Frank Kingdon-Ward
-- biography page 2 --


Early in 1924 Frank Kingdon-Ward went on an expedition to try to discover the falls on the Tsangpo river which were enshrined in Tibetan folklore. There was a legend of a waterfall, over a hundred feet high, in a land which was a virtual shangri-la. Tibetans apparently believed that this was a kind of magical promised land. No westerner had ever seen it. An attempt had been made by Lt.Col. F.M. Bailey, later political officer for Sikkim, and a cotemporary of Frank's. He approached from the south starting from the Brahmaputra through treacherous country, escaping death narrowly, and then from Tibet he started from Pemako and worked his way along the gorge but was unable to penetrate far enough to see the falls.
When Kingdon-Ward began his attempt he was met by Bailey who gave him valuable advice and encouragement. On this trip he was accompanied by Lord Cawdor who struggled to get along with the loner Frank. He complained about Frank's dawdling behind.
"It drives me clean daft to walk behind him... if ever I travel again, I'll make damned sure it's not with a botanist. They are always stopping to gape at weeds." Cawdor also complained about the food, despite this being the best stocked of Frank's sorties. (They had bought provisions at Fortnum and Mason) Frank was, seemingly, unaware of any problem and barely had a bad word to say about Cawdor.
Lord Cawdor:
From a painting at Cawdor castle.
Frank and Cawdor went further along the gorge than any other explorer and discovered several falls. One they named Rainbow falls which was about forty feet high, another was named Takin falls because they shot a couple of takin (a kind of wild sheep) when they were there.
Despite seeing more of the Tsangpo than any other westerner they did not see any waterfall worthy of the legend. There was one section of un-charted river left unexplored and from their estimates of altitude based on the boiling point of water, and their charting of the positions they concluded that it was more likely that the rest of the drop in altitude would be accounted for by several small falls as they had seen on the way down.

It was seventy four years later that Ken Storm, Kenneth Cox, Ian Baker and Hamid Sadar finally discovered the falls (just about a quarter of a mile from where Frank and Cawdor turned back). They combine with the Rainbow falls to complete a compound drop of well over 120 feet. The area around is bathed in constant spray and as a result is a micro rain forest habitat. Certainly a Shangri-la, but not enough room, sadly, for the whole Tibetan race. I know that Frank would not be jealous or resentful of their success, but he would have quietly cursed himself. He was never satisfied with his own acheivements. In the meantime a reprint of Frank's book "the riddle of the Tsangpo gorges" published by Antique collectors club has been published priced. $70, 35 or 56 Euros. It would be well worth buying as the original sells for hundreds of pounds and the reprint includes 300+ new colour photos and additional chapters updating the story. See bibliography page for more details.
"Hidden falls" from above.
Photo. Kenneth Cox.

On the botanical side of this expedition Frank had great success not only in numbers but also in quality. The star was Meconopsis betonicifolia This plant was first noted by Catholic missionary Pere Delavay in 1886. In 1922 Lt.Cl. Bailey picked a specimen and pressed it in his notebook. It caused a stir when shown back in England. On this trip Frank brought back seeds which germinated and the plants were the hit of 1926. In 1927 they were shown at horticultural shows and planted in public gardens. He also bagged nearly a hundred species of Rhododendrons. Some he gave jaunty common names to, Orange Bill R. roylei, Scarlet runner R. repens var.chamaedoxa, Coals of fire, R.cerasinum, Yellow peril, R. campylocarpum var. etc. 40 primulas joined this haul including P. florindae and a few other Meconopsis including M. florindae which, sadly, failed to establish.
Meconopsis betonicifolia.
Photo courtesy of Durham university.
Primula florindae.
Photo courtesy of Durham university.

In 1925 he must have returned to England but there is no mention of this in two biographies. In 1926 He was off again on the first of two expeditions, jointly called the Percy Sladen memorial expedition because the Percy Sladen memorial fund was the largest contributor, along with Lionel de Rothschild, who was creating his garden at Exbury, and the royal society. While he was away his first daughter, Pleione, was born 21st March. Frank's greatest botanical exitement was roused by the tea rose primula, Primula agleniana var. thearosa. He said it took him "by storm" and was "a vision of unsurpassed loveliness". other finds include Meconopsis impedita var. rubra the ruby poppy, and over 80 Rhodos. among them R. cerasinum 'cherry brandy'.

He suffered more bouts of fever and, in this swampy environment, he was ravaged by leeches, one of his least favourite creatures. His porters deserted him and made off with some of the stores and eventually he became so ill that Florinda came out to Rangoon to meet up with him.Newspaper cutting1927 he was in England and made a brief visit to the U.S.A. probably lecturing and meeting potential backers, then on to Burma where in 1928 he was joined by Hugh Clutterbuck an arctic explorer who put up some of the costs of the trip. Also Lt. Col. Bolitho who wanted seed for his garden at Trengwainton in Cornwall While he was away Frank's second daughter Martha Isobel was born 11th Mar 1928.

