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Picture Library catalogue: Leigh Smith Arctic Expeditions 1880-82

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Leigh Smith Arctic Expeditions 1880-82

Benjamin Leigh Smith was born into a wealthy family in 1828 in Whatlington, East Sussex. He attended Jesus College, Cambridge and was called to the bar but never practised. Interested in the advancement of science, his first trip into Arctic waters was in 1871 when he sailed to Spitzbergen to survey the island, record sea temperatures and collect geological and other natural history specimens. He spent 1875 to 1878 again in the region of Spitzbergen with the intention of travelling to the Pole, but a close ice season for the Arctic pack ice stopped him advancing north. For his next trip Leigh Smith had a vessel specially built and in 1880 the Eira, a screw barquentine, was launched. On 22 May 1880 she set sail from Peterhead, visiting Jan Mayen Land and Spitzbergen before crossing the Barents Sea to reach Zemlya Frantsa Iosifa, only the second expedition to make landfall on the archipelago.

On his return, Leigh Smith was determined to explore to Zemlya Frantsa Iosifa again and, after refitting Eira, set sail on 14 June 1881 with a crew of 25 and provisions to last 14 months. After being held up briefly by pack ice the ship eventually made landfall on Zemlya Frantsa Iosifa on 23 July. Three weeks were spent exploring the south western islands of the archipelago. A storehouse was erected on one island, walrus and polar bear were hunted and fossil and plant specimens were collected. On 16 August the vessel headed east in search of a missing American exploration ship but was blocked by pack ice and remained off the coast of Ostrov Nordbruk, the southern-most island of the group. On 21 August the Eira was caught between the pack and the land she was made fast to and she sunk in 20 metres of water, her masts above the surface and the upper deck visible through the water. Luckily for the crew, they had managed to salvage the ship’s five boats and a large quantity of stores. They also had some rifles and ammunition with which they could augment their provisions with fresh meat. Initially a tent of canvas, spars and oars was constructed but after 16 days spent shivering in the cold and wet a stone and turf hut was erected on the shores of Ostrov Nordbruk. Despite the hardship, they had no clothing suitable for overwintering, the crew were well provisioned and spent the winter reading the few books they had saved from the ship, playing cards and playing the musical instruments that had been salvaged. Regular church services were also part of the weekly routine. On 21 June 1882, with the winter pack ice finally clearing, four boats were loaded with provisions and set sail for Novoya Zemlya to the South. They were soon trapped in the ice and had to spend a month on a large floe before relaunching the vessels on 1 July. They continued their slow journey south, constantly having to haul the boats onto floes to save them from being squeezed by the ice. Land was finally sighted on 3 August and, 43 days and 800 kilometres since leaving Ostrov Nordbruk, they landed at Matochkin Shar on the west coast of Novoya Zemlya. The next morning they saw the ship Willem Barents and were welcomed aboard. They discovered that the ship Hope was also nearby. Financed mainly by Leigh Smith’s cousin, but also with backing from the British Government and the Royal Geographical Society, she had been despatched as a relief expedition with other vessels, including the Willem Barents, also instructed to search for the survivors of the Eira. The predictions of the rescue party remarkable, Hope lying at anchor one kilometre from where Eira’s crew made landfall. By the end of August 1882 Leigh Smith and his entire crew were safely landed in Aberdeen.

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