Two Young Polar Explorers

16 Apr

Of the Polar explorers I have described previously many returned, sometimes repeatedly, to the places that had excited, exhausted and frustrated them to an extent that made return to civilization seem dull.

But today I am going to write about two young men,Thomas Bagshawe and Maxime Lester who went to Antarctica almost on an impulse and who never contemplated a return to Antarctic exploration.

Robert Burton, the well known Polar Expert wrote about these young men in Nimrod in 2018[1]  and he has given me permission to refer to his paper.

The British Imperial Antarctic Expedition (BIAE) of 1920-1922, is mostly forgotten nowadays, but was planned originally as a fantastically ambitious venture.  John Lachlan Cope, a surgeon and biologist, had been a member of the Ross Sea section of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition. He had been disappointed in the amount of microbiological work achieved on the Ross Sea party and wanted to return to Antarctica. He planned the expedition for the ‘glory of the British Empire’.   

Cope planned to sail in Scott’s old ship, the Terra Nova, on a 54 man, five year expedition, that would circumnavigate Antarctica, establish a base in the Ross Sea, make the first flight over the South Pole, explore for mineral deposits, obtain information about whales and encourage the creation of a British whale trade industry, investigate meteorological and magnetic conditions and continue exploration along the western edge of the Weddell Sea.

He failed to get funding! It is hard to avoid the impression that his  grandiose plans lacked detail and careful planning, The Royal Geographic Society announced in that it was not able to approve the plans or the leadership of the expedition, or to give it in any way its countenance or support. Unsurprisingly ‘The Grand Plan’ shriveled to ‘An expedition to Graham Land’ (the Antarctic Peninsula) –  many of the initial ambitions were achieved later during the Antarctic explorations of the American, Rear Admiral Richard Byrd.

Four men, rather than 54, set out in 1922 – 1) the leader, John Lachlan Cope, 2) an Australian, George Hubert Wilkins, a meteorologist who also had experience of aerial photography and who would later pioneer aeroplane flights in Antarctica. 3) nineteen year old Thomas Bagshawe, a 2nd-year Cambridge geology student, who gave up his studies to join the expedition and 4) Maxime Charles Lester aged twenty-nine, who had served in the British and Canadian navies in World War 1. He was the navigator and surveyor.  

Lack of transport to Antarctica was solved by an offer from Lars Christensen – a Norwegian ship owner and whaling magnet who was greatly interested in the Antarctic – to take the party, which included eight sheepdogs, to Snow Hill Island in the Antarctic.   Snow Hill, which was discovered by James Ross in the1840s, lies off the northeast tip of the Antarctic Peninsula (see map). It had been used as a base by Otto Nordenskjöld, the Swedish explorer in the early1900s and it was thought that the old hut could be used as a base.

From Snow Hill, Cope planned a sledge journey southwards along the Weddell coast. It was hoped that a connection could be made  between their starting point and that part of the Weddell coast line that had been discovered by Wilhelm Filchner in 1912 when he reached the Weddell Sea’s southernmost limit. This would significantly enlarge knowledge of the Western Weddell Sea coastline (see map).

This was an expedition where events rarely went to plan. Heavy sea ice ruled out access to Snow Hill Island – so it was decided that the party would be landed on the opposite side of the peninsula (abutting the South Atlantic Ocean) where a safe landing could be guaranteed. The party would then cross the mountainous spine of the peninsula to get to the shoreline of the Weddell Sea and explore the coast southwards as planned.

The party was landed at Paradise Bay (see Map). The four men with their supplies, dogs and coal given by the whalers, arrived via different whaling ships on the shore of Paradise Harbour on the peninsula west coast, on the 12th January 1921.

Paradise Bay (recent image)

The Antarctic Peninsula showing Snow Hill Island and Water Boat Point Island.

