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Antarctic Cataloguing Project

Have you packed the paracetamol?

Thursday, December 28th, 2017
SPRI Y: 59/8/2/84/1-71

SPRI Y: 59/8/2/84/1-71

Going on holiday for a couple of weeks…? Don’t forget to pack some paracetamol and plasters. Going to the Antarctic for three years…? What on earth do you need to pack in your first aid kit?

Earlier this year we came across several boxes jam-packed with medical and surgical equipment from the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955–58. Much of it was supplied by Evans Medical Supplies Ltd. which had a history of working with expeditions. When Vivian Fuchs made the first public announcement of the proposed trans-Antarctic Expedition, the company’s ‘Expedition Liaison Officer’ wrote directly to Fuchs to offer their services free of charge, and to supply and pack all the necessary medical supplies and equipment for the expedition.



SPRI Y: 59/8/1. A medical box – the very one pictured in the Evans Medical Gazette.


The above extract from the Evans Medical Gazette contains a letter, dated 1959, from Dr Allan Rogers, the medical officer on the expedition, to the Managing Director of Evans Medical thanking him for the equipment. To quote: ‘All the medical supplies that you provided proved extremely satisfactory. Fortunately we had to make use of them on only a few occasions, but when we did they fulfilled their function perfectly’. In the top is a picture of Rogers examining a box on a loaded sledge, and the bottom shows a picture of one of the boxes – and we have this very box in the collection (this sort of thing is extremely exciting when you work in a museum!)

The box contained four smaller cardboard boxes, labelled ‘Tablets & Medicines for Internal Use’, ‘Surgical and Penicillin’, ‘Dressings’ and ‘Medicines etc for Local Application’, and these boxes contained all sorts of things – vitamins, plasters, sunburn oil, bandages, eye drops and a bottle of ‘medicinal brandy’ (it still smells very potent!).


We also came across several rolls of surgical instruments – the biggest, and most dramatic, containing almost 70 items – which I had great fun attempting to describe considering that I had no idea what anything was (‘long metal thing with hooky bit on the end’ etc.). So we invited Professor Roger Kneebone, Professor of Surgical Education and Engagement Science at Imperial College, and an expert on surgical equipment to come to the museum and help us identify everything. The kit contains surgical needles, knives, clamps, bone scrapes, tracheotomy tubes, a trephine, and even some amputation saws. Many of the objects had a rather weird yellowy-rubbery-plastic coating which was perhaps an anti-rust coating – it’s reassuring to know that those with this coating (such as the saws) were never used.

There were also a surprising amount of dental equipment – although accounts state that Rogers often used lots of the implements for tinkering and repairs.

Although we have what must only be a very small and incomplete selection of what was actually taken on an expedition, it’s nonetheless fascinating to see the kinds of things they did take in order to be prepared for every eventuality.




Spotlight on Antarctic Expeditions: Operation Tabarin 1943-46

Thursday, November 30th, 2017

SPRI Y: 2011/55/10 and Y: 2011/55/14.

In our fifth and final instalment of lesser known Antarctic expeditions I’d like to introduce you to Operation Tabarin, a secret wartime Antarctic expedition which marked the start of the UK’s continuous presence in Antarctica, and which was supposedly named after a Parisian nightclub! The Operation has been summed up as ‘bearded men in chequered shirts establishing post offices up and down the Antarctic Peninsula’. Post offices are mightily important!

From the early-nineteenth century, the Antarctic had been considered a resource-rich, empty space ripe for imperial appropriation. While Britain and its commonwealth countries controlled two-thirds of the Antarctic continent and the surrounding seas by the 1930s, the governance was mostly paper-based, with little of the physical presence necessary to assert sovereignty, such as signs and flags, or credible permanent occupation – as evidenced by post offices.

By World War II, Germany had claimed much of the Norwegian territory in Antarctica and posed a significant threat to Allied shipping. Meanwhile, in 1942, Argentina had landed on Deception Island and then travelled further south, stopping along the way to raise the Argentinean flag and leave notes stating possession – and had also established a post office in the South Orkneys.

