9 Oct

It is impossible to leave Mawson’s many achievements without saluting the British, Australian (and) New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition  -BANZARE,  of 1929 to 1931. Mawson led these expeditions.

The 1926 Imperial Conference proposed that Great Britain  should claim control of  the Antarctic quadrant 45° – 160° E


Mawson led two summer expeditions to the continent. These expeditions, funded by all three countries were both geopolitical and scientific. The stated reason for the expeditions was to carry out further exploration and scientific activities in land claimed by Britain – but this  work would, of course, underline British territorial claims.  Mawson planed  to use air transport as well as his ship ‘Discovery’, to make geological and biological investigations rather than setting up land bases.

Extensive investigations were made along the 1550 mile coast line between 40 -160°E. Much of the coast line was mapped for the first time and it was confirmed that the coast  between Ross Island and Enderby Island was continuous

In the first season (1929-1930)  the aerial survey  discovered a previously unknown coast and land;  this Mawson named Mac.Robertson Land, in honour of Sir Macpherson Robertson, a keen supporter of Australia’s role in Antarctica who had donated a large sum to the expedition.

 On 13 January 1930 a party landed on  a small island lying west of the most northerly cape of Enderby Land. This island Mawson named Proclamation Island and here land  was claimed extending from 45 – 160°E, (excluding Adelie Land), for the British crown. A cairn and plaque commemorated the event.


Another Union Jack was dropped from the air onto the Antarctic on 25 January 1930 and a proclamation read claiming further territory.

Mawson wanted to continue the exploration, but his Captain (John King Davis), concerned about the remaining supply of coal,  insisted on returning north. ‘Discovery’ reached Australia in March 1st. 1930

In November 1930 ‘Discovery’ sailed from Hobart for a second season. On 4 January 1931 Discovery visited Cape Denison, allowing Mawson to revisit his  Australasian Antarctic Expedition  base of  twenty years previously . Magnetic readings were taken and it was discovered that the Magnetic South Pole had moved considerably since their last readings taken in 1914. The ship then sailed along the coastlines, using flights and landings to reinforce surveys taken from ‘Discovery’. The expedition returned in March 1931.

The  mass of scientific work  that was recorded  was vast. It took years to organize and report  and some results may still be unpublished! But much of the data was used by the British Council to claim sovereignty of the area  which was subsequently passed to Australia.

Mawson eventually retired from academic life aged seventy. he was made an emeritus professor of the University of Adelaide. But his active, varied life and interests continued-  these included farming forestry, regulation of whaling. He was much admired – a geology building and an ‘Institute for Australian Research’ were named for him in Adelaide

He died at his Brighton (Australia) home on 14 October 1958 aged 76. At the time of his death he had still not completed the editorial work on the papers  from his expedition. These were completed by his eldest daughter, Patricia – in 1975.  He is buried in the cemetery of St Jude’s ChurchBrighton, South Australia.

During his life he achieved numerous awards and honours, amongst these must be mentioned his Fellowship of the Royal Society and his  Founder Membership of the Australian Academy of Science.


12 Sep

After his emotional return to Australia in 1909, Mawson returned to academia. But he had been bitten by the magnificence of Antarctica and, as a scientist, he was aware of the huge potential of the continent. Most of the land nearest to Australia was uncharted and unknown and he wanted to lead an expedition dedicated to scientific discovery and exploration. He wrote ‘The geographical position of this land privileges Australians in taking advantage of its products and renders the collection of scientific data obligatory upon us’.

He started planning almost immediately. In London, at this time, Scott was planning his second (1910-13) expedition and Mawson visited him to ask for passage on the ‘Terra Nova’ for himself and three others. Mawson’s plan was that he and his companions would be part of the ‘Terra Nova’ expedition, but would be landed separately to the main party on the coast west of Cape Adare. He explained the potential scientific value of the proposed work to Scott and suggested that the results of the sorties should be presented together. Scott was not persuaded, instead he invited Mawson to join his South Pole sledging party. This did not interest Mawson; he thought that Scott was far to focused on a Polar success. He refused the offer.

Mawson, as an experienced and distinguished scientist with practical experience of the Antarctic, was well equipped to lead his own scientific expedition. But in Australia he did not begin his fundraising effort until Captain Scott – who visited Australia en route to Antarctica on the ‘Terra Nova’, had raised his funds before he (Mawson) opened his appeal for ‘The Australasian Antarctic Expedition’ in early 1911. Its aim – to explore the unknown sector south of Australia. Although some of the coastline had been seen in 1840 by the French explorer D’Urville, no-one had set foot on the land.

This was the expedition that, in just under three years, charted the Antarctic coastline, explored thousands of kilometres of previously unexplored regions, collected geological and botanical samples, and made meteorological, magnetic, geological and geographic advances, in addition to making a base on Macquarie Island in order to erect a radio transmitter that could transmit messages between the Antarctic and Australia.

His fundraising crusade was outstandingly successful. Through unceasing, exhausting, work and appeals – as he says in his correspondence – and with the support of the University of Sydney, and the scientific communities, he raised about £10m. in today’s money in little over a year. The Australian federal government gave £5,000, the state governments £18,500, in addition there were private donations and British money. His appeal was to the national interest – the many potential benefits to the Australian economy, the advantages to the farming community of knowing when droughts could be anticipated, the importance of keeping other countries out of a land mass so relatively near to Australia.
In addition to the anxieties of fundraising, Mawson had to recruit his team and organize equipment and supplies, but he still found time to visit Paquita Delprat. When the expedition was on a secure footing he proposed marriage. Paquita accepted immediately.


Mawson was ahead of his time in that he planned to survey the continent by plane and to this end he purchased a Vickers R.E.P. Type Monoplane. This excellent plan failed (it was to be comprehensively achieved by Admiral Richard Byrd in 1929). The Monoplane was damaged in Australia and in Antarctica it was used initially as a tractor on skis. But the cold was too severe for the engine to function and it was eventually abandoned as a mode of transport.

SY Aurora, Commander Captain John King Davis, left Hobart Tasmania, on 2 December 1911. Aurora was cheered on her way by thousands of well wishers and arrived at Macquarie Island in eleven days after a passage during which rough seas nearly drowned the dogs, washed away part of the bridge and damaged the cargo.

Macquarie Island is half way to Antarctica. Mawson had decided that the island was to serve as a scientific base and radio relay station. He chose Wireless Hill, 300 feet high, to locate his station and his work huts. Here, two masts were eventually erected. They would be the relay station for messages between Australia and Antarctica.

On the 24th December Aurora sailed south. Captain Davis planned to follow a course along the 157th Meridian until land was sighted. It was hoped to find a site on land that would be an excellent starting point for a return visit to the South Magnetic Pole. But impenetrable ice pack and high ice cliffs made Mawson fear it would be impossible to find anywhere to land as they searched southeasterly along the coastline. But finally, on 8 January 1912, a perfect natural harbour was located. The berth was Commonwealth Bay and Mawson named his base Cape Denison (Denison was a major financial backer). This was to be his Main Base for eighteen of the team -a second camp was to be located to the west on the ice shelf in Queen Mary Land.


Cape Denison was to reveal itself as one of the windiest places in the world – the average wind speed for the entire year was about 50 mph (80 km/h), sometimes winds approached 200 mph (320 km/h). Mawson described a typical foray outside the hut as ‘a plunge into the writhing storm-whirl’…in… ‘a void; grisly, fierce and appalling’, with… ‘stabs, buffets and freezes’.



Many of the men assumed that this was typical Antarctic weather


The Antarctic summer of 1912 (Christmas months in the Northern Hemisphere), was spent on scientific work and in short excursions close to the base. Even when they were close to the hut the men had to wear crampons and tie everything down. By March/April (the beginning of the winter), the wind often gusted at over 100 miles per hour; occasionally more than 200 miles per hour.


Mawson realised that outside work would have to start whenever the wind fell to less than thirty miles per hour. In these ‘lulls’ they built a Magnetograph House and a hanger for the air tractor, but the conditions were too much for erection of the wireless masts (this was completed in September 1912, later, signals were sent to Aurora and Macquarie Island). In August Mawson and two others did manage to get five and a half miles from their base where they dug an ice shelter that was to be used as a supply depot. They called this Aladdin’s Cave.

Mawson planned exploration parties from both the Main Base and the Western Base. In October he announced plans for the sledging season from the Main Base: a Southern Part (led by Eric Webb), an East Coast Party (Cecil Madigan), a Near Eastern Party (Frank Stillwell), a Western Party using the tractor ((Frank Bickerton) and finally a Far Eastern Party which Mawson would lead himself. He wanted to reach Oates Land which was roughly 350 miles along the coast towards Cape Adare; an area that had been seen by the Terra Nova crew. The plan was for all the parties to be back by15h January 1913 when Aurora was expected to return.

In this account I am going to concentrate on the Far Eastern Party, a three-man sledging team with dogs. Mawson chose Xavier Mertz, a Swiss citizen, Olympic skier and experienced mountaineer and Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis, an officer in the Royal Fusiliers, as his co-explorers


The aim was to survey King George V Land, map the unexplored coastline if possible as far as Oates Land and to collect geological samples. The party left on 10th November 1912 with dogs and two sledges carrying a total load of 1723 pounds. They made good progress in both mapping and specimen collection, in spite of snow blindness, capsized sledges and difficult ice surfaces. When they reached the plateau Mawson could see the huge glacier jutting out to sea that Aurora had passed (see map). This he later named the Mertz Glacier. They crossed almost vertical slopes and the deep valley carved out by the Glacier. They then had a nightmare four days crossing over a second glacier, sledges capsizing, dogs pulling down unmercifully on the steep slopes, gales and bad light. This glacier would be called the Ninnis Glacier


They finally reached more than 300 miles east of their base at Cape Denison.

