Lost: Antarctic history etched in a bottle

Just before Mawson sailed from Hobart in December 1911 on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), he was presented with three bottles of Portuguese Madeira by Mr John Young Buchanan.

Buchanan was a chemist and one of the founders of modern oceanography and had recently completed a multi-year voyage on the HMS Challenger, taking in the Southern Ocean. He instructed Mawson to drink the wine at the traditional festival observed by all Antarctic expeditions — midwinter. Mawson handed one bottle to Frank Wild, the leader of the party going to the Western Base (now known as Queen Mary Land), and another to George Ainsworth who was to lead the small radio relay station party at Macquarie Island. The third was kept for the Main Base party that landed at Commonwealth Bay.

One of Frank Wild’s team, Charles Harrisson, kept a detailed diary and he records the midwinter function of 1912 as follows:

Hoadley, in the chair, gave ‘The King’. I had to propose ‘Dr Mawson and the AAE’ in a little speech. Jones, ‘Old Explorers’, Wild, ‘Mr Buchanan’. These last two toasts were drunk in ‘Madeira’, laid in by Mr Buchanan on the Challenger 40 years ago, and given by Mr Buchanan for us to drink on this day. Afterwards Dr Jones had all our signatures scratched on the bottle with his diamond, and I did a penguin on one side and a ship on the other. The bottle is to be returned to Mr. Buchanan.

Harrisson was the artist of the party and it seems there was some pressure for possession of this ‘souvenir’ of the occasion. That was when Wild intervened and declared the bottle would be returned to the original donor of its contents. It would appear that Morton Moyes then grabbed one of the other standard wine bottles, and had the eight names etched onto it with Jones’ diamond.

Nothing more is known about either bottle until two totally conflicting reports appear 15 years later on the same day in newspapers 1000km apart. On May 24 1927 one story appeared in the Mt Gambier-based Border Watch, claiming a bottle with the words ‘Shackleton Glacier, 22 June 1912’ and eight names engraved on it, was found on Tuggerah Beach in New South Wales (NSW) by a local resident, George Bressington. The story goes on to relate the find to the loss of SY Aurora with all hands in 1917 off the NSW coast, and presumes the bottle was from the wreck and was washed up by the tides.

The second story was published in the Barrier Miner in Broken Hill, and relates that the bottle was picked out by a worker at the NSW bottle works in Ultimo, Sydney, and handed to his supervisor, George Bressington, in 1917, telling him it had come from an unknown boat. Bressington thought it might be of special value, but did not make the Antarctic connection. He took it home and stashed it away in a cupboard for the next 10 years.

The timing of some of the anecdotes surrounding subsequent confirmation of the bottle’s identity is a bit vague, but what is critical is that Sir Douglas Mawson read the story of the beach find of the bottle, doubted its authenticity, and wrote to George Bressington asking him if he would take it to the Mitchell Library in Sydney. There, the former Adelaide University librarian, could set about validating it. Bressington took the bottle in and a library assistant wrote a note from an interview with him, testifying that the bottle was handed in originally at the bottle works in Ultimo, ‘in 1917 or 1918’.

It transpires that the expedition’s ship, Aurora, had been undergoing major structural repairs in the Jubilee dry dock in Balmain, not far from Ultimo, in May 1917, having been recently sold for use as a coal freighter. No doubt, as part of the new owner’s function, it was cleaned, so it is entirely credible that empty bottles left on board would be taken to a bottle recycling facility nearby.

Mawson no doubt lost interest in the bottle after that, as there remains only a confirmation that Bressington reclaimed the bottle from the library. But one of the signatories on it, A.D. (Andy) Watson, who was then (1927) Headmaster of the North Sydney Boys High School, made arrangements to view it.

The trail remains cold until 1932, when one of the Main Base Party, John Collison Close, decided to try and find the bottle and have it recognised as an historic icon. He contacted George Bressington, who by then was an Alderman at Homebush, and went to see the bottle in the Homebush chambers, confirming that it had the eight names clearly engraved on it. After liaising with Mawson, Close decided that the person who should take charge of its ultimate fate was Mawson’s former Deputy, and also one of the signatories, Morton Henry Moyes. Close wrote to the Mitchell librarian to that effect on 27th April 1932.

Despite strong support and cooperation from George Bressington’s and Andy Watson’s descendants, the Mitchell Library staff, and inquiries to other possible repositories, no trace of the bottle has since been found.

WM (Bill) Burch

Bill was a geophysicist at Wilkes station in 1961 and went ashore at Commonwealth Bay in January 1962. If you have any information on the whereabouts of the bottle he can be contacted through the Australian Antarctic Magazine magazine@aad.gov.au.