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Leigh Smith Expeditions on board the Eira 1880, 1881-82


  • Benjamin Leigh Smith visited the Svalbard and Spitsbergen region repeatedly between 1871 and 1882.
  • In 1880, he had the expedition ship Eira purpose-built and travelled to the region, returning in 1881.
  • On his return his ship was nipped by the ice and sank, leaving the men stranded without winter clothing.
  • They built a hut and passed the time playing cards and instruments.
  • Living off a meat-rich diet the men remained healthy.
  • Having salvaged four boats, they were eventually able to sail out, meeting the vessel Willem Barents and the relief ship Hope.

View photographs from the expedition

Leigh Smith was a wealthy man and travelled extensively to the Svalbard and Spitsbergen regions between 1871 and 1882. In 1880 he had the ship Eira (a screw barquentine) built at the Peterhead yard of Messrs Stephen and Forbes. The whaling family, the Grays, helped with the building, with David Gray assisting in the drawing up of specifications. Leigh Smith made his next voyage to the Arctic in 1880, departing Peterhead on board Eira on 22 May.

On this expedition he took William John Alexander (Johnny) Grant as the official photographer. Grant had established a reputation as a polar photographer, having been on many polar expeditions and exhibited his photographs at the Royal Photographic Society, as well as being a Fellow of the Society and of the Royal Geographic Society.

Leigh Smith and his crew of 24 (mainly Scots and Shetlanders as was common for Artic exploration at the time) aimed to explore Jan Mayen but this was covered in mist. On 11 July, Eira met up with the Peterhead whalers Hope and Eclipse led by John and David Gray. Here Leigh Smith met Arthur Conan Doyle, then a medical student at Edinburgh, who was the Hope‘s surgeon. The ships separated and Eira headed towards Spitsbergen. Unfortunately, heavy ice on the north coast prevented them from getting as far north as they had hoped and, having visited Amsterdam Island and Madgalenefjord, they turned south. On 31 July 1880 Eira went round the southern tip of Spitsbergen and began an attempt northwards, crossing the Barents Sea to Franz Josef Land (Zemlya Frantsa-Iosifa). The ship was beset in the ice at 79°N and was only freed due to the skill and determination of the crew. The Eira finally reached open water, and eventually reached Franz Josef Land (a group of islands) on 14 August 1880. The men went ashore onto a small island called May Island (Ostrov Mey), where they climbed the 60m summit and hunted walrus and ivory gulls.

Eira then travelled to the island of Mys Barentsa and discovered a new island, which was named Northbrook Island (Ostrov Nordbruk). From here they went westwards around Mys Nil along to Mys Flora and Ostrov Nordbruk. They then reached a sheltered area between Ostrov Bell and Ostrov Mebel which they named Eira Harbour. At this point they collected two young polar bears which were captured alive. From here they went on to chart the coastline of Cape Ludlow (Mys Ludlov) and Cape Lofley (Mys Lofley), then turned eastwards before heading back to Spitsbergen. In total they had explored and charted 176km of new coast. This was only the second expedition to make landfall on the archipelago.

Leigh Smith had hoped to find an opening in the ice which would allow him to reach Kong Karls Land, but was hindered by poor weather and sailed to Strorfjorden, arriving on 16 September 1880. They began the homeward voyage on 22 September, arriving in Peterhead on 19 October.

This expedition had shown that it was possible for a ship to winter at a high latitude and suggested Eira Harbour could be a base for an attempt at the pole. They had seen seal and walrus, which suggested the area could be of use commercially, and presented a number of specimens to the British Museum, as well as the two live young bears to London Zoo. In recognition of his achievements the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) awarded Leigh Smith the Patron’s Gold Medal. However, Leigh Smith was an extremely shy man and his account of the expedition was read to the Society by Clements Markham (then the secretary of the RGS). Markham also collected the Patron’s Medal on Leigh Smith’s behalf.

Leigh Smith’s Final Voyage

As he had been hampered by bad weather, Leigh Smith was determined to return to the Franz Josef Land to continue his explorations. Eira required a few repairs before he could continue, but by 14 June 1881Eira was sailing out of Peterhead with a crew of 25. Grant, the photographer on the previous expedition, was unable to join this voyage, but many of the previous year’s crew returned.