MERTZ IN A RAVINE: 13 December 1912, ‘Spirits high’

The first horror occurred on 14th December 1912. The party was traversing an area that was both lumpy and riddled with snow – covered crevasses. Xavier Mertz leading on skis, crossed one of these crevasses via a snow bridge that was similar in every way to the hundreds they had crossed before. Mawson, on the lighter of the two sledges, followed Xavier’s tracks, his weight evenly dispersed over the sledge. Belgrave Ninnis was behind, jogging beside the second, heavier sledge. As he crossed the snow bridge it gave way completely and he, the dogs and the sledge fell into the underlying crevasse. The catastrophe was so sudden and so silent that Mawson and Mertz were only made aware of a potential calamity when they looked back for Ninnis when he did not catch up with them. They sped back, and, to their horror found the gaping chasm. Two sets of sledge runners ran up to the chasm edge, one set from it. Desperately they peered into the endless abyss shouting Ninnis’ name. Two dogs, one dead, one injured, could be seen on a ledge about 160 feet below them. There was no sign of Ninnis. Their rope was not even long enough to reach the ledge. They called and called for hours, there was no response. There was nothing more to do save offering a heartfelt prayer for their dear friend.
As can be imagined the scenario has been rehearsed/thought about, repeatedly. Ninnis was with the heavier sledge. Also, since he was not on skis or a (sledge his weight would have been transmitted straight down through his boots to the fragile snow bridge rather than being distributed more widely over skis (Mertz), or the sledge (Mawson). This focused concentration of weight is likely to have caused the bridge to give way and result in his tragic demise.
Apart from the devastating psychological trauma of the disaster, Mawson and Mertz had lost the six best dogs, the dog food, most of their rations, their tent, their Burberry trousers and other essential supplies. They had 10 days’ food for their 315 mile journey back to Cape Denison, a journey that would take at least a month and no food for the six dogs. All they had was a spare tent cover, but no inner tent or poles, the cooker with some fuel, sleeping bags, and the six weakest dogs.

They had to keep going. It was a race against death.

The two men hoisted the Union Jack at their furthest East and turned back. They thought that if they fed the dogs with old boots, mitts and rawhide straps and killed and ate them sequentially, they (the two men) might last out to their Base. The weakest dog was killed on December 15th – food for the other famished canines and for the men. This routine was continued over the next 10 days until the final dog collapsed. No part of the animals was wasted: the stringy muscle, the paws – stewed to a jelly-like consistency- the thyroids, the brains. The animals’ bones and skin were fed to the surviving dogs. The two kept the ‘best’ bits, for themselves – this included the dogs’ livers. A makeshift tent was constructed from shovel supports over a piece of canvas under the spare cover. By Christmas Day they still had 160 miles to go. They travelled slowly managing a few miles each day still existing on dog meat – saving the sledging rations for as long as possible.

On December 31st Mertz asked to eat some of their sledging rations which Mawson had kept in reserve. It did not help him. He suffered stomach cramps and pains and was physically weak. But both man suffered from dizziness, nausea and abdominal pain. Sores did not heal, nails blackened, their eyes and skin became yellow, their skin peeled and shed off in handfuls denuding their arms, legs and genitalia. Mawson wrote that a ‘cast’ of the base of one of his feet sloughed off completely – he smeared it with lanolin and bound it back on.

The men were confined to the tent on the 2nd January when their evening meal was two ounces of chocolate . The makeshift tent, caked with ice, dripped continuously. And Mertz deteriorated rapidly. He seemed to lose the will to move and remained in his sleeping bag. He became so weak that he lay on the sledge whilst Mawson, famished and weak himself, pulled him along. Mertz, the Olympic skier, friendly, popular and cooperative was reduced to a withdrawn, uncommunicative shadow of his former self, refusing food and suffering from explosive diarrhoea. The climax was reached on 7 January, a hundred miles southeast of the Main Base, when Mertz fitted, became delirious, raved and thrashed around. Mawson had to hold him down until finally Mertz became calm. He died that night.

It is suggested that the reason for the deterioration was that the two were made ill by the dog’s livers which, unbeknown to them, were highly dangerous to humans. Dog’s livers contain high levels of vitamin A which causes, amongst other symptoms, abdominal pains, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness, blurred vision, irritability and desquamation of the skin. Both had symptoms suggestive of this, Mertz was clearly the worst.

But any retrospective diagnosis is tentative. Mertz was a vegetarian. He must have struggled with the dog meat diet. What is indisputable is that both men suffered from severe calorific and vitamin deficiencies (in addition to Vitamin A), continual cold and damp conditions and probably hypothermia.

The psychological as well as the physical trauma for Mawson must have been terrible – there seemed little chance of him getting back to base. But he remembered lines written by Robert Service –‘Buck up, do your damndest and fight. It is plugging away that will win you the day’ . Also he must have been determined to save his findings for posterity and Paquita must have been forever in his mind. He had eight days to get to Base if he was to reach Aurora.
He cut the sledge into two and used one half for his sleeping bag, food etc. He used Mertz’ jacket and a clothes bag to construct a sail. With amazing stamina he struggled on – he had to erect the tent each evening by himself, an enormous struggle with his painful hands and in blizzard conditions. He had to navigate, he had to eat. But his trials had not finished. On January 17th he fell down a crevasse. He was saved by his manhaul harness which was attached to the loaded sledge which caught on the edge of the opening. But he was left dangling over the bottomless abyss. His hands were raw, his clothes were weighed down with pounds of snow. He was weak and exhausted. By a superhuman effort he hauled himself up as far as the crevasse lip, only to fall down again. For a while he thought that the odds were simply too great, that he should just give up, loose his harness and drop into oblivion – leaving pain and toil behind. But again he must have thought of Paquita. Almost unbelievably, he summoned the strength for another climb and this time he succeeded. He lay panting, dizzy, weak on the snow.

By January 29th, fourteen days after he should have departed with Aurora, he was virtually foodless. But finally help was at hand, he came across a snow cairn built that very day by a search party. It had food in it. Also a note informed him that the Aurora was still waiting and ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ was only 23 miles away. It took him three days to reach the cave. And here he was trapped by a blizzard for a further week before he could set off for Cape Denison. The Main Base team must have lost all hope for the Far Eastern Party’s survival

When he finally reached Cape Denison a departing speck on the horizon proclaimed that Aurora had left. But six loyal companions had remained behind to continue the search for their leader’s party. When he reached them it was as if he had returned from the dead. The painful news of his companions’ deaths had to be told. The conditions were too bad for Aurora to return and the seven men resigned themselves to another winter of blizzards and confinement.

On December 12th 1913 Aurora returned. The two-year expedition was over. On February 26th, 1914 Aurora arrived in Australia. Mawson was a hero.

Mawson and his fiancée Paquita were married on March 14th 1914, in the Holy Trinity Church, Melbourne. Captain Davis was the best man, Mawson’s brother, Professor David, the Delprat family and members of the expedition were present. Mawson apparently grinned like a Cheshire cat throughout the ceremony.


The couple went on a working honeymoon. Mawson began his account of the expedition, The Home of the Blizzard. He hoped would help with his considerable expenses.
He was knighted and was awarded both the Polar Medal and the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society..

In the first World War he served as a major in the British Ministry of Munitions afterwards returning to the University of Adelaide in 1919. He became a professor in the university in 1921, continuing his work on Australian geology.
His interest in Antarctica never lessened He completely understood its importance politically, geologically and financially and he campaigned tirelessly for a further claim on the section closest to Australia. And he was to return in 1929 as the leader of the British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition, BANZARE, which led to a territorial claim, the Australian Antarctic Territory.

But that is another story.

ADDENDUM Geology: studies of the earth’s physical structure and substance and investigation of their histories and influences.

Explorer Douglas Mawson OBE. FRS. FAA. 1882-1958

14 Aug

Douglas Mawson in 1913

Of all the dramatic, traumatic, terrifying and courageous sorties in Antarctica in the early 1900s, Douglas Mawson’s excursion of 1912 must surely rank amongst the greatest. Of his three–man party that set out to chart the coast line of King George V Land east of his expedition’s base at Cape Denison, his two companions died and Mawson himself faced, and eventually overcame, almost certain death. Yet his vision of the importance of Antarctica never faltered – he became one of the most important expedition leaders of the early 1900s –the 1912-1914 Australian Antarctic Expedition, in which he cheated death by a hair’s breadth, claimed sections of Antarctica for the British Crown and his successful British Australia and New Zealand Expedition of 1929-1931, resulted in Australia claiming some 2,500,000 square miles (6,475,000 square km

Of British extraction Douglas Mawson was born in 1882 in Shipley, Yorkshire, his father, Robert Ellis was a cloth merchant. In 1884 when Douglas was two, his parents decided to try for a better life in Australia and emigrated with Douglas and his older brother, William. The family settled in Rooty Hill, near Sydney,.

Mawson was recognized as an outstanding student from childhood. He left school at sixteen to study engineering at the University of Sydney. He graduated with a B.E. in 1902 (aged19) and was awarded first class honours in geology and mineralogy. This was followed by employment as a junior demonstrator in chemistry in the university. He then changed direction, and, supported by Tannatt Edgeworth David, the renowned professor of geology in Sydney, he made a geological survey of Mittagong (a town in New South Wales) and wrote a major report of his findings. Encouraged further by Professor David he then travelled to the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), to make a geological survey.

This New Hebrides experience was a stern introduction to exploration: rugged country, dense jungle and unwelcoming inhabitants. But his report ‘The geology of the New Hebrides’, was one of the first major geological reports of the area.

Mawson returned to further studies in geology in 1904 and was awarded the BSc. in 1905. In the same year he became a lecturer in petrology and mineralogy at the University of Adelaide. His particular interest was the glacial geology of South Australia – his work led to publication of his ‘Geological Investigations in the Broken Hill Area’ .This work was a major part of his Doctorate in Science from the University in 1909. He was keenly interested in radioactivity and was the first to identify and describe Davidite, a uranium mineral in the Precambrian rocks (from about 4.5 billion years ago). He named the mineral after his mentor, Professor David.

