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Department of Geography, University of Cambridge


John Lachlan Cope's Expedition to Graham Land, 1920-22

John Lachlan Cope's Expedition to Graham Land, 1920-22

A full gallery of images from this expedition can now be browsed in the online Picture Library catalogue.

  1. Introduction
  2. Personnel
  3. Location
  4. Base
  5. Transport
  6. Activities
  7. Return
  8. The picture record and bibliography

View of the base:
View of the base: "Waterboat Point"

1. Introduction

The John Lachlan Cope's Expedition (1920-22) to Graham Land, now known as the Antarctic peninsula, was originally conceived on a grand scale as the 'British Imperial Expedition' involving some fifty people. Amongst its many objectives were the circumnavigation of Antarctica (using Scott's old ship--the Terra Nova) from a base at the Ross Sea; the first flight over the South Pole; and the continuation of Nordenskjold's exploration along the western shore of the Weddell Sea.

Funds of some £100,000 required by the proposal were apparently not forthcoming. The objectives were, in consequence, drastically reduced, leaving only the exploration and mapping of the Weddell Sea coast. Ultimately, a party of just four men was assembled with no ship and with inadequate equipment and supplies for transport, sustenance and research. After arrival at their base, the team was further reduced to two--Bagshawe and Lester--who stayed in Graham Land for 1 year throughout the winter of 1921/1922 and conscientiously carried out an extensive programme of observation and measurement.

2. Personnel

John Lachlan Cope
Nominal leader but left the Expedition after arrival in Graham Land.
Previously, a member of Shackleton's Ross Sea shore party of 1914.

Hubert Wilkins
Left expedition with Cope after arrival in Graham Land.
Subsequently, served on Shackleton's Quest expedition of 1922.
Later became one of the pioneers of Arctic and Antarctic flight.

Maxime Charles Lester
Surveyor in his early twenties.
Elected to remain in Graham Land.

Thomas Bagshawe
Geologist, 19. Elected to stay in Antarctica with Lester.

3. Location

The original plan was to establish a base on Snow Hill Island near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula (as it is now called) using Nordenskjold's old hut. Since the expedition had no ship, the party arranged to be taken there by a whaling factory ship from Deception Island. They had a good opportunity to observe activity on board that vessel and on whale catchers; Bagshawe's account includes vivid descriptions of catching and flensing whales.

However, ice blocked their passage through Antarctic Sound so that the desired location could not be reached. At the suggestion of the Norwegian captains an alternative landing was made off the Danco Coast on the western shore of Graham Land in Paradise Bay, opposite Lemaire and Anvers Islands, at 64°48' S, 62°43' W, on 12th January 1921.

Their plan, which represented a drastic scaling down of Cope's intentions, was to establish a base there and cross the width of the Peninsula to the Weddell Sea, a distance of some 60 miles, and then carry out the exploration and mapping of the eastern coast of the Peninsula. But it was soon realised that such an aim was unrealistic because of the difficult terrain with mountains rising to heights of 6,000 feet, and, consequently, even this minimal plan for the expedition could not be realised.

In light of this, Cope decided on 26th February 1921 to return to Montevideo with the intention of coming south with a ship the following year, picking up Lester and Bagshawe, and trying again for Snow Hill Island. Wilkins, frustrated by the lack of progress (and what he considered to be poor leadership), returned with Cope and abandoned the expedition altogether.

Despite this turn of events and against advice from the Norwegian whalers, Bagshawe and Lester decided to remain and carry out a programme, albeit limited, of observations and scientific measurements.

4. Base

Fortuitously, the landing in Paradise Bay was close to the location of a water-boat abandoned by whalers some 8 years earlier. By extending this hulk with packing cases, sacks and timber unloaded from the Norwegian ship a hut was built that was more-or-less weatherproof although cramped and uncomfortable. Without this find, accommodation would have consisted of tents or a primitive hut made of packing cases unloaded from the Norwegian ship.

The base was on a tiny island which they named Waterboat Point. The area where it was situated, called Life-boat Bay, included two other islands--Coal Point and South Island--the whole covering the area of, what Bagshawe called, "a country garden--a small prison camp".

Supplies of food which were brought to the base were limited and included biscuits, baked beans, pemmican in tins, some alcohol and crème de menthe sweets. The main source of sustenance was an ample supply of seal-meat (in the form of a stew) and penguin eggs and meat. Variety was, therefore, limited but health was generally good.

