Boars Head’, etc.

“After leaving Yorkshire to return to Ireland, I frequently returned to this practice to do locum work to enable my ex-partner to go to Antarctica with the British Survey Ship.”

Jill did a fair bit of travelling too.

“In Ireland I continued in general practice as locum in West Cork and Kerry. I spent six months in 1974 with the International Red Cross in Cyprus after the invasion of that country by Turkey. I retired from practice in 1999.”

Jill is thrilled that local historian, Jim Murphy, who lived 100 yards from Horsehead, has written the story of her father’s life.

“He was a renowned world figure,” says Jim, whose impressive book, Passage to India and Beyond, documents Richard’s life and times.

“Jill’s friend, whose son lectured in Trinity College Dublin, furnished the college with the Major’s journals and diaries from his travels and expeditions. I went through the archives there gathering the information. It took two and a half years to complete.”

Jim had a mission to tell the world about his neighbour. 

“As a youngster growing up in Toureen Cottages, Passage West, in the late 1940s, we knew at an early age of the exploits of Major Hingston who resided in Horsehead House near our home, and of his heroic attempt to climb Mount Everest with the 1924 expedition, as it was often spoken about by my father and uncles,” says Jim.

“But we were unaware his fame in relation to the ill-fated 1924 Mallory and Irvine Mount Everest Expedition was only a very small part of this man’s great accomplishments.”

In the book, Jim documents Hingston’s role as a naturalist and author, who was at the forefront of the exploration of the rain forests in South America. He led an expedition to British Guiana in 1928 on behalf of Oxford University, and was also a member of the university’s team on the expedition to Greenland.

“In 1930, he undertook the greatest challenge of all,” says Jim. 

“A trip to East Africa on behalf of the Society for the Preservation of the Fauna of the Empire with the objective of getting support for the establishment of National Parks for the preservation of the unique animals of that area. Only for Richard Hingston, there would be no National Parks there.”

Jim always knew the Hingstons were very well liked and respected by all their neighbours. “But in truth we knew very little about the exceptional and world-famous Passage West man living in our midst.

“Jill and Richard Hingston gave me access to an unbelievable treasure trove of materials and memories of their father,” adds Jim.

“I began to realise just how little the present generation knew about this extraordinary world-respected figure and that he was such an important influence in many fields of science and discovery.

“It is so sad that he is a forgotten part of our local and national heritage and I feel it is our responsibility to ensure that people should know more about this brilliant man.”

Now that Jill is retired and enjoying life once more in Passage West; she often reminisces about her dad, the Passage West man who was an unsung hero; who was her hero.

“He was a real people person,” says Jill. “And he was a good all-rounder.

“He travelled around the world when there were no planes or other modes of transport that are there today.”

But he got places.

“Yes, he did,” says Jill

“He had the most adventurous life. I have a very proud heritage.”

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