This interest in glaciology made him keen to see a real continental ice-cap which would increase his understanding of glaciation and its geological consequences. His studies in South Australian had brought him ‘face-to-face’ with glacial sediments from the Precambrian age and he wanted to learn more. This opportunity arose when, in 1907, Ernest Shackleton arrived in Adelaide on his way to Antarctica. Mawson approached him and applied to join the Nimrod expedition. Shackleton fascinated and enthused his audiences – Professor David had not only decided to join Shackleton, but was influential in obtaining a grant from the Australian government for the expedition. After consultation with David, Shackleton appointed Mawson ‘Physicist for the duration of the expedition’ (to Mawson’s consternation) and so began his long association with Antarctica. His interests were at this time scientific, his fascination with the continent and its opportunities were to come later

Two experiences stand out in Mawson’s Nimrod expedition. The first was the ascent of Mount Erebus, that active volcano billowing away on Ross Island near to Shackleton’s base. The second was an attempt to localize the Magnetic South Pole.

In relation to Mount Erebus which, at 12,448feet (3,794-metres), is the second-highest volcanic peak in Antarctica. In 1908 it had never been climbed. When Nimrod sailed North, the expedition team were left at their base on Ross Island. The sea ice close to them broke up. This cut off their route to the Barrier and meant that Shackleton’s plans for sledging and depot-laying had to be abandoned. Shackleton well understood the necessity of keeping interest and enthusiasm going in this hostile environment. He decided to send a team to climb and investigate Mount Erebus.

In March 1908, the party of six endured thirst, frostbite, sharp snow ridges, the hauling of a 600 pound sledge up Erebus’ almost vertical slopes. Five men reached the summit (one had been incapacitated by frostbite), having abandoned their sledge and carried what equipment they could. They finally reached the crater of the volcano; it was about half a mile in width and 900 feet deep. As they stood on the summit they could hear hissing sounds, then a dull boom followed by globular masses of steam shooting up into the air – an awesome sight.

As Mawson stood on the summit and looked around over the vast expanse of Antarctica he became entranced by its beauty and grandeur of the continent – and its possibilities. He wanted to learn its secrets.

The party was ‘nearly dead’ when they returned, but the expedition was successful –many rock specimens and much meteorological data was collected.

Later in the same year Mawson led the first party to reach the area of the South Magnetic Pole. This team consisted of Professor David (initially in charge), Mawson and Alistair Mackay (the expedition’s Assistant Surgeon). The plan was to travel west over McMurdo Sound, then head north along the Victoria Land coast and subsequently to find a passage through the mountains to the Polar Plateau. The expedition, a two sledge manhauling sortie, which set out on 5th October 1908, was an awful journey, a triumph of determination through a completely unknown region. The three men were away for four months and covered an astounding 1,260 miles.

Shackleton’s instructions were :
‘You will leave winter quarters on or about October 1, 1908 (they left on 5th October) The main objects of your journey are to be as follows: To take magnetic observations at every suitable point with a view of determining the dip and the position of the Magnetic Pole. If time permits, and your equipment and supplies are sufficient, you will try and reach the Magnetic Pole’.
In addition they were to chart the coast of Victoria Land, to look for minerals and to make a geological survey of the Dry Valleys.

But by the end of October the men had only advanced sixty miles – conditions were so bad that they hadn’t the strength to pull both sledges and had had to relay until mid October (one sledge pulled for a distance, then a return for the second). They endured blizzards, hostile surfaces, half rations, snow blindness. Some days they only advanced four miles. They shared a single sleeping bag – David in the middle and taking, Mawson felt, too much space – it was a relief when they were able to turn it inside out to air it – the inside was coated with encrusted ice from their breathing. Mawson and Mackay both wrote that the physical problems were exacerbated by Professor David’s (aged fifty-one), relative weakness on the trek.

On the 17th October the men took possession of Victoria Land for the British Empire
By late October progress was so slow and difficult that they decided to concentrate solely on the attempt at the South Magnetic Pole- they realised that their only hope of reaching their goal was by travelling along the coast line as far as the Drygalski Glacier and then turn inland to climb to the high plateau of Victoria Land. At that point they would face a further 290 mile trek to get to the Magnetic Pole. They saved their full sledging rations for the journey away from the coast by supplementing their rations until that point, with seal meat.

Before they reached the treacherous Drygalski Ice Barrier they still had to trek north over miles of coast and to navigate the Nordenskjold Ice Tongue where the conditions were so severe that they had to lower their supplies hand over hand over a sheer ice face. The ice tongue took ten days of cruel hauling to cross.

The Drygalski Barrier had frozen jagged surfaces and its heavily crevassed ice separated by deep ice valleys slowed progress seriously -sometimes so much that only half a mile was achieved in three hours.

Professor David had a narrow escape on this Barrier – he fell into one of the numerous crevasses.

The rescue was described by Mawson as follows:
David to Mawson (this was David’s third appeal to Mawson, who was in the tent)
Mawson ‘What can I do’?
David ‘Well Mawson, I am in a rather dangerous position. I am really hanging on by my fingers to the edge of a crevasse and I don’t think I can hold on much longer. I shall have to trouble you to come and assist me’.

When Mawson rushed out of his tent, he found David, his head just showing, hanging on by his arms on the snow ledge. He pulled him out.

In mid December after 200 miles along the coast, they turned inland having abandoned one sledge. They wrote farewell letters to their nearest and dearest, and left these in empty milk cans on a cairn. They slowly progressed up a glacier full of crevasses, barrancas (canyons or ravines) and unstable snow bridges. This was a heroic journey. Man-hauling their sledges, they pioneered a route to the plateau. They suffered snow blindness, falls into crevasses, perpetual sheer exhaustion. Eventually they reached an area with a hard snow surface, here they were able to advance more quickly (about 10 miles daily). Throughout they made regular magnetic observations.

By the 17 January 1909, they reached their goal, fixing the South Magnetic Pole’s mean position as 72° 15′ S, 155° 16′ E, at an elevation of 7,260 feet. David wrote; ‘We then bared our heads and hoisted the Union Jack at 3.30 p.m. with the words uttered by myself in conformity with Lieutenant Shackleton’s instructions, I hereby take possession of this area now containing the Magnetic Pole for the British Empire. At the same time I fired the trigger of the camera by pulling the string. Then we gave three cheers for his Majesty the King’.

The men understood then that, unlike the Geographic South Pole, the Magnetic South Pole is not fixed in place. And there is now some doubt as to whether the three men’s location was absolutely correct. It is now known that the position of the Magnetic Pole wanders around in a single year and over a longer period it can move many hundreds of miles. To-day it is in the Southern Ocean.

Their return was speeded by the need to be back at the coast to meet their relief ship. Dr. Mackay, exasperated by the Professor, who was apparently increasingly confused, threatened to certify David insane, unless he gave written authority of leadership to Mawson who had been the de-facto leader during the ascent. Mawson then took formal control and the three began the return to the coast. The journey was 250 miles and they had fifteen days to make it so as to get back in time to rendezvous with
‘Nimrod’. When a south wind blew they used the tent’s floorcloth as a sail and in two days covered 40 miles. Despite increasing physical weakness, bad weather and David’s mental health, they kept up their daily distances, until the 30th January when they mistakenly chose to descend a glacier (the Larsen Glacier) which had drops of 45 degrees and ice holes. On 31 January were 16 miles from their agreed pick-up point and they reached the rendezvous on the 2nd February 1909. It is easy to imagine their feelings as they saw the ship passing them in heavy drifting snow. But on February 3, thankfully, ‘Nimrod’s’ Captain made a second pass coming close to the shore. Mawson was so excited when he heard the ship’s gun being fired that rushed out of their tent and promptly fell into a crevasse. Nothing daunted Mackay shouted to those on board, ‘Mawson has fallen down a crevasse, and we got to the Magnetic Pole’.

Mawson was rescued by Professor David who seems, by this time, to have been able to function promptly and efficiently. David was lowered down the crevasse and the two got safely to the surface.

The group were able, at last, to get on board.

‘Were never folk so glad as were we three’.

They had completed the longest Antarctic man-hauling sledge journey of 122 days

When ‘Nimrod’ sailed into the port of Adelaide in 1909 Mawson was greeted as a hero….. “The voices of innumerable strangers – the handgrips of many friends – It chokes one…” He returned to work. Wonderfully he met his wife-to-be, Paquita Delprat, the youngest daughter of the general manager of a mining company. They were to be married in 1914

But this was to be after his next and worst Antarctic experience.

To be continued

Geology: studies of the earth’s physical structure and substance and investigation of their histories and influences



18 Jul

From its official beginning in 1934, the Institute’s aim has been to increase understanding of the polar regions through research and publication and to educate new generations of polar researchers; to make its collections accessible to the public and to project the history and significance of the polar regions to a wide audience.

As was recorded in the first section of this blog, in 1934 the Institute’s income was small – its activities depended heavily on Professor Frank Debenham, with one assistant, a Research Fellow and volunteer helpers.
The essential importance of both Polar Regions was recognized. In the Arctic military posts, weather and radar stations and airfields were already built and the possibilities and needs for transport, trade and mining (advocated strongly to the government by William Speirs Bruce as late as the 1920s – advice that was ignored), were apparent. In the Antarctic conflicting claims over control occupied political minds – Britain had a considerable interest -Edward Bransfield sighted, roughly mapped and claimed the Northern part of the Peninsula, in 1820 Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton had laid claim to parts of East Antarctica – the Australian explorer, Douglas Mawson had charted and claimed hundreds of miles of previously unmapped Antarctic coast line for the British Empire in his expeditions of 1914. Later, in 1936 Mawson led the British, Australian and New Zealand expedition the Banzare expedition which made claims over the Antarctic coastline closest to Australia, from 45°E to 160°E (later becoming the Australian Antarctic Territory). But no permanent bases had been established on the continent.
The Institute was occupied by the Admiralty during the war years 1939-1945. Its founding Director, Professor Debenham, was against the facility being occupied and stayed away from the Institute throughout the war and the Institute was transmuted to become became a sub-centre for Naval Intelligence, led from 1937 by James Wordie, Chair of the Committee of Management. Wordie advised an Interdepartmental Committee on all matters of policy and the Institute became a centre for research into cold weather warfare, clothing and equipment and produced geographical handbooks for the Admiralty – its library and map facilities ware enlarged.

