Science and stories from the British North Greenland Expedition (1952-1954)

Written by Robinson bequest student Becky Sanderson

Newcastle University Special Collections and Archives currently houses 972 transcripts which contain the detailed radio transmissions of day-to-day stories and science told by the members of the British North Greenland Expedition (BNGE) 1952-1954. The BNGE traversed north Greenland, exploring the great white landscape from Dronning Louise Land in the east, to Thule in the west. The team undertaking this feat ranged from glaciologists and geophysicists to naval wireless operators and naval medical officers. Within the team, familiar scientific names jump out including Stan Paterson, Colin Bull, Malcolm Slessor, James Simpson, and Newcastle University’s own Hal Lister.

Hal was an undergraduate student at Newcastle before, and an academic staff member after the expedition. Hal was also a member of many Antarctic missions and potentially one of the first people to overwinter in both Greenland and Antarctica. While on the expedition, he maintained his links to Newcastle University when applying for a Shell Studentship. Hal needed the reference of a senior academic at his institution and reached out to Professor Henry Daysh (head of the Department of Geography, now School of Geography, Politics & Sociology, up until his retirement in 1966).

My interest in the archive is driven through my love of glaciology. I am currently undertaking my PhD within the Physical Geography department at Newcastle University focusing primarily on Antarctic research. Therefore, my knowledge of the archive was very limited until reading the 1957 book ‘High Arctic’ by Mike Banks (one of the expedition members) and delving further into the archive. I was given the opportunity to transcribe and order the transcripts through the Robinson Bequest Bursary. Before I begin, my understanding was that I would be trawling through hundreds of pages of scientific reports and findings. However, much to my delight, not only does the archive contain scientifically important datasets, methods and polar expedition logistics, but the archive also contains heart-warming Christmas messages (Fig. 1), birthday messages, notifications of the birth of family members, requests for alcohol and cheese and many jokes about how cold the temperature is in the Arctic.

Handwritten message extract stating "SANTA CLAUS PASSED TODAY LOADED WITH PRESENTS THANK MUMMY FOR LETTER BOOKS DID YOU SEE MUMMY KISSING SANTA CLAUS VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO YOU BOTH WARMEST LOVE DADDY // DADDY"
Fig. 1. Message reads: “SANTA CLAUS PASSED TODAY LOADED WITH PRESENTS THANK MUMMY FOR LETTER BOOKS DID YOU SEE MUMMY KISSING SANTA CLAUS VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO YOU BOTH WARMEST LOVE DADDY // DADDY” (British North Greenland Expedition Archive, GEX/01-234)

Overall, the BNGE was a huge success. The research findings and data collected on the expedition (Hamilton, 1958 and references within) have contributed to long term quantification of ice sheet change studies (Paterson and Reeh, 2001) and generated scientific questions that are still relevant for those researching the ice sheets today. The way scientific findings were communicated through the transcripts vary from detailed glaciology reports (Fig. 2), to the self-proclaimed “trilling instalment” of direct measurements of scientific information (i.e. ice thickness: Fig. 3). Not only this, but throughout the expedition, the team built up strong international collaborations with the Americans, Danes, French, Australian and the Icelanders. By doing so, they were able to share and gain information on safe passage, weather reports or general advice. The successful logistic operation of the expedition is worthy of note. The partnership between those on the ice and the RAF worked effectively and efficiently. The RAF provided support from the air throughout the two years on the ice. The relationship flourished so well that the RAF dropped a Christmas hamper for those at main base in the first year.

Handwritten naval message glaciology report
Fig. 2. Detailed Glaciology report (British North Greenland Expedition Archive, 01-092)
Group of 4 images. Naval message listing of ice thickness measurements
Fig. 3. Naval message listing of ice thickness measurements (British North Greenland Expedition Archive, GEX/03-088, GEX/03-086, GEX/03-087, GEX/3-075

I have mentioned the huge success of the expedition, however, most polar exploration does not go without a few hiccups. For those on the BNGE expedition, there were certainly a few hiccups. Polar expeditions are often highly dangerous and the challenges that the team faced is highlighted throughout the transcripts. Although no specifics are recorded, the transcripts detail the gratitude of the family for the support they received after the death of Danish team member Captain Hans Jensen. Hans was the only fatality, however, there were several other “lucky escapes”. Weasels (snow tractors) often broke down in the middle of the ice sheet, exploded or fell into crevasses (Fig. 4). There were other incidents of fires breaking out in the engine room of their huts and bases. However, one of the most notable disasters was the “Ice Cap Crash” of 1952, that even made BBC news at home in the UK. Video footage of the crash site and drop operation was captured in this Ice Cap Men Return From Greenland (1952) video.