5. Transport

Lester and Bagshawe were poorly equipped for travel from their base at Waterboat Point and although they might have been able to cross the mountains to the Weddell Sea they would have found it difficult to carry out any significant exploration along the coast. Consequently, journeys were reduced to short trips by sledge, ski and snowshoe.

Cope and Wilkins had acquired eight dogs in the Falklands but although they were brought to Waterboat Point they could not be used for travel. In fact, they proved to be a serious restriction since they needed daily attention and would have required one person to stay behind if the other had ventured far from base. Such solo journeys were considered too dangerous to be attempted and too limited in scope.

6. Activities

During the year that Bagshawe and Lester occupied Waterboat Point a considerable amount of measurement and observation was carried out. However, it had not been the original intention to establish a static base, so the team lacked many 'domestic' items and did not have suitable standardised instruments so essential to serious base work. Overcoming this deficiency involved considerable improvisation. However, they decided that having come to Antarctica to carry out a scientific programme they intended to discharge this objective as best they could.

The scientific equipment available was minimal and even their meteorological screen, erected on 17th January 1921, was built by the carpenter of the whaling ship that brought them south. On top was a home-made wind vane and a fitment for holding a portable anemometer. Inside the screen a pair of max. and min. thermometers was suspended from brass nails with dry and wet bulb as well as swing thermometers.

The screen was mounted on a small hill near the hut (and on occasions sported the British flag). Readings were taken every two or four hours, depending on the month and date, and a complete record of weather conditions was compiled for the full year.

Tidal conditions were recorded for the complete year using a boulder-filled wooden barrel with half an oar attached, suitably calibrated. This involved hourly observations, night and day, often under very uncomfortable conditions.

The ice-state on sea and land, as well as glacier movements, was observed and recorded.

Comprehensive notes were kept of their observations of zoological subjects: whales, seals, penguins and birds. They enjoyed studying the habits of the various breeds of penguins (gentoo, Adelie, chinstrap and macaroni) in the vicinity.

Fortunately, the two explorers were able to keep a photographic record of their expedition but their camera was unsophisticated and they had no facilities for processing film. They had to wait until their return before discovering whether their efforts had been successful. Generally, quality proved to be relatively poor, although many of the pictures are interesting.

7. Return

Because the expedition lacked a ship, Bagshawe and Lester were dependent on the goodwill of the Norwegian whalers for their departure from Waterboat Point since Cope was unable to acquire a suitable vessel and did not, in fact, return. The Norwegian captain, O. Andersen, who had brought them from Deception Island had promised to pick them up the following year. However, because of difficulties in disposing of the previous season's oil there was a real possibility that he might not have come south for whaling in 1922. Bagshawe and Lester were, of course, unaware of this situation which would undoubtedly have caused them great concern. However, in the event, the Andersen did return on the Graham on 18th December 1921 and the dogs were removed at that time.

The two men finally left Waterboat Point, their home for a whole year, on the same boat, on 13th January 1922.

8. The picture record and bibliography

An extensive selection of negatives and prints relating to the expedition is held in the SPRI Picture Library.

Several accounts of the expedition were published and are available in the SPRI Library; these include the following:

    Two men in the Antarctic. An expedition to Graham Land, 1920-22
    Cambridge University Press, 1939, 292p.
  • A well written, detailed and interesting account of this unusual expedition with extensive coverage of meteorological observations and scientific measurements. It also includes much on Peninsula whaling, an activity of which there are comparatively few contemporary English-language sources.

    Notes on the habits of the gentoo and ringed or Antarctic penguins.
    Transactions of the Zoological Society of London, 1938, 24, (3):185-306.
  • Observations made by the author and M.C. Lester in Graham Land, 1921-1922.

    A year amongst whales and penguins.
    Journal of the Society for the Preservation of the Fauna of the Empire, 1939, 36: 30-36.

Also of interest:

  • COPE, J.L.
    The British Imperial Antarctic Expedition
    [Unpublished document held in the SPRI Archives], [no date].
  • Proposal to explore Graham Land, amongst other objectives, supported by testimonials from W.S. Bruce et al. This sets out the ambitious plans which had ultimately to be drastically modified.

  • MATTHEWS, David.
    Bagshawe, Thomas Wyatt.
    Polar Record, 1976, 18(113): 191-192
  • Obituary of the explorer, ornithologist and antiquary, 1901-1976.

To obtain these or other photographs, please contact the SPRI Picture Library.

Back to the Little-known Antarctic expeditions homepage
Text by Claude Cowan based on published sources, 1/2/01
Edited by library staff.