In these war years, plans with far reaching implications for Antarctica were hatched by the British Government in which the Institute played a key role. The strategic necessity for a British presence on the continent was obvious – Argentina and Chile were making claims and in 1939 the United States established the US Antarctic Services expedition to the continent led by Admiral Richard Byrd, This was intended to be a permanent occupation. In the Institute, Wordie and Neil Mackintosh (both experienced polar experts and explorers), played a key role in an important venture, Operation Tabarin. The official description of the operation was that Tabarin was monitoring Axis surface ships and submarines and ‘looking for raider hideouts’ that would threaten Allied shipping. Its actual role however was to establish bases from which to administer the British Antarctic claim and so strengthen her hold to the area known as the Falkland Islands Dependencies (FID). The FID had been established through “Letters Patent” in 1908 (as amended in 1917) covering an area containing the South Orkney Islands, the South Shetlands, the South Sandwich Islands, South Georgia and Graham Land.

Operation Tabarin was the start of permanent occupation of Antarctica by Britain, it was always a civilian operation whose twin tasks were to preserve the claim and to carry out scientific research. Competing claims and the threat of cold war confrontation led, in the late 1950s, to search for effective arrangements for governance of the continent. This led in 1959 to the outstandingly successful Antarctic Treaty which was ratified in 1961. This reserved the Continent for peace and science, fostered international collaboration, banned nuclear testing or dumping and placed existing territorial claims to one side, whilst requiring that the signatories agree to make no further territorial claims. From the original 12 signatories there are now 29 full consultative parties to the Treaty whilst another 25 nations have acceded to it, but do not play a formal role in the governance of the continent. There are over 70 separate stations, some in permanent operation and the rest in operation only during the summer season.

Professor Debenham retired in 1946. He was succeeded by the Reverend Launcelot Fleming, and, in 1949 by Dr. Colin Bertram. The first full-time Director, Dr. Gordon Robin, was appointed in 1958. As the Institute developed post war it attracted senior ‘scholars’ from overseas and quickly became a recognised international centre for research and reference. It was enlarged to accommodate these burgeoning requirements on several occasions: in 1946 the rent from the Admiralty lease and a small grant from the Treasury allowed for extensions of offices, laboratories and the provision of a lecture theatre. In 1960, the Ford Foundation made a generous donation of nearly $300,000, a sum that allowed for further extension of the archives and map collection and a picture library. In the 1990s the Shackleton Library, named for Sir Ernest Shackleton and his son Sir Edward (Later Lord) Shackleton was built. It included a major extension of the archives and map collection plus a picture library and was opened by the Honourable Alexandra Shackleton, Edward Shackleton’s daughter. This development won one of the four awards given by the Royal Institute of British Architecture to the Easter Region.
In 2010, the centenary of Terra Nova, the Polar Museum was refurbished and reopened in June by the
Earl and Countess of Wessex and the museum was shortlisted for the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year
Prize in 2011.
Awards kept coming! In 2014, the centenary of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the Heritage Lottery Fund, through its Collecting Cultures Programme, awarded £50,000 to the Institute for its By Endurance We Conquer Shackleton Project. The aim of the project was to allow for the four sections – museum, archive, library and picture library to combine in both purchasing Shackleton memorabilia and to promote Shackleton even more widely to the public.
So what of the Institute’s activities now? The first thing to say is that it is an exciting place to visit.
There is always a buzz when I go there. The Institute is a favorite venue for schools as well as
national and international visitors. Since 1957, it has been part of Cambridge University’s Teaching
and Research Programme and is a sub-department of the Department of Geography. The University Grants Committee provides its main financial support.
The museum is on the ground floor. It is an Aladdin’s cave of exhibits: there is a section on the
Antarctic in addition to a collection of indigenous objects from the Arctic regions. There are polar oil
paintings, watercolours and sketches, and more watercolours by Dr. Edward Wilson (of the Discovery
and Terra Nova expeditions), on British birds. There is a flag collection, models of famous polar ships, a scrimshaw collection and examples of Inuit art – enough to keep the enthusiast happy for hours as well as to interest the most casual of visitors. The library claims to house the world’s most comprehensive polar collection. Its archive is named the Thomas H Manning Archive (after the British-Canadian Arctic explorer who, amongst other sorties, led the British Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1936-1941). In the archive are hundreds of well –catalogued manuscripts relating to all aspects of research, explorers and exploration. Here researchers from all over the world, including myself, can spend many hours unraveling the arcane details of their chosen subjects and one of the pleasures of such a visit is in meeting with this diverse group. There is also a Picture Library which houses a vast array of Arctic and Antarctic photographs.
Research plays a pivotal contribution in the Institute which states that its projects, often interdisciplinary, cover aspects of the environmental sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities that are of relevance to the Arctic and Antarctica. The Institute states that ‘it has taken advantage of its role within the University of Cambridge to establish itself as an academic centre where problems of polar research can be studied, free from the demands of expedition administration, of governmental decision making, or of economic pressures’ and that this is this way, it believes, it can contribute most effectively. The list of subjects studied is daunting, for example: the Glacimarine Environments Group (dynamics of ice-sheets and delivery of sediment to the marine environment) The Polar Landscape and Remote Sensing Group (processes which modify the polar and sub-polar environments), Polar Social Science and Humanities Group (covering the anthropology, history and art of the Arctic).
One fascinating recent study, led by Professor Julian Dowdeswell, the Institute Director, investigated the patterns of wave-like ridges on the ocean floor to the east of the Antarctic Peninsula. These ridges are about 1.5 met res high and 20 metres wide, and were formed roughly 12,000 years ago (the last glacial maximum)! An autonomous underwater vehicle ‘lying’ 60 metres (197 feet) above the ocean floor recorded these wave- like ridges, which were produced when grounded ice sheets (the buttresses that stop ice flowing from inland) began to float free and these dropped into the sea-floor sediment – their shapes being influenced by the movements of the tides.
Changes in the positioning of the ridges indicated shrinkage in the grounded ice sheets by as much as 50 metres (more than 160 feet) a day. Importantly, this shrinkage ( from 12,000 years ago), is greater than has been measured in recent years, i.e. we now know that the ice is capable of retreating at speeds far higher than what we see today and the fear is that should climate change continue to weaken the ice- shelves in the next few decades, we could see similar rates of retreat. This would, of course have profound implications for global sea-level rise.
The Polar Record began life in 1930 as the Institute’s learned journal. It is published twice yearly and is essential reading for polar enthusiasts — each edition contains a review of all the major events in the polar regions during the previous six months and includes peer reviewed and authoritative articles on any subject of topical Polar interest. It is the journal that promotes the Institute to a wide international audience.
All in all, Professor Debenham would feel that the Institute lives up to all his far sighted original ambitions and aims.

1) Glacial Maximum refers to the peak of an ice age when the geographical extent of the ice sheet is at its maximum. Dowdswell’s result shows that the Antarctic Ice cap spread far out over what is now the Weddell Sea with the ice, extending right down to what is now the sea bed. As the ice started to retreat the ice front moved poleward creating the steps seen on the sea bed.


16 Jun

This year (2020), The Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge will celebrate its centenary. The Institute was planned as a national memorial to Robert Falcon Scott and his team, who died on their ill -fated return journey from the South Pole in 1912 The University approved the establishment of the Institute in 1920

The institute was Frank Debenham’s inspiration and any account of its development must acknowledge and be impressed by the dogged persistence, patience, determination in the face of setbacks, in addition to the sheer volume of work taken on, shown by him and his team

Frank Debenham was a geologist on the ‘Terra Nova’ expedition. He wrote that the idea (which he originally called ‘A Polar Centre’), came to him in 1912, when he and geologist Raymond Priestley were surveying around Shackleton’s old hut on the slopes of Mount Erebus. Their plan was to augment the survey that had been made on Shackleton’s ‘Nimrod’ expedition of 1909 and, as they worked, they mused on the whereabouts of the original notes and on the need for a centre for field records and details of expeditions.
Debenham on the Terra Nova Expedition

In 1913, when the members of the ‘Terra Nova’ expedition started to prepare their reports, they had, as anticipated, difficulty in locating details of some previous expeditions – some reports had not been published and could not be found – these had probably been filed at home by their writers, or simply given away to friends. The necessity for a specialized centre was clear.

Plans were delayed by the First World War, but the idea persisted, and in 1919 a memorandum was prepared and presented to Sir Arthur Shipley, the Master of Christ’s College containing the suggestion that any records that could be located should be preserved. A new building was being planned for the Department of Geography and it was hoped that the proposal for a specialized centre could be linked to this development – the geography department approved of the suggestion acknowledging that it could neither undertake such a specialized study of technical and literary records as was envisaged, nor assess future submissions for research and exploration effectively.

Sir Arthur sent the proposal to Sir William Soulsby, the Honorary Secretary of the Captain Scott Memorial Mansion House Fund – an appeal fund for the dependents of Scott and his four companions. A total of £76,000 had been raised and of this sum £10,000 had been set aside as a ‘ Polar Research Fund’. Sir William put ‘the interesting statement’ before the Trustees of the Polar Research Fund and in May 1920 a grant of £6,000 was given to establish a polar research institute at Cambridge. The award was to finance a suitable wing or annex in a part of the larger building devoted to Geography… In the meantime temporary accommodation was to be provided.

In this way money for a wing was guaranteed (though dependent on the main building being erected). No maintenance fund was allocated. But with this support came confidence that the plans would succeed.

The Institute started life in an attic room (the attic period), in the Sedgwick Museum of Geology, where Frank Debenham was based as Emeritus Professor of Geography. Here equipment and records started to be collected – many from Scott’s expeditions. The attic quickly became the meeting place for the many people who were interested in the aims of the Institute – a place where they could meet with other enthusiasts. It was a group that had experts on virtually any polar matter and it quickly became the nexus to which requests for information could be sent – Antarctica was not the only area of interest, many expeditions, large and small, had been to the Arctic. The Institute aimed to provide information about the Polar Regions, to create a library for Polar books, diaries, logs etc. to provide information to anyone interested in the Polar regions and, importantly, to liaise with other centres – for example Scandinavia, North America, Russia, Australia and New Zealand.

