Inside the Collection

Centenary of Mawson’s 1911 Antarctic Expedition – Part 2 – The riddle of the sledges

Australian-made sledge used on the 1911-14 Mawson Expedition
Australian-made sledge used on the 1911-14 Mawson Expedition, Powerhouse Museum Collection, H8143, Gift of Australian Museum, 1967.

What do Douglas Mawson, aviation pioneer Lawrence Hargrave, a Sydney car body builder and the Klondike gold rush have in common? They are all part of the riddle of the Museum’s sledges.

In my last post I wrote about the Norwegian sledge in the Museum’s collection used on Mawson’s 1911-14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. According to Mawson’s “The Home of the Blizzard” he not only took 20 Norwegian-made sledges but 17 sledges made in Sydney. The Museum has 3 sledges used on this expedition, one has a manufacturer’s plate indicating it was made by L. Hargan of Norway but the other two are quite different in appearance.

During my research on the sledges I found the documentary evidence on the Australian-made sledges was patchy and inconclusive. Perhaps the sledges themselves could help explain their origins. Sue Gatenby, the Museum’s Conservation Scientist enlisted the help of botanical expert, John Ford, to analyse all the sledges in our collection. In fact we have six, three from Mawson’s expedition and another three said to be from Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1912 expedition.

Botanist, John Ford, taking timber samples from the Museum’s sledges
Botanist, John Ford, taking timber samples from the Museum’s sledges. Photo Powerhouse Museum Collection.

The botanical expert took very tiny samples for later analysis. He verified that Mawson’s Norwegian sledge was hickory, another was also hickory but the third was Corymbia (Eucalyptus) maculata or spotted gum, an Australian hardwood. But who on earth would have made a sledge of Australian gum trees? The very idea of making Antarctic sledges here in sunny Sydney seems as bizarre as an Icelandic manufacturer making surf boards or bikinis.

With his tiny torch, the botanist carefully examined the grain of the sledges. While running his eye along one of the cross pieces he asked “Does the name Worsfold mean anything to you?” Yes! I was so excited! By chance the week before one of our archivists, Jill Chapman, who knew I was researching the sledges, sent me a photocopy of a 1915 letter in the Museum’s Archives from one Alexander Worsfold, a car body builder of King Street, St Peters, an inner Western Sydney suburb. But I wondered at the time how did he fit in? (Trove wasn’t then online.) I should add that the sledges had all been out of the store and thoroughly cleaned and repaired in our conservation labs during the 1980s and photographed several times in the studio yet no-one had ever noticed the name Worsfold impressed into the timber.

Alexander Worsfold’s letterhead advised that he was a “wholesale manufacturer of motor and carriage ware, especially wheels and bodies”. This was when motor car bodies were still hand-built of timber. His printed letterhead further confirmed his involvement in supplying several Antarctic explorers as it notes: “Specialities: Designer and Manufacturer of Sleighs, Skis, Toboggans and Antarctic Appliances for Dr Mawson’s Expedition, Captain Scott’s Relief, Professor David’s Magnetic Discovery”. Added in pen at the end of this list is: “Shackleton Expd 1914”.

In 1915 Worsfold had written to the Museum seeking support for his application to help the War effort as he had specific knowledge of Australian timbers. He enlisted in the AIF and went into the 9th Australian Field Ambulance where he designed a portable stretcher which looks remarkably like a sledge. Worsfold was also involved with Lawrence Hargave and his timber cellular box kites.

The timber for Worsfold’s sledges was supplied by Allen Taylor & Co. who had numerous timber mills all over New South Wales. They were also “powellised” or heated to rapidly season and preserve them. At this time there was great interest, and research undertaken, at the Museum regarding the commercial use of Australian timber. But who had knowledge in Sydney at the time to design sledges? It is said to have come from Alfred Charles Samuels who’d been at the Canadian 1896-1901 Klondike gold rush. His nickname was Klondike Dick and he ironically ended up being Mayor of the beachside suburb of Manly.

And how did Mawson find the Australian sledges in Antarctic? In “The Home of the Blizzard” he noted that the ones “built in Sydney, of Australian hard woods, included mountain ash which tended to split and spotted gum which was strong but heavy.” I can tell you that the runners on our Norwegian sledge are considerably worn but the Australian ones showed little wear.

This all goes to show that object research can be a work in progress. We add bits and gradually build up the story.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

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