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Picture Library catalogue: British Expedition to Graham Land 1920-22

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British Expedition to Graham Land 1920-22

This was originally planned as a much more comprehensive expedition involving 50 people and was to be called ‘The British Imperial Expedition’. The plan included the objective of circumnavigating Antarctica, undertaking the first flight over the South Pole and a continuation of the exploration of the Weddell Sea. However, not enough funding materialised to allow for such an ambitious project and a more modest expedition was undertaken with the objectives of the exploration and mapping of the Weddell Sea Coast.

The expedition consisted of four men, the leader John Lachlan Cope, George Hubert Wilkins, Thomas Wyatt Bagshawe and Maxime Charles Lester. They were taken to the South Shetland Islands by a Norwegian whaling vessel and from here they hoped to sledge southwards from Hope Bay. However, ice conditions through Antarctic Sound prevented access. The Norwegian captain suggested an alternative landing off Danco Coast on the western shore of Graham Land in Paradise Bay. They accepted this suggestion, landing on 12 January 1921. Here they planned to establish a base and cross the peninsula to the Weddell Sea, carrying out the exploration and mapping of the eastern coast of the peninsula. However, this aim had to be abandoned due to difficult terrain, mountains rising to heights of 6000 feet made exploration impossible.

On 26 February 1921 Cope decided to return to Montevideo to find a ship and return southwards so that they could try again to reach Hope Bay. Wilkins, frustrated by the expedition, returned with Cope and returned home.

Against the advice of the Norwegian whalers Bagshawe and Lester wintered in the Antarctic. Fortunately their landing at Paradise Bay was close to the location of a water boat abandoned by whalers eight years previously. By extending the hulk with packing cases, sacks and timber they made themselves a small, uncomfortable but almost weatherproof hut. Their base on a tiny island off the Antarctic Peninsula was named Waterboat Point. Supplies of food were limited to biscuits, baked beans, pemmican, a little alcohol and crème de menthe sweets. However, they were able to supplement their diet with seal, penguin meat and penguin eggs and so their health remained good.

As they were poorly equipped for travel they found it difficult to carry out significant exploration along the coast, but short journeys were made by sledge, ski and snowshoe. They did carry out a considerable amount of measurement and observation. They had to improvise some of their scientific equipment, for example the carpenter of the whaling ship built their meteorological screen, on top of which stood a home-made wind vane and fitting to hold a portable anemometer. This screen was mounted near the base on a small hill and for the duration of their stay they took readings every two hours which enabled them to compile a record of weather conditions for a complete year. They also recorded tidal conditions for a full year by using a boulder-filled wooden barrel with a calibrated half oar attached, this required hourly observations throughout the day and night. They monitored ice on sea and on land, recording glacial movements. In addition to this they undertook zoological observations of whales, seals, penguins and other birds. The men were able to keep a photographic record of the expedition, however, as they had no facilities for processing the film they had to wait until their return before seeing the images.

Cope was unable to find a suitable vessel to return to the area and so Bagshaw and Lester had to depend upon the goodwill of the Norwegian whalers. Andersen the whaler who had brought them from Deception Island had promised to return for them the following year and did so, the men left Waterboat Point on 13 January 1922.

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Data in this catalogue was last updated on Tuesday, 13th June 2023.