Money was a problem. The grant that had been given by the Scott Memorial Fund was used up by 1925 and the need for a permanent, larger base remained. Debenham wrote to Sir William Soulsby suggesting that the £6000 promised, should be paid to the University, and that one-quarter of it should be allowed as capital for maintenance. An appeal to the Trustees resulted in The Lord Mayor handing over the balance of the whole trust fund (nearly £12,000) to the University of Cambridge for the foundation and maintenance of the Polar Research Institute. £6,000 was set aside as a building fund, which was to be built within ten years – the dream of 1912 became a practical certainty and on 9 May 1925, ‘the University of Cambridge gratefully accepted the generous offer of the Trustees of the Scott Memorial Fund to present to the University a sum of money for the erection, endowment and maintenance of a Captain Scott Polar Research Institute’. A Committee of Management was appointed. Frank Debenham was on the committee.. The Institute began its work on an income of £300 a year.

It could not have survived without voluntary help: correspondence, the collecting/ sorting of equipment and the organization of the library, were all done by volunteers. Frank Debenham writes that informal parties helped increase people’s interest in the Institute and that the social life of the Institute was never a problem, though finances were a persistent anxiety. He reported that the Institute’s original concepts were followed when its first report, on the geological and topographical sections of the results of The Quest expedition (1921-22), was produced.

The first meeting of the Committee of Management took place on January 1926, The Inauguration Ceremony was in May – an exhibition in Sedgwick House, followed by a dinner given by the Vice-Chancellor in Downing College. It was a grand affair, amongst others attending were Sir T. W. Edgeworth David (who had been part of Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition and who had reached the South Magnetic Pole) and Scott’s widow Kathleen (Mrs. Hilton Young). Kathleen’s husband, Commander Hilton Young, proposed the toast. The inaugural address by Dr. Fridtjof Nansen the Norwegian explorer, scientist, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was cancelled because a coal strike prevented him getting to the meeting. 

In 1927 the Institute moved from the attic in the Sedgwick Museum to Lensfield Road in a premises that had been bought by the University. Initially the building was shared with the School of Architecture, but in 1929 the School moved and the whole house belonged to the Institute.

The Institute remained at Lensfield Road for seven years. Frank Debenham wrote admiringly of the panelling and carvings which he thought blended well with the portraits and with Edward Wilson’s water colours. The collection increased rapidly – souvenirs and relics increasing more quickly than polar equipment.
But revenue was still barely meeting expenditure (Debenham wrote that he and other volunteers regularly did any domestic chores needed). Capital was not being added to and the big expense ahead, the erection and equipment of the promised Memorial building loomed.

This emergency was averted when Sir Edward and Lady Hilton Young (Lady Scott) appealed to The Trustees of the Pilgrim Trust and in 1931 a gift of £4 000 was approved. This was followed by a further gift of £2,000 from the Trustees of the British Museum for a publication fund. Planning for the new building began. The Grade II Listed Building was to be occupied in 1934.
The first number of The Polar Record, appeared in January 1931.This reviewed all the major events in the polar regions during the previous six months and included authoritative articles on any subjects of topical interest. The Record continues its successful publications.

The Institute was opened by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Stanley Baldwin. The architect was Sir Herbert Baker (who had designed some of New Delhi’s government buildings). Above the main door was a bust of Capt. Scott, sculpted by Kathleen Scott (Lady Hilton Young). On the frieze above were the words QUAESIVIT ARCANA POLI VIDET DEI, – He sought the secret of the pole but found the hidden face of God.

In front of the building was a statue also by Kathleen Scott in memory of the whole the polar party. It depicts a youth standing with head thrown back (the model was the younger brother of Lawrence of Arabia who became a Professor of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge).On the pediment is written LUX PERPETUA LUCEAT EIS, May eternal light shine upon them.

The entrance hall boasted two high domes, painted by Macdonald Gill with maps of the two polar regions embellished with famous ships and names of noted past explorers.

Entrance Hall

There were three floors. The ground floor contained collections of polar equipment (sledges, dog-harness, polar clothing, kayaks etc). The first floor held the library of polar books and maps and in the attic were paintings, including Edward Wilson’s water colours, also the collection of photographs and illustrations of past expeditions were stored here. There were small rooms for the director, staff and research students.

The building was formally opened on November 16, 1934

Frank Debenham OBE

To be continued


22 May

Clements Markham’s rise to the Presidency of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), was not inevitable. It happened, as has been described, when there was a rift in the Society over the admission of women members. But as President, he became the face of British geography; when he was appointed he announced that his ambition was to promote a British Antarctic expedition.

He was sixty- three when he was elected. During his presidency he had his supporters, but in spite of his many achievements, the dictatorial approach that he demonstrated (a quality that his supporters would have claimed was necessary to get results), along with an increasing reputation for vindictiveness and slander, resulted in many colleagues regarding him with suspicion and distrust.

From an idealistic youth he transmuted into a formidable, confident, opinionated leader – a man dismissive of criticism, but a man of courage who pursued his goals despite setbacks and rebuffs.

He was born in 1830. The family can be described as upper-middle class – a great-great grandfather was an Archbishop of York; a great-grandfather was an Admiral; his father was the Reverend David Markham. Clements began his life-long habit of making observations on the people he met and the places he visited when he was a young boy (he wrote that one elderly lady had a long neck, an eager little face and a voice like a cockatoo, another was untidy)! and he always made careful descriptions of the houses his family visited- He was a student at Westminster School. His cousin Admiral Markham wrote that Clements thought it was a more wonderful and delightful place than he had ever imagined!

For generations, the family had varied in its allegiance between the Church and the Navy and, aged 14, Clements joined the navy as a cadet. His acceptance was helped by an aunt, the Countess of Mansfield, who introduced him to Rear Admiral Sir George Seymour, a Lord of the Admiralty. Seymour was about to take command of the Pacific station and he assigned the young boy to his flagship, HMS ‘Collingwood’.

Clements Markham as a naval cadet aged 14
Artist Thomas Richmond

‘Collingwood’s’ tour lasted almost four years. She visited Callao, the main port on the Peruvian coast, this was a visit that gave Clements his first experience of a country that would figure so importantly in his later career. During the tour ‘Collingwood’ also called at Chile, Brazil, the Sandwich Islands (now the Hawaiian Islands),Tahiti and the Falkland Islands. Clements used the years profitably – he passed the examination to become a midshipman and he learnt Spanish.

But his experience at sea made him reassess is ambitions for the future – he decided against the navy as his career, he wanted to become an explorer/geographer. When ‘Collingwood’ arrived at Portsmouth in July 1848, Clements told his father that he wanted to leave the navy, but his father persuaded him to stay, at least temporarily. This was a decision made easier by the announcement of an Arctic expedition which aimed to find information concerning the fate of Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition of 1845, Sir John’s two ships and 128 men had disappeared whilst attempting to navigate and chart the Northwest Passage. Clements knew immediately that he wanted to join in the search and he used family influence to be appointed to ‘Assistance’ in 1850. Aged twenty he was the expedition’s only midshipman. He noted every detail of expedition life in his journal.

No survivors or clues as to the whereabouts of Sir John’s ships were discovered. However Clements played his full part in the expedition’s sledging excursions and it was at this time he became impressed by a method of man-hauling sledges through icy terrain adopted by lieutenant Leopold McClintock. Clements was convinced that with fit naval men, the method was a better and more reliable method of transport in icy conditions than dog transport. This was to have profound implications for British exploration. Fifty years later he remained an advocate of the technique.

Monument to Sir John Franklin’s fated expedition to find the Northwest Passage.
Waterloo Place London

‘Assistance’ returned to England in October,1851 and Markham left the navy. His reasons for leaving were primarily his geographical ambitions, but he also loathed what he considered to be the excessive corporal punishment characteristic of naval life – forty years later he was to spearhead a campaign that abolished flogging. Also the long periods of inactivity on the expeditions bored him. But his naval experience made a deep impression. He was convinced, permanently, that naval discipline would be right for Polar exploration. He published his experiences under the title of ‘Franklin’s Footsteps’.

Clements always dreamed of returning to Peru. In 1852, financed by his father, he achieved his ambition. His plan was to collect information about the Inca city of Cuzco and to study relics of the Inca period. He reached Cuzco in March 1853. It was at this time that he learned that the cinchona plant, grown near Cuzco, was a source of quinine. This had enormous implications for world health – cinchona bark was the first known treatment for malaria. But he could not investigate further, the death of his father meant an immediate return to England in September, 1853. Always an inveterate writer, he published ‘Cuzco and Lima’ after his trip.

He was elected Fellow of the RGS in 1854 and the Society immediately became the centre of his geographical interests. In the same year he was also appointed to the Board of Control of the East India Company and served in the ‘secret department’ at the time of the Indian Mutiny (1858-1862). But without his father’s financial support he had to earn a living. Unsatisfactory employment in the Legacy Duty Office of the Inland Revenue was followed by a transfer to what became, in 1857, the India Office, where he was to remain until 1867. In 1859, Clements proposed a scheme to his employers for collecting cinchona trees from the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes and transporting them to selected sites in India and with the support of the Secretary of State for India, he set out for Peru six years after his first visit. His brief was to transfer the cinchona plants and seeds to India. Aged 29, he was in charge of the entire operation.

Clements Markham, aged 25

His team arrived in Lima in January 1860. The enterprise was dangerous; Peru and Bolivia were on the verge of war, Markham travelled to parts of Peru which had probably never been visited by Europeans, also the Peruvian authorities, keen to protect the country’s control over the cinchona trade, were hostile and limited his operations. He was prevented from obtaining the best quality specimens. Somehow, he managed to overcome bureaucratic obstruction and obtained the necessary export licenses to transport the invaluable plant to India – a priceless service to humanity, within years the price of cinchona had fallen from 20 shillings per ounce to a few pence per ounce. Markham was granted £3,000 for this outstanding triumph. He wrote about his experiences in ‘Travels in Peru and India’.

But he achieved even more. As part of his India Office duties he investigated and reported to the Indian government on the possibility of introducing Peruvian cotton into Madras: of transporting ipecacuanha (a plant treatment for bronchitis and croup and used to induce vomiting), from Brazil to India. He reported on the future of the pearl industry in Southern India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He wrote compulsively – particularly relating to South America – works included: ‘Quichua Grammar’ and ‘Dictionary and The War between Chile and Peru 1879-1881’.

