Still heading South!

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…

Extracts from Mary’s diary…

Sunday 20th Dec 1959:

A cool grey day with the palest blue tinge in the sky & the swell a sullen lead colour. Everything heaved as before, only more so, & we were surprised to see how apparently comfortable the livestock was. They were housed in large crates forward with a green tarpaulin erected tent-like over the top. 3 compartments, one with a red heiffer calf, one with 3 weaner pigs (large white prob) and one with flock of Rhode I Red chooks. On the island at present were Snowball, the milk cow, her son who was about to be her husband, and a self-regenerating flock of sheep (which were shorn as well as eaten).

Too cold to sit on deck today so I worked at the desk in our cabin and read on my bunk.  The sun emerged a tea time, however, & I had a spell on deck with Susan.

The wanderers were still with us, more numerously than ever, and had been joined by the much smaller black-backed black-browed albatross (which still looked big when compared to the N.Z. bullers). Other birds were prions and spotted petrels.

Black-browed albatross taken from Mary’s 1963 Sea-Birds book.

It calmed down a bit after lunch & we no longer got thrown around the cabin when we put foot on the floor nor shuttled quite so violently up & down on our bunks. Soup was in china plates again at tea time & almost all the populace still hale and hearty, thanks to the new drug.

A very democratic ship this, with Captain Peterssen wandering around in a boiler suit with a handful of hammer and nails, seeing to the engine of the lifeboat. The cook was very worried about his mixed Danish–English spelling on the menu but we had little difficulty in working out what “freid” eggs were and we got into the habit of asking the steward for “soft water” instead of soft drink (Beer and claret were served at meals or fruit juice and squash, but orangeade (half fizzy) was to be had for the asking.)

An announcement at tea of “Fellows, before you go” – “oh sorry, ladies & gentlemen, thought you’d gone” informed us that we were due to drop anchor at 12 midnight on the morrow & there would be a sweepstake at 1/- a time for the nearest guess.

A film show in the dining salon in the evening, John Buchan’s “39 Steps”, new version, and “Horray all boats*”. The captain as projectionist. [* Should that have been” Away All Boats”? Ed]

Monday 21st Dec 1959:

Was unwise enough to omit the overnight sleeping tablet, having got a bit blasé about my health and vigour. Suffered accordingly but was only sick once, diarrhoea being the main trouble. Apart from rising for meals I dozed through till 3:00 pm and my 1st sortie involved a fairly adventurous one for a sickie – down the long vertical ladder into the hold. News was afoot that we’d be going ashore on the 2nd dukw in the morning at 7:00 am, after a 6:30 am breakfast. We were relatively unorganised for living ashore, after being told that we should return to the ship each night, but were all for snatching the opportunity of a stationary bed as well as more time for work. I wished in vain for my rucksack, sheet sleeping bag and other oddments but was in no doubt I could manage without. Completed my first air mail envelope letter home to give John [Mary’s brother] the stamps with a Macquarie postmark.

In 1957, the Australian Post Office introduced its first “Antarctic Territory Stamps”. Issued on the Australian mainland on 27th March of that year, these stamps were made available in Antarctica on 11th December of that same year and thus would have been available to Mary’s party.                                       The stamp shown here would probably have been one of those that Mary sent to John (her brother) with the Macquarie postmark referred to in her diary entry for 21st December 1959.       This clearly shows the lie of the old adage: “Philately gets you nowhere!”

It was about 8:30 pm when we dropped anchor off the settlement and a launch went in to deliver mail, the first contact with the outside world that these men had had for little over a year. At 8:00 pm coffee the O.I.C. detailed us to our various jobs and gave us instructions as to how to cope with getting on & off the dukws etc. Wait till the dukw comes up before grabbing the ladder, otherwise there’ll be a human sandwich between 2 iron plates.” All were told to wear gloves and carring knives and we females were allocated our “sparring partners”. Hope and Isobel had the 2 boy scouts , Susan the medico about to leave the island, me Ken Campbell, a former O.I.C. of Macquarie, at present in CSIRO Wildlife Division and down for 3 months as assistant to John Warham, till picked up by the boat returning from Heard Island and delivered back to Armedale where he was concerned with rabbits.

The DUKW being launched.


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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