Handwritten extract containing details of when Pete Taylor and Mike Banks fell into a 40-foot crevasse in Weasel
Fig. 4. Details of when Pete Taylor and Mike Banks fell into a 40-foot crevasse in a Weasel (snow tractor) (British North Greenland Expedition Archive, GEX/02-086)

A large portion of the transcripts detail the rescue plans and effort of the members on the ice, the RAF and the collaborators at the American base in Thule. The rescue took eight days, the three injured members of the aircraft crew made a full recovery in the hospital in Thule.

The BNGE was one of few scientific polar expeditions that took place in the mid-20th century and can be viewed as the inspiration for many internationally important scientific and geophysical investigations that followed. The knowledge and experiences gained by those on the expedition has moulded our understanding of the physics of ice sheets. It has also shaped the way that I view my own work, the incredible challenges that the team faced in the field are often now taken for granted because of technological advances. It has been a privilege to read through the personal accounts of each members experiences and the uplifting messages that they were able to send home.

‘A Very Pretty Little Christmas Carol’ #ChristmasCountdown Door no. 24

'A Very Pretty Little Christmas Carol' from A Garland of Christmas Carols (Chapbooks 821.89 GAR)

‘A Very Pretty Little Christmas Carol’ from A Garland of Christmas Carols (Chapbooks 821.89 GAR)

Chistmas day is growing near so here’s a little carol to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

This carol is from A Garland of Christmas Carols chapbook, which consists of many other Christmas Carols. A Chapbook is an early type of popular literature. They were produced cheaply, were commonly small paper-covered booklets that were usually printed on a single sheet and folded into books with 8, 12, 16 and 24 pages.

Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle, 1848 – #ChristmasCountdown Door no. 23

Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle from ‘Illustrated London News, Christmas Supplement’, 1848 (19th Century Collection, 19th C. Coll, 030 ILL)This illustration from the December 1848 Christmas Supplement to the Illustrated London News, shows the royal family gathered round a christmas tree at Windsor Castle. When this image first appeared in the Illustrated London News, it attracted a huge amount of attention. The upper classes had been decorating trees for some time, having been introduced by Queen Charlotte in the 18th century, but this image spread the fashion to the rest of society.

Decorating a tree with candles and gifts was a German tradition that was enthusiastically enjoyed by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. This image of the royal family, which depicts children, parents and grandmother, all enjoying themselves around the tree was influential in promoting Christmas as a family occasion. By the end of the 1840s, Christmas had become a festival celebration of the Victorian calendar.

Crawhall’s Couple Kissing – #ChristmasCountdown Door no. 21

Print of Couple Kissing from 'Impresses Quaint', 1889

Kissing Couple from ‘Impresses Quaint’, 1889 (Joseph Crawhall II Archive, JCII/7/96)

Is kissing under the mistletoe a Christmas tradition for you?

Joseph Crawhall II was born in Newcastle in 1821 and was the son of Joseph Crawhall I, who was a sheriff of Newcastle. As well as running the family ropery business with his brothers, he also spent his time illustrating, making woodcuts and producing books.

The Story of a Cup of Tea in Rhymes and Pictures – #ChristmasCountdown Door no. 20

Title page from A History of Cup of a Cup of Tea

Title page from ‘A History of Cup of a Cup of Tea (Rare Books, RB 821.8 SIX)Here’s one for you tea lovers out there…

“We meet in China’s sunny clime,
A Tea Plantation as here seen,
Where plants the sloping hill-side climb,
In straggling tufts of evergreen.
This then as you will plainly see,
Depicts the origin of Tea.”

Above transcription taken from page 1 of The Story of Cup of Tea in Rhymes and Pictures. Beautifully illustrated, this book takes you through the tea plantation, culture, gathering, drying, roasting and rolling, sorting, buying, mixing, carrying and finally drinking tea. The story ends…

“Hurrah! at length we see it here,
Upon our own Tea Table placed;
And soon our spirits it will cheer,
From out the Urn that it has graced.

Let each and all the grateful be,
And hail a welcome guest in Tea”.

If you’re interested in more like this, go on over to CollectionsCaptured to see illustrated stories in Rhymes and Pictures of the history of a cotton bale, a scuttle of coals, a golden sovereign, and a quartern loaf.

Christmas dinner in the trenches – #ChristmasCountdown Door no. 19

Letter from Thomas Baker Brown to his father, 29th Dec 1917 (Thomas Baker Brown Archive, TBB/1/1/1/1/248)This letter from Thomas Baker Brown to his father is written from France. He describes his Christmas dinner, and remarks that there were ’30 men to a turkey’. See transcript below…

“29.12.17

My dear Father

Just a few lines to let you know that things are all ok and going strong.