They landed on a small rocky island  with an extension they named ‘Water-boat Point’(64°49’S, 62°52’E), because of an abandoned water-boat there[2]. The island was almost entirely colonized by Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. From here Cope planned (as described above), to cross the mountains, reach the eastern side of the peninsula and explore south – this  route would have the advantage of being a shorter journey south than that previously planned from Snow Hill Island

The boat: height 3 feet 9 inches (1.4m)!!  length 27 feet (8.3 m), maximum width 10 feet,  (3.2 m), was their base. The four men slept in the stern of the boat and to start with, they lived in the hull. But more space (and standing room) was needed and they built an extension out of packing cases called ‘The Hut’. It was over the middle part of the boat and projected off one side. Their accommodation eventually included a sitting area, a kitchen and the outer hut on the side of the boat. Coal was stored beside the outer hut, wood near the kitchen.  A worry that the boat was on a slope and might tip into the sea was dealt with by blocking up the end with rubble.

The accommodation


There was a shortage in domestic items, for example Bagshawe wrote that they only had one fork (from a picnic set) and that he had to make a second from a piece of packing-case wood.  

The ‘slatey’ coal, left by the whalers made for persistent problems.

The whale boat leaked water and Bagshawe wrote that as the water seeped into their sleeping bags, its temperature gradually increased to body temperature with the result that they lay in luke-warm baths.

Cope and Wilkins stayed for six weeks to help build the hut. But when it was realized that it was impossible, even with the dogs, to find a practical route across the 6,000feet mountains, they left, leaving Bagshawe and Lester to pursue the planned scientific programme in addition to the challenges of a winter in Antarctica.

Cope said that he would return the following year, pick them up, and try again for Snow Hill Island (In the event he completely failed to do this). Wilkins, returning with him, gave up on the expedition all together

                           Lester, Bagshawe and Cope

Bagshawe and Lester were to be the only two-man party ever to overwinter in Antarctica.

Why did they stay? They probably decided that, having arrived in Antarctica and planned to stay for the winter, this was what they were going to do, come what may. Bagshawe’s father wrote ‘… my son particularly did not want to come back to England in disgrace with his tail between his legs’.[3]

In remaining they also ignored the Norwegian whalers advice; but Bagshawe wrote that that Captain Anderson was like a father to them. He (the captain), promised, that if Cope did not return the following year, he would come himself.  This he did.

But how did they manage for the three hundred  and sixty-six days that they were on that desolate island?


Breakfast was at 8 am, Lunch (tea and biscuits) was at 1pm, supper at 6.30, bed at 8pm.   

Each Saturday there was a general clear up: sweeping up: hairs from bunks, floors and rugs etc throughout the boat; washing up in the kitchen; clearing the outer hut and chipping ice off the floor. They replenished the coal, dried the firewood, dug out the dog meat, seal meat and more coal from the snow, cleared the dog boxes, emptied the ash-box and the slop pail.


Malnutrition was not a problem on the whale boat –there was penguin and seal meat, but the monotony of the diet must have been very trying. Breakfast was always the same: hot pemmican (dried powdered meat mixed with an equal amount of melted fat), was followed by jam and biscuits, with tea to drink. There was a break mid afternoon with tea/sardines/ baked beans or biscuits with jam or marmalade. 
Pemmican was also eaten at supper, supplemented with seal and penguin meat. To achieve variety, flavourings were added –they had four tins of curry powder, two of ground celery seed and seven bottles of Worcester Sauce. These were cherished. The baked beans, sardines, jam and marmalade were rationed most carefully: Bagshawe wrote that every baked bean was eaten individually, every morsel was savoured!

One popular innovation was fried liver dotted with delicious cubes of fried blubber. Seal’s brain was like soft roe and ‘Spotted dick’ – suet pudding (using seal oil for suet) and with added raisins, was so solid that it kept them satisfied for days. They avoided alcohol which seemed to leave them feeling cold. They craved for fresh fruit. The absence of variety for a year was extremely monotonous.

When the penguins laid their eggs, the two resisted sampling any until it was absolutely certain there would be enough for the scientific observations

Their one luxury was a large box of crème de menthe (mint  sweets flavoured with alcohol). They allowed themselves one per night, with two on special occasions.