Britain decided it needed to strengthen its legal title to its Antarctic territories. The original plan was to send a party of soldiers to sit somewhere in the Antarctic, but it soon developed to include the establishment of permanent manned bases – with post offices – which would also provide platforms for scientific work, exploration, surveying and mapping of the local area.

SPRI Y: 49/11 and Y: 49/12a-b. The only two objects we have relating to Operation Tabarin actually date from the Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1901-04 (Antarctic) which were brought back by Operation Tabrain.

SPRI Y: 49/11 and Y: 49/12a-b. The only two objects we have relating to Operation Tabarin actually date from the Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1901-04 (Antarctic) which were brought back by Operation Tabrain.

Naval parties 475 and 476 which constituted Operation Tabarin sailed from the UK on 14 November 1943, arriving in the Falkland Islands on 26 January 1944. Three days later they departed for the Antarctic with men, supplies and scientific equipment. Two bases were established in the first season of 1944: Base A at Port Lockroy and Base B at Deception Island. Within days, the Union Jack was raised, radio communication was established with Stanley in the Falkland Islands, and a post office was set up at Base A (what is now the famous ‘Penguin Post Office’).

Towards the end of 1944 it was agreed that two new bases would be established – Base D at Hope Bay and Base E as far south along the Graham Land coast as possible, probably at Stonington Island. However, in early 1945 James Marr, who had been set to take command of Base D, announced that he would be returning to England on the grounds of ill health. The plans to establish Base E had to be revised, and it was decided to forego a base at Stonington Island in the short term to focus on Hope Bay. On 13 February, the Union Jack was unfurled at Base D on a 20-foot pole that had been found near the remains of the hut from Otto Nordenskjold’s Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1901–04 (Antarctic).

While the driving force behind Operation Tabarin was territorial disputes with Argentina, there was only one actual encounter with the Argentineans. In February 1945, after delivering Marr to Stanley, the ship Scoresby travelled to Scotia Bay at Laurie Island to ‘show the flag’ to the Argentinean meteorologists there. The Argentinean residents had not seen anyone for fourteen months and all was friendly until the arrival of the Argentinean relief ship. The captain refused to acknowledge a signal of invitation from the Scoresby’s captain, Marchesi, and both ships subsequently weighed anchor and left.

We do have a lot of objects relating to the Falklands Islands Dependencies Survey, the successor to Operation Tabarin, including dog driving equipment, clothing, scientific equipment and foodstuffs.

SPRI N: 1030, Y: 2011/55/11, Y: 2014/9/7, Y: 2011/9/25. We do have a lot of objects relating to the Falklands Islands Dependencies Survey, the successor to Operation Tabarin, including dog driving equipment, clothing, scientific equipment and foodstuffs.

The expedition returned to the UK in low key circumstances in 1946, but its scientific success cannot be denied. Three meteorological stations with a near-continuous record of recording had been established, alongside local surveys at Bases A and B, zoological and botanical work at Base A and specialised geological and glaciological work at Base B. At Base D, sledging trips in excess of 800 miles had been completed between August and December 1945; a substantial area had been mapped, considerable work was undertaken in the fields of geology, glaciology, botany and marine biology and a quarter ton of specimens had been prepared for shipping back to the UK.

Operation Tabarin was replaced by the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS), which continued the British presence in Antarctica, creating fourteen more bases over subsequent decades. In 1962, the Falkland Islands Dependencies were redesignated as the British Antarctic Territory, and the FIDS became the British Antarctic Survey.




  • Haddelsey, S. with Carroll, A. (2014). Operation Tabarin: Britain’s secret wartime expedition to Antarctica 1944-46. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press.
  • Dudeney, J. and Walton, D. (2012). From Scotia to Operation Tabarin: developing British policy for Antarctica. Polar Record, 48(247), pp.342-360.
  • Squires, H. (1992). S.S. Eagle: The Secret Mission 1944-45. Jesperson Press Ltd.

What on earth is an IMP?

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017


In my time at the Polar Museum, I looked at every single Antarctic object in the collection for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, and can reveal that my favourite object is the ‘IMP’, mostly because of its sheer bizarreness.