In 1863 he was appointed as Honorary Secretary of the RGS, a post he held for twenty-five years. At that time exploration of central Africa was creating great interest and he followed the reports of Livingstone, Burton and Speke’s expeditions with enthusiasm. He travelled in Europe, South America and the States, where he was entertained by the American Geographical Society and met President Grover Cleveland. But he always worked indefatigably for the society – he arranged scientific lectures, he reorganized the library, the map collection and the society’s photographic collection. He arranged for instruction in surveying. In 1871 he instigated a Lectureship in Geography at Cambridge University. Throughout he always supported the concept of Polar exploration.

In addition he was Secretary and subsequently President of the Hakluyt Society, a society that publishes accounts of historic voyages/travels and geographical material (he eventually published about thirty papers in the society’s journals).

In 1867 Markham became head of the India Office’s geographical department and was invited to accompany Sir Robert Napier’s military expeditionary force to Abyssinia as the expedition’s geographer. He was present at the storming of Magdala, the stronghold of the Abyssinian King Theodore (who, after a simmering dispute, had insulted the British by imprisoning the British Consul and his staff and whipping a missionary) and he was the man who found the body of the defeated King. On return he published the history of the Abyssinian War. Interestingly on this expedition he met Henry Stanley, the Welsh explorer (an unknown correspondent at this time), who two years later was sent by Gordon Bennett, the publisher of the ‘New York Herald’ to locate David Livingstone in Africa.

He made a second Arctic Voyage between 1875–76. He persuaded Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to support this expedition and he went with it as far as Greenland. He was gone for three months and his homeward voyage was delayed. This prolonged absence from India Office duties, together with his range of other interests, seems to have been too much. His superiors asked him to resign. Fortunately his 22 years of service entitled him to a pension.

He continued his travels and was abroad at the time of his unexpected appointment as President of the RGS. Once appointed he pursued his declared ambition for Antarctic exploration with formidable determination, alienating many of the distinguished members of his committees in the process. His persistence was rewarded when ‘Discovery’ was launched (discussed in the first part of this account of his life) and his support for Scott never faltered. Scott’s death, on the return from the South Pole in 1912. was a devastating blow – one that Sir Clements never really recovered from.

Scott in his turn always supported Sir Clements. As he lay dying in Antarctica he wrote; ‘Tell Sir Clements I thought much of him and never regretted his putting me in command of the Discovery’. His son was christened Peter Markham.

Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society, 1893-1905

He retired from the RGS in 1905. The Society awarded him its Founder’s Medal.
His retirement was an active one – he travelled, he wrote: biographies, editing and translation work. When Scott announced his plans for a second Antarctic exploration in 1909, Sir Clements entered into the plans enthusiastically

He was awarded honorary degrees from Cambridge and Leeds (where the Chancellor referred to him as a veteran in the service of mankind and stated that he, Sir Clements, was the inspiration of English Geographical science). He helped with the preparation of Scott’s Journals and was present when a window in St Peter’s church Binton was dedicated to Scott’s final expedition. He had continued as a as a member of the Council of the R.G,S, but was so infuriated when his successor as President, Sir George Goldie, invited Roald Amundsen to dine with the Society, that he resigned from the Council too.

He died at his home, 21 Eccleston Square. He was reading in bed by candlelight. The bedclothes caught fire, he died the following day, the 30th January 1916. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery on 3 Februry,1916..

He is commemorated by Mount Markham in the Transantarctic range, the Markham River in Papua New Guinea and Markham College, a private co-educational school was opened in Lima Peru.

So what is his legacy? He had the fullest of lives, the balance of his life must be considered positive. His contribution to the accessible cure for malaria was a priceless gift to humanity, his (successful), campaign to stop flogging in the navy praiseworthy. Without him the early British exploration of Antarctica would not have taken place. He had a phenomenal memory and wrote/edited about 50 books in addition to papers and memoirs. He was made a K.C.B. (Knight Commander, Order of the Bath), in 1896. His successes were acknowledged internationally – he received awards from the Kings of Portugal, Sweden, Brazil and Norway. He was made an Honorary Member of academic and geographical societies throughout Europe and America.

But he was not universally loved or even liked; in fact David Crane writes that he achieved posthumous opprobrium. His character was complex as is shown by the contrast between ‘his was a most lovable nature, always kind and sympathetic, always happy and cheerful and ready at all times to amuse others’, with, ‘he had an unrivalled capacity for self-serving, misrepresentation, scurrilities, slanders, snobberies, affectations, infatuations and vindictiveness’ Perhaps no successful man can be generally admired but they can be respected and these assessments are not suggestive of respect. The RGS’s librarian, Hugh Robert Mill, wrote that he ran the society in a dictatorial manner. Frank Debenham who served with Scott called him a dangerous old man. Professor Rudmose–Brown (who supported the Scottish expedition, ‘The Scotia’), called him an old fool and a humbug. He had none of Shackleton’s ability to inspire and conciliate.

His character was such that once he had come to a decision he stuck to it, irrespective of opposition, in fact opposition strengthened his resolve and aggression. He had a caustic tongue. He championed causes and did not attempt to hide his own prejudices. He upset contemporaries. He was dictatorial, but also a wily negotiator – this was particularly notable in his chairmanship of the Joint Antarctic Committee (12 members from the R.G.S, 12 from the Royal Society who clashed irreconcilably). Sir Clements favoured an emphasis on geography and exploration and faced down hostility and opposition from much of the scientific community; he manipulated their differences of opinion to triumph and push his own plans through.

After the ‘Discovery’ expedition he championed Scott’s career to an extent that he disparaged the (considerable) achievements of those contemporary explorers who had also been South in the early 1900s.

His public and private persona seems to have been at variance. He was married in April 1857 to Minna Chichester and the couple had a daughter, May. His Cousin Admiral Markham described him as kind and affectionate. His loyalty to Scott was absolute. He privately performed many kindnesses

But his overriding aim was to serve the Empire and Geographical Science. In this he succeeded.

Bust of Sir Clements Markham at the back entrance of the
Royal Geographical Society

Clements Markham 1830-1916

8 Apr

How we will be remembered -– over the years will our reputation be lauded, forgotten or debated?

An example of the latter possibility is Sir Clements Robert Markham, KCB. FRGS. FRS.

Markham was a geographer, explorer, writer, a Member of the Royal Geographical Society, its Secretary for twenty five years and, subsequently, its President. He achieved much in his long life, but his personality was such that he also aroused enmity, resentment an hostility. The Royal Geographical Librarian (Hugh Robert Mill) wrote that as President, Markham functioned more as a dictator than a President. David Crane, in his biography of Robert Falcon Scott, writes that Markham had an unrivaled capacity for misrepresentation. scurrilities, slanders and vindictiveness. But he qualifies this by stating that for every flaw, Markham had an opposite quality in good measure – for example a hatred of cruelty, a largeness of imagination and a wonderful capacity for loyalty and friendship.

Markham when he was elected to the Royal Geographical Society

Markham is mostly remembered for his presidency of the Royal Geographical Society to which he was unexpectedly elected, in 1893, when in his early sixties. His election followed a dispute over the question of admission of women members, a clash of opinions that Markham had kept out of (the dispute split the society – at a Special General Meeting the council voted against admitting women members, this differed from the results of the postal ballot where members had been strongly in favour). Following his election to the Presidency, Markham became a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KCB), and so became Sir Clements Markham. He was the society’s president for twelve years.

President of the Royal Geographical Society; 1893-1904

For years Sir Clements’ overriding passion had been the revival of British Antarctic Exploration and as president he was in the position and had the contacts and energy to pursue this vision – without him there would have been no British Antarctic expedition. In London in 1895 he chaired the Sixth International Geographical Congress, this was attended by deputations from all the major European countries. The focus was on Antarctica- at that time the actual presence of a Southern Continent was uncertain- and at the end of the congress a statement was issued: ’Exploration of the Antarctic is the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken. That in view of the addition to knowledge in almost every branch of science that would result from such a scientific exploration, the Committee recommended that scientific societies throughout the world should urge, in whatever way seems most effective, that this work should be undertaken before the end of the century’.

Sir Clements aimed to achieve this lofty goal in Britain’s name.

Support and enthusiasm was certain, political and financial backing, less so.
The 1899 International Geographical Congress (the seventh), this time at Berlin, emphasized international cooperation, particularly with Germany, who were already financing their own Antarctic expedition, as well as scientific work. Sir Clements suggested dividing the Antarctic into sectors: Britain would cover the Ross Sea area. Germany’s sphere of activity would be the Weddell (north west) and Enderby (north east) sectors.
Sir Clements was to spend years fighting to achieve his goal; years in which he appears to have made as many enemies as friends. He needed to raise £90,000 and to get finance from the Treasury he needed the full support of two Specialist Societies – the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society. To this end he formed the Joint Antarctic Committee which consisted of twelve representatives from each of these august bodies. But far from achieving a coordinated plan the committee almost immediately fell apart. Whereas the Royal Society emphasised science, in particular terrestrial magnetism and oceanography, Sir Clements’ priority was geographical discovery. Endless sub-committee meetings and the diametrically differing aims of the societies resulted in frustration. Hugh Robert Mill, the geographer and meteorologist, who acted as Secretary for the Joint Committee reported on its deliberations and wrote that the work resulted in a confusion of jealousies, arguments and misunderstandings. Sir Clements also clashed with the Royal Society on the overall leader of the expedition. He was determined that his protégée, Lieutenant Robert Falcon Scott, should be both Captain and in overall command. By contrast the Royal Society assumed that a scientist would lead the work in Antarctica and backed a Professor John W. Gregory. It was not until May 1901, that Gregory was informed that Scott had been appointed Expedition Commander, Sir Clements out- manouvered the Royal Society, Professor Gregory, very publicly, resigned.
In three years of fund raising, only £10,000 of the £90,000 had been raised. But, by a welcome ‘munificent gift’ of £25,000 from a wealthy London business man, Sir Clements’ vision was saved. Mr. Longstaff wrote that he wished to contribute to the advancement of our knowledge of the planet in which we live. With this gift the tide was turned.. The government, after consultation with the Learned Societies, advanced £45,000. Interestingly, Arthur Balfour, (later to be Prime Minister) represented the government in meetings with the societies. He would have given the deputations a sympathetic ear, being much interested in science and actually a member of the Royal Society. He was also possibly influenced by the fact that German Government had voted £60,000 to Antarctic exploration (in addition to the £30,000 that had been raised in Germany by private subscription). The government gave £45,000 to the expedition, the Royal Geographical Society another £5,000. In April 1899, Queen Victoria wished the expedition success. The Prince of Wales agreed to become Patron.

