Constructing the first buildings
In February 1954, Australian expeditioners arrived at Horseshoe Harbour to establish Mawson station. As winter approached, construction of the station buildings was the key priority.
Several years before, the first ANARE Director, Dr Phillip Law, had travelled to the Norwegian-Swedish-British (NSB) Antarctic Expedition base at Maudheim. Impressed by the Norwegian designed pre-fabricated huts, Law persuaded the Australian government to purchase these for Mawson station. Designed by Norwegian architect John Engh, the ‘NSB’ was purpose-built for Antarctic conditions and state of the art for its day. The pre-cut timber for the hut was easily transported, with sub-floor framing designed specifically to be built on an ice platform. The hut was able to withstand full burial in snow.
While the ANARE-designed huts took only a few days to erect, the NSB took over a month. Over 30 tons of rock and gravel had to be gathered and moved by the Ferguson tractor just for the foundations. A level surface was critical because the hut consisted of squared prefabricated panels so everything within the structure had to be square to make them fit. Reassembly of the prefabricated hut proved to be a complex task for the expeditioners — not helped by the fact that the instructions were entirely in Swedish!
By the end of March 1954, construction was sufficiently advanced for the 10 wintering expeditioners to occupy the building.
It’s a hut life
Once completed, the hut was one of five buildings first erected at Mawson in 1954. Named Biscoe Hut, after Antarctic explorer John Biscoe, its eight metre square space contained the original living and sleeping quarters, mess and kitchen. The interior was described by the French observer André Migot:
Inside there were ten identical compartments for the ten members of the team, five on each side of the common room, which was to be a meeting-and-recreation room as well as the dining room and kitchen with a large Aga cooker. In front of the hut there was an entrance lobby, a meteorological room in which the static anemometer would be kept and, finally, a toilet.
With subsequent expeditions, the number of buildings at Mawson rapidly multiplied and the role of Biscoe Hut changed many times. The social significance of Biscoe diminished after 1961 when the new recreation/mess building was constructed, and further again after the 1970’s when the building was relegated to a variety of utilitarian functions: storage of electrical and plumbing equipment, carpenter’s and hobby workshop, brewing and hydroponics, repair and storage of field equipment, drying and sewing room and sled repairs.
Biscoe Hut is the only example at Mawson of the more traditional, labour intensive buildings used at the earliest Antarctic bases. The structure of the building represents an example of essentially conventional Scandinavian building technology adapted specifically for Antarctica using the best knowledge and materials available in the immediate post-war period. Its origins in the Norwegian-Swedish-British Expedition means that it is the only one of its kind to be erected at an Australian Antarctic base.
Mawson station has been placed on Commonwealth Heritage List to conserve and protect a unique part of Australian Antarctic history.