Eminent Antarctic specialists such as Professors Frank Debenham and ‘Tony’ Fogg. have praised the amount of data that these two men, with no specific scientific training or knowledge of Antarctic work and with very few specialized pieces of equipment, managed to collect.

The carpenter of the whaling ship had built a meteorological screen (a shelter for the meteorological instruments), which held  a thermometer, hygrometer (water vapour) and a barometer (air pressure). On top, there was a home made wind vane. The screen was on a small hill which they climbed every two or four hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.(the times varied), throughout the whole year to make their observations.

                                  The Weather Station

View of the mountains in the distance, In the foreground is the water boat hut. On the small hill to the right is the weather station.

In addition, they made  a ‘cloud log’, noting visibility and precipitation details and they recorded the movement of icebergs and floes in the bay,

Work increased when the Gentoo Penguins returned in late August  having spent the winter north of the sea ice. They were followed by the Chinstraps in November. To identify individual nests and penguins during the incubation period, boulders were painted and coloured pebbles used and the birds themselves identified by Indian ink markings applied via a long bamboo. The young birds were also marked and their progress followed, sketched, and carefully documented. Later penguin embryos, and blown eggs were preserved.

                               Gentoo penguin with chick

It was found that males penguins always returned to their established  bases.

The two also made a record all kinds of life on the island, They sketched birds, seals, whales. They dredged specimens from the bay and preserved them in formalin and alcohol.

They made a tide gauge. This was a barrel filled with boulders, in the center which a pole was secured. The pole was calibrated with bands painted at three -inch intervals and the barrel was placed offshore so that tidal movements could be accurately charted.  Readings were made at one- or two-hourly intervals throughout the day for 46 days – a heroic undertaking. It was noted noted that the tides were getting less by mid November.

Lester made a panoramic photographic survey of the area. All their finding were carefully written up in their logbook.

They had a large supply of records which helped to while away their short periods of rest.


They were picked up after a year and a day, by the Norwegian Whaling Captain. After their homecoming Bagshawe didn’t return  to Cambridge, but joined the family engineering firm. He wrote up his experiences in Two Men in the Antarctic. Later, he wrote a children’s’ book children’s book Pompey was a Penguin, The Bagshawe Glacier, was named after him

Lester returned to the Merchant Navy. He returned to Antarctica on the Discovery Expeditions, 1926 – 1927 which made surveys of the whaling grounds off South Georgia.


Firstly, their scientific observations supplemented and enlarged those of earlier expeditions to the peninsula. Secondly, the study of the Gentoo and Ghinstrap penguins complimented the observations that had been made on Adélie penguins and added to knowledge on Antarctic penguins in general. In addition the men’s records of tides, sea ice, glaciers, botany and geology were of considerable value. All the specimens collected provided new information.

Lester’s panoramic view and photographic record of the region included images of whales, animals as well as the men’s activities. The images were fully annotated – an important aim of the records was to improve information for whalers in the area. Lester had to wait until his return before seeing the images as the men had no way of printing them on the island. Although the quality was not brilliant the photographs made a most useful addition to knowledge of the area. 

As Professor Fogg wrote…….  these two young man collected more data per man than any other expedition, until the advent of computers and satellites.


[1] Burton, R. Nimrod 12: 13-24. 2018

[2] A Water Boat transports fresh water to ships

[3] Burton, R. Nimrod 12: 13-24. 2018

One Response to “Two Young Polar Explorers”

  1. John Millard April 19, 2021 at 9:12 am #

    A very interesting account of a little known expedition, and unlike any of the other expeditions you have written about. The leader of the expedition John Cope who was a surgeon, seems to have been a “loose cannon”. Initially he planned a grandiose expedition for which he could not get support. He ended up with himself and three others hitching a lift to the antarctic peninsular. He set up a base in an old boat supplemented with packing cases which leaked and was inadequately equipped. He and Wilkins left after six weeks leaving Bagshawe and Lester and 8 dogs to manage the antarctic winter alone, that they were able to do this and collect useful information was a major achievement. Cope promised to return but did not do so. I would like to know more about Mr Cope but I am not sure that I would have liked to have been one of his patients.

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