Mawson’s Antarctic Sledge

Mawson’s sledge.
Mawson’s sledge made by L. Hagen & Co., Christiania, Norway, in 1911. Collection, Powerhouse Museum.

Several of my most favourite objects at the Powerhouse Museum are the five sledges used on Mawson’s and Scott’s Antarctic expeditions in the early 20th century.

Hardly anyone knows we’ve got them. Ever since I saw the old black and white movie Scott of the Antarctic I’ve been fascinated with Antarctic exploration so to get a chance recently to research and document our sledges, which have been in the collection for over 50 years, was fantastic.

The sledge I found the most interesting was this one used on Sir Douglas Mawson’s 1911-1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. I found descriptions of the sledges and what they carried in Mawson’s account of the expedition in The Home of the Blizzard which was reprinted in 1996. Our sledge is still fitted with two storage boxes added by the expeditioners while waiting out the winter in Mawson’s famous hut.

Looking at our sledge and reading the book’s description was a bit like a checklist: box for the instruments at rear, check; box for the primus at front, check; tray for kerosene, check; deck of plywood on which to place the load, check; and leather straps for securing the load, check! Further research solved the mystery of the little chocks of wood attached in a semi-circle to the primus box. They held the Nansen cooker in place. Photos of sledges taken by Frank Hurley also provided great in-context images.

Close up image of the timber instrument box on the sledge.
Instrument box on the sledge. Collection, Powerhouse Museum.
Detailed view of the sledge showing the little chocks of wood attached in a semi-circle to the primus box.
The primus box and chocks for the Nansen cooker. Collection, Powerhouse Museum.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

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11 responses to “Mawson’s Antarctic Sledge

  • I have to add something about this amazing sledge, which i have almost fallen in love with since Margaret introduced me to it. I assisted in having it photographed, incidentally the Australian Wikipedia crew got to see it in the studio http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/dmsblog/index.php/2009/04/02/working-with-wikipedia-backstage-pass-at-the-powerhouse-museum/, and was shocked by how thin those wooden boxes are. How on earth did it survive its journey to end up in our collection, still in excellent condition!

  • I am not quite sure how to communicate the level of ‘wow’ i felt at discovering the Powerhouse holds Mawson’s sleds… simply incredible!

    I have been fascinated by Mawson since I saw Tim Jarvis’ ‘Mawson: Life and Death in Antarctica’ film on ABC.

    Was it displayed as part of International Polar Year 07/08?

    • Ames, the sledge’s been out and about a bit but not specifically for the International Polar Year 07/08. Apparently it was the star attraction at the launch of the book Mawson’s Huts – the birthplace of Australia’s Antartic Heritage last year. Back in 2003 it went down to ScreenSound for an exhibition on Frank Hurley’s photos called The Savage Sweep of Splendour and before that was at the Australian National Maritime Museum for their exhibition Antarctic Heroes: Triumph and Tragedy.
      I loved the ABC show too, but I’ve heard that the repro sledges made for the film have been causing confusion. Some people think they’re the real thing.

  • i saw a similar sled in the Australian Museum of Natural History & was impressed with the work manship. it was to me a thing of beauty as well as being related to the heroic age. dont forget Australia was involved!

  • Mawson’s sled was previously housed at the Australian Museum. At an unknown date in the late 1960s or early 70s a man called Rich Venables, from Bents Basin near Wallacia, south of Penrith, located the sled in the storage of the Australian Museum. Richard, now deceased, was a man of very long memory. At the time that the museum acquired the sled, he read a newspaper report on it. He had a passionate interest in mechanical equipment and many years later wanted to investigate a device attached to the sled which measured the distance travelled. He went to the Australian Museum and asked to see the sled. They denied having it. Rich persisted and eventually they simply let him loose in the storage area where he soon located it, under a heap of tarpaulins, camouflage nets and discarded stuffed wildlife. The sled met all his expectations.
    The museum, at about this time, began a massive refurbishment of its front foyer. Everything changed, with the exception of the whale skeleton. There was some stunning and innovative new exhibitions, including one about the birth of mammals that showed a sectioned model of a human baby emerging from the womb, really very daring for that date. Among the smaller exhibitions was one on Antarctica, and finally Mawson’s sled was displayed to the public, with pride of place in the exhibition.
    In the late 1980s, before the opening of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences as the Powerhouse, and in its present location, there was a massive rationalisation of the state’s various collections. Many objects that had been donated over the years to the older and better known Australian Museum were better suited to the collection of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. Hence the Powerhouse acquired some remarkable and highly significant objects which included the Mawson sled, a huge Chinese bronze temple bell and one of the world’s finest collections of British stamps.
    Rich Venables is commemorated by the Richard Venables Education Centre in the Bents Basin State Conservation Area. It is thanks to him that the sled was located and identified.

    • Tamsyn
      Many thanks for your comprehensive reply and information about Richard Venables. We actually received 4 sledges from the Australian Museum in 1967 and a couple of others over the years from other sources.

  • I have a question regarding the sledges and how they were rigged for sails. This was certainly a standard set-up on the sledges.
    How exactly was the mast secured to the sledge?
    Inserted into a hole in some sort of step? A bracket? It being simply lashed to a cross-member with no support to stop it from tilting or slipping through seems unlikely. I bet a view of the half-sled would show the solution but I sure can’t find one.
    Any thoughts? Thanks!

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