Leaving Melbourne for Macquarie

At the tail end of December in 1959 Mary Gillham and 3 other female scientists became the first British and Australian females to join a research trip in the Antarctic. The likelihood of females joining future research trips would depend on the success of these ground-breaking women. We’re retelling Mary’s tale and talking more about Macquarie Island where this was all to take place…

Prior to setting out on the journey to Macquarie, Mary (and, one presumes, her female colleagues) had meetings with ANARE officials and others regarding various aspects of preparing for the expedition, the voyage to the island and the purpose of the expedition itself. See the ‘Agreement’ they were presented with.

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The agreement that Mary had to sign in order to join the expedition.

In her diary for Monday, 14 December 1959, Mary writes of being summoned by ‘phone to an “introductory and cautionary” meeting with Phil Law at the Antarctic Division during which meeting she received the warning to, “never go off alone or without saying where I was going”. She also writes, “No wonder other women envy me when I get instructions such as, “Never go anywhere without a man. If you can’t find one of your own, ask the O.I.C. and he’ll give you one.””.

Following this meeting, and after “a cup of tea in Susan’s room”, there was a joint “indoctrination meeting” for the entire party given by Dick Thomson (Party Leader) and Phil Law who both stressed what to do in case of sea-sickness and how to use the issue of avomine pills. In addition, the members of the party were given general “dos and don’ts” for the boat and discovered that the women’s group’s stay on Macquarie had been “cut down to 5 days instead of 10 as the DUKWs (ex-military landing craft) had to be back” (to go on another voyage).

The ship taking the four women, a fifteen-man ANARE residential replacement team together with Chadwick Raymond Perry and Robert Clancy who, at 17 and 18 years old respectively, were Queen’s Scouts who had “won” places on the expedition, was a Danish ice-breaker called the “Thala Dan”.

The Thala Dan was the newest of a fleet of three such vessels (the others being the “Magga Dan” and the “Kista Dan”  –  this latter “now used by the Belgians” [MG]), “had” (says Mary), “a crew of 32 and was between 2,000 and 2,100 tons. Captain Peterson in charge, notices etc. in Danish”.

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The “Thala Dan” which carried the women (and other members of their party) to and from Macquarie Island. COURTESY: THE AUSTRALIAN WOMAN’S WEEKLY, 23/12/59

On Wednesday, 16 December (i.e. the day prior to their sailing), Mary, Hope, Isobel and Susan arrived with their luggage (by taxi) at the Thala Dan, which was moored at Melbourne’s Wharf No.2. This luggage they unpacked into what Mary describes as “… our roomy 4 berth cabin. (4 wardrobes, ample drawer accommodation, settee, 2 armchairs, desk, wash basin and vase of flowers)”.

Mary’s diary again: “Caught by Channel 2 and had to pose for television. Among the press interviews were the 3 local rags, “Age”, “Herald” and “Sun” with requests from the “Women’s Day” for later reports. But these were on the morrow with TV Channel 7 and ABC. Today’s shots (which I viewed in the middle of a sausage dinner at 7:00 pm) included coming up the gangway, coming up steps to the boat deck and milling around on the boat deck talking nonsense, the only thing one can think of when asked to keep talking.” (Oh, the perils of exploration!)

On Thursday, 17 December, Mary states, “Left for the wharf by tram at 1:30 pm  –  orders to be at wharf by 2:00 pm  for 3:00 pm departure but it was nearly 4:00 pm before we got away. As Phil had forecast, there were swarms of people at the wharf and by no means all of the ANARE party who were off for the year were sober. Two, in particular, made themselves conspicuous by jigging around under the umbrella which would no doubt be very useful but not very appropriate on the drizzly Macquarie.

Some thirty minutes or so before the Thala Dan sailed (and after copious TV filming and press photographs / interviews), Phil Law made a speech which was, so Mary says, “scarcely audible in the bedlam of the crowd”.

With the ship finally being underway, Mary reports that there was served, “An excellent dinner, rich tomato soup, chicken, ice cream and strawberries, fresh fruit and various cold foods, Danish “smorgsburg” (or some such word style)”.

She ends her diary for the day with, “I was quite unable to stay awake after 2 seasickness tablets so retired to bed before the 8:00 pm coffee and cakes. We rocked violently for a few hours … one’s toes were constantly banging on the cabin wall, but it quietened down after that”.

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The complete article from ‘The Australian Women’s Weekly’ on the 23rd December 1959, describing the departure of Mary and her academic peers to the Antarctic. COURTESY: THE AUSTRALIAN WOMEN’S WEEKLY

Read on tomorrow!

Reference material and further reading:

Thanks to John Wilkins (MGAP volunteer) for coordinating this series of Macquarie blogs.

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