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British Graham Land Expedition, 1934-37


A arrow full gallery of images from this expedition can now be browsed in the online Picture Library catalogue.


Section 1: Introduction - background and objectives

Image as described adjacent Map of Graham Land as understood in 1934

When the British Graham Land Expedition (BGLE) was planned in 1933 Graham Land was believed to be the largest of a group of islands lying to the North-West of the Antarctic mainland and separated from it by three channels, the main one of which was the Stefansson Strait. Graham Land formed part of the Falkland Island Dependencies, British territories which also included the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, all the sub-Antarctic islands of South Shetland, South Orkney and South Sandwich groups, the off-shore islands and the Antarctic Continent between the meridians of 20 ° W and 80° W.

In addition to surveying the West coast of Graham Land and extending knowledge of the whole region it was the intention to explore the passage through the Stefansson Strait to the Weddell Sea which might be used by future expeditions as an alternative to the eastern approach to the Antarctic continent which had proved so disastrous for Shackleton. It was also planned to carry out extensive research in a number of scientific fields which included: geology, glaciology, zoology, meteorology, ornithology and the biological sciences.


Section 2: Personnel - shore and ship

Image as described adjacent Rymill - leader (right) and Bingham - doctor

Image as described adjacent Party

The expedition team comprised 16 men led by John Rymill, an Australian, who also acted as surveyor and second pilot. The shore party of 9 included several Cambridge graduates, some of whom had acquired experience of polar conditions in Greenland as members of the British Arctic Air Route Expedition led by Gino Watkins. Although the expedition's ship was mainly powered by sail, few of the 7 crew members had sailing experience.

The budget for the three-year expedition was limited to the remarkably low sum of £20,000 (about £400,000 in 1999 terms), which had to include the cost of their ship and an aeroplane. It was only possible to finance BGLE with this constraint because all personnel were unpaid or were serving naval men on secondment.


Section 3: Transport - on sea, ice and air

Image as described adjacent Expedition ship, the Penola in Argentine Islands

Image as described adjacent Sled and dogs on expedition

Image as described adjacent De Havilland Fox Moth depot laying

A three-masted schooner, the Penola (capable of a modest 4 knots) was the main transportation and most of the party travelled from England via the Falkland Islands and South Georgia to Antarctica in this vessel. The aircraft and dogs as well as a large part of the stores were, however, brought separately by a research ship, the Discovery II.

Rymill and those of his colleagues who had been with Watkins in East Greenland had learned much about polar travel, particularly dog sledding, from the Inuit. There, they had also learned to sled wherever possible along the coastal ice rather than overland, where the uneven terrain frequently made travelling problematic.

The aircraft - a De Havilland Fox Moth capable of operating with skis or floats - was used extensively for reconnaissance, aerial surveying and depot laying.


Section 4: Bases - Northern and Southern

Image as described adjacent Northern base in the Argentine Islands

Image as described adjacent Southern base in the Debenham Islands

For the first year a base was established in the Argentine Islands some 30 miles south of Port Lockroy. This was much further north than originally intended because of problems with the Penola's auxiliary engines without which further travel through the ice could have been hazardous.

During the following season with the engine problems resolved the party moved South to the Debenham Islands in Marguerite Bay at 68° 8' S and 67° 6' W. It was from this, their Southern Base, that the main survey and scientific work was carried out. The hut there was built using materials salvaged from the disused whaling station at Deception Island.


Section 5: Expeditions - exploration and survey

Image as described adjacent Alexander Island from King George VI Sound

Several significant journeys were undertaken by sled; the longest was about 10 weeks in duration and involved the exploration of the coast to 340 miles south of the Southern Base. This expedition travelled down the channel separating Alexander Island from the Peninsula (King George VI Sound), a distance of some 200 miles, and made the first ever landings on the island finding fossils and collecting rock specimens. No channels to the east were discovered.

Another expedition crossed what was now established as the Peninsula, from west to east, coming close to the Weddell Sea before turning back at the sea ice on 25th December 1936.

Plane trips were limited by the safe range of the aircraft which was some 280 miles or three and a half hours flying time. Often weather conditions precluded flights for many days and other limitations included low cloud and unsuitable landing surfaces. However, the aircraft proved invaluable for route finding, surveying and depot laying and was used with skis and floats as conditions allowed.


Section 6: Conclusions - achievements

Image as described adjacent Map of Graham Land as known in 1937

A major discovery of BGLE was that the channels (reported after the pioneering flights of Wilkins and Ellsworth) between the Bellinghausen and Weddell Seas did not, in fact, exist. Thus, Graham Land was a peninsula and not an archipelago. The discovery of King George VI Sound, however, and Stephenson's journey close to its termination, all but proved the insularity of 'Alexander Land'.

Much of the coastline of Graham Land was mapped. Considerable work involving the various scientific disciplines was conducted including studies of seals and birds. Fossil plants were discovered and important geological facts revealed. All these topics were extensively reported in the literature.

Despite the severe constraints of their funds, BGLE proved to be extremely valuable and effective in terms of results. The expedition's success resulted from a number of factors:

  1. use of their small aircraft for reconnaissance, surveys and depot laying
  2. experience in handling dog-sled teams
  3. use of the sea-ice for travelling along the coast
  4. well-understood sledging and camping techniques
  5. up-to-date nutritional knowledge
  6. availability of limited, but effective, radio communications
  7. a multi-disciplinary team of experienced and competent scientists

BGLE proved to be of great significance with many achievements to its credit. It bridged the gap between the heroic age of Antarctic discovery and the present era with its well-funded and comprehensively staffed permanent bases. Using new approaches to travel and diet it avoided many of the problems faced by earlier explorers. Despite the severity of the environment and the three year duration of the expedition, the party returned to Britain without injury or experience of deprivation.


Section 7: Picture record and Bibliography

The SPRI Picture Library holds an extensive collection of some 3,500 prints and negatives relating to all aspects of BGLE. For a complete listing of BGLE photographs in SPRI click on the link below.

BGLE Photographs at SPRI

For a complete bibliography using SPRILIB Antarctica please click on the link below. This is a web-based database of the Antarctic collection in the SPRI Library.

BGLE References

The major published work is:

RYMILL, J.R.
Southern Lights
Malvern, The Knell Press, 1986 [reprint of 1939 edition], 167p.

The writing is interesting, clear and unfussy. A striking feature is the unemotional, indeed rather dispassionate, tone with very little reference to the severity of the conditions which must occasionally have been endured during BGLE's three year duration.

Other key references include:

ROBERTS, B.B. and others
The British Graham Land Expedition, 1934-37: scientific papers
London, British Museum (Natural History), 1940-41, Vol.1, 367p.

BERTRAM, G.G.L.
Antarctica sixty years ago: a reppraisal of the British Graham Land Expedition, 1934-37
Polar Record, 1996, 32(181): 1-183.

All the above may be consulted in the SPRI Library.


To obtain these or other photographs, please contact the SPRI Picture Library.


Images scanned, and text written by Claude Cowan, August 1999.