Page 1: Early life
Hillary, Edmund Percival
Beekeeper, mountaineer, philanthropist
This biography, written by Shaun Barnett, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
On 29 May 1953 New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepali Tenzing Norgay, as part of a British team, reached the 8,848-metre summit of Mt Everest, the world’s highest mountain. This was the culmination of 12 serious attempts since 1921, including nine British expeditions. It coincided with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, adding to the media attention generated by the royal event.
Climbing Everest was a life-changing experience for a man with a humble background. Edmund Percival Hillary, born on 20 July 1919 at Auckland, was the second of three children of Percival Augustus Hillary and his wife, Gertrude Hillary, née Clark. The family lived in Tūākau, in rural South Auckland.
Percy Hillary founded and edited the Tuakau District News, and as a sideline, took up beekeeping on land allotted to him after service in the First World War. He believed in healthy eating and exercise and had strong egalitarian beliefs. Percy was also a strict disciplinarian, and the young Edmund found his beatings for misdemeanours humiliating and often unjust. However, in his mother, Gertrude (a teacher), he found a more gentle and nurturing parent.
After attending Tūākau Primary School Edmund went to Auckland Grammar School. Small and shy with a poor self-image, he nursed secret desires for adventure, and read books about mountains and the Antarctic on the long train journeys to and from school.
In his middle teenage years Hillary grew tall, and through boxing found some physical confidence. A school ski trip to Mt Ruapehu in 1935 gave him his first experience of mountains. ‘I returned home in a glow of fiery enthusiasm for the sun and the cold and the snow – especially the snow.’1 That year the family moved to Remuera Road, Auckland, although Percy still had more than 1,000 beehives on South Auckland farms.
After leaving school Edmund spent two unsuccessful years at Auckland University College, then in 1938 joined his father and brother as a full-time beekeeper. He read widely and considered his beliefs. Hillary absorbed some of his father’s passion for social justice and Christian ideals, which he later tempered into an agnostic but compassionate and optimistic world-view.