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Preserving Shackleton’s Hut 100 years on

by Robert C. Brears Blog

In late January 1908, Ernest Shackleton was unable to land in King Edward VII Land and decided to enter McMurdo Sound. With local ice conditions preventing him from reaching Hutt Point, Cape Royds was chosen as the site to establish the expedition’s winter quarters.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica

Destinations: Ross Sea

Highlights: Shackleton's hut

Preserving Shackleton’s Hut 100 years on

Cape Royds is a volcanic headland that forms the western part of Ross Island facing McMurdo Sound. It was named by the Discovery expedition for its meteorologist Lieutenant Charles Royds Royal Navy. A camp was established on Cape Royds while a lookout was being maintained for the relief ship Morning in 1903-04. In late January 1908, Ernest Shackleton, like Scott before him, was unable to land in King Edward VII Land and decided to enter McMurdo Sound. With local ice conditions preventing him from reaching Hutt Point, Cape Royds was chosen as the site to establish the expedition’s winter quarters: What has now become known as Shackleton’s Hut.

Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds, Ross Sea, Antarctica 

‘Firsts’ in Antarctic exploration

Shackleton’s Hut became the base for Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic (Nimrod) Expedition 1907-1909. The expedition set a number of ‘firsts’ in Antarctic exploration:

  • In March 1908 a party of five was the first to climb the world’s southernmost volcano (Mt Erebus)
  • In January 1909 Professor Edgeworth David led a party of three to be the first to reach the Magnetic South Pole, involving a 1,600km sledging trip
  • In late 1908 Shackleton led a party of four in an attempt to be the first to reach the Geographic South Pole.

However, after man-hauling their equipment and supplies for two and a half months and being less than 100 nautical miles from the Pole, Shackleton, recognising the impossibility of reaching the Pole and surviving, made the decision to turn around for home. Nonetheless, he and his party discovered more than 800km of new mountain ranges and pioneered the way to the Antarctic Plateau.

Shackleton’s Hut the base for the expedition

On February 6 1908 the party began erecting a 7.5 x 8.5m prefabricated building bought in London. The Hut’s foundations were dug into the rocky, frozen ground and wooden piles set with a mixture of cement and cinders. The unpainted building was insulated with felt and granular cork.

Inside, a seven-light carbide acetylene generator was installed along with two stoves. Only the large American ‘Mrs Sam’ Columbian range was used while the other one was fitted with a hot water tank. On the outside, stables were added along the north wall for the four surviving Manchurian ponies while a garage was built for the 12-15 hp Arrol-Johnston car: The first motor transport used in Antarctica.

Except for Shackleton, who had his own room, all the party members slept in two-man cubicles with improvised beds and curtains hanging from wires for privacy. The men made use of the curtains and space with the expedition’s artist George Marston painting panels of Joan of Arc at the stake and Napoleon while the surgeon and cartographer Eric Marshall furnished his space with a table made out of wash-basin legs and a drawing board. Two other rooms were built, one being a biological laboratory and the other a photographic darkroom. Shackleton described his new home as being ‘’not a very spacious dwelling for the accommodation of fifteen persons, but our narrow quarters were warmer than if the hut had been larger’’.

The restoration of Shackleton’s Hut begins

When members of the Terra Nova expedition first visited Cape Royds in January 1911 they found evidence of a rapid departure: A meal had been left on the table uneaten and socks were hanging up to dry. Later on the Hut was visited by the Ross Sea Party over the period 1915-16 who were looking for matches, tobacco or soap. By the time the US ice breaker Edisto arrived on 29 January 1948 boards were missing from the roof, the stables were full of snow and the garage had collapsed.

In 1957 and 1958, crew from the New Zealand Navy ship HMNZS Endeavour carried out cleaning duties around the Hut. In 1959 the Huts Restoration Committee was established by Government representatives and the New Zealand Antarctic Society. The Committee recommended the Hut be restored back to its original state and ensure the artefacts of value were preserved. The goal was for the hut interiors to be restored ‘’as nearly as possible to the appearance they had when occupied; not looking like museum pieces, ticketed and labelled, but giving the impression that the occupants had just moved out’’ and ensure the Hut was made weatherproof without interfering with its original appearance. Over the period 1960 to 1961 work starting on restoring the cooking area and biological laboratory. Outside, work began on reconstructing the garage walls and de-icing the stable area.

In November 1969 the first New Zealand Antarctic Society ‘hut caretakers’ arrived. During their stay they even found Shackleton’s signature on the head-end of his bed. In 1972, the maintenance party began finding interesting artefacts including experimental wheels found in Pony Lake. By 1979 a detailed building report was prepared providing future guidelines for restoring the Hut.  Antarctic Heritage Trust activities began in 1987 with the Trust compiling architectural drawings, sorting disintegrating stores, collecting environmental data, listing artefacts and conducting general maintenance.  

By the 1990s the Antarctic Heritage Trust had installed a data logger to monitor temperature and relative humidity. In addition, the Trust had established a detailed inventory that contained over 2,000 artefacts with each artefact ranked based on conservation requirements.

Shackleton’s Hut 100 years on

Today, Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royds is listed by the Antarctic Treaty System as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area and is cared for by the Antarctic Heritage Trust as part of the Ross Sea Heritage Restoration Project. Between 2004 and 2008 an international team of heritage and conservation specialists spent each Antarctic summer securing Shackleton’s Hut for future generations to enjoy.

The building was made structurally secure and weather tight while completing the conservation programme for the 6,000 plus artefact collection. In particular, the conservation programme involved the roof being reclad and original timber restored; the removing of over 40 cubic metres of ice from underneath the building and the fitting of a waterproof cladding around the perimeter to ensure summer melt water flows around, rather than underneath, the site while the earth around the Hut was reworked to assist with drainage; and replacing contemporary doors and windows that were installed in the 1970s with historically-accurate materials based on the original architectural drawings.

Meanwhile, the original store boxes full of provisions were conserved and returned to their original positions and so were the moving of artefacts back to their original positions based on the party’s photos and diaries. Currently, an annual maintenance and inspection programme for both Shackleton’s Hut and its artefact collection takes place.

This means that today Shackleton’s Hut has become one of the most fascinating sites you can visit during your Antarctica vacation. Visitors to the hut will find the hut door opening out to the world’s most southern Adelie penguin population along with a panoramic view that includes the Transantarctic Mountains, Mt Erebus, the Barne Glacier and McMurdo Sound. On the ground lie in original positions the remnants of the expedition’s provisions and equipment including boxes of maize, dog kennels, a wheel from the Arrol-Johnston car and pony feed boxes. Inside, the Hut has shelves stacked with Edwardian provisions that include tinned meats and vegetables and bottles of raspberries, gooseberries and red currants still wrapped in straw. 

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