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…
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.
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).