Glimpses of a bygone era

Portrait of Captain Wilkins, John King Davis and Major Eric Webb
Portrait of (L to R): Captain G.H. Wilkins, MC & bar; John King Davis Lt. RNR; and Major Eric Webb, DSO MC, magnetic observer AAE 1911-14. (MC – Military Cross, RNR – Royal Naval Reserve, DSO – Distinguished Service Order). Date and photographer unknown.
Photo of Captain John King Davis in retirement in Melbourne, 1965Eric Webb (1889-1984) speaking at the Australian Antarctic Division on 13 December 1977, aged 88

The former Head of Polar Medicine at the Australian Antarctic Division, Dr Desmond Lugg, has fond memories of meeting some of the men from the Heroic Era of Antarctic exploration.

Saturday 15th March 2013 marks the centenary of the return of the SY Aurora to Hobart carrying Sir Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911–14 (AAE) Western Base party and the majority of those who had spent the first wintering year at the Main Base at Cape Denison. During 2012, a plethora of celebrations, meetings, dinners, books (including diaries), medallions and stamps, have celebrated the expedition, each adding to the legacy of this significant event in the history of Australia’s involvement in Antarctica. Personally, I am privileged to have been able to celebrate by remembering members of the AAE who entered and influenced my Antarctic life.

As a young Adelaide schoolboy with a great interest in Antarctica, I made a holiday expedition to the University of Adelaide when I heard that memorabilia of the AAE was there. Challenged at the entrance to the Geology Department by a balding man of immense stature, I stated my aims. He spent several hours showing me clothing, sleds and equipment and answering my many questions. In my naivety I did not know who the man was but told my father he was a ‘kind professor’; Mawson himself.

After graduation from the same university 50 years ago, and being selected to winter with the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE), I moved to Melbourne and met John King Davis, Captain of the SY Aurora. Upon return from Antarctica, many pleasant hours were spent with him discussing the changes between the AAE and ANARE, and his numerous Antarctic voyages. A bachelor living in a boarding house, he was always kind, generous with his time, and most informative of the expeditions he had been involved in, as well as the Heroic Age in general. He belied his Antarctic nickname of ‘Gloomy’. It was a sad day when he died in 1967 at the age of 83.

As Leader of the January 1974 ANARE voyage to Casey, which visited Dumont D’Urville Station en route, I took the opportunity to visit Cape Denison, site of the AAE Main Base. Dr Phillip Law had led the last Australian visit there in 1962. Publicity about the visit resulted in contact with Eric Webb, who wintered at the Main Base, Morton Moyes from the Western Base party, who wintered on the Shackleton Ice Shelf, Lady Mawson, and numerous relatives of those who had served on AAE. In the months preceding her death in May 1974, Lady Mawson was most interested in the current state of the Main Base site.

A decade of correspondence followed and I had numerous meetings in the UK and Australia with Webb, and in Sydney with Moyes. A period in late 1977 has lasting memories. Webb flew to Australia to travel on a Qantas overflight of his old base. While he was in Melbourne a number of significant events took place. Jennie Boddington of the National Gallery of Victoria had organised an exhibition of Hurley and Ponting Antarctic Photographs 1910–1916, and I took Webb for a preview. As he had been close to Hurley on the AAE he took great delight in seeing the photographs, especially those that Hurley had composed of several images. Webb called them ‘fakes’ as the men could not have reached the positions in the photographs, but with great enthusiasm he described Hurley’s technical brilliance in performing such tasks with glass photographic plates.

On visiting the Antarctic Division on December 13th, Webb agreed to my (Acting Director) request that he address the staff. The small conference room was quickly adorned with AAE photographs and memorabilia and an animated Webb held court for several hours, much to the interest and delight of staff. An ABC television interview was made at short notice for primetime viewing and it received wide public acclaim. A meeting for the first time between Webb and Dick Richards, a member of Shackleton’s ill-fated Ross Sea Party who were rescued by Davis, is particularly poignant. For hours I sat in silence as these two Antarctic veterans discussed and questioned each other on their respective expeditions.

Photographic records remain, but on only one occasion did I request a recording. Webb, then an old man but as sharp as ever, was staying with my family in Cambridge, UK. After making a visit to Scott Polar Research Institute, Webb, the last survivor of the Main Base party, agreed to talk about the expedition and make comments on each of its members. He was left in a room on his own to make the recording. A completed tape was given to me. Some weeks later after he had returned to his home, a typed transcript arrived; such was his meticulous attention to detail. His final comment – ‘For myself, the AAE was much the greatest character builder of my life and a most agreeable one’ – is one expressed to this day by many going to Antarctica. Webb died at 94 and Moyes died at 95. I represented the Antarctic Division at Moyes’ funeral service at St Andrews Church, Roseville in 1981, but was not able to attend Webb’s funeral in England in 1984.

The centenary of the AAE causes one to reflect on chance meetings and enduring friendships with some of the veterans of AAE, and the influence they had on my Antarctic career and life; one that bears no comparison with the lives of these great Antarctic pioneers but was made easier by their endeavours.

DESMOND LUGG

Australian Antarctic Division 1962-64, 1968-2001