Clutterbuck, nicknamed buttercup by Frank, was the perfect travelling companion for him. He had a very placid personality and was happy to take a seemingly back seat, which came in handy when during another industrial dispute Frank cut the rope bridge to teach the porters a lesson just as they were about to go back to work. Buttercup remained calm as the porters slashed the tents and kicked out the fire. Eventually things calmed down after Frank agreed to pay for a new bridge.
Theodoe Roosevelt, Suydam Cutting, Kermit Roosevelt Buttercup left for England early in 1929 while Frank carried on seemlessly into his next trip to Assam. He received an invitation to join a zoological expedition to discover the giant panda. This was an almost mythical creature in those days.
The expedition was somewhat star studded being led by Theodore Roosevelt with Kermit Roosevelt, Suydam Cutting the millionaire who later financed some of Frank's expeditions, H. Stephens, a zoologist, and J. Coolidge, son of Calvin. Frank's trip to join this group was an expedition in itself which was as well because by the time he got there he was too ill to join them and his next journey was straight back to England.

1930 was the year he received the founders gold medal from the Royal Geographical society. He was more pleased wich the awards relating to his exploration work than any to do with horticulture because he always felt he was an explorer first and a plant hunter to pay the bills.

Towards the end of 1930 he set off with Lord Cranbrook on another expedition. The trip had an inauspicious start. They engaged their servants including a cook. The first meal he prepared was "a wet fish, which he had apparently forgotten to cook." This made Frank ill, but he was getting used to it by now. They had most of the usual challenges. Frank said that "exploration was days of boredom punctuated with moments of extacy." (He forgot to mention terrifying near death experiences.) They had dificulty getting enough donkeys at the start of the trip and an elephant was used to carry part of the stores. Frank and Cranbrook went by canoe meeting up with the main party late in the day. They had eaten nothing since 7.00 am so they welcomed a "feast" of sardines and chuppatties.

While staying in a village there was a night raid by a tiger which cause much fear and panic. It made off with a pig and Frank went out with a posse to try to catch the stripey theif. On his return he was walking on wet planks which passed for pavement in the village. In the darkness he slipped and fell into a buffalo wallow, coming up he was completely covered from head to toe in thick brown muck like the monster from the black lagoon.

The elusive slipper orchid On this trip he found a slipper orchid which he had first seen in 1922 in North Burma. There was only one flower and he collected it. Unfortunately by the time he got back to base it was almost completely destroyed and there was not enough to preserve.. He had held a grudge with this slipper that slipped the net and came back to the same spot where he had seen it in 1922, on two later occasions, successfully collecting seed in Dec 1931 by which time there was a flourishing colony. It was named Paphiopedalum wardii. (Cyprepedium wardianum) I understand that there was some debate about the correct name at the time and I dont know if it has been resolved.

Prunus cerasoides var. Another botanical highlight was the carmine cherry, Prunus cerasoides rubra 80-100 feet high with carmine or ruby red blossoms "A frozen fountain of precious stones" This species grows in a region completely apart from a similar pink blossomed form. Yet when it flowered in England it came out pink not carmine much to the puzzlement of Frank. The cherry stones had been hard to find and many were mouldy, or damaged by animals eating them. Of the few they found only one germinated in England.

It was thanks to the expert gardening of Sir Frederick Stern at Highdown (his chalk quarry garden in Goring-by-sea, Near Worthing, Sussex) that Frank was able to see his carmine cherry in flower over fifteen years later. Very sadly this tree seems no longer to be in existence. (Probably destroyed in the strong winds of 1987)

The next expedition was 1933 with Ronald Kaulback to Tibet, East of the Tsangpo. The flora and country were largely unknown. They were joined by a cameraman, Bertram Brookes-Carrington, who was to film the expedition. Sadly Frank's companions were stopped at the border of Tibet and Frank had to carry on alone.
Kaulback wrote and published an accountof his part in the journey titled "Tibetan trek"

It was on this trip that one of his servants, Tsumbi, made an attempt on his life. Tsumbi had got extremely drunk and started a fight with another servant, Tashi. Frank intervened and Tsumbi turned on his master. Kingdon -Ward had evidently learned some martial arts because he says, "I held his thumbs Ju-jitsu fashion; in a moment he was on the floor... He was quiet enough so I let him get up." There was more drinking and the problem flared again. "I gave him one more chance, then as he advanced I hit him between the eyes." Then Tsumbi's brother Kele joined in. "..he had thrown his weight into the scale on behalf of his brother; he was drunk too. I then hit Tsumbi hard and he went down. ...Kele threw me and of course I fell straight into the arms of Tsumbi who was now like a maniac... but I grasped his thumbs again, and he was helpless." Tashi dealt with Kele and the two were soon locked up, unfortunately, in the store room where the alcohol was kept. In the morning a bruised, hungover Tsumbi made his apologies and all was forgiven.

