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British Expedition to Graham Land 1920-22


  • Originally planned as a large expedition, due to lack of funds this was scaled down to a party of four men.
  • They travelled southwards to Graham Land and originally planned to survey the eastern coast of the Weddell Sea peninsula. Inhospitable terrain prevented them from achieving this aim.
  • The leader, Cope, returned to Montevideo to find a ship to take them southwards. Wilkins, frustrated by the lack of progress abandoned the expedition.
  • Bagshawe and Lester wintered in the Antarctic, living in an upturned whaling boat. They undertook meteorological, tidal, and glacial observations using instruments they had modified themselves.
  • When Cope could not find a boat, a Norwegian whaler kindly picked up Bagshawe and Lester.

Please note the photographs for this expedition are forthcoming.

This was originally planned as a much more comprehensive expedition involving 50 people and was to be called ‘The British Imperial Expedition’. The plan included the objective of circumnavigating Antarctica, undertaking the first flight over the South Pole and a continuation of the exploration of the Weddell Sea.  However, enough funding did not materialise to allow for such an ambitious project, so a more modest expedition was undertaken with the objectives of the exploration and mapping of the Weddell Sea Coast.

The expedition consisted of four men, the leader John Lachlan Cope, George Hubert Wilkins, Thomas Wyatt Bagshawe and Maxime Charles Lester. They were taken to the South Shetland Islands by a Norwegian whaling vessel, from there they hoped to sledge southwards from Hope Bay, however, ice conditions through Antarctic Sound prevented access. The Norwegian captain suggested an alternative landing off Danco Coast on the western shore of Graham Land in Paradise Bay; they accepted this suggestion, landing on 12 January 1921. There they planned to establish a base and cross the peninsula to the Weddell Sea, carrying out the exploration and mapping of the eastern coast of the peninsula. However, this aim had to be abandoned due to difficult terrain, mountains rose to heights of 6000 feet making exploration impossible.

On 26 February 1921 Cope decided to return to Montevideo to find a ship and return southwards so that they could try again to reach Hope Bay. Wilkins was frustrated by the expedition and so returned with Cope but abandoned the expedition completely and returned home.

Against the advice of the Norwegian whalers Bagshawe and Lester wintered in the Antarctic. Fortunately their landing at Paradise Bay was close to the location of a water boat that had been abandoned by whalers eight years previously. By extending the hulk with packing cases, sacks, and timber they made themselves a small, uncomfortable, but almost weatherproof hut.  Their base on a tiny island off the Antarctic Peninsula was named Waterboat Point. Supplies of food were limited to biscuits, baked beans, pemmican, a little alcohol, and crème de menthe sweets. However, they were able to supplement their diet with seal, penguin meat and penguin eggs and so their health remained good.

As they were poorly equipped for travel they found it difficult to carry out significant exploration along the coast and so short journeys were made by sledge, ski, and snowshoe. However they did carry out a considerable amount of measurement and observation. They had to improvise some of their scientific equipment, for example, the carpenter of the whaling ship built their meteorological screen, on top of this stood a home made wind vane and fitting to hold a portable anemometer. This screen was mounted near the base on a small hill, for the duration of their stay they took readings every two hours which enabled them to compile a record of weather conditions for a complete year. They also recorded tidal conditions for a full year by using a boulder filled wooden barrel with a calibrated half oar attached, this required hourly observations throughout the day and night. They monitored ice on sea, and on land, recording glacial movements. In addition to this they undertook zoological observations of whales, seals, penguins, and other birds. The men were able to keep a photographic record of the expedition, however, as they had no facilities for processing the film they had to wait until their return before seeing the images.

Cope was unable to find a suitable vessel to return to the area and so Bagshaw and Lester had to depend upon the goodwill of the Norwegian whalers. Andersen the whaler who had brought them from Deception Island had promised to return for them the following year and did so, the men left Waterboat Point on 13 January 1922.

Further Information

Bagshawe, T. (1939) Two Men in the Antarctic An expedition to Graham Land, 1920-22. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Headland, R.K  (2009) A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration, A synopsis of events and activities from the earliest times until the International Polar Year, 2002-2009. Bernard Quaritch Ltd.