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Picture Library catalogue: Oxford University Ellesmere Land Expedition, 1934-35

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Oxford University Ellesmere Land Expedition, 1934-35

The Oxford Ellesmere Land Expedition 1934-35 was organised by the Oxford University Exploration Club and had the support of the Royal Geographical Society. It consisted of six men, Dr Noel Humphreys (leader, doctor of medicine and surveyor); Edward Shackleton (organiser and surveyor); R. Bentham (geologist); David Haig-Thomas (ornithologist); A.W. Moore (biologist and photographer); H.W. Stallworthy (Royal Canadian Mounted Police and geologist). Plus their Greenland Inuit guides and hunters, including Nookapinguaq and Ivatuk.

The main aim of the expedition was geographical exploration and in particular, the crossing of northern Grant Land, the most northern part of Ellesmere Island, in Nunavut the most northern territory in Canada. They also planned to carry out scientific investigations, especially geological and survey work. They left England on 17 July 1934 on board the Norwegian sealer ‘Signalhorn’ with the intention of spending a year in Ellesmere Land. They collected two Inuit dog drivers (Nookapinguaq and Ivatuk), and their wives en route at Robertson Bay, at the entrance to Smith Sound. They attempted to reach the coast of Ellesmere Island where they had hoped to establish their base. However, severe weather and ice conditions made this impossible and they decided to winter at Etah, in North-West Greenland, and made various journeys from this base. The site of a previous expedition was used (MacMillan in 1913-16) for their winter quarters, and the dogs were located on a small island. After the landing of the stores and cargo, the ship left for the south. They spent the remaining weeks of daylight establishing a camp, laying food depots to the north in preparation for the journey to Ellesmere Island in the spring, and hunting to increase the food supply.

In January 1935, when the daylight began to return, Humphreys and Haig-Thomas, accompanied by Inuit guides travelled to Thule, 200 miles south of Etah, in order to obtain permission from the Danish authorities to engage Inuit hunters for the spring journeys. Meanwhile, at Etah, preparations had been going ahead for the proposed journeys. The expedition set out from the base in three separate parties at the beginning of April 1935. The personnel consisting of the six expedition members and twelve Inuit guides and hunters. There were 175 dogs, although they had suffered during the winter and a number had died because of the extreme weather conditions and food shortages.

Moore and Stallworthy made important discoveries in Grant Land, in northern Ellesmere Island having first travelled 300 miles by sledge up the coast of Greenland. The conditions were harsh and they encountered very rough ice, blizzards and extremely low temperatures. The Inuit guides and hunters with them managed to hunt seals to supplement their food rations. They reached their first objective, Lake Hazen, in southern Grant Land where they made a temporary base. It was necessary to lay in a good reserve of food for the dogs on the return journey, but fish in the lake was not as plentiful as they had hoped. Stallworthy stayed to fish through holes in the lake ice, while Moore and Nukapinguaq continued up to the Gillman Glacier and then made the first known ascent of Mount Oxford. Naming the mountain after the University of Oxford. From the summit, they could see a mountain range that they named the British Empire Range. After travelling nearly 1,000 miles, they arrived back at the base on 26 May, and brought with them a good collection of geological specimens and a map of the new country.

The second party consisting of Humphreys, Haig-Thomas and their Inuit guides left Etah on 2 April and sledged across to Ellesmere Island, where they hoped to make a crossing of the Grinnell Land ice cap, in the central section of Ellesmere Island. They travelled up the east coast of Ellesmere Island and climbed the glacier at the head of Cope’s Bay. However, deep snow prevented them from carrying on. They changed their plans and crossed over Flagler Pass to Western Ellesmere Island. The crossing was made by the way of the isthmus from Flagler Fjord to Bay Fjord. During the journey, the party had several views of the Ellesmere Island ice cap to the south, but none of the Grinnell Land ice-cap. In Western Ellesmere Island, the party were able to supplement their rations and feed the dogs by hunting caribou. They continued south and southeast to the head of a fjord that they believed to be Vendom Fjord. On the return trip, they were able to make a good collection of carboniferous fossils. They then returned to the Bache Peninsula where they spent a few days successfully excavating some old Inuit igloos. The party returned to Etah a few days before the Grant Land party, they had also travelled nearly 1,000 miles and had mapped new territory.

The geological party, which consisted of Bentham and Shackleton, and their Inuit guides, were also on Ellesmere Island. They spent a few weeks in the neighbourhood of Bache Peninsula where the party made their base at the empty police hut. Bentham made a good collection of fossils, mostly trilobites in good condition and Shackleton reconnoitred the glaciers at the head of Princess Marie Bay. Shackleton took a number of sun observations for latitude and longitude, which were checked by wireless time signals. On 25 April, the party left Bache and started up the coast towards Scoresby Bay. They encountered very rough ice and pressure ridges. They travelled 80 miles in the first three days and reached a point approximately 10 miles east-south-east of Cape Louis Napoleon. They followed the coast of the Darling Peninsula, which separates Dobbin Bay and Scoresby Bay, and found a bay, which appeared to be an ideal landing ground for aeroplanes. They named the bay Aerodrome Bay. They explored Scoresby Bay and found that it differed from the existing maps, and they discovered that Victoria and Albert Mountains originally seen by Nares from his ship and thought to be 20 miles inland, did in fact border Scoresby Bay.
Bentham made a large collection of Silurian fossils and discovered that the Silurian system stretches north of Lat. 80˚ N. Several days were spent in geological and survey work, but a shortage of food for the dogs meant that they had to return to the Bache Peninsula to hunt for food. They spent a few more days carrying out geological work but the party returned to Etah after the threat of sea ice breaking up in Smith Sound became of concern to the Inuit guides.

The expedition had three months remaining during which time they carried out much scientific work near the base. They left on the auxiliary schooner ‘Dannebrog’ and, after a stormy voyage home they managed to reach Bara in the Outer Hebrides on 11 October 1935.

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