"We were a world of men in harmony
with our environment...."
The Antarctic Gallery in the Diamond Jubilee Building was especially designed to hold the Reclus Hut. The building and nearly all of its contents are original and it celebrates an element of Polar exploration which is all too often overlooked, although it was in truth an extension of the Heroic Era.
The Reclus Hut
The historic heart of Stanley
Falkland Islands Museum & National Trust
Prefabricated in Stanley in 1956, the refuge was erected at Cape Reclus on the Antarctic Peninsula and used by the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS).
Following a conservation survey of the remaining FIDS stations in the 1990s, the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust recommended that the Reclus Hut should be offered to the Falklands Museum. Shortly afterwards it was carefully dismantled and returned to Stanley where it was rebuilt in the Museum grounds.
The Hut contains many of its original contents as well as contemporary equipment provided by BAS and tells the fascinating story of a team of FIDS who over-wintered there in 1957.
The site where the hut stood was later named Portal Point in recognition of the location’s role as a gateway from the west coast and the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Living in the Reclus Hut
In 1957 a FIDS team was landed at Cape Reclus, tasked with laying supply depots for a dog sledge party from Hope Bay that would attempt the first crossing of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Ray McGowan, Denis Kershaw and Dick Foster were also required to carry out survey work on the plateau of Grahamland and the Peninsula and over-winter in the tiny refuge.
Work began quickly as the three men set about laying depots. Without dogs they back-packed and man-hauled their sledges over difficult terrain, often having to carry their tents and provisions as the sledges could not be pulled over deep snow with any weight loaded.
During the seven-month winter activity was limited and the men whiled away their time in the Hut talking, playing Scrabble and reading their small collection of books, many of which could not be described as particularly light reading - A History of Western Philosophy and Russian classics of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are just some of the titles remembered, although Alistair McLean’s HMS Ulysses was a popular option.
A wind-up gramophone also provided entertainment but choice of listening was also limited. Dick Foster remembers The Nun’s Chorus: “which we always played when we got back from a journey – the first man down wound the spring and put it on.”
The Hut was heated by a Valor stove and indirectly by pressure lanterns used for lighting and three Primus Stoves on which all cooking was carried out and water heated.
According to Dick the paraffin for the stoves gave off a great deal of water vapour: “This condensed on the cold walls gradually forming thick ice at the foot of the wall which encased anything stored there. If – as at first – it happened to be tins of food, they had lost the labels by the time they were excavated and provided us with a bit of a problem in identifying the contents…”
Most of the food was canned or dehydrated and Ray McGowen remembers the choices of tinned brisket of beef, tinned corned beef or tinned chicken in aspic. There was no oven, but the resourceful team made their own by joining two flour tins together, creating a platform in the bottom to raise the baking tin off the heated surface and wrapping the whole thing in asbestos cloth.
“Initially we placed the ‘oven’ on the three Primuses but to our horror found the heat was so great that the solder on the middle stove melted. We were unable to mend it, so that reduced us to two Primuses.”
However, the oven did work and Dick remembers baking a cake for Lee Rice’s birthday (Lee was a member of the Hope Bay party): “I had to turn it over halfway through the baking and eventually cut off the burnt bits at the top and bottom before ‘icing’ it and decorating it with a coloured candle and model yatch…”
The men were supplied with Rose’s lime juice to ward off scurvy, but did have a little rum and other spirits for special occasions. For water the men melted snow in saucepans.
Despite the incredibly cramped conditions the team maintained high morale and disagreements were never a problem – even over Scrabble without a dictionary and Dick recalls that although they became quite passionate about the game, they made “a majority decision on the acceptability of the more out of the way words…”
In the spring Dick, Ray and Denis continued their survey work on the glacier but were severely restricted by bad weather - all in all they found themselves tent-bound for around 40 days due to severe blizzards and whiteouts.
Two tents were used when on sledging journeys – a two man pyramid and a one man mountain tent. Initially the men took turns in the mountain tent, but soon decided to get rid of it – not only was it too cold, but it was also common for the occupant to be “unable to move after a night’s ‘sleep’… Dick explained: “The accumulation of drift and falling snow pinned him in this sleeping bag… I remember Ray’s plaintive shouts for rescue on one occasion because he was literally unable to move and we had to dig him out.”
In November the four-man sledging party from Hope Bay arrived, led by Wally Herbert. With their two teams of dogs (“Number Ones” and “Players”) the team had battled through extreme weather to complete their epic journey of 280 miles in 54 days, but had succeeded in their mission to make the first crossing of the Peninsula.
With food supplies limited the seven men were to spend the next month at the Hut on short rations, but Dick Foster remembers this as a “great time” - the new additions to the group bringing with them “a whole new range of personalities and subjects for conversation after the eight months the three of us had spent together…”
The only difficulty posed by the arrival of the Hope Bay team was that the men now had 14 dogs to feed, but this was quickly overcome - a raft was built from two twelve-foot man-haul Nansens strapped to empty 40 gallon drums and the men set about hunting seals which they then towed back to the Hut.
With only three bunks in the Hut, four men slept outside in tents and, although able to brush their teeth, the men could do little to stay clean other than to rub themselves down with snow when the sun shone. Dick recalls that “On one momentous occasion Denis and Wally Herbert stripped to their longjohns and string vests and swam out and perched themselves – briefly – on a bergy bit for a photo opportunity…. I suppose we must have smelt a bit gamey but as we were all in the same boat (including the Hope Bay boys) it hardly mattered.”
Sir Wally Herbert later described the expedition in his book A World of Men. He wrote: “We were a world of men in harmony with our environment… We saw a paradise in snowscapes and heard music in the wind, for we were young, and on our long exploratory journeys we felt with the pride of youth that we were making history.”
This feeling is echoed by Dick Foster: “It was the most magical time possible,” he wrote: “We were young, we were responsible only for ourselves, we had total freedom, companionship and adventure… and all this within the magnificence of the Antarctic.”
Wally Herbert went on to lead numerous exploratory trips in the Arctic and Antarctic, including the first expedition to cross the Arctic Ocean by its longest axis, through the North Pole. He was honoured with a knighthood in 2000 and is described by Sir Ranulph Fiennes as the “greatest polar explorer of our time”. Sir Wally Herbert died in 2007.
Hut boys, Dick Foster and Ray McGowen, were guests of honour at the opening of the Historic Dockyard Museum in 2014. To see them in the Hut and to hear their memories and thoughts was a great privilege for all involved.
The FIM&NT is extremely grateful to Mr. Dick Foster and Mr. Ray McGowen for sharing their recollections and for the use of their photographs.