Sir Clements’ capacity for loyalty and friendship was apparent in his support of Scott. During the months after Scott’s appointment he bombarded his protégée with advice and instructions. One of Sir Clements’ prejudices was against dogs – though even at this time the famous Norwegian explorer Nansen, supported dog transport. Sir Clements favoured manhauling which he had observed some fifty years previously when, as a midshipman, he had been on an expedition to the Arctic. On the expedition a lieutenant, Leopold McClintock, had mastered the technique of travelling over the ice with sledges. This expertise influenced Sir Clements absolutely in favour of manhauling, He was to become a major, and, it transpired dangerous, advocate of the technique -it could be said that he thought of Polar exploration in terms of heroism for heroism’s sake. Scott followed his mentor’s advice.

Sir Clements’ wife, Lady Markham, was to launch Discovery the expedition ship, on the 21st March 1901.

Sir Clements was fully involved in appointing Discovery’s crew members -he wrote comments on all of them. He thought the First Lieutenant, Charles Royds, was a ‘first class seaman’, and deserved to be ‘one of the Antarctic heroes’. Second Lieutenant Michael Barnes, was ‘a charming young fellow… ‘and a relation of mine which is also in his favour’. Ernest Shackleton, the future famous Antarctic explorer, was included with Sir Clements blessing as requested by Llewellyn Longstaff the ‘munificent donor’. Sir Clements thought Shackleton steady, high principled, full of zeal, hard working, good tempered and well informed. He wrote that the senior doctor of the expedition (Koettlitz) was zealous and persevering but that his mind perhaps works rather slowly.

Sir Clements decided that Discovery, a three-masted, sail and steam wooden ship, should be built in Dundee. In spite of all efforts she leaked heavily on her outward sail, the leak became all too newsworthy, the sight of water pouring from the ship in the New Zealand dry dock was well advertised and Sir Clements had to assure the press that such leaking was normal in a wooden ship.

SS Discovery

Once in the Antarctic, the expedition made the first significant penetration ever onto the continent in addition to important geographical and scientific advances: At different times and locations the expedition discovered: King Edward VII Land; the only snow-free Antarctic Dry Valleys: an unexpected Emperor Penguin colony Cape Crozier (until this time it was considered impossible that any creature could breed in the caterwauling gloom of Antarctica). Scott, with the junior doctor Wilson and Shackleton reached 82°17’ S. in a sortie towards the South Pole. All suffered from scurvy.

The Dry Valleys in the western mountains of Victoria Land

Discovery was originally meant to return to England in a year, but when the Antarctic summer arrived, she was still firmly ice bound. Sir Clements therefore had a legitimate excuse for disregarding the official orders for the ship to return to England; in fact it is claimed that Sir Clements had anticipated this and that the relief ship (Morning, which carried stores and personnel), transmitted secret instructions to Scott authorizing a further year of work.

During the second Antarctic season a major ascent into the Antarctic mountains discovered the Polar Plateau. Scientific observations were made throughout the ascent and throughout the season.

Scott had hoped that by the second Antarctic summer, Discovery would be freed from the ice, but she remained held fast. This was to be Sir Clements’ nemesis. Money was needed to get the crew home. Sir Clements’ expedition’s coffers were empty. In London he was accused of mismanagement. The Royal Geographical Society withdrew its support.
The Treasury initially refused to pay for a second rescue. The realisation that the Royal Geographical Society had made no financial provision for a relief expedition caused serious anger. Arthur Balfour (now the Prime Minister) declared this as a betrayal of trust. But Balfour really had no choice, apart from anything else thirty of the 37 officers and men on Discovery were on the Navy’s active list. The crew had to be rescued.
The Treasury funded the rescue operation on the proviso that the Admiralty took over the whole responsibility for the relief expedition. i.e. out of Sir Clements’ hands. The two Societies were told, on 20 June 1903, that the Government would assume ‘the whole responsibility for the further relief expedition which has unfortunately been rendered necessary’. Discovery was to be abandoned if she could not be freed from the ice, and her complement brought back on two relief ships. Morning and Terra Nova . The costs of repairs and victualing would be the first charge on the sale of Discovery (if she could be extricated from the ice). Morning which Sir Clements had chartered was to be transferred to the government ‘absolutely and at once’.
A furious Sir Clements claimed that Morning has been bought in his name, but the eventual threat of legal action prevailed. Sir Clements’ authority over the expedition was finished. He was out of the country when The Council of the Royal Geographical Society saw the writing on the wall and elected an Acting President who, ignoring Markham’s written instructions, acquiesced to the Treasury’s demands.
Ironically, as is the way in Antarctica, the ice suddenly began to break up. Discovery was released. The three ships returned to New Zealand together.

Sir Clements met the ship in Portsmouth on 10 September 1904, but no dignitaries greeted the party when it arrived in London a few days later. There was however, considerable public enthusiasm for the expedition. A cable from the king was sent to congratulate Scott and his men on their splendid achievements and criticism was muted in the face of royal recognition. Sir Clements advertised the achievements of the expedition and he wrote also that ‘sledge journeys without dogs are quite unequalled’. But some critics spoke out: Sir Jackie Fisher, soon to be in charge of the navy, said that money would have been better spent building up the navy writing that it wass worse than a crime, it was a blunder’

Sir Clements’ authority over Antarctic Exploration was irrevocably diminished.

To be continued


24 Mar

I write to wish anyone who reads this blog my best wishes over the coronavirus storm.

In the UK the virus numbers and deaths are mounting steadily and we are told to expect many more. The advice is that by self-isolating now, we can avoid a ‘peak’ in cases, and flatten the ‘peak’ into a ‘curve’. In this way it is hoped to avoid an overwhelming number of patients requiring ventilation – as is happening in Italy and Spain; such a demand could overstretch the National Health facilities.

It is incredible to me that so many people simply flout this advice, on Sunday 22nd March (Mothers’ Day here), London traffic was at a third of normal, the parks were busy, scores headed for beauty spots in Wales and to the seaside.

In response to this we are now at the stage where Boris Johnson has imposed draconian measures. People are banned from leaving home except for food or medical treatment, plus we are advised that we can go out for exercise once a day –keeping away from each other. ‘Essential’ workers continue their work.

We get regular updates from the Prime Minister, the health advisers, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (financial support) and others, on progress and on-going advice. We are fortunate that the National Health system IS national, as this facilitates cooperation between hospitals throughout the regions. But a major problem for health professionals and other front-line workers has been a shortage of PPE (Personal Protection Equipment – this is being addressed urgently), and insufficient testing kits for diagnosis and for virus antibody.

I was, some years ago, a Consultant in the National Health and vividly recall the numbers of patients needing assessment in the Accident and Emergency department when I was on emergency duty. The thought of what it must be like now is truly alarming.

For myself I am going for walks (but not seeing anyone!), watching TV, listening to the radio and trying to get to grips with all those books I have been looking at for years. Also writing a blog (Sir Clements Markham). I am trying to do an exercise programme, this is MUCH more difficult at home, than in the gym!

I hope you are keeping occupied, safe and well.  Bon chance!


9 Mar

When William Speirs Bruce planned his 1902-1904 expedition to Antarctica his primary ambition was science, as opposed to exploration.

In 1903 he built two scientific observatories on Laurie Island on the northern edge of the Weddell Sea. This was the start of a collection of scientific records that was continued, when Bruce left the Weddell Sea, by the Argentine. Recordings have now been made for 116 years. They continue today providing unique information about meteorological, magnetic and oceanographic conditions in Antarctica.

In relation to meteorology, this graph running from 1903 to 2020 shows the trend and variance in the mean annual temperature on Laurie Island. It is by far the longest recording of temperature in the region (the second longest being from Argentine Islands off the Antarctic peninsula which runs from the early 1950s). As can be seen there is a trend in temperature from – 5°C to -3°C. The graph also illustrates clearly the variability in the annual records, but it is clear that the twenty-first century recordings approximate to the upper recordings in the early 1900s.

This graph would never be available save for William Speirs Bruce’s foresight in encouraging a network of weather stations to be run continuously in the South Atlantic.


World temperature is rising, controversy persists, though not amongst the scientists, as to how much man is contributing to the problem.

The reason there is life on our planet relates to infra-red active gases (carbon dioxide, methane, water vapour that are in the stratosphere). The lack of these gases would result in a significantly colder climate, a permanent ice age. Conversely, a rise in infra-red gases would result in a rise in temperature, though there is a complex, non linear relationship between small changes in carbon-dioxide, methane and other trace gases, and the consequent temperature rise. The global climate system is complex which makes it difficult to simply ascribe cause and effect.

But carbon dioxide levels do have a strong correlation to mean global temperatures. Fascinating ice core records were first recovered from the Russian station Vostok which provided records covering 450,000 years. More recently a record of 800,000 years has been recovered from “Dome C” in Antarctica (part of The European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica). This shows, very clearly, the link between temperature and carbon dioxide levels over cycles of glacial and interglacial periods of around 100,000 years. This is a natural process linked to long term small variations in the Earth’s orbit and axis of rotation. The level of CO2 in the stratosphere has varied naturally between around 180 ppm during glaciations to 280ppm in the warm interglacials, as shown in the records.

                        It has now passed 408 ppm.

Carbon is ubiquitous, in fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal), in organic matter in soil and in rock, in the sea. Carbon dioxide is emitted when we exhale, When fossil fuels, are burned carbon dioxide is produced. In 2019 the global emission was 33 gigatons (a gigaton is one billion ).

In the oceans it is estimated that there are billions of metric tons of carbon and further billions of metric tons in sediments on the sea bed. The latter comes from the shells of marine creatures that have absorbed carbon from the water, sunk to the ocean floor and later formed sedimentary rocks.

