Explorers, Voyagers, Missionaries and Mavericks
Items from the RSGS Archives for The Great Horizon by Jo Woolf

To celebrate the launch of our Writer-in-Residence’s book, The Great Horizon, we are taking a look at some unique pieces of ephemera from our collections.  The following article is by Jo Woolf, RSGS Writer-in-Residence.

The archives of the RSGS are a real treasure-trove of artefacts, letters, books and photographs from times past, each one holding a story of human endeavour that thrilled audiences at the time, and is still astonishing today.   Here is just a small selection of precious items, offering a glimpse into some famous – and perhaps lesser-known – chapters in the history of exploration.  

Peary’s telegram

On 6th September 1909 the RSGS received a surprising telegram from Brooklyn, New York.  It read:  “North Pole discovered April sixth 1909 by Peary Arctic Club Expedition under Commander Peary” and was signed by Herbert L Bridgman, the Club’s Secretary.  Having just returned from the Arctic, American explorer Robert Peary was claiming to be the first man to reach the North Pole, and for several years he basked in international fame.  But later examination of his journals threw doubt on his story.  In the 1980s polar explorer Sir Wally Herbert was asked to investigate, and concluded that Peary may have been 60 miles short of the Pole.

Peary’s telegram to RSGS.

RSGS banquet for Fridtjof Nansen

In 1896 the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen returned – miraculously – to the civilised world, after a three-year odyssey around the Arctic Ocean.  Nansen had allowed his ship, Fram, to become frozen into the ice, in the hope that it would eventually drift over the North Pole.  He was unsuccessful, but his extraordinary feat of survival sparked scenes of great jubilation, and he found himself a worldwide celebrity.  On 13th February 1897 the RSGS threw a banquet in Nansen’s honour at the Waterloo Rooms in Edinburgh.  The menu from this event, highlighted in gold leaf, depicts maps and scenes from the Arctic, and records the many splendid dishes along with a detailed toast list.

Banquet menu for Fridtjof Nansen.

Mildred Cable – lecture tickets and book

Among the women explorers of the early 1900s, Mildred Cable is not one of the first names to spring to mind – and that is a shame, because her adventures were nothing short of amazing.  Mildred was a Christian missionary in western China, and, together with her dear friends Eva and Francesca French, she crossed the Gobi Desert five times and ventured into dangerous territory in order to teach the gospels.  The intrepid ladies adopted a deaf and dumb Chinese girl who had been abandoned by her family;  they named her Topsy and eventually brought her home to Britain.  Mildred lectured to the RSGS several times, and in 1943 she and her companions received the Livingstone Medal.  The RSGS archives hold original lecture tickets and a first edition of The Story of Topsy, which contains one of the few photographs of Mildred, Eva and Francesca at the China Inland Mission.

Mildred Cable and The French Sisters pictured in the book, The Story of Topsy.
Ticket to Mildred Cable’s RSGS lecture.

Sir John Murray’s Bathymetrical Survey

Sir John Murray is perhaps best known for his work as a naturalist on the Challenger expedition (1872-76), but in 1897 he embarked on a mission that was closer to home:  the Bathymetrical Survey of Scotland’s Freshwater Lochs.  To carry out the work, which involved not only measuring the depth and volume of Scotland’s inland lochs but also recording many organisms that lived within them, Murray employed a team of surveyors including Frederick Pullar, son of Laurence Pullar of Perth, who invented a special depth-sounding device.  The maps, beautifully coloured to show land contours and water depth, were produced by Bartholomews of Edinburgh.  The RSGS holds original editions of the Survey, published in 1910.

Sir John Murray’s Bathymetrical Survey.

Lecture sheet for George Mallory

There are few stories more poignant than the disappearance of George Mallory and Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine on the North-east Ridge of Everest in June 1924.  Mallory had a climbing style that was both athletic and elegant, and when he visited the RSGS in 1922 he completely won over his audience with his unconscious charm.   The poster advertising Mallory’s lecture shows a photograph of Everest from the Rongbuk Glacier base camp (the tents can just be seen in the foreground).  Drifting from the mountain’s summit is a plume of white cloud which Mallory likened to “the hair of an enraged goddess.”

George Mallory lecture poster.

Speirs Bruce’s flag 

In the ‘heroic age’ of polar exploration, it is sometimes forgotten that Scotland had its own polar hero:  William Speirs Bruce, who organised and led the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (SNAE) of 1902-04.   Bruce set up a meteorological station in the Antarctic, whose records have continued uninterrupted to the present day.  This saltire, embroidered by his wife, Jessie, was carried on board the Scotia and proudly displayed by the crew at their base on Laurie Island in the South Orkneys.

The Times Everest Colour supplement

On 29th May 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Everest.  The news reached the UK just in time for the newspapers to carry the headlines on the morning of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation.  Hillary and the expedition leader, Sir John Hunt, were each awarded the Livingstone Medal in 1953.  This copy of The Times Everest Colour Supplement is signed by both men, their wives, and other members of the climbing team.

The Times signed Everest supplement.

Photographs of Shackleton on board the Endurance

On 16th July 1914, Ernest Shackleton was proudly showing Queen Alexandra and her sister, the Dowager Empress of Russia, around his ship, Endurance, in London’s South-west India Dock.   The expedition was just about to set sail, and the Queen presented the crew with several souvenirs, including a Bible.   Shackleton’s wife, Emily, and two of their children were among the company on deck.  A number of photographs from that day are in the archives of the RSGS, each one captioned on the back in Shackleton’s hand.

Shackleton on board Endurance with Queen Alexandra and her sister, the Dowager Empress of Russia.