During the project we found five medical boxes from the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955-58 (CTAE), two of which were mysteriously labelled ‘IMP’. IMP, as it turns out, stands for Integrating Motor Pneumotachograph. The IMP was developed in the 1950s by Dr Heinz Wolff to determine energy expenditure. At the time, there was a lot of interest in research on cold adaptation and survival, and the IMP was part of an ambitious programme of physiological experiments devised by Dr Allan Rogers, the medical officer on the expedition, to be conducted during the winter and throughout the trans-continental journey on the CTAE.

The IMP consisted of an air pump and flowmeter housed in a plastic box, which connected on one side with a mask fitted over the face and on the other with a sample-collecting unit packed in a bag worn on the back. The IMP measured the total volume of air breathed out by the wearer over a given time, and from this expired air it automatically took representative (or integrated) samples collected in glass ampoules which could then be analysed to determine the oxygen consumption. There’s a great video of the IMP in action (at 1:23).

Wearing the IMP was not a popular activity – the men had to be bribed and press-ganged into doing so – and only one man, Geoff Pratt, managed to wear it day and night for a whole week (only removing it to eat and drink). Pratt described the experience: ‘having continuously to breathe through the mouth leads to unpleasant dryness and outside in the cold the front teeth become “edgy”. You never, for a single moment, escape from a suffocating feeling and a very conscious effort in breathing’.(1) And he got frostbitten on his face during the experiment! But things were not much easier for Rogers, who had to remain constantly near Pratt in order to change the ampoules and keep an eye on the instruments, and even stayed awake at night to make sure the mask remained in place while Pratt slept. There’s a great photo by George Lowe of Pratt wearing the IMP. (2)


We have lots of associated IMP equipment that we don’t fully understand what it’s for – gas canisters, a lot of tubing, syringe-like things and a strange electrical unit for example, as well as mouth pieces, nose clips, and lots of spare transistors (click here to view the IMP items on the catalogue). But my favourite bits are the face masks, which were adapted from an RAF rubber face mask, with the cheeks lined with chamois leather. Some of them have foil-backed green felt covers safety pinned to them (which may have been to prevent condensed breath freezing on the masks).  The best bit is that quite a few of the masks we have are marked with the names of the wearer: ‘Geoff’ (John Geoffrey Drewe Pratt); ‘Taffy’ (E. Williams); ‘V.E.F.’ (Bunny Fuchs); ‘Ralph’ (Ralph Lenton); and ‘Roy’ (Desmond Homard).

The IMP was a big improvement on other instruments for measuring energy expenditure but in this case it proved to be a failure. The various components, such as the transistors and batteries, were unreliable and on his return to Britain, Rogers found that the breath samples that had been collected had been contaminated and the entire experiment rendered completely useless!

  • (1) Haddesley, S. (2012). Shackleton’s Dream: Fuchs, Hillary and the Crossing of Antarctica. The History Press. p.121.
  • (2) Lowe, G. and Lewis-Jones, H. (2014). The Crossing of Antarctica: Original Photographs from the Epic Journey that Fulfilled Shackleton’s Dream. London: Thames and Hudson, pp.126-127.


The mystery of the ‘Morning’ tablecloth

Monday, January 9th, 2017


Way back in the summer of 2015, I came across a white linen tablecloth embroidered with signatures in various colours (Y: 2008/21) – and have been meaning to write a post about it since then, as all was not as it first seemed. The original catalogue entry described it as being embroidered with the signatures of the crew of Morning, the ship from the British Relief Expeditions of 1902–03 and 1903–04, which went to the Antarctic to relieve Scott’s British National Antarctic Expedition 1901–04 (Discovery). It was donated by the family of William Colbeck, captain of Morning, whose wife did the embroidery. Click here to view the catalogue entry for the tablecloth.

A bit of basic internet research showed there is a tradition of signing tablecloths and then embroidering over them to create a memento from an event or experience. Examples I came across included one from 1914 with suffragettes’ signatures (including Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst), one with the signatures of the 1926 Australian cricket team, and another with signatures from a Japanese internment camp in 1942.

I had assumed that this tablecloth must have been signed at a dinner to celebrate the return of the Morning and the end of the expedition. I had no reason to question this, until I started trying to decipher the signatures (some of the handwriting was quite difficult to read) and to cross-reference them with the names on a crew list from the Morning. I soon discovered that a) I couldn’t find a crew list, and b) that there were lots of people who I knew hadn’t been on Morning and some who had never been on a polar expedition.

