Sidney Jeffryes remembered

Heroic era radio operator, Sidney Jeffryes, and his contribution to Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) of 1911–14, has been recognised with a plaque at his formerly unmarked grave, at a cemetery in Ararat, Victoria.

Jeffryes died in 1942 after 28 years in the Ararat Hospital for the Insane. His illness manifested during the AAE in his role as a wireless operator.

Jeffryes joined the AAE in February 1913, from his position as a shipboard radio operator aboard the SY Aurora, replacing the original AAE wireless operator, Walter Hannam.

The AAE team had been due to depart Commonwealth Bay aboard the Aurora, but Jeffryes and five of the original AAE men remained behind to wait for Mawson and his two companions, Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, who were late returning from a sledging journey. Only Mawson returned, with Ninnis and Mertz having perished in disastrous circumstances (Australian Antarctic Magazine 22: 4–7, 2012).

Jeffryes established wireless contact with Australia in March 1913, allowing the men to communicate with their loved ones. This was the first time two-way communication had been established between Antarctica and the rest of the world (Walter Hannam had sent a couple of messages, but never received any).

By June, Jeffryes began exhibiting unusual behaviour and symptoms consistent with what we now classify as schizophrenia. He was later relieved of his duties by Mawson, until the Aurora returned in late 1913. Jeffryes was committed to the Hospital for the Insane in March 1914 and later to its high-security facility, J-Ward.

The bronze plaque at his grave site, commissioned by the Mawson’s Huts Foundation, states that “Mawson’s expedition was the first to use wireless in Antarctica and Queensland born Jeffryes is credited with establishing reliable two-way communications between the AAE Main Base and Macquarie Island where a five-man team relayed messages from Antarctica to Australia”.

Thanks to Associate Professor Elizabeth Leane for assistance with this article.