George (Jonas) Whitaker Hayward (1839-1870)
Explorer and Geographer

Headingley Hall blue plaqueThe body of the explorer George Whitaker Hayward lies thousands of miles from his Leeds birthplace, in a small graveyard in Gilgit, a remote frontier town on the ancient silk road, in what is now Pakistan-administered Kashmir. His simple gravestone records that ‘this gallant officer and accomplished traveller’ was ‘cruelly murdered at Darkot, July 18 1870, on his journey to explore the Pamir Steppe’. His decapitated body, hidden after the murder under a pile of stones, was carried to Gilgit for burial at the instigation of the Royal Geographical Society of London, which had sponsored his expedition into this unmapped, inhospitable area, beset by warring tribes and untrustworthy rulers – dangers which Hayward had willingly embraced.

This was the great age of exploration of the remote, still uncharted areas of the world, and the Royal Geographical Society was at the heart of it, their meetings at the prestigious Royal Institution in London packed with the great and the good and reported at length in the press. In 1869/1870, alongside updates on the disappearance of David Livingstone on his Nile expedition, the Society discussed the reports they received regularly from their Central Asian envoy, George Hayward, as he travelled the area, sending back maps, drawings and measurements. His aim was to reach and map the Pamirs, that great knot of snow-capped mountains at the roof of the world. No European had penetrated their vastness, and the dangers of the terrain, the extreme weather, and the local tribal violence were daunting. The expedition’s declared purpose was geographical, but there were political and trade interests at stake too as Britain, Russia and China fought to gain a hold over this crucial area in what became known as ‘The Great Game’. Hayward’s work could be significant.

Hayward emerges from the shadows as a lone, determined figure, addicted to danger and adventure, choosing to travel in native costume to disguise his identity, unable to resist getting involved in local conflicts, careless of risk. His family history provides some clue to his recklessness.

His life began in Leeds comfortably enough: he was born in 1839 at Headingley Hall, the eldest surviving son of the surveyor George Hayward, local agent for Lord Cardigan’s extensive and profitable Yorkshire estates, and his wife Eleanora, daughter of Jonas Whitaker who owned the Greenholme cotton mills at Burley in Wharfedale. But when he was only six his mother died, and later his 10-year-old younger brother. He was sent away to boarding school, first at Ripon, then when he was 14 far away to the Forest School, Walthamstow, on the edge of London. Just a year later his father too died suddenly; he had to leave school and start earning a living. It is possible he went to Devizes to join his uncle, John Hayward, a land agent who also worked for Lord Cardigan, but his ambitions clearly lay elsewhere. When his one remaining brother died aged only 16, and his sister married, he was free of all family ties and could pursue the adventure he craved.

At 20 he joined the army, his commission bought by Lord Cardigan in recognition of his father’s and uncle’s service. After training in Ireland he joined his regiment in NW India, an area which was to fascinate and enthral him. He purchased promotion to lieutenant, and in 1864 moved regiment, but the following year he resigned his commission, military life perhaps too tame and regulated. For a while he dropped out of sight, travelling independently among the high mountain peaks of the NW frontier. Then in 1868 he returned to England with a specific objective: to offer himself to the Royal Geographical Society as their envoy, to explore and map the far reaches of Kashmir and the uncharted Pamir mountains and steppe, in return for funding and equipment. He was taken on.

He reported regularly to the Society on his travels and the many setbacks he encountered as he tried to negotiate his way between warring tribes into unknown territory, mapping mountain passes, river courses, viable routes. In the run-up to his death in 1870 he wrote monthly, foreseeing the dangers and hostility ahead and that it could take years to reach his objective – ‘It will be a satisfaction to have tried one’s best’, he wrote. In May the Society awarded him its prestigious Founder’s medal. It took months for the shocking news to arrive of his death by beheading, betrayed by a local chieftain whom he had trusted. He was just 32. The Society organised his burial and paid for his gravestone.

Briefly the murder made headlines and later inspired the poet Henry Newbolt to write a sentimental poem in George Hayward’s memory (‘He fell among Thieves’). Hayward never caught the public imagination like Livingstone, but his courage and determination to explore one of the most formidable terrains on earth was as remarkable and memorable.

Eveleigh Bradford
October 2020