Today we had our so called Xmas diner and gee wiz it was some dinn. There were 30 men to a turkey so you can imagine how much we saw of it after the Sergt Major and the NCOs had a dig in. So I made up with Nestles Choc afterwards.

I don’t know whether I told you that the razor blade (singular) arrived all right.

I’ve had a letter from Mr Drew and he proposed drinking my health this Xmas.

Have just to move so will now pip-pip

Love to all

Your loving son

(SB) – Tommy”

Thomas Baker Brown, born 22nd December 1896, a soldier who fought in World War I. In December 1915, he was serving in the ‘Clerks Platoon’ for the 6th Northumberland Fusiliers at a training camp at Scarcroft School, York. As a soldier, or “tommy”, training would begin with basic physical fitness, drill, march discipline and essential field craft. Tommies would later specialise in a role and Brown received training in bombing, signalling and musketry. He suffered from poor eyesight and was issued with glasses. After failing to be transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, Brown was placed into the signalling section and later drafted to France alongside his brother George, as part of the 2/6th Northumberland Fusiliers, 32nd Division.

By the 1st August 1916, Brown was moved to the 21st Northumberland Fusiliers (2nd Tyneside Scottish 37th Division) and was sent on his first journey to the front line trenches. Later, in March 1917, Brown was awarded the Military Medal for his ‘heroism’ and ‘bravery’.

Christmas Entertainments Prologue #ChristmasCountdown Door no. 18

Prologue from ‘Round about the coal-fire: or Christmas entertainments’ (19th Century Collection, 19th C. Coll 398.268 CHR)To get you in the Christmas spirit, here’s the Prologue from ‘Round about our coal fire, or, Christmas Entertainments’ “wherein is described abundance of Fiddle-Faddle-Stuff, Raw-heads, bloody-bones, Buggybows and such like Horrible Bodies; Eating, Drinking, Kissing & other Diversions…” produced in 1734.

The Fig Tree #ChristmasCountdown Door no. 17

The Fig Tree

‘The Fig Tree’ illustration from Elizabeth Blackwell’s Herbal Vol. 1

Plate 125. The Fig Tree. Ficus.

It seldome grows to be a Tree of any great Bigness in England; the Leaves are a grass Green and the Fruit when ripe of a brownish Green; it beareth no visible Flowers, which makes it believed they are hid in the Fruit.

Its Native soils are Turky, Spain and Portugal; and its time of Bearing is in Spring and Autumn; the Figs are cured by dipping them in scalding hot Lye, made of ye Ashes of the Guttings of the Tree, and afterwards they dry them carefully in the Sun.

Figs are esteem’d cooling and moistning, good for coughs, shortness of Breath, and all Diseases of the Breast; as also the Stone and Gravel, – and the small Pox and Measels, which they drive out. – Outwardly they are dissolving and ripening, good for Imposthumations and Swellings; and pestilential buboes.

Latin, Ficus. Spanish, Igos. Italian, Fichi: French, Figues. German, Fengen. Dutch Uygen.

The seasons from 1890 Kate Greenaway’s Almanack – #ChristmasCountdown Door no. 16

Page from Kate Greenaway's almanack 1890 (19th Century Collections, 19th C. Coll 030 GRE)

Page from Kate Greenaway’s almanack 1890 (19th Century Collections, 19th C. Coll 030 GRE)

Page from Kate Greenaway's almanack 1890 (19th Century Collections, 19th C. Coll 030 GRE)

Page from Kate Greenaway’s almanack 1890 (19th Century Collections, 19th C. Coll 030 GRE)

Page from Kate Greenaway's almanack 1890 (19th Century Collections, 19th C. Coll 030 GRE)

Page from Kate Greenaway’s almanack 1890 (19th Century Collections, 19th C. Coll 030 GRE)

Page from Kate Greenaway's almanack 1890 (19th Century Collections, 19th C. Coll 030 GRE)

Page from Kate Greenaway’s almanack 1890 (19th Century Collections, 19th C. Coll 030 GRE)

The below extract is taken from Kate Greenaway’s 1890 almanack and describes the seasons through rhyme and accompanying illustrations…

“SPRING

The lambs are playing, and the day
Is sweetly scented with the May.

Summer

The sun is warm, but sweetly cool
The waters of the rippling pool.

AUTUMN

The corn is cut, and on the bough
Are reddest apples hanging now.

WINTER

The cold is keen, for north winds blow,
And softly falling comes the snow.”

Catherine Greenaway (1846 – 1901), known as Kate Greenaway, was an English children’s book illustrator and writer. Her almanacs ran from 1883 up until 1897, with no 1896 issue being published. Each almanacks included a Jan-Dec calendar, beautifully drawn illustrations and short poems. Her almanacs were sold throughout America, England, Germany and France and were produced with different variations and in different languages.