Restoration of Biscoe Hut at Mawson
The restoration and conservation of one of Australia’s earliest buildings in Antarctica is creating significant challenges but also unearthing some intriguing links to Sir Douglas Mawson, the Antarctic explorer whose name the station honours.
Biscoe Hut was one of five buildings constructed at Mawson when the base was established in 1954. Four of those remain in the original historic precinct with Biscoe being the focus for restoration following its damage by fire in November 2003. The building is unique in many ways, not least being the only non-ANARE designed building on an Australian station.
The hut was one of three prefabricated for the 1949–52 Norwegian-Swedish-British Antarctic (NSB) expedition to Queen Maud Land. When the Swedish designers were given the brief they could not have anticipated the strong Australian links, from the buildings’ design to the fact that only one would survive, on an Australian station.
The three buildings were constructed, timbers numbered, key joints photographed and then they were disassembled and shipped to Cape Town for loading onto the Norsel, the expedition vessel. However the Norsel only had room for two kits so the third had to be left on the docks. Dr Phillip Law, 1st ANARE Director and principal advocate for expanding Australia's role in Antarctica, travelled to Maudheim as an observer to gain practical knowledge for the day when his dream for a permanent Australian station could be realised. He persuaded the Australian government to purchase the abandoned hut and two of the Auster aircraft from the expedition for use on the first ANARE expedition.
The 1st ANARE arrived at Mawson on 13 February 1954. With temperatures dropping and days shortening, the task of constructing the buildings was obviously a priority. Whereas the ANARE-designed huts took only a few days to erect the NSB Hut (as it was originally called) took over a month; over 30 tons of rock and gravel to be gathered and moved by the Ferguson tractor just for the foundations.
Two of the four skylights and one window were found to be broken and there was insufficient ‘Insulwool’ insulation so they substituted it with the packing in which it came! Construction was sufficiently advanced by the end of March for occupation by the 10 wintering expeditioners. There were five bunks down both sides – each separated by a timber partition. On the western end was an Aga stove and a sink draining to a 44 gallon drum outside. A table stood in the centre of the room while a porch at the eastern end contained the toilet and Met office.
Discussion of women, religion and politics was taboo. A party returning late from a winter traverse knew they were safely back by the sound of the snoring emanating from the small timber building! With subsequent expeditions the number of buildings at Mawson rapidly multiplied and Biscoe saw its function also change over the years from living quarters to brewery, hydroponics, sled repair, carpenters’ workshop and store.
In 2003, but for the quick response of the Mawson emergency response team, Biscoe Hut would have been destroyed as fire, resulting from a faulty electric heater, took hold of the western end of the building.
The building had been assessed as ‘exceptional’ by the Australian Heritage Commission and fortunately a detailed record of the building had been completed by Mike S in 1996.
Mike was engaged to prepare a restoration plan and has subsequently been supervising that work at Mawson over the last three seasons. Restoring an historic building is far removed from domestic renovation.
Heritage protocols require that, where possible, the original material is repaired rather than replaced. For example, repairing burned beams in a modern building is relatively simple – cut away and discard the damaged timber and replace with new. In Biscoe the charred timber has had to be painstakingly scraped clean by Mike and his assistants. Surprisingly, given the extent of the damage, only a small amount of the original material has had to be replaced. All work is carefully documented and archived and any new materials is stamped and recorded for future reference.
Through detailed research and examination of the hut’s construction, Mike is able to provide some important insights to those early days at Mawson. ‘The plans were accompanied by a set of instructions to which black and white photographs had been attached demonstrating key stages in the assembly of the pre-fabricated components’.
However, the instructions hadn't been translated from the original Swedish and with summer fading, five huts to erect and only one carpenter, the expedition was under considerable pressure to complete construction. Unlike the ANARE-designed buildings, Biscoe was a relatively complex structure. One of the keys to putting up the building was ensuring that it was square, so that all the prefabricated panels would fit. Mike found that the building was about 100 mm out of square and this resulted in many of the prefabricated floor panels having to be trimmed to fit, rather than dropping into place as per the design.
This observation is confirmed in the diary entries of Bob Dovers, OIC on the 1st ANARE. Facing this problem, before removing the panels, Mike labelled each and drilled holes for locating pins. ‘Hopefully, it will all go back together!’ One feature of the original design was the raised living floor with an air gap beneath to allow warm air to be pumped through to heat the interior. However this was never incorporated in Biscoe. The building was (and is) very airy thanks to four large skylights set into the roof; a modification made during a trial erection at the ANARE store at Tottenham in Melbourne.
So what is the link between Biscoe and Sir Douglas Mawson? John Engh, the Norwegian architect, was a wartime friend of the John Giaever, the NSB expedition leader. Engh had no experience of Antarctica and so Giaever gave him a copy of Mawson's landmark work, Home of the Blizzard. (Giaever was a devotee of Mawson, ‘When there was a question on equipment or house construction, Sir Douglas’ account was my ‘cookery book.’’)
The book includes the plans of the hut constructed at Commonwealth Bay. Mike has compared these with Engh’s plans and found the floor area and roof pitch are virtually identical. Engh was apparently also impressed by Mawson’s ingenious use of packing cases to construct a hangar; the 1949–52 expedition packing cases had three standard sizes and were used to construct weatherproof passageways to link the buildings when they were constructed at Maudheim.
The two Maudheim buildings have not been sighted since the late 1950s; their fate determined by the inevitable progress to the sea of the ice tongue on which they were constructed.
Biscoe is therefore an important link to the 1949–52 expedition, one of the first truly multi-national Antarctic expeditions. (There is another, more tragic, Australian link to the NSB expedition. John Jelbart, after whom Jelbart Glacier is named drowned along with two other companions when their weasel drove over the ice front and plunged into the sea in heavy fog).
Biscoe was state of the art technology for its day, having been purpose designed for Antarctic conditions. It was easily transported, with sub-floor framing specifically designed to allow it to be erected on a snowfield or ice platform and it was able to withstand full burial by snow.
Today, Biscoe is literally emerging from the ashes. There is a special feeling to walk down the hill from the Red Shed that towers above and into Biscoe and then pause and contemplate the achievements of that 1949–52 expedition and the 1st ANARE which was so important in establishing Mawson as a station and Australia's position in Antarctica.
The building has a charm resulting from its scale, the use of timber and the four skylights that on a sunny day fill the room with light and warmth. When completed, Biscoe is likely to become a centre for expeditioner craft activities as well as including interpretive material on the early history of Mawson.
Written by Mawson Station Leader Peter Hackworth
- Australian Dictionary of Biography Australian Biography: full interview transcript
- Bowden, T. 1997, The Silence Calling, Allen & Unwin
- Dovers, R. 1954, Mawson Station Log, Book 1, unpublished
- Giaever, J. 1954, The WhiteDesert – the Official Account of the Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctica Expedition, Chatto & Windus
- Mawson, D. 1915, The Home of the Blizzard, William Heinemann
- Stretton, A. 1993, Australian Biography project – transcript of interview with Dr Phillip Law
- Wilson, D., 1991, Alfresco Flight: The RAAF Antarctic Experience, Royal Australian Air Force Museum