Some of the handwriting was quite challenging to read...

Once I started looking closely and deciphering all of the signatures, I noticed that the centre of the tablecloth contained the names of the scientists on the British Antarctic Expedition 1898–1900 (Southern Cross), the first expedition to overwinter in Antarctica, (but not the name of the expedition leader, Carsten Borchgrevink). So I then thought the tablecloth must have been started by the Southern Cross expedition, and assumed it was a dinner to celebrate their return… until I discovered that Hanson died on 22 August 1898 soon after the expedition set out.


Bernard Jensen (Captain S.Y. “Southern Cross”), Louis Bernacchi (2nd Magnetic Observer), Hugh Blackwell Evans (Collector), Herlof Klovstakd (Doctor), Anton Fougher (Assistant Collector), Nicolai Hanson (Zoologist), William Colbeck, Sub-Lieut. R.N.R. (Chief Magnetic Observer).

I then tried to match up the names with other expeditions. At this point, I posted a photo of the tablecloth on Twitter and got a response from the National Maritime Museum stating that the tablecloth contains Southern Cross names in the centre, with one corner devoted to officers from Discovery and another to officers from Morning.

It would be great to do some research to find out exactly who everyone was – and identify what expedition they were on, what their polar connection was, or what their connection to Colbeck was. It would be also be interesting to see whether there is any significance in the colours – do they relate to an expedition, or a time when the tablecloth was signed? And are the positions on the tablecloth significant – if one corner is for Morning and one for Discovery, what about the two?

I had started out hoping to be able to trace the tablecloth to a particular dinner or other event, before concluding that it must have been the equivalent of an autograph book to Colbeck – something he started before or in the early days of the Southern Cross expedition (before Hanson died) and decided to keep up. However, further information has come to light which suggests that the tablecloth may date from the departure dinners (rather than the return dinners) of Southern Cross and Morning.


A brilliant conference for the Polar Museums Network

Monday, November 7th, 2016
Thanks to Willy Nesset from Ishavsmuseet for the group photo.

Thanks to Willy Nesset from Ishavsmuseet for the group photo.

Towards the end of October, Charlotte, Sophie, Bryan and I attended the inaugural conference of the Polar Museums Network (PMN), an initiative launched last year to strengthen and spread the knowledge of polar history, science and exploration, and to build relationships between museums with polar collections. The conference was held at the Fram Museum in Oslo, which houses Fridtjof Nansen’s and Roald Amundsen’s famous ship, Fram. We were joined by 35 delegates from 18 museums from across five continents, as well as by academics and independent researchers.

Over the three days we heard lots of engaging and informative presentation on a wide range of subjects such as exhibitions, conservation and cataloguing. We learned about the challenges of operating museums on the Antarctic continent, about the heroes and anti-heroes of polar exploration and how their flaws can help us connect with them, and the mystery of the pinstriped textiles found on Scott and Amundsen’s South Pole expeditions. Particular highlights for me included learning about the 3D laser scanning of Scott’s Discovery and a chance to go inside the James Caird with footage taken by its conservator. Lots of people tweeted the conversations that were happening at the conference, which we’ve collected in a ‘Storify’ so take a look here to find out more about the papers.

A wide range of museums – big and small, national and local, public and private were represented – but we were able to find many commonalities in our three main areas of focus, Arctic exploration, Antarctic exploration, and peoples of the North. And a surprising number of museums have ships (and share many of the challenges associated with them).

We also dedicated an afternoon to planning the activities of the PMN and how to build on the momentum generated by the conference. Hopefully, we’ll be holding another conference in two years time with even more people attending. You can find out more about the PMN and how to join here.

The conference was followed by a study tour which took us around the beautifully autumnal Oslo fjord to visit Uranienborg, Amundsen’s home which is almost exactly how he left it when he disappeared in 1928; the Ski Museum at Holmenkollen, where we saw many objects from Amundsen’s South Pole expedition, along with a pair of Scott’s skis and Nansen’s branch boat – not to mention the enormous ski jump (!); and Polhøgda, Nansen’s home and office which is today home to the Fridtjof Nansen Institute.

