Well-worn Woollens

Wednesday 26 June 2019

New exhibition Breaking the Ice displays clothing worn by early Antarctic explorers. These items have endured more than 100 years of fierce storms and freezing temperatures at Cape Adare, the site of Antarctica’s first buildings: two huts built in 1899 by Carsten Borchgrevink’s Southern Cross expedition.

Breaking the Ice curator Kerry McCarthy with Victor Campbell's long johns

Breaking the Ice curator Kerry McCarthy with Victor Campbell's long johns.

As curator of Breaking the Ice: The First Year in Antarctica, Kerry McCarthy knows the stories of these historic garments better than most. Her favourite item of clothing from the exhibition is a pair of long johns (woollen leggings) that belonged to Victor Campbell.

Campbell stayed at Cape Adare in 1911 with the Northern Party of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition. He was the expedition’s First Officer.

We know the long johns belonged to Campbell because his name is sewn into them. For Kerry, this is part of what makes them so special.

“They are stained from wear and age, and have been carefully labelled with Campbell's name, possibly by a woman back home in England as she helped him prepare for the adventure of a lifetime,” she says.

Victor Campbell's long johns

Victor Campbell's long johns. Antarctic Heritage Trust 11934.1

“This simple caring act has survived a century of Antarctic blizzards and helps us make a personal connection to Campbell today. It's rare enough to see Edwardian long johns, let alone a set that is associated with such an important moment in world history.”

Campbell’s long johns were temporarily removed from the huts at Cape Adare by an Antarctic Heritage Trust conservation team. The long johns’ condition suggests they spent several decades bunched up outside the huts; they are stained with corrosion and penguin guano.

Why Campbell left them behind is a mystery. He and his team of five were tasked by Scott with carrying out scientific work in King Edward VII Land. However they were unable to find a suitable landing site and had an unexpected meeting with Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who was Scott's main rival in his quest to be the first man to reach the South Pole.

After informing Scott of Amundsen's location, the team changed their plans and headed north, spending the winter of 1911 at Cape Adare.

Campbell might have regretted leaving his long johns at Cape Adare the following year when the Terra Nova dropped him and his team at Evans Cove to carry out a geological survey. The ship was supposed to pick them up again 2 weeks later, but pack ice prevented it from reaching them.

The group was forced to spend the entire winter at Evans Cove, burrowed into the ice for shelter. They were not supplied for a winter on the ice and had to live on very meagre rations, supplemented by seal and penguin meat.

 Victor Campbell, George Murray Levick and Raymond Priestley at Cape Adare

Northern Party members Victor Campbell, George Murray Levick and Raymond Priestley prepare to leave Cape Adare, 1912. Canterbury Museum 1968.275.3

After the winter ended, Campbell made the difficult decision to undertake a 7-week journey on foot to the expedition’s base at Cape Evans.

There, they discovered Scott had perished during his return from the Pole, leaving Campbell in charge of the whole expedition.

When he returned from Antarctica, Campbell joined the navy and fought in World War One. He rose to the rank of Captain and was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. He died in Newfoundland, Canada, in 1956.

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