His name
was George John Scarlett Graham-Toler and in time he became one of a number of
travellers from the British Isles who left their mark in Tenerife in the best
kind of way. Not only was he an old school gentleman, which is always
appreciated.  He was also a philanthropist
and always gave something back to the local people in return for their well-known
kindness and generosity.
Tenerife in the 19th century – as painted by Marianne North- courtesy Kew Gardens

Like so many of his contemporaries, George
Graham-Toler first came to Tenerife, to the beautiful Valley of La Orotava in
fact, for health reasons. He had developed a lung complaint and sought his cure
in the Macaronesian, temperate
climate of the Canary Islands. Almost certainly he had been attracted by the
many images and articles expressing the delights of Tenerife which were being published
by other illustrious travellers, like Olivia Stone in her Tenerife and its Six Satellites.
Olivia Stone’s book, as Graham-Toler might have seen it

He was descended from the Irish aristocracy
although he was born into a cultured and comfortably well off protestant London
family in 1850. His parents were Otway Fortescue Graham- Toler and Henrietta
Elizabeth Scarlett. His grandfather was Hector, Second Earl of Norbury from
Nenagh in County Typperary.
George Graham-Toler as a young aristocrat

Tenerife’s Graham-Toler arrived in 1889 at
the age of 39. He was a naturalist and an excellent photographer. Like a true
adventurer of the times he spent his first few months exploring Tenerife’s
mountains and valleys with a hired guide, a couple of mules to carry his clumsy
photographic equipment and his arriero
or mule handler. 
He spent the nights in a small tent and his first base
camp was at the edge of a ravine, by a spring called Madre de Agua, high in the hills above the southern town of
Granadilla. His second was at La Cañada
de la Grieta
, a wide, desert-like volcanic plain hemmed in by solidified,
satanic lava flows on one side and on the other by the incredible Roque de la Grieta, one of the steep
rock walls that make up the southern outer rim of what today we refer to as
Teide National Park. 

Roque de La Grieta, on the outer rim of Teide National Park

It was here that Graham-Toler channelled water from an
isolated spring for his animals to drink and then paid for a proper canal to be
created in order to provide a source of water for local sulphur collectors, and
ice men*.Until then they had to make do with filling their water
bottles for the return journey to their lowland towns from the Ice Cave, high
up close to the summit of Mount Teide .
The beautiful old town centre of La Orotava today

The mountain air was miraculous for his
health and George Graham-Toler fell for the charms of the beautiful town of La
Orotava. Rumours invaded the steep cobbled streets, whispering that a cultured
and distinguished English aristocrat had taken residence at the Hesperides
Hotel for an indefinite period. Curiosity invaded noble households and
balconies and very soon he was sent an invitation to visit the house of Antonio
Monteverde y del Castillo and his wife, Julia de Lugo y García Benítez de las
Some accounts suggest that Graham-Toler
requested the hand in marriage of their 22 year old eldest daughter, Leonor and
that his offer was politely declined because she decided to become a nun.
Others ignore that mishap and recall that Mr Graham-Toler was the source of the
minor scandal of the times by promptly falling in love with their youngest
daughter María Monteverde y Lugo. She was just 16 years old. As a member of one
of the most distinguished and privileged families in Tenerife and very Catholic
indeed, and he being almost 26 years older than the girl, the situation certainly
appeared interesting and impossible in spite of his own aristocratic
background. Nevertheless he persevered. After receiving Almighty advice, he took religious instruction and became a very
devout Catholic indeed. They were married in 1892.

Photograph taken by Graham-Toler upon approaching Tenerife

Rumours and scandals overcome, George
Graham-Toler was an accomplished photographer and his work was often published
in British periodicals, helping to attract many more visitors to Tenerife. There
is also evidence, even in those long ago days and before the rabid onslaught of
uncontrolled property development in the latter half of the 20th
century, that he was concerned about the destruction of the countryside and of indigenous
island species of flora. In a letter dated 14th December, 1889
Graham-Toler gave Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, leading British botanist and
third director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, measurements of a magnificent
example of a Pinus canariensis, the Canary
Islands’ indigenous species of pine which he found above Realejo Alto. He shows
concern for the destruction of the pine forests in Tenerife, Gran Canaria and
La Palma and asked Sir William to appeal to his opposite number in Spain to
have the cutting down of the trees stopped. Together with the letter he enclosed
seeds from the local pine.

Pinus Canariensis, in Tenerife’s pine forests

But he is perhaps most famous in Tenerife for
overseeing the construction of the climbers’ refuge three quarters of the way up
the steep slopes of Mount Teide. This is known as El Refugio de Alta Montaña Altavista del Teide and it became the
high mountain lodging for researchers and scientists.
George Graham-Toler’s Altavista Refuge

Earlier geologists and astronomers like
George Glas, or Robert Edward Alison in 1829, had left evidence of their camps
on the slopes of Mount Teide, and it was Scottish Astronomer Royal, Charles
Piazzi Smyth, who built the first proper walled shelter to keep his telescopes
and fragile instruments protected from the often dusty, high-altitude winds in
the summer of 1856. But George Graham-Toler climbed Mount Teide on numerous
occasions and in 1891, after experiencing harsh conditions on the mountain, the
philanthropist in him set about improving Piazzi-Smythe’s precarious
construction for the sake of future adventurers.
He hired a builder to lay concrete
foundations, pave the floors and put on a roof. In fact George Graham-Toler
turned it into a proper habitable structure. It had two dormitories, one for
the ladies and one for gentlemen as well as a kitchen fitted with an iron
stove. The guides shared the attached stables with the animals. There was also
a small outbuilding situated about 30 feet from the main building. It was the
bathroom. It is interesting to note that the builder was Señor Nicolás Alvarez,
the same man contracted a year later to erect All Saints, the Anglican Church
in Puerto de la Cruz.
On 30 May 1926, three years prior to his
death, Graham-Toler offered the Altavista
shelter to the Orotava Town Council, which accepted the donation during a
plenary session on 4 July 1927. It had become a welcome haven on the sometimes
hazardous peak for geologists, astrologers and intrepid travellers from all
over the world, who would knock on his door and ask for the key to the refugio. One is not mistaken to suggest
that, thanks to George Graham-Toler, today’s adventure tourists can take
shelter when climbing Mount Teide.
The Altavista Climber’s lodge  today

Like so many other early British guests who
spent a greater part of their lives in the Valley of La Orotava, George
Graham-Toler was well like and admired. He died in 1929 at the age of 79 and is
buried in La Orotava. He and María had no children. Many years later a street
was named in his honour in the modern La Duquesa urbanisation, fittingly quite
close to old Monteverde family house.

*In days gone by men made a living collecting deposits of sulphur around Mount Teide’s fumaroles close to the peak, which were then ground and used for agricultural purposes. Others, the neveros or ice men, cut blocks of ice from Teide’s ice cave or deposited fresh snow in specially dug wells which would then turn to ice. They would collect and transport the ice wrapped up tightly in sacks or vegetation and sell it to wealthy households, inns, and hotels for keeping food fresh.

(Certain images have been reproduced from internet with no personal financial gain intended.)

By John Reid Young

Author of The Skipping Verger and Other Tales