Geir Kløver and the Fram Museum were fantastic hosts, and even treated us to a conference dinner on the deck of the Fram – definitely something to remember. We also had plenty of opportunity to look around the museum and brush up on our Norwegian polar history.

It really was a brilliant few days – I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conference where I’ve found every single paper so engaging and relevant to what I’m doing. For me, it was also great to share our Antarctic collections and the work of the Antarctic Cataloguing Project with the wider polar museums sector. Needless to say, we’ve all come away buzzing with enthusiasm and with lots of leads and connections to follow up.


The Antarctic Cataloguing Project is drawing to a close…

Monday, October 31st, 2016


The Antarctic Cataloguing Project will be coming to an end in less than two weeks, and so will my time at the Polar Museum. I can’t believe how quickly the two years have flown by!

The project set out to create a fully researched and illustrated online catalogue all of the Antarctic objects in the museum’s collection. This involved describing, measuring, photographing and condition-assessing each object in the collection, and conducting research to find out more about the objects, the people who used them and the expeditions they were used on. The project also aimed to cross-reference the objects in the museum with material in the Archives and Picture Library at SPRI (e.g. if we have Scott’s goggles, have we got a photo of him wearing them or a diary entry where he refers to them?), and with comparable objects in other national and international collections, and to embed the resultant information in the catalogue itself. Quite a lot of work for one person in two years! Needless to say, I felt somewhat daunted by the task when I started in November 2014…

I spent the first three-four months of the project developing cataloguing guidelines and a consistent structure for the catalogue records which would work for any object in the museum (be it Arctic or Antarctic, modern or historical, object or artwork) and which would also correspond with the Picture Library and Archive catalogues where possible. I also did extensive work to cross-reference the different keyword and classification systems already used in the Museum, Picture Library and Archive catalogues to create standardised and structured systems and develop controlled termlists where possible. (I’m a bit of a cataloguing geek so this job was perfect for me!) Details of this work will be available on the project page on the museum website.

It wasn’t until February 2015 that I was ready to start looking at the objects – and since then I’ve looked at every single Antarctic object in the collection (about 2400 items) and have produced detailed catalogue records in the new consistent structure for each, with neat descriptions and new photos. These are now available on the online catalogue, and I’m really hoping that we’ll be able to add an advanced search on the website in the coming weeks.


The Antarctic catalogue is available at

A team of volunteers has worked on a parallel project to draw together existing biographical information about expeditions and expedition members to create biographical catalogue records for them. These will form a shared resource between the Museum, Archive and Picture Library and we’re hoping that these will become available online in due course – so if you’re looking at an object belonging to Scott, you’ll be able to click on his name and it will bring up his biography. I’ve also had the assistance of an absolutely brilliant volunteer who has done extensive research on some of the lesser known Antarctic expeditions, and also on the manufacturers of objects in the collection.

In addition to all of this (because I didn’t have enough to do!), we’ve been busy making five short films about life in the Antarctic on the themes of clothing, transport, food, navigation and science. Each film features objects from the Polar Museum, interviews with guest contributors talking about their experiences in the Antarctic, and historic and modern photographs. Look out for a blog post on these in the near future.


I’m really going to miss the Polar Museum and SPRI, but it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable two years and I’m really pleased to have ‘completed’ the catalogue (in as much as cataloguing work is ever complete). My biggest sense of achievement comes from having photographed the sledges over three very hot days in August. Many of the sledges are stored on the top shelves of our very small ‘large objects’ store and I had not-so-secretly been hoping that we would run out of time before we had the chance to photograph them. It was utterly exhausting and quite nerve-wracking at times, but it’s brilliant to know that they’re done.

I’d like to say an enormous thank you to everyone at the Polar Museum, particularly to Sophie and Christina for all of the condition assessing, to Chris and Tom at the Department of Biochemistry for all of the photography, and to all of the volunteers who’ve helped on the project.



Who was Robert Lawrie?

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

One of the things that we wanted to do as part of the Antarctic Cataloguing Project was to find out more about the manufacturers of objects in the collection and to establish their connection with polar exploration.