But it was not all fun; there was the social calender to attend to. An Easter dinner with the governor of Zayul, led to an impromptu command performance. K-W on the ukelele and Kaulback dancing the black bottom and the charleston. Frank said it "created a huge sensation in official circles im Rima. The governor was not less delighted than was Herod with Salome."

Pleione in the garden at Cleeve court, circa 1928 KW was in England for part of 1934. Florinda, Pleione and Martha now lived at Cleeve Court in Streatley-on-Thames. (former home of Lord Craigavon. Florinda and her gardener maintained a fine garden to show off Franks plants. I understand Cleeve has been made into flats now and probably the garden is no longer there. The marriage however was already on the rocks. Frank's constant absence from the country even for the births of both his children must have taken a toll and Florinda was only supportive of frank in a 'profesional' way, in the sense that she was not especially interested in exploration or botany. She promoted him because he was her husband and that's what a good wife did in those days. Divorce was by this time probably inevitable but Frank would not hear of it for the sake of the children. Instead he went off on his 1935 expedition to Assam and Tibet.

Frank's book "Assam adventure" tells the story of this expedition which took place almost entirely in Tibet. The approach was from Assam. One purpose was to find and map a range of mountains seen from a distance on the 1924 trip. Of course plant hunting was on the agenda. Primula filipes being an early prize. First discovered about a hundred years earlier by a Dr. Griffiths but not seen since.

Frank had sought permission to enter Tibet from Geshi Ishe Dorje, the high Lama of Monyul. He was ordered to request in writing but was given permission verbally. After departing a written message caught up with him. As none of the party could read he assumed it was confirmation of permission. He lost the letter and it only turned up when back in India. It was actually a rejection which Frank would have felt obliged to respect, so perhaps it is best he could not translate it.

Veronica lanuginosa On the high Tibetan passes where the weather was continuously cold, windy and wet, and the going was steep with the passes at altitudes of up to 17,000 feet, plant collecting was more challenging than usual.. Visibility was poor and in searching for good plants the main party seemed to move inexorably onward leaving Frank behind.
In her biography his sister says he was "wrapped in black depression" (I cannot help but feel he was entitled).Chionocharis hookeri

Some relief came in the form of Veronica lanuginosa. It must have helped to think that something so fragile could survive in such a howling wilderness.
Not long afterwards he reached the top of a 17,250 Ft. pass and was descending towards slightly warmer air and masses of Chionocharis hookeri "a dome of coral with a turquoise set in every pore"

Frank was told about a sacred lake on his route. As he stood on a 17,000 Ft pass the Ja la, the clouds obscured the view but during the descent the clouds parted and he was looking straight down on "Tsogar" the sacred turquoise lake. He said "There was nothing very remarkable about it, just an ordinary glacier lake half silted up... yet this far corner of Asia fascinated me. I felt spellbound. Well I knew that no white man had ever set eyes on the sacred lake before."

He was heading north towards the Tsangpo but, unusually, having made such good progress he decided to detour about fifty miles. Permission from the local "Jongpen" depended upon his delivering a letter in Tsela fort, so on reaching the Tsangpo he went four days further downstream to fulfill his promise. This brought him to within 60 miles of the snowy range he had seen in 1924. About five days later they reached the range and crossed by the only apparent pass. On the other side they reached a Poba village and were afforded every hospitality possible. It seems they had mistaken him for a Colonel Yuri who was expected in the area. They were only a little dissapointed when he enlightened them. Another time he gave a surprise inspection of troops pretending to be Col. Yuri. He gave them a dressing down for the poor state of their rifles.

Pome range, from Riddle of the Tsangpo gorges. At camp one evening after crossing the pass there was a sumblime moment when the clouds cleared and the Pome range was revealed. "an enormous flight of bergs which...arched across the world for over a hundred miles, a glittering skyway joining east and west... no wonder I felt uplifted." "violet shadows crept swiftly over the glaciers. The valley, roofed with its ribbon of darkening sky,,now looked like some wonder fjord with the sky for deep sea and fantastic white rocks plunging down into its depths."

Biography page 1, Biography Page 2, Biography Page 3, Biography Page 4,
Bibliography, Species, Timeline, Ask Jeeves