The March of Mary Gillham

Explore Your Archive is a joint campaign delivered by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association across the UK and Ireland. It aims to showcase the unique potential of archives to excite people, bring communities together, and tell amazing stories. We’re blogging all week to show off Mary Gillham’s archive…

Laura, project volunteer and Cardiff University student

Today, one of the project’s volunteers, Laura, relates some of Mary’s many encounters with penguins...

Throughout her life, Mary Gillham had a fascination with seabirds and their effect on surrounding vegetation. This founded her interest in penguins and seeing as today would have been Mary’s 95th birthday, we have explored a few of her many fieldtrips in which she studied the feeding and mating behaviour of these birds we have all grown to love.


Mary Gillham introducing herself to two royal penguins

One of Mary’s first trips to see penguins was her Antarctic expedition to Macquarie Island in 1959, which was the first trip to the region to include females (more on this later in the year!). Not only was this a huge step forward in the work of female scientists but also a chance to observe one of the “great penguin colonies” with thousands of royal penguin’s resident on the island. Mary described the penguins as delightful, with having little fear of humans or interacting with her. She noted every detail of their behaviour from the raising of their chicks to the youngsters practising their nest-making by “picking up pebbles and even paper balls” found on the beach.

Newspaper article from ‘The Australian Women’s Weekly’ on the 23rd December 1959, describing the departure of Mary and her academic peers to the Antarctic.

The presence of other penguin species was also recorded by Mary with the island being home to rock hoppers, gentoo and king penguins, and other researchers have since visited Macquarie to continue some of her work. As part of the Explore Your Archive campaign, I was lucky enough to see a royal penguin specimen taken from Macquarie Island at the time of Mary’s visit on display in the National Museum Cardiff. This brought to life some of Mary’s work and allowed me to admire some of her detailed descriptions of the species.

 King penguin collected from Macquarie Island by Shackleton showcased at the Explore Your Archive event at National Museum Cardiff

Mary also visited regions of South Africa on her return from Antarctica and Australasia where she recorded further penguin colonies, in the more unlikely regions of the globe. She kept detailed journals in which she would record everything from behaviour of penguins she encountered to locals waiting to greet her on arrival at a new location.  Mary visited many islands along the South African coastline, with Dassen Island being of particular interest to her. Despite the island wall African penguins still nested in large numbers and were described as “objecting” to such man made features. On this particular island Mary focused on looking at the survival of offspring, with local fisherman being reported to often take penguin eggs as the area could not constantly be monitored by police. She investigated the affectability and methods used to remove eggs from a nest and also looked at the economic value, with 200lbs estimated to sell for roughly £1.13 a bag at the time. Mary was likely one of the first scientists to identify potential threats to penguin populations in South Africa and emphasised the need to conserve local colonies from anthropogenic threats.

See: Some interactions of plants, rabbits and sea birds on South African island, 1963

One of our own volunteers at the Mary Gillham Archive Project, Laura Missen, has since been able to visit South Africa, following in Mary’s footsteps to observe African penguin populations on Boulder Beach near Cape Town. Laura described her experience as “surreal” with penguins surfing and nesting on the beach for as far as the eye could see. Laura was particularly surprised to see penguins swimming in the warm open ocean whilst exploring the coastline by boat as this is not the typical habitat portrayed for this iconic bird species. Extensive efforts have since been put into place to conserve penguin habitats in South Africa, with specific beaches such as Boulders being made into a marine protected area, in the hope to protect and minimise human impact on exposed penguin colonies.

African penguin braving the surf. Photo credits: Laura Missen

If you want to learn more about Mary’s work on penguins and her travels to various seabird colonies around the globe feel free to contact the archiving team. Alternatively, Mary wrote a book on the ecology and behaviour of sea-birds based on her scientific studies, which provides an insight into some of her research and expeditions.



The Mary Gillham Archive Project is funded by HLF and managed by SEWBReC

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