Working our way through the Antarctic collection, I came across about 30 items associated with Robert Lawrie Ltd. – crampons, ice axes, boots, and lots and lots of anoraks (click here to view the catalogue entries). It’s not always clear from the descriptions in the original accession register or from the objects themselves whether the items were manufactured by Lawrie, or whether they were supplied by Lawrie acting as an agent for other manufactures – and I wanted to be able to pin down which was which. Furthermore, it seemed like Lawrie was a prominent figure in the world of exploration in the period 1930-1960, and he even had a glacier in Antarctica named after him in 1959 (Lawrie Glacier at 66°04’ S 64°36’ W). So I wanted to find out more…

Boots and mittens treated with whale oil to prevent the leather freezing.

Boots and mittens supplied to the British Graham Land Expedition 1934-37. They were treated with whale oil to prevent the leather freezing.

Robert Lawrie was born in 1903 and trained as a boot and shoemaker with his father’s firm in Burnley, Lancashire. As a young man, he was an accomplished climber and alpinist and by the late 1920s was manufacturing and supplying mountaineering boots to his own design. In 1931, he made a pair of boots for a man called Ray Greene, who went on to become the doctor on the 1933 Mount Everest expedition. At this time there were many crossovers in the development of equipment for mountaineering expeditions and polar expeditions. Lawrie was commissioned to supply 30 pairs of boots for the porters, as well as some high-altitude boots for the Europeans on this expedition. Until this point there’d been a somewhat closed supply-chain for the prestigious Alpine Club and Royal Geographical Society expeditions – and it seems like this was Lawrie’s break into manufacturing for exploration.

Edmund Hillary's measurements.

Edmund Hillary’s measurements.

By 1935, Lawrie was specialising in climbing and skiing boots and equipment and offered a personalised boot making service. He supplied the British Graham Land Expedition of 1934-37 (where he was experimenting with non-freezing leather for boots and mittens by treating it with whale oil) and Edmund Hillary’s 1953 ascent of Everest.

Despite extensive efforts to track them down, it seems that the company records for Robert Lawrie Ltd. have almost completely disappeared so we just don’t know what was going on. However, the grandson of a friend of Robert Lawrie’s who has the book that contained the templates for all the feet Lawrie made personalised boots for. The client would stand on the book and Lawrie would trace around their feet and take other measurements before making the boots. The book included the pages for Hillary’s feet and the measurements for his anorak. (As well as leading the Everest expedition, Hillary also led the New Zealand party on the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955-58).


The Antarctic Catalogue is now live!

Tuesday, March 29th, 2016

online gallery

It’s been a long time coming, but after seventeen months of working away in the basement examining and photographing our Antarctic objects for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, I’m pleased to announce that the catalogue is now live on the museum’s website! The catalogue is by no means complete – I’ve still got another seven months on the project and probably another 500 objects to look at it – but it’s great to finally be able make available what we’ve done so far.

Over 1500 records are now available online, of which 900 currently have images. This includes clothing and footwear, snowshoes and crampons, skis, goggles, medals and coins, domestic and personal equipment, foodstuffs, animal equipment such as whips and harnesses, scientific equipment, and geological and natural history specimens. It covers material from the expeditions of Scott and Shackleton in the 1900s and 1910s, the British Graham Land Expedition in the 1930s, the Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition in the 1950s, the Transglobe Expedition in the 1980s, and the expeditions of the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey and the British Antarctic Survey, as well as many others. More images will be added as the objects are photographed, and more records will be added as the cataloguing progresses.

As well as continuing to populate the online catalogue, we also intend to improve it. We want to increase the number of fields that are displayed to include further classifications (such as geographical and UDC classifications), add information about production (such as the name of the person/organisation which manufactured the item, as well as details of place and date of manufacture), and add references and details of related objects (both within the Museum’s collections and across SPRI’s Archive and Picture Library collections). We are also developing an advanced search which will enable users to search by such things as object name, associated person or expedition, classification and place.

Ultimately, we also hope to be able to hyperlink to biographical records about people, organisations and expeditions which have been created by a team of volunteers as part of a joint Museum and Archive project, and to hyperlink to records for related objects.

