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Picture Library catalogue: British Graham Land Expedition 1934-37

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British Graham Land Expedition 1934-37

The idea to explore the Graham Land had first been that of Gino Watkins, however, due to a lack of funds he had instead led an expedition to the Arctic to explore possible air routes in 1932. Sadly, on this expedition Watkins died and Rymill took over as leader. On his return Rymill began the preparations for an expedition to explore the Graham Land.

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 being the Stefansson Strait. Graham Land was part of the Falkland Island Dependencies, British territories and was one of the least well known sectors of this.

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 on expeditions with Watkins and Rymill. They left Britain on 10 September 1934 onboard the Penola. The budget for the expediton was £20,000 which was enough to buy the boat and an aeroplane but not enough to pay a crew, therefore, the expedition members were to also act as crew. The Penola was a three-masted schooner, powered mainly be sail although only a few of the expedition had sailing experience. This was the main tranportation for the memebers of the expedition, the aircraft, dogs and stores were brought separately by a research ship, the Discovery II. They also took with them a De Havilland Fox Moth Airoplane capable of operating with skis or floats – this was used extensively for reconnaissance, aerial surveying and depot laying.

At the end of November they reached the Falkland Islands, whilst here the ship's engines developed problems but they decided to press on and try and sort these in the Antarctica rather than winter on the Falklands. In Janaury 1935 the Penola reached Port Lockroy where the first year base was established 30 miles south of Port Lockroy (this was further north than orginally intended to try and prevent further damage to the ship’s engines). Whilst here the expedition went to look for a land base in Northern Graham Land from which they could make their journeys southwards. In February 1935 a hut was constructed, and they hunted seals and collected penguin eggs to supply them through the winter.

In their first year the sledging season was short, due to ice flows breaking up they could go no more than 80 miles from the base. With the Penola’s engine problems fixed the party was able to move southards to the Debenham Islands in Marguerite Bay. Here they formed a southern base camp, it was from this camp that their main survey and scientific work was carried out. They built another hut with materials that they found at an abanonded whaling station on Deception Island.

Once the second base had been built the Penola was to return to the Falklands, taking a minimal crew to sail the boat leaving the rest of the party to winter in the Antarctic. Several journeys were undertaken by dog sledge, the longest lasting 10 weeks exploring the coast 340 miles south of the Southern Base at Marguerite Bay. They travelled down the central channel seperating Alexander Island from the Peninusla, making the first ever landings on the island, collecting fossils and rock specimens. Another sledging party crossed what is now established as a Peninsula from west to east, coming close to the Weddell Sea.

A number of flights were made in their aircraft, although for safety these had to be limited to a round trip of 280 miles. The aircraft usage was limited due to low cloud and unstuitable landing surfaces, but it was valuable for route finding, surveying and depot laying.

The sledges were pulled by dogs, however, they found the going difficult due to soft snow and often had to relay their loads in halves. At other times one of the group would walk ahead whiping the ground with a 20 ft whip, if the whip failed to hit solid ground they would try somewhere else and alter the course accordingly. Most of the sledging journeys were carried out between September 1936 and January 1937. Their surveying discovered some significant results, for example Alexander I Land was shown to be longer than first thought, at over 150 miles in length. Their major discovery was to disprove a theory made by Ellsworth and Wilkins which claimed whilst undertaking aerial flights they had seen channels between the Bellinghausen and Weddell Seas, making Graham Land an island. However, surveying this area on foot proved that such channels do not exist and that the Graham Land is one landmass and part of the Antarctic continent and therefore, is not an island. This demonstrated that flights over an area are not sufficent enough to tell the lie of the land, and that land excursions are necessary in order to back up aerial surveying.

Alongside this discovery they were also responsible for the mapping of the Graham Land coastline, and various scientic experiements and advancements including zoological and geological.

The Penola arrived to collect the wintering men on 23 February 1937 and left for South Georgia on 14 March. The men returned to Portsmouth, England on 4 August 1937.

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