As the ship sailed around the edge of the ice floe, they found the ice extremely thick, but did reach Franz Josep Land on 23 July. They found the ice was very closely packed and decided to return southwards and wait for more favourable weather. At Ostrov Bell they built a storehouse called Eira Lodge that contained provisions for anyone who should find themselves stranded in the area.

They then headed towards Mys Barentsa to search for a missing American ship, the Jeannette. They again found their way blocked by ice and so remained at Mys Flora, where they collected specimens. On Sunday 21 August 1881, Eira was nipped in the ice and, as the ice broke through the side, the ship filled quickly with water and the pumps were overwhelmed. The crew were able to save some of their provisions (including four small boats) before the ship sank, leaving them stranded on the ice.

At first the men lived in a tent, but as they realised they would need to overwinter they concluded that their tent would not be adequate. They constructed a hut out of turf and stones with one of the ship’s sails over the top. The hut was divided into three rooms, one for Leigh Smith and three other high-ranking crew members, another for the rest of the men, with a kitchen in between. The provisions they had rescued included 500lb (680kg) of flour, 400lb (180kg) of bread and a barrel of salt meat, as well as tinned foods and tea. They had also rescued 70 gallons (320l) of rum, 36 bottles of champagne, 60 bottles of beer, 12 bottles of gin, 18 bottles of whisky and sherry. As they had a supply of guns and ammunition and were a reasonably small party, they were able to hunt enough animals to keep the men provided with meat, which kept them healthy. In total they killed 34 polar bears and 24 walrus to supplement their diet.

Whilst they had sufficient food and means to get more, the men were short of clothes. As the expedition had not expected to be overwintering, the ship did not have a supply of winter clothes. Instead the men had to improvise ways to make their limited supply of clothing last.

They spent ten months living in the hut following a very strict routine, which helped them to pass the time without becoming too bored. For entertainment they played cards, told stories and read aloud from the limited number of books they had with them. Each Sunday, the ship’s bell was rung and a church service was held. On Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve the men had a dinner superior to their usual fare, including a pudding, and held a concert.

The return journey began on 21 June, but they men were forced to camp on an ice floe for a number days as the ice was closer than they had expected. The boats were launched again on 1 July, reaching open water on 24 July. They rowed toward Novaya Zemlya, reaching land on 3 August, having covered 800km in their small boats. From here they sighted the ship Willem Barents and rowed out to her. Once on board they learnt that the relief ship Hope had been sent to search for them.

When the expedition had failed to return, there was great concern as to the expedition’s fate. It was concluded that the expedition had probably reached Franz Josef Land and that the ship had become beset in the ice. The government gave £5000, T.V. Smith (Leigh Smith’s cousin) gave £10,000 and the Royal Geographical Society £1000 to fund a relief ship. The Peterhead whaler Hope was chartered and departed on 8 July. The yacht Kara also joined in the search. On board the yacht was William Grant who had been the expedition’s official photographer in 1880. The Willem Barents which was making a voyage to the area was also instructed to look out for the missing crew. It was this ship that was the first to see the stricken crew.

They crew of Eira arrived in Aberdeen in the middle of August. All were well apart from two, one who had badly injured his arm and a second who had a cancerous sore. This was the last expedition that Leigh Smith undertook, but he remained interested in Arctic and Antarctic exploration although he never published an official account of his own trips.

The photographs in the Freeze Frame archive are thought to be a collection from these two expeditions. Currently it is not known for certain if William Grant took these photographs.

Further Information:

Capelotti, P.J. 2008. “Benjamin Leigh Smith’s second Arctic expedition: Svalbard and Jan Mayen, 1872,” Polar Record 44 (3): 255-264.
Capelotti, P.J. 2006. “Benjamin Leigh Smith’s first Arctic expedition, Svalbard, 1871,” Polar Record 42 (220): 1-14.
Credland, A.G. 1980. “Benjamin Leigh Smith: A Forgotten Pioneer” in Polar Record 20 (125): 127-14.
Markham C.R. 1881. “The Voyage of the Eira and Mr. Leigh-Smith’s Arctic Discoveries in 1880,” Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society.
Markham C.R. 1883. “Second Voyage of the Eira to Franz Joseph Land,” Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society.


The Scott Polar Research Institute has made a catalogue of it’s Polar Art Collection accessible online. The art collection includes artworks from Leigh-Smith expeditions.