Inside the Collection

History Week 2012 Threads – what Mawson wore in Antarctica

C.T. Madigan covered in ice in a Burberry helmet, on  Mawson's  expedition
It is thought this ice-filled face in a Burberry helmet is the meteorologist, C.T. Madigan, on  Mawson’s  expedition.  John George Hunter collection of photographs of Antarctica, 1911-1914, courtesy of Flickr.

In earlier blogs I have written with great enthusiasm about the sledges and food taken on Dr Douglas Mawson’s 1911-1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE). Now I find myself similarly excited about some of the clothing from this expedition in our collection. Two items are particularly interesting, a windproof helmet and large pair of over trousers. Both were made by the famous London clothing firm, Burberry. In 1911 each member of Mawson’s expedition was fitted out with two Burberry polar outfits at a cost of 100 pounds each member. One suit comprised three pieces: trousers, blouse-jacket and helmet, whilst the other was made of two; the blouse-jacket and helmet being combined.

In 1879 Thomas Burberry invented a weatherproof cloth that was suitable under the most inclement conditions. The fabric was water-proofed before weaving and comprised worsted cotton which was tightly woven and water-repellent. This made it much more comfortable than the rubberised fabrics previously used as it was breathable, wind resistant, hard wearing and light weight. Burberry went on to create the foundation of a business that dressed adventurers, explorers and military personnel the windswept polar regions of Antarctica to the trenches of World War I. They were the original outdoor clothing specialists. Burberry fitted out the Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen polar expeditions as well as George Mallory’s 1924 ill-fated attempt on Everest.

Detail of Burberry helmet
Burberry helmet worn by Charles Laseron on Mawson’s Expedition Collection of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, 98/55/1-4, gift of Judy Richter, 1998.

It’s really interesting looking at an object carefully and trying to decipher what it can tell about it’s past. The helmet is a good example. You can see how it has additional roughly-sewn side pieces to tie the helmet onto the head. No doubt the fierce winds at Mawson’s hut on Commonwealth Bay, the windiest place on earth, meant that modifications needed to be made to the proprietary Burberry-supplied equipment. We know that the supplies taken down to Antarctica included a Singer sewing machine. We also know that each expeditioner made his own sledging harnesses on the machine, the idea being that each was responsible for the strength of his own harness should he fall into a crevasse.

Detail of additional side straps added to the Burberry helmet.
Additional side straps added to the Burberry helmet.

These large, windproof, Burberry over trousers are made of heavy cotton twill. They feature a large waist band designed to be buttoned to top clothes, with buttons and wooden toggles. Big buttons and added toggles made it easier to dress in freezing conditions when the dexterity of hands was severely hampered with heavy layers of gloves and mittens.

Detail of Burberry over trousers worn by Charles Laseron on Mawson's expedition
Burberry over trousers worn by Charles Laseron on Mawson’s expedition. Collection of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, 98/55/1-3, gift of Judy Richter, 1998.
Detail of the over trousers showing the internal arrangement of the waist band.
Detail of the over trousers showing the internal arrangement of the waist band.

The loss of a pair of Burberry over trousers probably contributed to the death on the expedition of Xavier Mertz, the Swiss explorer, mountaineer and ski champion, who was hired by Mawson in London in 1911 as the expedition’s ski instructor. Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis were chosen by Mawson to accompany him on the Far Eastern Party expedition. After Ninnis tragically met his death when he and his sledge carrying most of the food and Mertz’s waterproof over pants plunged down a crevasse 311 miles (501km) from Commonwealth Bay, Mertz and Mawson headed back. They supplemented their meagre rations by eating the six remaining sledge dogs. About 100 miles (160 km) from safety, Mertz died from cold, exposure and possibly consuming excessive amounts of Vitamin A in the dogs’ livers. Mawson alone, wearing his Burberry over trousers, reached the hut only to find that the ship to take the expeditioners back to Australia had sailed only hours earlier that day so he had to spend another winter in Antarctica.

AAE expedition members, John Hunter, Herbert Murphy and Charles Laseron in their sledging Burberrys 1912
AAE expedition members, John Hunter, Herbert Murphy and Charles Laseron (right) in their sledging Burberrys in 1912. Photo by Frank Hurley, courtesy of SLNSW  144/Q788.

Few people realise it but the Powerhouse Museum has a strong link with Mawson’s expedition. The clothing I have described in this post was worn by Charles Laseron (1887-1959), who worked as a taxidermist, biological collector, and general scientific assistant on the AAE. Laseron was actually employed by the Museum between 1906 and 1929 in the position of collector and Officer in Charge, Applied Arts. In 1911 he was given leave to join the expedition.  Now as a member of staff at the same museum a century later, no wonder I feel I have such a close affinity with the equipment from Mawson’s expedition in our collection.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator, Transport

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