Ross Sea Party Tent

The story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914–1917 has often been called the ‘Greatest Story of Survival Ever Told’.

As his ship, the Endurance, was stuck in pack ice in the Weddell Sea, the desperate struggle for survival ensued. Shackleton led his men fearlessly as they camped on drifting ice before journeying in open boats to Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton and five others made a daring 800-mile crossing in the James Caird life boat to South Georgia to find help to save the rest of his men.

Less well known, however, is the story of Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party.

Making camp c. 1915 © Joyce Collection, Canterbury Museum

Members of the Mt Hope party at the end of their trek. From left: Hayward, Joyce, Wild and Richards. © Joyce Collection, Canterbury Museum

The Ross Sea Party had the responsibility of laying supply depots across the Ross Ice Shelf for Shackleton to use on the second half of his journey. Shackleton aimed to cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea on the opposite side of the continent, to Ross Island, which would be the first ever Trans-Antarctic crossing. Operating in a time before radio communications, the news that Shackleton never even began the crossing was unbeknownst to the Ross Sea Party.

Looking back at their three years of gruelling and dangerous work with limited supplies, the Ross Sea Party’s experience is one of the greatest stories of survival rarely told.

Today, you have the opportunity to conserve the legacy of the Ross Sea Party.

With your help, we may be able to restore an incredible artefact that played a pivotal role in this rich history – the Ross Sea Party tent.

It is documented that only one tent was off-loaded from the Aurora before the ship was taken out to sea.

After ‘Aurora’ was blown out in May 1915 with the bulk of the equipment on board, this tent was crucial in the survival of the depot-laying parties over two seasons.  It is the only one of its kind to survive the expedition,” shared Richard McElrea, former Chair of the Trust and co-author of Polar Castaways, a book about the history of the Ross Sea Party.

Artist and polar explorer George Marston had designed a radically different expedition tent to the traditional pyramid-shaped Scott Polar tent. In an interview with the Royal Geographical Society in March 4, 1914 Shackleton referenced the unique design of the tent.

The weight to carry six people is half the weight.  The old tents were 30 lb, each, and held three; this weighs 33 lb., and accommodates six.  It is put down and you just lift it over like that on its sides and it is up.  Two men can put up that tent – it is just like a perambulator hood.  It is “D” shaped, and made of steel tubing.  It avoids that point, so you get the full benefit of your room.  It is quite efficient,” remarked Shackleton in the interview.

Watch the above video for more insights into the Ross Sea Party tent.

Conservators viewing bamboo repairs inside the Ross Sea Party tent. © AHT

Found by the 1960-61 NZ Antarctic Division hut restoration party led by Leslie Quartermain, this tent tells an amazing story.

You can see the story of the sledging journey etched into the tent fabric from soot caused by primus stoves warming hoosh for the weary explorers, to hand stitched repairs to fabric rips, and pole-splints made with whatever material they had to hand.

Our team is looking at various conservation treatments to help stabilise the tent.

We must address the corrosion from the iron poles which has spread to the fabric of the tent causing it to stain and weaken.

With your help, we hope to perform further complex conservation repairs to the tent.

“We loaded the sledge with the stores… and proceeded back to our tent which is now out of sight – indeed it was not wise to come out as we have without tent or bag but we have taken that chance and the weather has promised fine, yet there is no criterion in these parts. As we proceeded it grew darker and darker and eventually we were travelling by only the light of the stars, the sun having dipped. After 4½ hours we sighted the little green tent.”

Staking out dogs c. 1915 © Joyce Collection, Canterbury Museum

 “Be it ever so humble there’s no place like home.”

Aeneas Mackintosh, February 24 1915

For a limited time, all donations to support our artefact conservation programme will be matched dollar-for-dollar up to NZD $25,000 thanks to a generous donor. 

This means a gift of $50 would become $100 to support this critical work.

The more you give, the bigger your impact.

Conserving a complicated artefact like the Ross Sea Party tent could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

A donation of $50, $500, or even $1000 or more will help us to execute our artefact conservation work with confidence.

Thanks to a generous anonymous donor, all donations will be matched dollar-for-dollar up to NZD $25,000 to our artefact conservation programme until 31 May 2024.

Will you help us conserve the heritage of Antarctica’s inspiring explorers?