While this is very much a work in progress, we’re really excited to have something to share so please do take a look ath the Antarctic Catalogue. We’d love to hear what you think and would really welcome your feedback – get in touch with us on Twitter or comment on our Facebook page.


Spotlight on Antarctic expeditions: The Royal Society International Geophysical Year Expeditions 1955–59

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016
Standard issue IGY clothing belonging to Joseph MacDowall, meterologist at later base leader at Halley Bay during the Royal Society IGY Expedition.

Standard issue IGY clothing belonging to Joseph MacDowall, meterologist at later base leader at Halley Bay during the Royal Society IGY Expedition.

In today’s instalment of lesser-known Antarctic expeditions, we’re taking a look at the Royal Society International Geophysical Year Expeditions 1955–59. The International Geophysical Year (IGY), which ran from 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958, was the third International Polar Year, and took place against the backdrop of the Cold War. We’ve got several items of standard-issue clothing from the expedition in the collection, as well as a very tattered flag flown from 26 May to 1 August 1958 at Halley Bay, during which time there were four gales.

The IGY consisted of approximately 2500 scientific observation posts around the globe, including vessels at sea, and involved roughly 60,000 personnel (of which 10,000 were scientists) from 67 countries. More than 300 stations were established in the Arctic, and there were 68 stations running on Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands. The major fields of research where in the areas of outer space, the cryosphere, the Earth’s magnetosphere, the ionosphere, oceans and the Earth’s crust.

The British contribution to the IGY in Antarctica consisted of a series of expeditions between 1955 and 1959 supported by the Royal Society. The organising committee of the IGY had noted a gap in the network of planned stations in Antarctica, and recommended siting one on the Antarctic continent itself in the territory already designated as the British Falkland Island Dependencies. This was of strategic interest to Britain and, with the direct involvement of the Royal Society, the Treasury agreed to fund the project to set up a new geophysical observatory.

The 10-man Advance Party, led by Surgeon Lieutenant Commander David Geoffrey Dalgliesh, arrived in January 1956, took formal possession of the area for Queen Elizabeth II, and established the IGY station at Halley Bay, on the Brunt Ice Shelf of Coat’s Land on the coast of the Weddell Sea. During the 1956 winter they completed the construction of the station and initiated a pilot scientific programme.

The 21-man Main Party, led by Robert Smart, travelled down to Antarctica with the Main Party of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955-58, arriving in January 1957, They had six months to build a major geophysical laboratory capable of meeting the UK’s commitment to the IGY – this included a generator shed, a non-magnetic hut, a balloon shed, a radio-astronomy hut and Decca radar. There were three groups of scientists – a meteorological and geomagnetic group, an ionospheric group, and a radio-astronomy group – and an auroral observer, as well as an appropriate team of technical support. By 1 July 1957, the scientific programme at Halley Base was well under way, consisting of meteorology, geomagnetism, seismology, glaciology and ionospheric observations.

In December 1957, the meteorologist Joseph MacDowall replaced Smart as official base leader – Smart was forced to return to the UK following life-threatening internal injuries resulting from a fall while skiing. For the remaining year, the scientific programmes continued and an all-sky aurora camera was installed. At the end of fourth expedition, Halley Bay station transferred to the Falklands Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS), becoming Base Z. By the time they left Halley Bay in January 1959, the Royal Society IGY Expeditions had generated about 10 tons of scientific records. The station continued to operate under the FIDS, conducting essentially similar research.

The Cold War super-power politics and competition between the USA and USSR resulted in the establishment of highly symbolic manned research stations during the IGY – at the South Pole by the Americans and at the Pole of Inaccessibility (the point furthest away from all coastlines) by the Soviets. The immediate legacy of the IGY included the establishment of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) on 3 February 1958, the signing of the Antarctic Treaty on 1 December 1959 and the Year of International Geophysical Co-operation (IGC) which ran from 1 January to 31 December 1959 and continued much of the IGY’s work.

With thanks to Barbara for doing the research into the expedition from which this very potted summary has been produced.