A raised carbon dioxide level relates to a rise atmospheric temperature which in turn is associated with a rise in ocean temperature, seawater expansion and a rise in water level. The increased water levels are also contributed to by melting land ice and erosion of ice shelf bases. Ice shelves hold ice from flowing outwards and thinning of these shelves increases the flow of ice seawards. An estimated ice loss across the entire Antarctic continent was 43 gigatons each year on average from 1992 to 2002. The loss has accelerated between 2012 to 2017.

Potential results of sea-level rise are coastal erosion and damage. Subsequently, inland areas would become affected and the soil contaminated. If the rise continues toward one metre, some of the world’s major cities will come under threat and even low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, will be threatened.

Ocean acidification, due to dissolved carbon dioxide, has serious consequences.

Acidification affects the southern Krill population. Krill, an essential primary food source, are small crustaceans that feed on zooplankton and convert this into a form suitable for larger animals such as whales, seals, penguins, squid, and fish to eat. All Antarctic wildlife ether depends on krill or depends on something that eats krill for survival. Without this stable base, the food chain linking upwards would deteriorate and eventually collapse. In addition, cold-water corals, which have calcium carbonate in their shells, become less able to build their shells and breeding grounds for both fishes and mammals would be lost.

But some do not subscribe to the concept of global warming, for example: Donald Trump cast doubt on a U.S government report warning of the devastating effects of climate change. When he was asked if unchecked global warming would wreak havoc on the US economy, he said: “I don’t believe it.” The administration has pursued a pro-fossil fuels agenda.

But if conclusions such as this from the U.S. President are wrong, the price to pay is huge. Given the persistence time of CO2 in the stratosphere of 100 years, even if the world were to stop all emission now there is still that legacy which is likely to take the planet past the 1.5 degrees C warming, which scientists say we should not pass. Currently carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning are steadily rising, rather than decreasing. Scientists warn that we are playing dice with the future of humanity.

A final point – global human population increase. This is approximately 83 million annually, or 1.1% per year. Population numbers have grown from a billion in 1800 to approximately 7.616 billion in 2018. Improved medical care and reduced child mortality would be a powerful incentive for families to have the confidence to limit the size of their families.

Policies now direct to keeping carbon emissions flat until 2050. But so far there is little sign of sufficient practical action on this. Scientists are now increasingly coming to the conclusion that we need to go “carbon negative”, which raises the possibility of large scale “geo-engineering”. – Geo-engineering is defined by as the large-scale manipulation of a specific process central to controlling earth’s climate, for the purpose of obtaining a specific benefit (Britannica .com).

Millions now do understand the dangers of global warming and the urgency to contain it. Humanity is at a crossroads, for the sake of our grand-children we need to make the right turn.


With grateful acknowledgement for the comments by John Dudeney O B E.-  my co-author of ‘William Speirs Bruce, Forgotten Polar Hero’



24 Jan

Have you heard of the Ernest Shackleton Autumn School? If not you should look it up and consider a visit. The School is held annually in the Athy Heritage -Centre Museum in County Kildare, Ireland. It pulls all strands of Polar experiences together – it could be described as the Polar event of the year! Shackleton was born in Kilkea House, near Athy in 1874 and lived in the area with his large family until the age of ten. The school started in 2001 with the aim of celebrating Shackleton’s achievements and establishing him as a role model in the locality.

I have now attended this event on three occasions and spoken, with John Dudeney my co-author, in one. The meeting is relaxed and convivial with a very a warm welcome offered to delegates, who come from all over the world. But the scholarship of the speakers is world class and the talks are always both fascinating and thought provoking.



The Athy Heritage Centre Museum was opened in 1997, four years before the Shackleton Autumn School. Its aim was to celebrate the history of an area which dates back for hundreds of years from an Anglo -Norman settlement in the 12th century; monasteries were founded a century later, a Charter was granted by Henry VIII in 1515 (who subsequently ordered the dissolution of its monasteries in the 1530s). Athy supported the Catholic/Royalist cause in the Irish Confederate Wars, which ended when  Oliver Cromwell‘s New Model Army defeated the Irish Catholic and Royalists in the 1650s.

In the 1900s the town remained loyal to the crown in World War1. Two thousand volunteers from the area joined the British Army –one of them, John Vincent Holland, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his valour and courage in in the Battle of the Somme.

The museum is the home to the only permanent exhibition dedicated to Shackleton. Numerous artifacts include Shackleton’s sledge and harness from his Antarctic expeditions, a model of his ship ‘Endurance’’, family photographs and Frank Hurley’s film footage of the ‘Endurance’ expedition. A statute of Shackleton is outside the museum.



It occurs to me that not every reader will be familiar with some of the details of Shackleton’s story and the reasons he is so celebrated, so here is a brief summary of his most noteworthy expeditions.

He went to the Antarctic on four occasions –his two most famous expeditions were the ‘Nimrod Expedition’, (official name the ‘British Antarctic Expedition’) 1907 -1909, and the ‘Endurance Expedition’, (the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition) of 1914-1917.

On the ‘Nimrod Expedition’ Shackleton and his three companions pioneered the route up the huge Beardmore Glacier to discover the Antarctic Plateau. The route up the glacier covered 120 miles, riddled with crevasses and rising from a few hundred feet to a height of over 9,000 feet. The team reached within 100 nautical miles of the South Pole. This was an outstanding success, the first expedition to get anywhere near the Pole and was a major source of inspiration for Amundsen’s and Scott’s later expeditions. The achievement is largely overshadowed now by Shackleton’s later exploits, but at the time it was internationally recognized.   Shackleton was knighted by King Edward VII, awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, also the Polar medal; an appreciation both of his achievements and of the geographical discoveries that members of his expedition had made.

Five years later on the ‘Endurance Expedition’ , Shackleton aimed to take a twenty-eight man team to the Weddell Sea in the Antarctic and then, with a small team cross the continent via the South Pole to reach the Ross Sea. He did not succeed, in fact he did not actually get onto the continent, but this is the expedition that became the stuff of legend for its courage, endurance and shining example of leadership. ‘Endurance’ was caught and subsequently crushed by sea ice in the Weddell Sea. As the sea poured into the ship Shackleton and his crew had to decamp onto ice floes. Here they existed for four months (little food and low temperatures). Their final ‘home’, the ice floe Patience Camp was eroded by the sea so the twenty eight men had to abandon the ice and crowd onto three small lifeboats in an attempt to get to safety. They made landfall on Elephant Island – this was a journey that lasted for seven days – the 9th to the 16th April 1916. It was characterized by tumultuous seas, fog, tortuous thirst, gastroenteritis and the proximity of killer wales. Shackleton and the leaders of the other two boats showed outstanding skills in keeping those small boats together.

Elephant Island was out of the shipping routes so Shackleton had to effect a rescue for his men. In an era prior to wireless communications, his only realistic option was to attempt to reach the peri-Antarctic island of South Georgia, (which he had left at the start of his expedition). He took five men with him, leaving his remaining crew of twenty –two living under upturned boats on a beach on Elephant Island. The voyage, made in a twenty-two foot boat, the James Caird took them across Drake’s Passage and via eight hundred miles of the wild, sometimes snowy and icy, Scotia Sea. The sail is said to be the most remarkable example of small-boat seafaring ever achieved. But even the arrival at South Georgia was not the end of Shackleton’s trials. He and two others, Captain Worsley and Petty Officer Crean had to cross South Georgia’s unknown and uncharted snowy mountains to reach the whaling station that he had left sixteen months before. He returned then to Elephant Island (with great difficulty) and rescued the twenty two men who had been marooned on the island for four months waiting and hoping, sometimes despairingly for his return. All Shackleton’s crew survived.

Throughout these ‘Trials of Job’, Shackleton showed his remarkable qualities of leadership, positivity and optimism. As a true leader, he knew when to alter his plans as circumstances changed. It is wonderful that he is so celebrated in the county of his birth.


In the meeting that I attended diverse matters were covered: a workshop by sculptor Mark Richards, who has sculpted the statute of Shackleton that stands outside the museum, a book launch (Shane McCorristine’s The Spectral Arctic: A History of Ghosts and Dreams in Polar exploration, a talk on Amundsen, a discussion on what the sea floor can tell us about ice sheets, shipwreck mysteries, Jose Manuel Moneta in the Antarctic, the Patriot Sailor and Adventurer, Conor O’Brien, Icebreakers Kathleen Shackleton, a lecture on Isolation when wintering and working in Antarctica, William Speirs Bruce, the Forgotten Polar Hero, a film Ice in the Sky and, a bus tour through Shackleton country.

A fascinating selection of topics the likes of which are repeated annually


A wonderful acquisition for the museum will be Shackleton’s ‘Sea Bedroom’, the cabin on The Quest in which Shackleton died on his fourth expedition south in 1922. The Quest was bought by the Norwegian shipyard owner, John Drage. Drage for use as a sealing ship, but he kept the cabin, which he transported to his farm in Norway. Now Drage’s great grandson, Ulfe Bakke, has donated this precious artifact to the Athy Heritage Centre. Joe O’Farrell a committee member of The Shackleton Autumn School accompanied the cabin, which was transported by the shipping company DFDS from Norway to Ireland.

The cabin measures seven feet by six feet, contains a bunk, wash basin, chair, enamel cabinet, a mirror and an oil lamp. Restoration is underway. It is planned the work will be completed by 2022 in time for the centenary of Shackleton’s death. This will coincide with the reopening of the redesigned ‘Shackleton Museum’ which will tell the story of the man, his family, and Ireland’s contribution to exploration.

Finally I must mention an unusual event that is celebrated in the museum – a motor race around Athy that took place in 1903. James Gordon Bennett, the flamboyant publisher of the New York Herald presented the Gordon Bennett Cup to be given to the winner of the race which was held on a racing circuit around Athy (Gordon Bennett is probably best known for his sponsorship of Stanley’s successful expedition to Africa to find David Livingstone). The race, over 527km (327.5 miles), was won by Camille Jenatzy, for Germany, in a time of 6 hours, 39 minutes.

The Shackleton Autumn School should be noted by everyone with an interest in Polar events.