  • Bulkeley, R. (2010). Origins of the International Geophysical Year. In: S. Barr and C. Lüdecke, ed., The History of the International Polar Years (IPYs). Berlin: Springer, pp.235–238.
  • Dodds, K., Gan, I. and Howkings, A. (2010). The IPY-3: The International Geophysical Year (1957–1958). In: S. Barr and C. Lüdecke, ed., The History of the International Polar Years (IPYs). Berlin: Springer, pp.239–258.
  • Headland, R.K. (2009). A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration: A synopsis of events and activities from the earliest times until the International Polar Years, 2007-09. London: Quaritch.
  • MacDowall, J. (1999). On Floating Ice: Two Years on an Antarctic Ice-shelf South of 75°. Edinburgh: The Pentland Press.

Spotlight on Antarctic Expeditions: The German International Polar Year Expedition 1882-83

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016
Y: 83/3/1-5. Five bottles collected from the base of the German International Polar Year Expedition 1882-83. Perhaps they were part of the pyramid of bottles left at the hut?

Y: 83/3/1-5. Five bottles collected from the base of the German International Polar Year Expedition 1882-83. Perhaps they were part of the pyramid of bottles left at the station?

In our third instalment of lesser known Antarctic expeditions, I want to introduce the German International Polar Year Expedition 1882-83 – one of the earliest Antarctic expeditions represented in our collections. There have been four international polar years (IPY) so far: 1882-83, 1932-33, 1957-58 (combined with the International Geophysical Year) and 2007-08. The first IPY, which ran from 1 August 1882 to 31 August 1883, featured scientists from eleven countries running twelve expedition stations in the Arctic/sub-Arctic, and two in the sub-Antarctic.

The German IPY Expedition 1882-83 consisted of a main station in Moltke Harbour, Royal Bay, South Georgia, where eleven men over-wintered, and a secondary meteorological station at Port Stanley, Falklands Islands. The expedition, led by Dr Karl Schrader, left Hamburg on 2 June 1882. They spent three weeks in Montevideo where they enjoyed a holiday and took in the sights (!), as well as purchasing sheep, cattle and goats to supplement their provisions.

They left Montevideo on 23 July aboard the Moltke, arriving at South Georgia on 12 August. However, poor weather delayed landing and it was not until 22 August that they were able to start unloading the ship. After leaving South Georgia on 3 September, the Moltke called at Port Stanley to deliver meteorological instruments to Captain Seemann, who was running the sub-station there.

The expedition was supplied with prefabricated wooden huts for housing and observatories. Foundations 1.5m deep were eventually dug, and the walls of the main hut were insulated with peat from the island. However, severe weather meant constant repairs were necessary. They supplemented their supplies with seabird and penguin eggs, fish, watercress, and vegetable garden that they planted.

While in South Georgia, the expedition was to carry out the IPY’s programme of observations and measurements, the subjects and timings of which and the instruments to be used, were stipulated by the IPY’s international committee. The expedition was also supplied with additional equipment for observing the Transit of Venus, which occurred on 6 December 1882 and enabled the distance between the Earth and the Sun to be established while Venus passed between them. They conducted studies in meteorology, geophysics, glaciology, biology, tidal movements and other sciences. They also took the earliest photos of South Georgia, and conducted the first land-based study of the island, producing a 1:50,000 scale map of the Royal Bay area.

The expedition was collected from South Georgia by the Marie, which arrived earlier than expected on 1 September 1883. The station was packed up but much was left behind, including buildings, furniture, coal, food and a pyramid of empty bottles. The Royal Bay hut was used by later expeditions, but was burnt down in about 1915. The expedition reached Montevideo on 25 September 1883.

The objects we have from this expedition include five empty bottles (Y: 83/3/1-5), two ceramic insulators which would link to a central time clock (Y: 83/3/6-7), a metal ring possibly from a cooker (Y: 83/3/8) and a wooden peg for an unknown purpose (Y: 83/3/9).



  • Headland, R.K. (2009). A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration: A synopsis of events and activities from the earliest times until the International Polar Years, 2007-09. London: Quaritch.
  • Barr, S. (2010). The Expeditions of the First International Polar Year. In: S. Barr and C. Lüdecke, ed., The History of the International Polar Years (IPYs). Berlin: Springer, pp.54-58.